Supporting the Best Science

Using Priorities to Drive Funding Decisions

Public health needs and scientific discovery continually evolve, and it is critical for research-funding agencies to remain ahead of the curve. As opportunities arise, agencies must be agile enough to re-prioritize funding and channel resources toward newly defined goals. A good example of this is NIH's response to the Zika virus outbreak. In February 2016, as Zika began attracting international attention, several NIH institutes, including the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), issued a funding opportunity designed to accelerate research on the virus and its complications. This rapid funding mechanism enables continuous receipt and review of grant applications and expedites funding for Zika-related projects that do not yet have preliminary data.

The need for flexibility in research funding applies to nonemergency situations, too. NICHD must continue to capitalize on scientific opportunities presented by advances in methods and technology and by potential collaborations with other research institutions. But how do we get there? What approach enables us to fund the best science?

Historically, NICHD has used a "payline" to determine which meritorious grants receive funding. Each submitted application receives a merit-based impact score and/or percentile rank relative to other NIH-reviewed applications. NICHD sets its payline, or funding cutoff point, based on either percentiles or impact scores, depending on the grant mechanism. A payline set at the 10th percentile, for example, would mean funding the top 10 percent of applications that were scored in a given round.

An institute's payline is based on the budget available and the number of grant applications received. As the number of applications increases, assuming that scoring is consistent, the payline may decrease if there are limited funds for new grants. While this approach has helped NICHD fund important research over the years, it does not confer a great degree of flexibility to align our portfolio with scientific opportunity and public health need. As a result, highly scored, innovative science that addresses key areas of opportunity often narrowly misses the payline and does not receive funding.

We think it is time to adopt a slightly different approach.

Over the last year, NICHD has been analyzing its approach to research funding. The central question: How do we support the best science? We have held internal discussions and sought input from external groups, including our advisory council. After careful consideration, we have come to a consensus that to support the best science, NICHD must enhance its flexibility to better address scientific and public health priorities.

As a result, each branch in NICHD's extramural division has worked diligently to identify research gaps and outline research priorities informed by the NICHD's Scientific Vision and current assessments of the portfolio. These gaps and priorities, which are posted on our branch websites, emphasize research areas that we want to stimulate and grow. Going forward, NICHD will have flexibility to fund projects that best align with these priorities, such as those that address a notable gap or are responsive to a stated public health emergency.

This new flexibility means that we will no longer adhere to a strict payline for the R01, R03, R13, R15, and R21 grant mechanisms. We will, however, continue to use a payline approach for other grant mechanisms, such as those for training, career development, and small businesses.

It is important to note that while we have modified our approach to research funding, the NICHD mission remains the same. We will continue to welcome, encourage, and support investigator-initiated applications that help advance our mission goals. These grants represent the lifeblood of our research enterprise. By increasing our emphasis on strategic research priorities, we are confident that NICHD will be more nimble and better equipped to respond to evolving scientific opportunities and public health needs.

Originally posted: 08/29/16

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