Issue | april-2020



Roundup of New COVID-19 Resources for NIH Applicants and Recipients

We continue to add new resources to our COVID-19: Information for NIH Applicants and Recipients of NIH Funding webpage. We hope they are helpful in helping you navigate this unprecedented situation. Here is a summary of what’s new since the last Nexus:

We know it can be a challenge to track new information as it becomes available. We are noting changes to the website in the page update history, tweeting from @NIHgrants as things get posted, and we will continue to highlight new resources in the Nexus.

Supporting Yourself and Your Trainees During the Coronavirus Pandemic – Online Workshops

Headshot of Dr. Sharon Milgram
Sharon Milgram, Ph.D., Director of NIH OITE

While we all want to be highly productive during this period of self-quarantine, the reality for us and for our trainees and research staff may be very different. We are stressed, they are stressed, and all of us are dealing with unique issues that impact our ability to be productive at this time. 

My mission, as the director of NIH’s Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE), is to help trainees (summer interns, postbacs, grad students, and postdocs) in the NIH Intramural Research Program develop career and professional skills that will help them succeed on all career paths in the biomedical and behavioral sciences. My concern goes beyond just thinking about trainees in NIH’s intramural program. Just last week, I had the honor to talk with the NIH Director, Dr. Francis Collins, about NIH trainees. Parts of our discussion focus on NIH’s intramural program, but his message of hope and NIH’s concern for trainees is universal. I also spoke last week with grad and postdoc office leadership across the US to share concerns and strategies.

Since the advent of social distancing a few weeks ago, all of us have had to work through policy issues, help trainees work through their stress, and identify ways to continue to support their learning while not in the lab. For me in my position, and I am sure for many of you, this has also meant needing to rise to the challenge and adapt programming to meet trainee needs.

Tomorrow my office is hosting a workshop on Supporting Yourself and Your Trainees During the Coronavirus Pandemic that is open to all. In this workshop we will provide PIs, program leaders and research group heads with insights and strategies for supporting themselves, their trainees and staff during this difficult time.  

In addition, we are putting together a panel discussion with mental health experts to help the directors of postbac, graduate student and postdoc offices best support trainees during these uncertain times. The panel discussion will be taped and the discussion will address questions submitted in advance. You can submit questions for the panelists in advance here.  The panel discussion will be taped on Friday April 17, 2020 and up-loaded for viewing by April 21. We will plan follow up discussions based on feedback from the community once this resource is disseminated.

We have been working quickly to develop a robust program of virtual workshops we are scheduling each week. We hope your students and postdocs will join us. We will be putting on new programming each week. They can find information by visiting the OITE website of Virtual NIH Activities for Trainees Outside the NIH, and on Twitter @NIH_OITE and @SHARONMILGRAM. After the workshops, the videos will be closed-captioned and posted as quickly as possible on the NIH OITE YouTube Channel for later viewing.

Also, if you wish to join us and your students in the NIH OITE weekly wellness challenge, follow us on Twitter @NIH_OITE and @SHARONMILGRAM. I am trying to post wellness tips daily in addition to updates on our programs.

Right now our trainees need our support more than ever. Working together we can support them though this difficult time.

COVID-19 Funding and Funding Opportunities

As you can imagine, NIH is devoting significant resources to COVID-19. In addition to dedicating regularly appropriated funds, to date NIH has received emergency funding for COVID-19-related activities in two supplemental bills (available from the NIH Office of Budget website), that together provide:

  • $1.532 billion for NIAID
  • $103.4 million for NHLBI
  • $60 million for NIBIB
  • $36 million for NCATS
  • $30 million for the NIH Office of Director
  • $10 million for NIEHS
  • $10 million for NLM

To get funding as quickly as possible to the research community, we are using Urgent and Emergency competing revisions and administrative supplements to existing grant awards.  This approach allows us to leverage resident expertise, getting additional funding to those researchers who are already working with other organisms, models, or tools so that they can quickly shift focus to the novel coronavirus. These Urgent and Emergency competitive revision Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs) allow NIH to fund applications quickly, often in under three months, sometimes much quicker than that, because evaluation for scientific and technical merit is done by an internal review panel convened by staff of the NIH awarding institute or center rather than by our traditional peer review process.

The Urgent and Emergency competing revision FOAs sound very similar. And they are, but there is an important distinction.

  • The Emergency Competitive Revision FOA can only be used for funding available for applications based on a presidentially declared disaster under the Stafford Act, a public health emergency declared by the Secretary, HHS, or other local, regional or national disaster.  This means that for COVID-19 funding, it can only be used by those NIH Institutes and Centers I listed above that received special emergency funding.
  • The Urgent Competitive Revision FOA can be used to meet immediate needs to help address a specific public health crisis in a timely manner. This vehicle is used to help address a specific public health crisis that was unforeseen when the application or progress report was submitted.

