Research and Funding

Open Letter from the NIA Director to the Research Community

October 25, 2010

In recent months, many of you have expressed increasing concern about the reduced pay line and success rates for aging research at the National Institute on Aging (NIA). I recognize the impact that the situation is having on established researchers as well as on the development of younger scientists for the field. I also understand the implications for research at a time when the population is aging, and when studies addressing the problems of aging are critical to individuals and to society. We at NIA recognize and empathize with the struggle that our constrained funding creates for the research community, and feel that it is vital that we do everything we can to sustain the momentum of investigator-generated research in this successful and vibrant field, as we continue to make a difference in health and well-being in later life.

NIA staff and I have had numerous contacts with individuals and organizations about this extraordinary problem. Because we cannot meet with everyone personally, I offer this open statement to explain the circumstances surrounding the current pay line and outline our intensive efforts to open up opportunities for aging research.

In recent years, NIA has faced a collection of circumstances pressuring the Institute’s pay line and success rates. In common with other NIH institutes, we have seen our numbers of new and competing awards fall as biomedical inflation has surpassed limited increases in appropriations. At the same time, NIA has recently seen a rise in the number and average cost of applications submitted. While a welcome sign of increasing interest in aging research, the surge in applications has put additional pressure on our success rate and funding line. Increasing maturity of the field has significantly improved the performance of NIA-assigned applications in review, resulting in a higher proportion of applications with outstanding scores eligible for funding. That maturity, too, has resulted in more applications for clinical trials based on findings from basic and translational research. The interest in conducting many of these trials is high, as can be their expense, also contributing to reduced ability to fund new and competing awards.

In the last few years, we have worked diligently and creatively to balance a number of funding priorities to make as many highly meritorious awards as possible. Since 2004, NIA has made competing awards at an average 18 percent below recommended costs. In 2007, the Institute limited costs of program project applications and in 2008 established new procedures, including use of an Advisory Panel of experts for clinical trials in geriatrics, to advise on the state of research and on public health need in order to help evaluate proposals for such clinical trials. More details on how and when the advice of this panel is sought are available elsewhere on this site.

While we do not have our final FY 2011 appropriation, we expect continued austerity, and, consequently, a constrained success rate in 2011. Therefore, additional and important steps, begun this summer, are being implemented now. Among the new measures are: wider use across programs of an Advisory Panel for clinical trials, a new funding policy in FY 2011 that more tightly controls acceptance of requests for applications over $500,000 and limits the total competing dollars awarded to such large grants, the introduction of incentives encouraging investigators to use existing resources more efficiently and extensively, and an emphasis at NIA on partnerships with other organizations to further leverage resources. As these measures are implemented, we have begun to see a difference. For example, NIA recorded an average $30,000 drop in amounts requested on RO1 applications from January 2010 to January 2011 Council rounds. This change is likely the result, at least in part, of the announcement earlier this year of restrictions on large applications.

Moving forward, the Institute also will be working closely with the National Advisory Council on Aging (NACA) to find ways to improve our success rate. At its September 2010 meeting, the Council proposed and passed a motion to conduct a review of the NIA extramural program to evaluate effects of the tight pay line on the field of aging research and to consider ways to improve it. Membership on the review team will include both current and former members of the Council and representation from all four major grant program areas at NIA.

We are considering additional actions as circumstances require, which will be announced as appropriate on the NIA website or in the NIH Guide. The steps already undertaken and the strategies we devise together will function to improve the funding line and success rate in future years and to bring us back into line with those of other Institutes and Centers at NIH. All of these decisions will be taken in the context of continued support for outstanding research that addresses priorities of scientific opportunity and public health need. I assure you of my commitment to this effort and to the continuing vitality and success of research on aging.

Richard J. Hodes, M.D.
Director, National Institute on Aging
National Institutes of Health


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