Weigh in on New Ideas for NIH Common Fund Programs!


What do the NIH Director’s Pioneer Awards, Early Independence Awards, Transformative R01 Awards, Clinical and Translational Science Awards, and the Human Microbiome Project all have in common? They are just a few of the programs supported by NIH’s Common Fund. The Common Fund supports exceptionally innovative programs that are trans-NIH and are expected to take advantage of emerging opportunities quickly to catalyze progress in biomedical research. Since the subjects of these programs usually don’t fit into a single NIH institute or center (IC), they foster collaboration between ICs in innovative and high impact areas of science. 

We are asking for input from internal and external stakeholders on proposed concepts to help us shape new Common Fund programs. We want you to weigh in on ideas for 2013 that have the potential to fundamentally change how we think about, support, or do research in a specific field, or even that create a new field all together. Take a look at the current Common Fund programs to see from where we have come and start thinking about where we should go.

I am always happy to hear your thoughts on the blog, of course, but the best way to participate in the brainstorming for the Common Fund is to provide your input by Wednesday, September 14 to http://commonfund.nih.gov/strategicplanning. I look forward to your ideas.


  1. Is there any evidence that Common Fund programs generate better results than classical individual RO1 awards?
    If productivity in terms of publications, patents, new treatments or whatever metrics one wants to apply is inferior to standard funding mechanisms, the best suggestion that one can give is: Eliminate them!
    I may be wrong, but until I do not data supporting the contrary, I suspect that these programs absorb significant funds that could be used to support many researchers in these difficult times.
    Of course I understand that this program supports more risky research that perhaps would not be supported by standard mechanisms. But if the results are not superior, perhaps we can wait for better times to spread millions of dollar supporting visionary research that goes nowhere.

    1. This is a great question that we’re actively trying to answer. However, the question of whether Common Fund-supported projects are doing “better” research than traditional R01s is not exactly the right question. The Common Fund was created to provide opportunities to do research of high priority that is different from what can be supported through the R01 mechanism.

      The Common Fund investigator-initiated initiatives (Pioneers, New Innovators, Transformative R01s, Early Independence Awards) are intended to provide opportunities for any investigator to conduct exceptionally high impact research which, due to lack of preliminary data or other risk factors, would not be likely to fare well in traditional R01 peer review. So the questions are whether these programs provide unique opportunities to the investigator community, and whether these initiatives are resulting in outstanding science that make the dedication of funds worthwhile. The NIH has recently commissioned an independent evaluation to ask precisely these questions. It’s complicated by the fact that the Common Fund programs are so new – only 22 Pioneer awards have ended, and none of the New Innovator or Transformative R01 projects have been completed. So we have a small pool to compare to traditional R01s, but we can begin to get an answer to these questions.

      Assessing the relative value of traditional R01s and Common Fund programs that have defined objectives is tougher. These programs, which include the Molecular Libraries Program, the Structural Biology of Membrane Proteins Program, the Human Microbiome Program, the Protein Capture Program, and many others, were established because public input and a review of the grant portfolio and the literature indicated that fundamental gaps existed. In other words, traditional R01s and other awards were not supporting critically important work – for whatever reason. The Common Fund programs were therefore intended to support science that traditional R01s could not support and, by supporting these programs, to catalyze future research in the community at large.

      As the first Common Fund programs are approaching their 10-year end point, the NIH is planning evaluations at multiple levels to help determine the outcomes of these programs. Evaluative data that has been gathered to date indicate that the programs are having a stimulatory impact. For example, the Molecular Libraries program established high throughput screening facilities so that academic investigators would have access to technologies which were previously only available within the pharmaceutical industry. The program has established a library of roughly 385,000 compounds, has supported over 250 screening projects yielding 229 chemical probes, and has developed a public database for all of the data which is viewed by thousands of users every day. The program is therefore facilitating research broadly and simply could not have been done through R01s.

      Common Fund investments must be useful to be successful. This is why community input is so critical. If we invest in new informatics tools, will that be likely to benefit your research? If we invest in new artificial organs as pre-clinical platforms, will that benefit your research or the diseases that you’re interested in? These questions are among those that we seek your input on through the strategic planning website.

      Elizabeth Wilder, Ph.D.
      Director, Office of Strategic Coordination
      Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives
      Office of the NIH Director

      1. Dr Wilder,

        Thank you for providing insights from your perspective as Director of the Office of Strategic Coordination. The 2004 Common Fund Initiative was great and most of the existing programs are responding, I believe, to the original goal. However, expecting that 25 out of 25 programs (Common Fund) work as effectively as predicted (at the time of their foundation) is unusual. In science, medicine and real life that kind of “statistics” is rare (I think). From the perspective of the NIH Extramural Office, supporting the needs of the scientific community, it is not only relevant but should be mandatory to ask “whether Common Fund investigator-initiated initiatives Pioneers, New Innovators, Transformative R01s, Early Independence Awards are doing better than the traditional R01s”. These initiatives are very costly, the financial constraints, at this historic time, are very high with a very negative impact in the scientific community as a whole. And it is not very apparent that, for the cost, they are providing more effective answers or better science than the traditional R01s. Let’s wait for the evaluation.

