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SfN Atlanta: Keeping the Lights On—Funding for Basic Science

27 October 2006. Thoughts about funding and how to find, apply for, and hang on to it are never far from researchers’ minds these days, and the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting, drawing more than 25,000 researchers, is an ideal venue to discuss funding. In a panel discussion at the meeting, several directors of the neuroscience-related institutes at NIH discussed the recent drop in grant application success rates, and at the second annual Schizophrenia Social, the Schizophrenia Research Forum invited representatives from the NIMH and NARSAD, the Mental Health Research Association to give the inside scoop on their grant opportunities for basic scientists.

After “the Doubling”—demand catches up, supply drops
NIH Director Elias Zerhouni was scheduled to give a talk on Tuesday, 24 October 2006, entitled “NIH at the Crossroad: Strategies for the Future,” but his flight was delayed by the rain that fell on the East Coast. NINDS director Story Landis and NIMH Director Tom Insel tag-teamed the talk in his place, occasionally squinting at a slide and admitting that they weren’t quite sure what Zerhouni intended say about this slide. (Note: Many of the slides from this talk can be found at the NIH website; see "Dr. Zerhouni's Vision for the Future of NIH," as well as the other information on NIH extramural funding.)

Landis presented the “bad news” portion of the talk, which in essence examined the recent rapid decline in success percentages for grant applications to NIH. The key to understanding the fact that only about 19 percent of grant applications are funded lies in “the Doubling.” No, not the title of a Stephen King novel; this term describes the period from 1998 to 2003, when the NIH budget doubled. Grant success rates shot up as a result, but the Doubling spurred a reaction, albeit delayed: a doubling in grant applications between 1998 and 2007 (projected figure). As funding began to rise in the last days of twentieth century, universities created new positions and broke ground for new research labs, and researchers already in the field increased their applications to NIH. By 2002, demand for grants was shooting up rapidly, such that when funding stagnated and even dropped in the post-doubling period, success rates dropped from 31 percent to 19 percent (with paylines in some institutes in the single digits).

Landis also presented Zerhouni’s rebuttals of “common misconceptions” about NIH funding phenomena that are assumed to adversely impact basic scientists:

  • NIH is only interested in clinical or translational research—in fact, basic science funding is slightly over 50 percent of the NIMH funding pie.
  • NIH is shifting to solicited research—in fact, the amount that goes to solicited research grants has been constant over the past 12 years, and approximately 90 percent goes to unsolicited projects.
  • The NIH Roadmap for Medical Research eats up money that would go to R01 grants—in fact, the Roadmap is actually only 1.2 percent of the NIH budget. Landis made the point that the idea behind the Roadmap was to get the directors of the institutes to work together on specific goals. She further noted that about 40 percent of Roadmap funding goes to basic science.

Tom Insel gave the second half of the talk—the “strategy for going forward.” The lecture focused on adaptive strategies based on a number of principles, among which are the following:

  • Protect the core NIH values and mission, which primarily are discovery. To this end, Insel said, it is important to keep a balanced portfolio of basic science, and translational and clinical research.
  • Provide young researchers with a “pathway to independence.” Insel cited particularly the K99/R00 awards that provide funding both during the postdoctoral and early independent periods.
  • Focus on balancing supply and demand with scientific priorities, which obviously requires adjusting programs and prioritizing projects. Insel noted one bit of good news—the fact that many longer (4- to 5-year) grants that were funded during the boom period of the Doubling are ending, and that money goes back into the pool for new applications.
  • Increase public awareness of the value of NIH research for health care and disease treatment. He noted that it is not uncommon for the average citizen to have no sense of what the NIH does, or the extent to which advances in health care build on the achievements of NIH-funded scientists.

In reply to questions raised by the audience members, the NIH directors noted that funding from the newly created Common Fund (for discussion, see the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology September Washington Update), under the control of the NIH directors, would follow the current peer-review system used for the NIH Roadmap; that they were exploring ways to equalize paylines between the institutes by moving applications from one institute to another; and that a larger, more coordinated response was needed to protect researchers from radical animal rights activists.

One audience member noted that the relatively unmanaged nature of the U.S. research system ensures that scientists trained during the boom times will be cast out of science in the lean years, and she offered the comment that there should be a joint effort between the government and universities to be more strategic about deploying resources.

Schizophrenia Social—mingling for science
At the second annual Schizophrenia Social, organized by SRF with support from NARSAD and NIMH, researchers were able to mingle and meet (thanks to NARSAD for the drinks and snacks!) and listen to advice from the two major U.S. funding sources.

Lois Winsky, Acting Chief, Molecular, Cellular and Genomic Neuroscience Research Branch at the NIMH, outlined the recent restructuring of the institute and some strategies that may make the grant application process run a little smoother.