When responding to these types of funding opportunities, it is important that you understand how they work.

  • They require applications to be submitted in response to an Emergency or Urgent Notice of Special Interest (NOSI).  We are maintaining a list of COVID-19 specific Notices of Special Interest on our Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Information for NIH Applicants and Recipients of NIH Funding website.
  • You need to read the instructions in the NOSI and in the FOA it points to carefully. If the instructions in the NOSI differ from those in the FOA, follow those in the NOSI.
  • There are specific review criteria specified in the FOA. Make sure you address those as well as any that might be mentioned in the NOSI. They are how NIH staff will evaluate your application for funding.
  • The NOSI will instruct you to include the NOSI number in the Agency Routing Identifier field (Box 4b) of the SF424 (R&R) Form. This information is very important for NIH tracking of spending of emergency award funding. Applications without this information in Box 4b may not be considered for this type of funding.
  • Often the due dates are rolling, meaning you should submit the application as soon as it is ready to get it considered for funding as quickly as possible.

NIH is issuing new COVID-19 related NOSIs frequently. Please check back for these and other COVID-19-related information on our Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Information for NIH Applicants and Recipients of NIH Funding website.

You can learn more about NOSI’s in this quick 5 minute video.

Screenshot of YouTube video on NOSIs

Can ESI Status Be Extended Due to Disruptions From COVID-19?

Yes. Be sure to describe the nature of the disruption to your research in your ESI extension request. We suggest you submit the request once you know how much research time was lost, unless your upcoming application deadline is imminent and an ESI extension is urgently needed. In this case you would be able to submit another extension once you know the full extent of the time lost.  ESI extension submission instructions may be found here

Here are a few other things that can impact ESI status:

Table that explains how the following events could impact ESI status:
I will lose ESI status if it has been more than 10 years since my terminal research degree or end of post-graduate clinical training and I have not experienced situations that qualify for an ESI extension request. 

I MIGHT lose ESI status if •	I am the PD/PI (or multi-PD/PI) on an NIH award.
•	Yes, if you successfully competed as a PD/PI for a substantial independent research award.
•	No, if you are the PD/PI of an award  on our list of smaller grants & awards that maintain ESI status.
•	I am the PD/PI (or multi-PD/PI) on a multi-project award.
•	Yes, if you successfully competed as a PD/PI for the overall multi-project application.
•	No, if you led a component but were not the PD/PI of
the overall application.

I will NOT lose ESI status if •	I’m a Co-Investigator on the grant. (NIH only recognizes
senior/key with the role PD/PI as principal investigators.)
•	I’m the PD/PI on a subaward or subcontract.
•	I became the PD/PI due to a change of investigator action. (If you did not compete successfully as the PD/PI for a substantial NIH independent research award you won’t lose status.)

Some Thoughts on Cybersecurity – Part 1

Working from home is the new reality for many people these days. As part of this new world, we are using our internet tools more and more, challenging the safety and security of these electronic systems likely to a degree not seen before. It is with that in mind that I would like to take a few minutes in this, and upcoming, posts reminding everybody about the importance of cybersafety in our online lives.    

Imagine this scenario: Last night, unknown intruders vandalized the office suite next door.  They shattered glass, busted locked doors open, rifled through drawers, and stole some computers.  By the elevators, you see shards of shattered glass and “Do Not Cross” police tape.    

Are you upset?

Scenario 2: Last night, unknown hackers broke into the computers of the office suite next door.  They stole years of priceless, sensitive data.  Nobody knows yet that anything happened, though a few employees are calling IT because certain apps aren’t working quite right. Otherwise, no one is talking.  By outward appearances, nothing is amiss.

Are you upset?

Scenario 3: Last night, someone hacked into your computer.  You don’t know that you’ve been hacked, but you do know that your computer is extraordinarily sluggish and that you are having trouble accessing your files.  You call in your top IT person – someone known as “the genius” – and within a few hours, everything appears to be back to normal.

Do you say thank you?  And if so, to whom? 

Scenario 4: Last night, someone attempted to hack into your computer, but because you and your institution have created a culture that takes cyber safety seriously, the hacker couldn’t get in.  Your computer is working just fine – all apps are functioning normally, and you are able to access the information you need to get your work done. You are completely unaware that an attempted attack was ever made.

Do you say thank you?  And if so, to whom?   

Here’s my guess about how most of us would answer the questions:

Scenario 1: Very upset!  Frightened, scared.

Scenario 2: Not at all concerned, not even aware anything’s amiss.

Scenario 3: Yes, of course you would say, “Thank you.”  You are impressed and grateful.  You might even write a follow-up email or hand-write a thank-you card.

