Issue 18 (October 6)


Congresswoman Johnson Defends NSF’s Merit Review Process

Last week, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Ranking Member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, released a letter penned to Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) expressing concern over the chairman’s ongoing “investigation” into the merit review process at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and criticism of individual grants funded by NSF. Her letter comes as Chairman Smith has issued a third request in 18 months for NSF to provide the Committee with confidential, pre-decisional merit review documents for 30 additional grants; Smith has previously asked for documentation on a group of five grants and a second group of 20 grants earlier this year.

In her letter to the Chairman, Johnson states, “The plain truth is that there are no credible allegations of waste, fraud, or abuse associated with these [awards]. The only issue with them appears to be that you, personally, think that the grants sound wasteful based on your understanding of their titles and purpose.”

Also last week, Johnson posted online for public consumption all of the correspondence between Chairman Smith and NSF regarding the grants in question.

Back to this issue’s table of contents.

White House Hosts Conference on BRAIN Initiative

On September 30, the White House hosted a conference on President Obama’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative. The Initiative is a large-scale effort to provide researchers with important insights to treat a variety of disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and traumatic brain injury, among others. Four agencies, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), have together committed more than $110 million to the Initiative in FY 2014 (see Update, April 7, 2014, pg. 26). (more…)

NIH Council of Councils Discusses Stable Support for Investigators

At the September meeting of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Council of Councils, NIH Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak provided an update of the agency’s activities, including an update on the agency’s efforts to pilot “longer-term, stable support” for NIH investigators. (more…)

NIGMS Advisory Council Approves New Grant Mechanism, Discusses Reproducibility

At the September meeting of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) Advisory Council, director Jon Lorsch provided an update on a number of issues, including the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) data reproducibility efforts, the NIGMS strategic planning process, and an overview of the impacts of the previous NIH budget-doubling period “on the biomedical research ecosystem.” In addition, the Council approved the Institute’s concept clearance to create the new Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA), clearing the way for NIGMS to proceed.


Lorsch noted that reproducibility is not a single issue but an issue of reproducibility of data, generalizability of conclusions, and the correctness and strength of the conclusions. According to the director, NIGMS has been leading the NIH effort around “exportable” training in this area. That effort includes training modules that will be available online, widely accessible, and free for use by any program. The topics of the modules will be in a wide range of areas and include the spectrum of issues that might impact the general area of reproducibility. Noting that the funding opportunity announcement, Training Modules to Enhance Data Reproducibility, RFA-GM-15-006, had been released, Lorsch reported that nine of the 27 NIH institutes and centers signed on and are funding additional training modules (see Update, September 8, 2014). The additional funding will allow the NIH to support up to 21 awards.

NIH Budget at a Crossroads

Pointing out that the doubling of the NIH budget, which ended a decade ago, dramatically changed the NIH ecosystem, Lorsch emphasized that the system has not recalibrated. Prior to the doubling of the NIH’s budget, the paylines were better than they are today, he stated, and emphasized the resulting paradigm shift where there are more investigators that are fully supported by the NIH. The problem is the way that science has been funded and the changes that have occurred over the past couple of decades, he explained.

According to Lorsch, the NIH could continue on the path it has been on the last few years and hope that things begin to work again. Or it could make a major course correction and seek more optimal ways of doing things. To this end, NIGMS is beginning to seek “new and more effective paths” to advance its mission. Affecting the Institute’s ability to do this is the issue of how to fund biomedical research, Lorsch explained. He pointed out that currently the primary way that the NIH funds research is by funding specific projects where it asks investigators to predict four years into the future what they will do and “define it in very precise ways.” In his view, this leads to inefficiencies which affect the ability to make progress and does not reflect the way science really works. NIGMS would like to give researchers more freedom from those restraints, which Lorsch believes will lead to better science in the end. Currently, the system also allows people to submit as many grant applications as they want and consequently spend a significant amount of their time writing new grant applications. Several of the institutes are developing similar awards (see related story).

Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA)

It is these two issues the NIGMS would like to address and which led it to propose MIRA. The program’s goal is to enhance the willingness to take on scientifically ambitious problems, which the current funding system with its project-based emphasis discourages, causing people to become more conservative. NIGMS, Lorsch explained, would like to increase the availability and flexibility of investigators to go in other directions as the opportunities may arise. In addition, NIGMS would like to reduce the writing of grant applications. The feedback from the Institute’s request for information (RFI) was robust and the Institute received “many good ideas” for improvement, he noted.

As proposed, MIRA would be a single award in support of all NIGMS-relevant research in an investigator’s lab and would preclude receipt of other NIGMS funding except for research resources, training, workforce development, diversity building, clinical trials, SBIR/STTRs, and conference grants. The award would be a five-year renewable award that is longer and larger than NIGMS’ current average investigator-initiated (R01) award. Investigators would be expected to commit at least 50 percent research effort, excluding teaching, clinical, and administrative duties. Revision applications, however, to allow new collaborative work would be allowed. The Institute expects that in most cases renewal applications will be funded at the same level or with an increase or decrease, rather than an abrupt termination. NIGMS also expects that success rates will be higher than for R01 applications because fewer applications will be submitted per investigator.

The MIRA concept clearance was approved by the Council. For established principal investigators, it would provide $40 million in direct costs and $60 million in total costs. NIGMS could fund up to 100 awards with an average cost of approximately $400,000 in direct costs each. This assumes that all eligible established PIs compete and all of their current funding is reprogrammed to MIRA. For Early Stage Investigators (ESIs), NIGMS support for MIRA would cost $17 million in direct costs and $26 million in total costs, funding up to 75 awards at an average cost each of $250,000 in direct costs. Similarly, this assumes that all R01 funds awarded to ESIs are reprogrammed as MIRA awards.