There are now five research divisions at the NIMH:

  • Neuroscience and Basic Behavioral Science (DNBBS)
  • Adult Translational Research (DATR)
  • Pediatric Translational Research (DPTR)
  • Health and Behavior (DHB)
  • Services and Intervention Research (DSIR)

Each division is subdivided into branches. This reorganization was designed to reflect the pressing need to translate basic research discoveries into biomarkers, diagnostic tests, and new treatments for patients with mental disorders. While the DNBBS still funds basic research, especially high-priority areas such as genetics, molecular, cellular and behavioral neuroscience, the three translational divisions, DATR, DPTR and DHB, will focus on turning basic research into intervention development. At the other end of the spectrum, the NIMH will continue to invest in clinical trials and services research through the DSIR. “A key aspect of the reorganization is to ensure transfer of the best ideas between the research divisions,” said Winsky.

There are two principal routes for research funding: F-awards, which are individual fellowships for pre- and postdoctoral applicants, and K-awards, which are mentored career development awards. At the NIH, applications for awards are processed in parallel by an initial peer-review group (IRG) and independently by an institute (e.g., NIMH), which assigns the application to a specific program within one of the research divisions. The entire process is overseen by a program officer who has identified a specific need in a particular scientific area and who will be involved in the application process both before, during, and even after review (in the case of resubmission).

“The most important advice is to contact your program officer early and often,” said Winsky. The officer can advise about priority areas for funding that have been identified at the institute and can offer advice on the following:

  • Areas of program interest/emphasis
  • Appropriate grants mechanisms
  • Current initiatives
  • Institute funding levels
  • Recommendations for study section

Winsky outlined several areas that are presently considered priority areas for funding through the DNBBS:

  • Develop vertebrate and invertebrate models to understand the biological functions of genes, molecules, cells, and systems implicated in mental disorders.
  • Develop neurobiological models and tools to understand changes in mood and cognition during life transitional periods.
  • Elucidate fundamental mechanisms of complex social behavior.
  • Identify epigenetic mechanisms and gene-environment interactions that influence vulnerability to mental disorders, endophenotypes, and pharmacologic response profiles.
  • Identify biological markers (genetic, proteomic, imaging) in model systems and humans that could be further validated as methods for diagnosing and/or detecting risk/vulnerability, onset, progress, treatment response, and severity of mental disorders.

More information can be obtained through the NIMH funding page and in the NIH Guide to Grants and Contracts.

David Lewis of the University of Pittsburgh, and a member of NARSAD’s scientific council, gave a brief overview of NARSAD: The Mental Health Research Association (also parent of Schizophrenia Research Forum). NARSAD was founded to fund research into schizophrenia and affective disorders but has since expanded its scope to include all mental health. “The association obtains its funds from private donors and 100 percent goes to research,” said Lewis.

NARSAD funds any principal investigator, worldwide, who is studying basic or clinical research. Evaluation of grant applications is based on several critical elements, including the quality of science, the innovative nature of the project, the promise of the investigator in the case of junior applicants, and past productivity in the case of senior awardees.

The award process is very similar to the NIH, said Lewis. Reviews are conducted by a scientific council chosen by the track record of its members. The council makes recommendations to program chairs, who in turn recommend applications to the NARSAD board.

NARSAD has four types of awards:

  • Young Investigator Award—up to $30,000 per year for 2 years. Intended for advanced postdoctoral fellows or assistant professors with an on-site mentor.
  • Independent Investigator Award—up to $50,000 per year for 2 years. Intended for associate professors or equivalent, who have won national competitive support as principal investigators.
  • Distinguished Investigator Award—up to $100,000 for 1 year. Intended for established scientists at the rank of full professor or equivalent.
  • Staglin Family Music Festival NARSAD Schizophrenia Research Award—$250,000 for 3 years. Only one of these is awarded each year to a researcher in the early stages of an independent scientific career, who has an appointment at the assistant or associate professor level, and who is no more than 45 years old at the time of application.

Success rates for the first three are 26, 17, and 13 percent, respectively (based on 2006 data). More information on NARSAD awards and the application process can be found at the NARSAD website.

During the Q&A period, one foreign attendee asked about support for non-U.S. researchers. NARSAD is equally willing to fund research in non-U.S. institutions, said Lewis. However, to have a chance at NIH funding, foreign researchers need to set up collaborations with U.S. researchers, said Winsky.—Tom Fagan and Hakon Heimer.

Comments on News and Primary Papers
Comment by:  Steven Erickson
Submitted 27 October 2006 Posted 27 October 2006

This all may be true, but the dramatic decrease in K...  Read more

View all comments by Steven Erickson
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