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FOAs: Where they come from and why you should care

Kimberly Kramer
Kimberly KRAMER,
Health Specialist,
Division of Extramural Activities (DEA)

As readers of this blog surely know, NIA publishes Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs) in the NIH Guide to—you guessed it—announce new opportunities to apply for funding. We use FOAs to inform potential applicants of new initiatives ranging from traditional R01 research grants to large P50 center grants and national surveys. You likely noticed our penchant for FOAs when we treated you to a deluge of more than 30 in late 2016.

But have you stopped to think about where an FOA originates? How it is shaped into a literary masterpiece—or at least a thorough description of a particular research area? Read on for a behind-the-scenes look at FOA development.

Where do FOAs come from?

The answer to this question begins not with a stork, but rather with our program officers. They’re the NIA scientists you’ve spoken to at meetings and conferences who work hard to keep abreast of the latest developments in their respective program areas. By monitoring the pulse of the scientific community and seeking feedback from stakeholders like you, often through workshops organized by the program or another group such as the National Academies, they identify promising research ideas in need of further investigation.

With the idea in hand, the program officer presents it to his or her division – we have four, in aging biology, geriatrics and clinical gerontology, neuroscience, and behavioral and social research. If the division director approves the idea, it moves forward.

Two paths to the review process

Where the FOA goes next depends on whether it requires set-aside funds or special review. FOAs without set-aside funds and special review have a much easier path to publication: In brief, the program officer writes the FOA, the FOA undergoes internal staff approvals and editing, and, after review by NIH’s Office of Extramural Programs, is published in the NIH Guide. All our regular Program Announcements (PAs) travel this path.

If an FOA does require set-aside funds and/or special review, however, its pathway is different.  These FOAs are often classified as Requests for Applications (RFAs), but may also be dubbed PAs with Special Receipt/Referral/Review or PAs with Set-Aside Funds. After receiving division-level approval for the concept, the program officers present these FOA concepts to NIA’s staff at our annual winter retreat. Based on the presentations and staff input, NIA Director Dr. Richard Hodes determines which concepts will move forward and, where applicable, the amount of set-aside funds attached to them. (The need for set-aside funds frequently arises when an area is not ready for regular R01 review in standing panels. If the field is at an early stage, a financial incentive coupled with a specially arranged review can do much to build the field.)

Those concepts meeting Dr. Hodes’s approval are then presented to the National Advisory Council on Aging (NACA) at one of its thrice-yearly meetings. Providing legally mandated public review, NACA members discuss the merits of each concept and vote to determine which ones will become full-fledged FOAs. From there, the development and publishing process is the same as the regular PAs.

Why should you care?

Aside from admiring bureaucracy at work, what’s the take-home message of FOA development? Here’s some food for thought:

  • RFAs aren’t as special as you think. Don’t assume NIA prioritizes RFA applications just because they have set-aside funding! RFAs are important and they address particular research needs but they are a small part of our portfolio. If a program officer wants to announce a new funding opportunity, it’s actually faster to do so through a PA than an RFA. (In fact, most of the awards we make are to applications responding to “parent” FOAs—investigator-initiated research—rather than the specialist FOAs we publish.)
  • Upcoming FOAs are discussed at NACA meetings. You can hear an overview of newly approved FOA concepts during the open session of NACA meetings. This gives you a preview of the kinds of applications we are interested in seeing in some very specific areas. A good thing to know! Join us at the next meeting on May 17, by videocast or in person. Additionally, the concepts are posted on the NIA website following the NACA meeting.

And, last but not least:

  • Your input matters. FOAs aren’t dreamed up in smoke-filled back rooms of scientific intrigue. The ideas behind them come from you. Make your voice heard by contacting our program staff. If you think a particular research area needs attention, call or e-mail a program officer and tell them about it!

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