In implementing MIRA, the Institute’s goal is to generate a “moderate” number of applications to test the application and review concepts. The pilot phase, with limited eligibility, is expected to have a neutral impact on NIGMS’ research project grant budget. The Institute plans to have separate funding opportunity announcements, review panels, and review criteria for established PIs and ESIs. The applications will be reviewed by special emphasis panels organized by NIGMS’ Office of Scientific Review. The award of MIRA will coincide with relinquishment of current NIGMS support.

New NIGMS Strategic Plan

The other overarching area that the Institute is focusing on is its general strategic direction. Accordingly, NIGMS is undergoing a strategic planning process. While the RFI seeking the extramural community’s input closed on September 26, Lorsch announced that a stakeholders meeting for professional societies associated with NIGMS is being planned for October 15th. Additional information about the process is available on NIGMS’ website.

NIH Center for Scientific Review to Host Peer Review Webinars for New Grant Applicants

In early November, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Center for Scientific Review (CSR) plans to host four Meet the Experts in NIH Peer Review webinars designed to provide new NIH grant applicants and other interested individuals with valuable insights into the submission and review processes. CSR is NIH’s gateway for grant applications and their review for scientific merit. It organizes the peer review groups, or study sections, that evaluate the majority of the research grant applications sent to the agency.

The webinars will address the various types of grant mechanisms supported by NIH: Academic Research Enhancement Awards (R15), Fellowship Awards, Small Business Grants (SBIR/STTR), and Research Project Grants also known as investigator-initiated awards (R01).

All of the webinar presentations will be given by CSR/NIH experts and will cover the following topics: the initial review of grant applications; application receipt and referral; how applications are reviewed; key aspects of the various types of applications; and information on the CSR’s Early Career Reviewer Program.

Back to this issue’s table of contents.

NSF Seeks Nominations for Waterman Award

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is accepting nominations until October 24 for the 2015 Alan T. Waterman Award. The Waterman Award is given annually “in recognition of the talent, creativity, and influence of a singular young researcher;” nominations are accepted for researchers from all fields of science supported by NSF. Among the requirements, candidates must be 35 years of age or younger or be not more than seven years beyond receipt of his/her Ph.D.

Back to this issue’s table of contents.

Agriculture Census Highlights Organic Farms

The National Agricultural Statistical Service (NASS) released findings from the 2012 Census of Agriculture’s Special Organics Tabulation illustrating some key differences between organic and conventional farms. Forty-two percent of organic farms sell directly to consumers, compared with only 7 percent of all U.S. farms. Organic farms are also more likely to participate in non-traditional markets, such as marketing directly to retail outlets, producing value-added products, or distributing products through farm-shares or CSAs (community-supported agriculture). Organic farms also invest more in renewable energy production. More on the Census is available on the NASS website.

Back to this issue’s table of contents.

Roundtable on Health Literacy Seeks Nominations for New Members

The Institute of Medicine Roundtable on Health Literacy is seeking nominations for new members. Specifically, it is seeking health literacy experts from a variety of fields including nursing, pediatrics, pharmacy, primary care, public or population health, research, and transformative technologies.

The Roundtable was established in 2005 to build upon the work of the IOM consensus report, Health Literacy: A Prescription to End Confusion. It is composed of leaders from academia, industry, government, foundations and associations, and representatives of patient and consumer interests who have an interest and role in improving health literacy. The Roundtable’s mission is to inform, inspire, and activate a wide variety of stakeholders to support, develop, implement, and share evidence-based health literacy practices and policies to improve the health and well-being of all people. Accordingly, the Roundtable convenes workshops and symposia to discuss specific topics related to its mission and vision.

Nominations should be sent to Lyla Hernandez at by October 13, 2014. Nomination information should include the name, expertise, and basic contact information.

Back to this issue’s table of contents.

Henry and Bryna David Lecturer Proposes “International Climate Club”

Economist William D. Nordhaus delivered the 2014 Henry and Bryna David Lecture at the National Academy of Sciences on October 2. Nordhaus is the Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale University and will chair the Boston Federal Reserve Bank for 2014-2015. The topic of his lecture was “Climate Clubs: How to prevent free-riding in international environmental agreements.” (more…)

Psychosocial and Behavioral Aspects of Bariatric Surgery

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) is seeking applications designed to measure psychosocial and behavioral variables in individuals undergoing bariatric surgery to understand how they predict success and risk and examine mechanisms of behavior change. The funding opportunity announcement, Psychosocial and Behavioral Aspects of Bariatric Surgery (RFA-DK-14-026), responds to the dramatic increase in the number of bariatric surgeries performed in the U.S. over the last decade, including those performed on adolescents. (more…)

AERA to Host 11th “Brown Lecture in Education Research” — October 23

The American Educational Research Association (AERA), a COSSA Governing Member, will be hosting the 11th Annual Brown Lecture in Education Research on October 23 in Washington, DC. This year’s lecture, “A Long Shadow: The American Pursuit of Political Justice and Education Equality,” presented by James D. Anderson of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, will observe the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. The annual lecture highlights the important role research plays in broadening understanding of education equality. You may register to attend the lecture here.

Back to this issue’s table of contents.

CASBS and SSRC to Host 2014 Behavioral and Social Science Summit—November 8

The Center for Advanced Study in the behavioral Sciences at Stanford University (CASBS) with the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), both COSSA members, will host the 2014 Behavioral and Social Science Summit on November 8 at Stanford University. This year’s summit, “The City,” will feature social and behavioral scientists speaking about “the best means and policies for improving the urban experience.” The list of speakers and discussion topics, as well as registration information can be found on the summit website.

Back to this issue’s table of contents.


Past Newsletters



Browse 40 years of the COSSA Washington Update.