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How to ride a budget cycle, FY 2020 pay lines, and a fond farewell

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NIA Blog Team

We have posted NIA’s updated funding lines for fiscal year 2020! As was the case last year, our competing pay lines for Alzheimer’s disease (AD)- or Alzheimer’s-disease related dementias (ADRD)-focused applications remain at the 28th percentile, with three- and five-point advantages for applications from new and early stage investigators, respectively. Our initial competing pay line for other aging-related research, estimated conservatively, falls back to the 11th percentile this year, though again with three- and-five-point advantages for new and early stage investigators.

You may have seen that NIA received an increase in our general allocation this year, as well as a (much bigger) increase in our allocation for AD/ADRD research. So why did our initial pay line for other areas of aging research fall? To understand that, I explain the sometimes heroic, and sometimes villainous, story of cycling.

Budget cycling: Exercise for the mind

NIA and NIH, like many other agencies, receive annual appropriations. Yet most of our awards are made for a five-year duration. And that differential generates the phenomena of cycling.

Suppose an era of complete consistency. We receive the same appropriation every year. We pay a portion of that annual appropriation on new awards and the remainder on continuing (non-competing) awards. Assuming in this universe that the number of applications we receive (and their costs) are constant, then we would pay the same number of awards every year and we would have the same success rate every year. How boring! Our life is much more interesting than that.

Now, say one year we receive a generous increase in our appropriations. We pay more competing awards than previously. Good news, right? Except that in doing so, we make future year commitments that reflect that generous increase — one that may not be realized. If in the next year we receive no increase and our increased commitments from the prior year come due, we still must meet our commitments. In that event, our competing awards are squeezed.

Now imagine years of fluctuation in our increases (or decreases). When awards from a generous allocation year end, a lot of money becomes available for competing awards. When awards from a tight allocation year end, the spigot for competing awards becomes more of a dripping faucet.

The phenomena of a lower increase year following a higher increase year, and of awards from a prior “big” year ending versus a prior “small” year ending, all add up to what we call cycling. For added complexity, the two sometimes combine. A prior big year ending combined with a generous increase provides a windfall for competing awards. A smaller increase year and a small year ending means harder times for competing awards

This year, NIA received another generous appropriation for research on AD/ADRD: We are pleased to see consensus support for this vital area of research continue. We also received a modest increase for other areas of aging research – about the same as last year’s increase- but we received only a small return this year from grants that were ending. So, this fiscal year does bring that cyclical tightening for these other areas of aging research. We are being conservative, as indicated above, and will keep looking for funds to raise the pay line later in the year. We know the current line is disappointing.

Even in this leaner-times year we are continuing to support career awards generously. Our pay lines for NIA-reviewed applications reflect the same dual character as our other pay lines, supporting NIA’s goal of building a large, diverse aging research workforce.

And now for something completely different

After over six years of helping to guide this blog, I’m afraid that this post, this thesis on the minutiae of budget cycles, this poor patch of prose, is my final post for NIA. No soaring rhetoric! No homilies for the world! I retire from NIA and from federal service at the end of this month.

I am pleased to let you know that the very able Dr. Ken Santora has agreed to succeed me both as director of the NIA Division of Extramural Activities and as a major contributor to this blog. I wish him all the best in both roles. I intend to contribute to aging research in other ways going forward, wish all our loyal readers a fond farewell, and I hope to meet many of you in other settings!

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