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The path to program projects has been cleared—take a look!

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

In what now seems ancient times, NIA took drastic action on how we reviewed program projects (P01s). It is extraordinary to recall, but in those distant years through 2016, program projects began to collect perfect or near-perfect review scores with uncanny frequency. We found ourselves drawing funding lines between 11 and 12 when a perfect score is 10. Something had to give and we searched for a solution.

The back story

Back in FY 2017, NIA moved to two-stage review for program projects—an approach that several other NIH Institutes and Centers already were using. During the first stage, experts in the science of the program project provided reviews. For the second stage, senior scientists provided the final score, usually with the chair of the initial review presenting the expert review to the senior committee. We adopted this system as a means to spread scores among program projects. And the scores did indeed spread!

Interestingly, after a year or so, the scores provided by the initial reviewers also started to spread, and a growing correlation emerged between the scores on the initial review and the scores on the second review. The intervention appeared to work, but it turned out to have high costs.

For example, we had to extend the review time by several months to complete both stages. The second stage could not begin until the last scheduled initial review was completed. That meant that review marched to the speed of the slowest reviewer. Investigators could not see feedback until after the second review was completed, so resubmission was delayed. The burden on our review staff increased just as the number of applications was surging, thanks to NIA’s substantial infusion of funds.

A change coming this January

For these reasons, NIA is suspending second-stage review beginning with the January 25, 2020, submission deadline. We believe a new pattern of scoring has now been established in initial review panels and expect that pattern to continue when we accept that review as final. Second-stage review is suspended but not gone. In other words, it remains as an option for us if scoring begins to approach that skewed line again.

NIA has a new(ish) announcement for program projects: We now allow them on all three submission deadlines of the year. We have increased the amount to $2 million (per year, direct costs) that is allowed without preclearance from a committee of senior staff. All this, plus we have suspended second-stage review!

So life for program projects has become a lot more interesting. What are you waiting for? Jump in: The proverbial water is lovely! We look forward to receiving your applications and welcome your questions or comments below.

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