Nexus February 2012
Dr. Sally Rockey

Rock Talk

OMB Asks for Comments on Potential Reforms to Federal Grant Policies

The Office of Management and Budget just published a notice in the Federal Register asking for public comment on potential reforms to federal grant policies contained in OMB circulars such as A-21, A-133, and A-122. These include ideas that would standardize information collection across agencies, adopt a risk-based model for single audits, and provide new administrative approaches for determining and monitoring the allocation of federal funds. These ideas reflect the input of a number of groups that have been considering these issues over the past few months, including the A-21 Task Force, which I have mentioned here before.

I encourage you to read the notice in full. To give you an idea of the scope of the proposed reform, here are some of the ideas discussed:

  • Exploring alternatives to time-and-effort reporting requirements for salaries and wages
  • Charging directly allocable administrative support as a direct cost
  • Including the cost of certain computing devices as allowable direct cost supplies
  • Consolidating the cost principles into a single document, with limited variations by type of entity
  • For indirect (“facilities and administrative”) costs, using flat rates instead of negotiated rates

As you can see, some of these changes, if implemented, will have a broad, long-lasting effect on how federal grants are administered. Therefore, it is important to take advantage of this opportunity to provide input to OMB as they consider the proposed reforms.

You can submit comments at The comment period closes on March 29, 2012 April 30, 2012.

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How Much Does NIH Fund for a Specific Research Category?

We get questions all the time about how much we spend on a variety of diseases and conditions—breast cancer research, Alzheimer’s disease, or childhood leukemia to name a few. Luckily, there is an easy way to find out. Go to RePORT’s Categorical Spending page. Listed there are 233 diseases, conditions, and areas of research. Each year in February, we update the numbers, and the latest set (actual fiscal year 2011 spending) has just been posted.

With the doubling of the NIH budget between 1998 and 2003 and the coinciding internet technology boom, there was demand for a consistent categorization process for all extramural grants, intramural projects, R&D contracts, and inter/intra agency agreements. Congress requested we provide an automated, electronic solution for NIH-wide categorization of research projects, and so, our Research, Condition, and Disease Categorization (RCDC) Project was born. We started by developing and defining the scientific categories. Then, by mining scientific words and multi-word phrases from NIH projects, we assign projects to one or more categories.

We released the first categorical funding data in January 2009, which categorized fiscal year 2008 awards. If you visit the website, you will see for each category actual funding levels by year, as well as funding estimates for the next two fiscal years. Clicking on a number will provide a detailed project listing for your category of interest, and you can find out further information about each project by clicking on the project number.

One question I always get is, “Why do the amounts add up to more than the annual budget level?” Here is the answer. The categories are not mutually exclusive. A particular project can, and often does, fall into more than one category. In these cases, the amount of funding for the project is counted in each assigned category.

I am happy to report that we’ve found other ways of using this categorization process to help us here at NIH, as well as provide useful information to the extramural community. The “similar projects” tab in a project listing in RePORTER uses the RCDC technology and data, as does the “LikeThis” tool we recently developed for investigators to use within the eRA Commons.  

RCDC provides more insight into what research NIH is supporting, and I hope you will take a look.

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President’s 2013 Budget and NIH Research Grants

As you may know, the President’s budget request for fiscal year 2013 was released on Monday. The request for the NIH is $30.86B, the same overall level as fiscal year 2012. The full details of the NIH budget request are posted on the NIH Office of Budget website, but I want to highlight some topics I often discuss here, namely the number and management of research grants.   

As described in the budget document, we estimate that these funds will support 9,415 new and competing research project grants (RPGs) in fiscal year 2013, an increase of 672 above fiscal year 2012. In order to maximize resources in fiscal year 2013 for investigator-initiated grants, and to continue to focus on resources for young, first-time researchers, we propose to reduce non-competing RPGs by one percent from the fiscal year 2012 level, and to negotiate the budgets of competing RPGs to avoid growth in the average award size (estimate of -1 percent) from fiscal year 2012. Also, we will no longer build in the inflationary increases that were included for planning purposes in the out-years of competing and non-competing awards.

We will continue to follow current policies that allow new investigators to receive grants at rates equal to those of established investigators.

Finally, we will establish a process for additional scrutiny and review of awards to any principal investigator with existing grants of $1.5 million or more in total costs. The review will be conducted by an institute’s or center’s advisory council. This is similar to a policy NIGMS has had for many years, which will likely serve as good model for how we may implement this policy. 

If some of the measures described above sound familiar, you may be thinking of the information we posted last October on ways of managing NIH resources. We asked for your comments on this information, either as responses on the blog (here and here) or directly to us by email. We received comments from 348 entities (individuals and institutions), with many people commenting multiple times on the blog. The vast majority of commenters were individuals, but we also heard from some institutions.

Some commenters thought we should keep the current system, but many others supported implementation of one or more of the options. Specifically, a number of commenters were in favor of the following options (in order of the support they received):

  • Limit the number of awards per PI
  • Limit the amount of funds per PI
  • Limit salaries of PIs
  • Reduce or limit size of awards

In addition, many commenters suggested options that were not described in the Ways of Managing Resources presentation. Some options that were mentioned include limiting indirect costs, limiting certain programs (for example, large project grants), and providing more resources to small labs and individuals by limiting grants to large labs.

So thank you for your thoughtful comments. As you can see, having a dialog with the community in as many venues as possible is essential as we continue to consider how to manage our resources to fund as much of the best science as possible in these challenging fiscal times.

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Age Distribution of NIH Principal Investigators and Medical School Faculty

Recently we explored the increase in average age of new investigators. While that average age has remained relatively constant over the past ten years, we are seeing something different in our entire pool of principal investigators (PIs). Today, I want to discuss this by comparing the average age of NIH PIs to the age of faculty in medical schools using data generously provided by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). We recognize that slightly more than 45% of all awards are made to PIs that work outside of medical schools, but the AAMC has been very successful in collecting information on faculty that work in that setting, and it’s interesting to see the comparison.

(This video does not have an audio track. If you are unable to view it, you can also download it. View the presentation slides here.)

The NIH started recording the age of most PIs around 1980, which is why the presentation above starts at that year. As you move through the years from 1980 to 2010, you can see that both populations of faculty and PIs become less compressed in the age period between 28 and 65. In more recent years, you see fewer people entering the faculty at ages 28 and below, and very few people receiving an R01 award before age 33. But, the biggest difference is seen at the later ages. The elimination of mandatory retirement during the 80s and increasing life expectancy allowed people to remain employed much longer[1]. We also suspect that the current economic situation is forcing many people to reconsider their retirement.

In 1980, less than 1% of PIs were over age 65, and now PIs over age 65 constitute nearly 7% of the total. In parallel, in 1980, close to 18% of all PIs were age 36 and under. That number has fallen to about 3% in recent years. These are big changes.

Percentage of R01 investigators age 36 and younger and 66 and older 1980-2010.

Another factor that jumps out is the increasing gap between entry into faculty and receipt of the first R01. Although not all AAMC faculty members apply for NIH research grants, the gap is interesting and suggests that institutions and other non-NIH funding sources are increasingly responsible for research start-up costs.

When we produced this same presentation five years ago, I had predicted we were at the cusp, and that the average age of a supported NIH PI would remain relatively constant going forward. However, obviously, I was wrong. As we continue to look at the age distribution of NIH PIs, we will keep you updated.

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Our Commitment to Supporting the Next Generation

I’ve talked to you over the past year on many aspects of the biomedical research pipeline. But one issue, the plight of the early career researcher, has been front and center almost from the first day I joined NIH. Over a long period of time, NIH has made a concerted effort to make sure that faculty members in their early careers have a fair chance when they compete against more established investigators. If you enjoy history, a complete description of our programs starting in 1977 is available on our website.        

Over the past three decades, we’ve seen profound shifts in the average age at which a principal investigator receives their first R01. During the period from 1980 to 2001, the average age increased nearly 0.3 years per year. Since that time, the average age at first R01 award has leveled off near 42 for PhDs. It is higher for researchers with an MD or an MD/PhD.

shows the average age of investigators at the time of first R01 steadily increasing from 1980 to 2011

In more recent years, our new investigator (new to NIH funding) policies shifted to numerical targets, and you can see a substantial increase of new R01 investigators beginning in 2007. By 2010, the proportion of new investigators increased to approximately 30 percent of all competing R01s, replicating entry rates not seen since 1987. The imposition of numerical targets appears to have had little effect on the average age at which a new investigator receives their first award, however. In order to encourage earlier transition to independence, the NIH initiated the Early Stage Investigator policy for applications submitted for funding in fiscal year 2009. Early stage investigators are defined as being within ten years of completing their terminal degree or their medical residency. 

Number of new and experienced investigators on competing R01 grants showing the percent new fall from approximately 40% in 1962 to below 25% in the early 2000s.

Our current policy requires that approximately half of all new investigators are early stage investigators, but, so far we’ve seen no decrease in the age at entry. Maybe it is too early to expect an impact. We’ve also made one additional change in the new investigator policy. Rather than using numerical targets, we’ve set targets based on success rates. The success rate for investigators submitting a new R01 application should be the same whether they are new or experienced investigators. Current policies related to new investigators are described on the Financial Operations webpage (note that some of the IC-specific policies are currently being updated for fiscal year 2012).   

We believe it is important to continually refresh the pool of talented scientists and to give them an opportunity to manage their own project while they are still relatively young. We also believe in evaluating the results of our efforts, so we are analyzing the outcomes of these the new investigator policies. For example, how successful are these new investigators after they get their first award and has that changed as we fund more of these researchers? So, as always, stay tuned.

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Top Stories

National Women's Health Week May 13-19

May 13-19 will mark the 13th annual National Women’s Health Week—a national effort to raise awareness of manageable steps that women can take to improve their health. Last year, more than 100,000 people participated nationwide, including many underserved women (and men) who received access to important preventative health services.

If your organization is in a position to sponsor a health fair, fitness event, or provide preventative screenings, you can register your event at Any health event that occurs during the month of May is eligible to register.

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Always There: The Biography of Ruth L. Kirschstein

You may know the name from the NIH’s Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service awards and now you can read about the person behind the name. Always There: The Remarkable Life of Ruth Lillian Kirschstein, M.D. tells the story of the woman who became the first female director of a major institute at the NIH, helped develop the Sabin polio vaccine, and was an advocate for basic biomedical research and research training. 

The book is available for download to your Kindle, Nook, or iPad, as well as via PDF.

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Time to Rev’ Up for the NIH Regional Seminar on Program Funding & Grants Administration in Indianapolis, IN

Do you want to keep up-to-date on the latest NIH policy updates and grants process information? Are you new to working with the NIH application and award process and want to learn more? If so, then join more than 30 NIH and HHS experts as they head to Indianapolis, Indiana in April for the 2012 NIH Regional Seminar on Program Funding and Grants Administration. 

Held only twice each year, these seminars offer unique and valuable opportunities for administrators, investigators, students, grant writers, and anyone interested in learning tips and tricks about the application process, navigating the peer review process, and managing an award. Interaction and networking opportunities are available throughout the seminar with NIH grants, program, and review officials, as well as NIH and HHS policy officers…along with hundreds of attendees from around the world.

Indianapolis, Indiana – April 16-18 – REGISTRATION OPEN

Washington, D.C. – June 20-22 – REGISTRATION OPENS EARLY MARCH

There are 2 full days of sessions, endless networking opportunities, and valuable expertise around every corner. Optional, hands-on eRA computer workshops are available on the day prior to the seminar.

Reserved space is limited, so plan now to be a part of one of these valuable seminars. More information is available on the NIH Regional Seminars on Program Funding and Grants Administration homepage. We hope to see you there!

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What's New on RePORT

Take a look at RePORT’s most recent news and information in the latest edition of The ReSource. There is a sneak peak at the new site design, as well as information on RePORTER, MyRePORTER, ExPORTER, and the fiscal year 2011 reports.

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New Resources

Writing the Vertebrate Animal Section

Wondering whether you need to complete the vertebrate animal section of an application? The NIH Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare has put together a helpful fact sheet for applicants. Here you will find an overview of the requirements for each of the 5 points of the vertebrate animal section, as well as a clear explanation of who needs to complete this section.

Additional information can be found in the vertebrate animal worksheets for grant applications and contract proposals.

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New Podcast: Submitting Administrative Supplement Requests Electronically

All About Grants logoIn this podcast, Dave Curren from our grants policy office explains a pilot system we released in February to submit your administrative supplement requests electronically. To view past podcasts and transcripts, visit our podcast page

To get new podcasts as they are released, subscribe by visiting us on iTunes or catch our podcast RSS using your favorite software.

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Obtaining an Animal Welfare Assurance

The NIH Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare has developed a new webpage to help guide awardee institutions through the process of obtaining an animal welfare assurance. Here you will find an overview of the criteria and the process for obtaining an assurance, a description of each type of assurance, plus where to go for more information.

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New Search Tool Matches Your Research Proposal to Others "Like This"

PIs, have you ever wanted to see what NIH has awarded in your area of interest? Would you like to find out which study section reviews applications similar to the ones you are proposing? You can use NIH RePORTER to do this, but now there is an even easier way behind your eRA Commons login.

Using the new LikeThis tool, you can enter a scientific abstract (or access your own applications or grants) and then click on LikeThis. The scientific terms in the text are weighted and a listing of similar funded grants and publications produced.

No need to worry about your proposed research strategy being seen by others. The tool requires a Commons login, so any information you enter is confidential. After you log into Commons, you will find the link along the right side of the home page at the bottom of the Additional Links section.

For more information, visit the eRA website.

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You Ask, We Answer

Why Isn't the Overall Impact Score the Average of the Criterion Scores?

This is a common question asked by applicants after review and was nicely answered in a recent post on the NIGMS Feedback Loop.

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Is There a Time Limit for Resubmission?

Yes. You must send in your resubmission no later than 37 months after the receipt date of your new, renewal, or revision application. Don’t use the day you actually submitted your original application in your calculation. 

Also, your resubmission application must be submitted for the dates as listed in the appropriate funding opportunity announcement. So if you submitted a new R01 application back on February 5, 2009, you’ve still got a few days to get it in before the March 5, 2012 R01 deadline!

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How Do I Mark Changes in a Resubmission?

To make it easier for your reviewers to see what has changed in your resubmitted application, mark the substantial scientific changes by bracketing, indenting, or italicizing or changing the font (to one of the other acceptable fonts). Please do not underline or shade the changes. Deleted sections should be described but not marked as deletions. If the changes are so extensive that essentially all of the text would be marked, explain this in the introduction and don’t mark the changes.

Posted in Grant Writing, You Ask, We Answer | 18 Comments