Scenario 4: Of course not – it’s just another day at the office.

These scenarios illustrate some of the key challenges around safety issues that you might not see in person, like those in the cyberworld. The reality is that most of us do not pay close attention to cyber safety until something is clearly wrong. Even then, we may not see the impact of a cyberattack as equivalent to that of a physical act of aggression or theft. Because we do not fully understand or acknowledge the danger of cyberattacks, we may not take appropriate precautions to prevent them, even though those risks can pose a formidable threat to our research and ability to achieve our mission. In today’s increasingly digital and connected world, it’s time to shift this attitude.  We all need to acknowledge the risk inherent in cyber and take a personal stake in our shared responsibility for ensuring that NIH stays safe from cyberattacks.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my IT and privacy colleagues at NIH, who are constantly thinking about cyber safety and working tirelessly to keep us all safe. Recently, Dr. Francis Collins, the Director of NIH, sent a message to launch NIH’s Cyber Safety Awareness campaign, which emphasized how Cyber Safety is not solely the responsibility of staff in information technology, security, or privacy functions; it’s the concern of the whole NIH community. I support Dr. Collin’s effort to shift this accountability across all our staff, from interns to executive leadership. I am glad that all Leadership will address cyber safety as a top priority, since we simply cannot afford devastating setbacks to our research and mission.

 I’d also like to thank former Assistant Attorney General John Carlin, whose book Dawn of the Code War deeply impressed (and frightened) me.  In his book, Carlin reflects on the parable of Rome’s downfall as a metaphor to remind us about the need to be ever-vigilant in shoring up our cyber defenses. The true stories of cyber espionage, hacking, and attacks recounted in his book are issues that we should all keep in mind as we navigate our own online lives, both personally and professionally. After all, “What has enriched our economy and quality of life for the past several decades,” Carlin opines, “may start to hurt us more than help us — until we confront its cybersecurity challenges.”

NIH is not immune to this issue. On any given day, NIH’s automated email threat detection technology automatically blocks more than 23 million threatening emails that may be phishing attempts or could include malware. Cybersecurity is a growing concern, one that impacts all of our functions. We all have the ability to protect these systems that we rely on every day for our work.

As many of you use NIH’s electronic Research Administration (eRA) and other NIH systems often, maybe even daily), it’s worth taking a step back to reflect on what these systems do. Why is cyber safety so important?  Well, in FY2019, eRA and NIH systems:

  • Published 1,757 Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOA’s)
  • Processed 166,000 applications and awards
  • Processed $35.5 billion in award obligations
  • Had 870,000 registered users, with 243,000 of those active
  • Handled 23.3 million logins
  • Enabled the work of 63,100 reviewers who participated in 3,576 review meetings
  • Added 7.12 million documents into government data bases

And the demands are growing.  Since fiscal year 2008, we have observed steady growth in individual institutional (blue line) and user (red line) accounts by 11 percent and 10 percent annually, respectively (Figure 1).

Figure 1 displays the growth in the eRA user base. The X axis represents the fiscal year from 2008 to 2019, the left Y axis is the number of institutions registered in eRA Commons from 10-000 to 70,000, and the right Y axis is the number of user accounts from 100,000 to 900,000. Blue and red lines represent the number of institutions and user accounts, respectively.
Figure 1

Figure 2 shows logins to eRA modules (blue line) rise about 13 percent annually. Data storage needs (red line) also increases, at a clip of 8 percent annually.

Figure 2 displays the increasing growth in eRA usage and storage over time. The X axis is the fiscal year from 2006 to 2019, the left Y axis is the number of logins in millions from 0  to 25, and the right Y axis is storage in terabytes from 0-300. The blue and red lines represent logins to eRA modules and data storage, respectively.
Figure 2

In other words – the stakes are high. 

Over the next few months, we will post a series of essays on cyber safety and why it matters to all of us.  We all depend on the safety and security of our systems in order to do our work – including interacting with NIH on billions of dollars of federally funded projects.  To begin educating yourself about cyber safety, I invite you to take a look at this Department of Homeland Security site for some good advice. We should regularly consider these tips especially now during our current situation. For instance, cybercriminals are sending malicious phishing emails that appear to be from trusted federal agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to steal sensitive data. Other phishing emails have contained a link to a malicious website that was designed to look like a live map of COVID-19 cases from Johns Hopkins University. We all have to remain vigilant and be ready to report if we see anything suspicious, and continuing to keep our work, data, and professional and personal lives safer and more productive.

2-Factor Authentication for eRA Modules

eRA is moving to two-factor authentication via login.gov, meaning that log-in will require something you know (password) and something you have (a phone or other device). This new log-in method, optional at first but which may be required later, will be available Wednesday, April 8, 2020 for users of eRA Commons, Commons Mobile, IAR and ASSIST.