        This is off topic: I had a teacher who used to tell us that there are never wrong or right questions but inadequate answers.

        Thank you.

  2. Dr Rockey,

    You are asking, “to fundamentally change how we think about, support, or do research in a specific field, or even that create a new field all together”. Yesterday, I came across your request to help shaping new Common Fund programs after having learned in “NIH Paylines and Resources” that there are investigators whose grants, with IS 27, 10th percentile, are being tossed out !!!.

    It seems extraordinarily unrealistic to “fundamentally change…” anything now and for the future without setting a Strategic EMERGENCY Plan to:

    a) Reversing the pernicious fact that proposals, as above as well as those equally competitive (though with highest percentile), are and will continue to be tossed out.

    b) Creating the conditions (precedent) whereby actual resources are released to INVESTING in science that has proven to have generated knowledge and measurable social progress and SHIELDING that science from the volatility that natural and/or disastrous events impose on our life cycle. Precedent and legacy for future generations to resort and feel inspired when the harsh climate knocks in.

    Looking at the existing 26 Common Fund Programs, it appears as if 25 out of 26 are platforms that have contributed to the “dizzying rate of basic science discoveries” (F.Collins), from which virtually all investigators -searching to serve existing and emerging health needs- are benefiting directly or indirectly. In contrast, according to the reported evaluation, the High Risk Research Program is not leading to a reasonable “certitude” that those resources are, as of today, benefiting apparent scientific, health or economic needs. It has certainly given high opportunities to test new ideas and favor few investigators careers. Reorienting those resources into a Strategic Emergency Plan will not impede the original program’s scope (innovation/transformative research) and will help opening avenues for a larger number of productive and very talented investigators.

    One would like to think that a Strategic Emergency Plan with actual resources from a) the Common Fund (OD Office) and b) all Institutes and Centers would reinstitute ”morale of hope” in the scientific community, as well as in the country. And we all might sense that science makes us think harder, live better and be happier.

    Thank you for requesting input.

  3. What I have always found so dispiriting about the Pioneer Awardees is that usually these are labs that are _already_ extremely well funded by the NIH and other federal sources. My question has always been “What possible innovative work could NOT be done in these labs prior to being awarded the Pioneer, when they are already so flush with funding?” My answer is: NONE. If you really want to get innovative work done, don’t simply pile more money into labs that are already well funded! The work is already being done there. Look for labs that are OFF the radar but if they were ON the radar (i.e. with significant support from the Pioneer) would make a major impact. This is a harder problem to figure out, but worth trying to do, to fulfill the NIH’s laudable goals in this regard (i.e. transformative, world-changing but risky science).

    Bottom Line: Stop piling more and more money into fewer and fewer labs via the Pioneer. Make the effort to identify sites where the investment would have the maximum payoff. This is not giant labs already flush with federal money.

  4. I actually have a high degree of familiarity with several labs that have gotten Pioneer awards, to the extent that I have seen their applications, I know who wrote letters in support of these applications, and I know their current work.

    The information that I have is very disturbing.

    1. The psychological effect of these awards has been to reduce pressure. They can’t be renewed, so where is the pressure to perform or produce? We are always looking forward to our next R01 application, so it only makes sense to use Pioneer funds for projects that are most likely to get R01 funding in the next rounds, not for starting something adventurous that cannot be continued with R01 funding. That’s what is happening.

    2. At any given point in time, an investigator with any money at all is going to allocate resources to their best project(s). If you already have some funding, and you get more money from a Pioneer award, then isn’t the most likely use for that money going to be for your SECOND BEST project??? That’s what is happening.

    3. For reasons #1 and #2, you will never get useful data about the effect of the Pioneer awards because you can’t cleanly separate the results of R01 funding from Pioneer funding when looking at traditional measures of scientific output, e.g. papers. I will have no faith in any data collected in support of these programs.

    4. An appeal to common sense: how are you most likely to support new, creative, breakthrough ideas … by giving more money to those who already have money to explore them if they truly believe in them, or by funding investigators who have ideas but no resources?

    5. As others have said above, there is something fundamentally inappropriate when large aliquots of funding are being distributed to some, most of whom already have funding, while 90% of R01 proposals are not being funded. Why not take some of the 90% that were scored low because they were “too risky” and simply fund those??? Why create a whole new mechanism and require entirely new applications when you already have a mile-high stack of applications that you aren’t funding???

  5. Dear Dr. Rockey,

    Unfortunately, the Program’s criteria are vague (e.g., what means “high impact across a broad spectrum of biomedical/behavioral research”? Is hypertension “broad” enough? How would you estimate “creation of new paradigms”? etc).

    In my opinion, there are two major unresolved problems that limit success of this and many other NIH programs: (1) the quality of judgment and decision-making, and (2) the efficiency of knowledge workforce management by NIH.

    1. Existing system of expertise does not warrant success because there is an inherited problem with biases of reviewer and decision-makers. These biases must be eliminated beforehand. These are approximately 35 different cognitive biases that are relevant to expertise process. Have they ever been addressed in NIH? How do you know that the experts recruited by NIH to judge “exceptionally innovative” research are sufficiently knowledgeable, objective and unbiased? There are serious evidences that the problem exists. For example, the recent Bio 2011 International Convention in Washington highlighted a well-known fact that cardiovascular research in our country is stagnated for a long time, and the cardiovascular market forecast is very poor. Doesn’t this fact indicate that the NIH advisors and experts in such critical field of health care systematically fail over a long time? It is time to raise the issue of the quality of expertise received by NIH. It is time to limit the influence of the scientific establishment that often censors the promotion of new ideas threatening the ruling status quo, and abuse it for personal goals.

    CSR is not to be blamed for the failure because it is just a mirror of the situation in the scientific community where generational change occurs too slowly and resistance to all sorts of changes is profound. Established scientists tend to focus on what they have achieved rather than look onward and upward to new opportunities due to a common lack of vision for innovative ideas, alternative approaches, and this is unavoidably reflected in their expertise.

    The problem may be resolved in part by following the European positive experience on limiting the availability of funding by the grant recipient’s age of 65. Because NIH is not the only funding outlet in our country, the scientists who have reached the age of 65 would still have an opportunity to be supported by Howard Hughes, AHA, Human Frontiers and other grants. Those who fail will naturally enhance the administrative and advisory corps and, respectively, the quality of these types of activities in Academia, Industry and NIH.

    Participation in NIH peer review must become mandatory for all recipients of NIH funds independently on their academic/administrative position. To reduce bias in review process, CSR should collect in-mail opinion on all grant submissions by sending Summary and Specific Aims pages to a very broad panel of reviewers. At the same time, CSR should develop a system of comprehensive monitoring of the quality of reviewers by implementing a computerized system that automatically records deviation of the itemized preliminary scores given by a reviewer from the average score of the grant as an estimate of the reviewer’s individual bias.

    Both direct and indirect participation in NIH peer review should become one of the major tenure qualifiers for the academic and IRP faculty whose career is/was supported by NIH. It should be based on the quality of their expertise as reflected in the public record of a candidate’s individual bias score.

    2. In my opinion the best way to implement the idea of the NIH Common Fund Program is to implement a “Manhattan Project” type of mission-oriented management for results. The goal is to move from the present ineffective management focused on input and process to the people-oriented management focused on outcome for better results. The key is to keep high-achieving scientists happy and productive by removing barriers and fading the bureaucracy to the minimally required level. In Dr. Oppenheimer’s words, it should be “a community inspired by a high sense of mission, of duty and of destiny … coherent … dedicated … and remarkably unselfish … devoted to a common purpose”.

    To develop a “Manhattan project” type of science management, I suggest to create 1-2 experimental, highly segmented group work settings that are specifically tailored to the NIH mission-critical initiatives (e.g., “atherosclerosis” or “autism”) and recruit both IRP and extramural researchers on a limited time and one-off bases. In response to the institute’s public announcement, a self-assembling group of experts at the open meeting selects its acting chair and a research team, proposes the program, course of actions and budget cuts (within the allocated gross budget) according to the tasks to be resolved. The team may include a wide range of specialists needed for the success of the study, from physiologists, pathologists, molecular biologists, biophysicists to experts in animal models, MRI, computational modeling, candidate drugs design, screening and delivery, as well as NIH MLPCN and other relevant public and business organizations. The appointed NIH Science administrator sets semiannual inspection meetings accessible to all interested in the program including the potential competitors. Participants present evidences of their productive research that are critically discussed and either approved for continuation or discontinued and replaced according to suggestions of the attendees. The mechanism of trans-NIH Common Fund initiatives may be applied, but the functions of strategic plans development, program management, reviewing plans and progress of award recipients should be outsourced to the semiannual meetings, while future funding strategies should be based on actual results delivered in the form of meeting reports. Successful participation in such mission-critical programs should be treated as a highly prestigious scientific achievement and be subject to awards, honorary titles, and other important signs of public appreciation.

    Success of such programs is defined by the mission-related structure applied to scientific community. Such structure allows for management of knowledge workers allocated to the project to better performance and excellent outcomes while preserving their natural desire to have autonomy at work, orchestrating group decision, harnessing good intent and enabling organizational boundary-spanning. This will help NIH to work-out the most desirable knowledge-oriented organizational culture that can be characterized by Rosabeth Cantor and Warren Bennis as Five Fs attributes: fast, flexible, focused, friendly, and fun.

    I hope that my thoughts may help you to better shape the program, and I wish you all the best.


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