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Transparency and funding lines

Dr. Robin Barr
Robin BARR,
Director, DEA,
Division of Extramural Activities (DEA)
.

About half of the 22 NIH Institutes no longer post a funding line. Of course, we at NIA do so much better—we post multiple funding lines! That way, you need an advanced degree in mathematics to find out the chances of your application being paid!

We are transparent, though. I’ve heard it said around the halls of NIH that a funding line is a crutch for staff, an easy way to indicate to investigators that their application could not be paid. Oh, how much harder it is to tell an investigator that the Institute has decided that the application does not meet its priorities. And how else can an Institute’s priorities enter into funding except by creating an uncertain relationship between percentile score and decision to award?

A range of priorities

Well, we do reflect public and Institute priorities in our funding lines. We have an Alzheimer’s allocation and a general allocation. We have a priority for smaller (less than $500K a year) applications. And, we share the NIH-wide priority to give advantage to early-stage investigators. All have separate funding lines. We also have some discretionary program funds and we have some set-asides for RFAs. So, we address our strategic priorities in multiple ways. And, we still have a funding line.

Are funding lines a crutch? They probably do make certain conversations with investigators easier—though it is never easy to explain to an investigator with an application scoring in the single digits that the application will not be paid. Funding lines are honest, too. Right now, for example, we really do have a sharp difference in the availability of funds for Alzheimer’s research and of funds for other research on aging. Our funding line really did fall in 2015 relative to 2014 and the immediately preceding years. We hope this information allows investigators to make clear choices in submitting applications and to know with some confidence what their application must achieve (a near miracle, I know) in order to make it within a funding line.

Are we transparent enough?

I know that a few Institutes now post figures showing the probability of award as a function of percentile rank obtained. These are often posted late in the year and as a substitute for a funding line. But such a function may have some value complementing the funding line information. We would like to post success-rate data in real time. But, we need to be consistent with the NIH statistics on success rates and these are not posted until several months after the fiscal year has ended. So, success-rate data must bide their time.

Of course, we blog about our funding lines—and lots of other stuff, as well. It’s all done in an effort to be transparent, to communicate, to allow what is true to be heard—that this effort of pursuing support for research on aging is a difficult one for all involved and a labor whose rewards are too often elusive. Still when the funding arrives…!

What are your thoughts on the value of transparency? Do we meet your expectations?