This change, part of HHS’s Reinvent Grants Management initiative, will help reduce the burden on principal investigators and research administrators by providing them the ability to log in to four different grants systems (eRA, Grants.gov, GrantSolutions and Payment Management System) using the same username and password via login.gov. Two-factor authentication will help ensure the security of your personal information.

To help you take advantage of this new option, we have compiled a number of resources for you:

eRA Moving to the Cloud April 17 to April 20; Systems Unavailable During This Time

Just a reminder that eRA is planning a major undertaking this month, to migrate its modules and data to the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud April 17-20 (Fri-Mon).

During this cloud migration, from 8 a.m. ET on Friday, April 17 to 8 p.m. ET on Monday, April 20, all eRA modules (eRA Commons, ASSIST, IAR, iEdison, etc.) and all informational websites (era.nih.gov, etc.) will be unavailable. 

Any affected due dates will be covered under NIH’s late application policy due to COVID-19, which allows all applications submitted late for due dates between March 9, 2020, and May 1, 2020, to be accepted through May 1, 2020.

Grants.gov will continue processing applications during the migration window.  Applications received via Grants.gov will be put in a queue, and then eRA will process them on Monday night, April 20. The standard 2-day viewing window for successfully submitted applications will be applied.

Note that eRA will be closely monitoring the availability of staff needed to do the migration; please check the eRA Cloud Migration webpage of the eRA website for confirmation of its plans late next week.

Cloud computing provides us with a number of advantages. These include improved security, reliability, and scalability of the system.

NIH Moving Ahead with FORMS-F Grant Application Form Update

Hopefully, you’ve seen our notices (NOT-OD-20-026, NOT-OD-20-077), tweets, and previous Nexus post regarding our pending transition to an updated set of grant application forms we refer to as FORMS-F. If so, you already know that you must use FORMS-F forms for grant application due dates on or after May 25, 2020 and FORMS-E for due dates on or before May 24, 2020. You might have even started preparing your FORMS-F application.

Here are a few updates and tips to help navigate the transition.

  • FORMS-F application packages are now available on our active, non-parent funding opportunity announcements (FOAs).

    • Both FORMS-E and FORMS-F packages will be associated with the FOAs for a short transition period. Carefully choose the correct form package based on the targeted due date and Competition ID.
    • All of our FORMS-E packages are planned to sunset on May 24 and, shortly after, will no longer appear as an option on our active opportunities.

  • FORMS-F application packages were not added to our parent announcements. Instead, we are in the process of reissuing each parent announcement with a new announcement number, updated opportunity text, and FORMS-F package. Parent FOAs will be reissued 30-60 days prior to their first FORMS-F due dates. 

    • Both the FORMS-E and FORMS-F versions of each parent FOA will be active for a short transition period.  If you plan to submit using a parent announcement for a due date on or after May 25, choose the parent announcement posted in 2020 and verify the Competition ID of the form package includes FORMS-F.
    • ASSIST, Grants.gov Workspace and many system-to-system solutions have data copy features. If you want to get started on your application using the FORMS-E FOA and package, you can use the copy feature to move your common data over to FORMS-F later. Just make sure you are on FORMS-F forms and have followed all FORMS-F application instructions before submission.

  • If you aren’t sure what an application package “Competition ID” is or where to find it, check out Do I Have the Right Form Version For My Application?

  • The How to Apply – Application Guide page includes application form instructions for both Version E and Version F.

    • Use Version E with FORMS-E and Version F with FORMS-F.
    • Review the Significant Changes section of the Version F instructions to familiarize yourself with major instruction changes between Versions E and F.

  • Our biosketch, data table, and other format pages have also been updated with FORMS-F versions. Format pages are approved formats to be used with specific grant application attachments.

    • In some cases (e.g., biosketch), only the expiration date was changed with the FORMS-F update. We’ve replaced the old version with the new one on our website and have indicated it is available for immediate use. Since there were no changes to the format itself, either version can be used for FORMS-E and FORMS-F applications.

      For example, if you’re well on your way preparing the Participating Faculty Biosketches attachment for your May 25 training grant application and the biosketches you’ve collected have the old expiration date, it’s okay – you do not need to update all the biosketches to show the correct date. Same goes for biosketches for senior/key.

    • In other cases (e.g., data tables), we have made substantive changes to the formats and have provided FORMS-E and FORMS-F versions that must be used with their corresponding form packages.

Direct questions regarding our form update to:

NIH Office of Policy for Extramural Research Administration (OPERA)
Systems Policy Branch
Email: OPERAsystemspolicy@nih.gov

Resources related to form updates: