Every year at NIA brings its own challenges. This one was special -- and how!
In recent years, we have scrambled to try to maintain a funding line by finding ways to stretch what seemed to be ever-shrinking resources. Then a trickle of new money arrived—beginning in FY 2014—targeted towards Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD). In the following years, that trickle became a stream, and then a river. In FY 2017, it was a $400 million river. Most recently, we have also received increases to our general appropriation, benefiting the broad spectrum of NIA research along with other Institutes at NIH.
The additional appropriations in FY 2017 increased our general funding line substantially, from the scrimped 11th percentile in the previous year to the more comfortable 19th percentile for most regular applications. (The funding policy page has full information on all our pay lines.) For Alzheimer’s research, we even reached the 28th percentile. We hope we have unleashed a wave of research on aging and on Alzheimer’s that will help generate the breakthroughs we so urgently need in our rapidly aging society.
A slightly different approach
In the context of these more generous funding lines, we exercised greater selectivity than previously in what we decided to fund. For example, when we saw a research application that clearly could be improved, we did not necessarily support it, even though its percentile was within these expanded funding lines. Sometimes we awarded a short-term award (R56) to allow the investigators to initiate research, while modifying the proposed research to address particular concerns. Sometimes we decided that an amended application was required.
We supported applications responding to the Alzheimer’s PARs to much the same level as the applications in our ADRD pay line. Again, we showed selectivity when we saw possibilities for improvement and made some short-term awards.
Looking two ways
At the NIH level, our springtime squall was in the form of the “Grant Support Index” that resolved to a renewed commitment to early-stage investigators and a discovered commitment to mid-career investigators (the August 2 blog has the details if you want to relive the experience). Looking forward, the gathering drumroll of implementing NIH’s new clinical trial policies is making itself heard. New instructions were recently posted for applications. Funding Opportunity Announcements are now appearing with odd tags (Clinical trials required, optional, not allowed). A big crash of cymbals occurs on January 25, when the first submissions arrive under the new policy. The finale of this grand opening movement plays out over the reviews next spring.
Much of the angst around this policy change rests on how broadly a clinical trial is defined. NIH does have a very useful policy implementation page that is being updated with expanded case examples as we learn of continuing uncertainties in the community. If your research involves human participants, some of your time would be well spent looking closely at that site and returning to it for possible updates.
A well-deserved tip of the hat
But now is a moment to take stock of the year behind us.
Our staff deserve the final word. We received our budget for the year in early May, with only five months left to decide how to allocate these precious funds and make the awards. That budget was a 28-percent increase on the prior year, all in new, competing dollars. Among the feats achieved by staff across a hectic summer were receipt, review, and funding decisions on 150 administrative supplement applications in one month; review of a legendary flood of initiatives that generated around 700 applications (my thanks both to the Center for Scientific Review and to NIA Review), and award of an unprecedented number of grants compressed into a tiny window of time (truly heroic work from our unassuming grants specialists).
It is a privilege to work with such a dedicated and capable group of people.