NIH SMRB Working Group Approves Recommendations on Streamlining the NIH Grant Award Process

On July 6, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Scientific Management Review Board (SMRB) Working Group on the NIH Grant Review, Award, and Management Process (GRAMP) approved its draft report of its findings and recommendations on ways to streamline the NIH grant award process.

NIH director Francis Collins charged the Working Group to “recommend ways to further optimize the process of reviewing, awarding, and managing grants in a way that maximizes the time researchers can devote to research while still maintaining proper oversight” without compromising the quality of peer review. To accomplish the charge the working group examined the grant cycle for opportunities for improvement in areas such as writing and submission, receipt and referral, peer review, award decision, award issuance, and award management, among others.

Michael Marietta, Scripps Research Institute and GRAMP chair, presented the working group’s findings and recommendations and described the various scenarios that precipitated the need for an examination of ways the NIH could streamline the NIH grant review, award, and management process. This included the data surrounding the current review process, including the exponential increase in applications submitted to the agency the last two decades (from 31,000 in 1998 to 62,000 in 2014 reflecting 19,000 individual applicants in 1998 to 32,000 in 2011). This surge in applications in turn increased the burden on the peer review system. At the same time, principle investigators over the age of 65 as a percentage of NIH direct costs have increased from 5 percent in 1998 to 12 percent in 2014. As a consequence, the grant success rate NIH-wide has decreased from 25 percent in 1998 to 15 percent in 2014.

Marietta explained that the agency also needs to address other challenges including the time from application to award for any grant may take more than a year; budgetary uncertainty which makes it difficult to make timely decisions resulting in a bottleneck at the end of the fiscal year; and the time investigators spend applying for grants to research projects, leaving less time to conduct research.

The report recommends the following potential strategies to streamline the process:

Writing and Submission

  • Improve the function of Grants.gov. – Grants.gov serves as the federal portal for submitting nearly all NIH grant applications. Applicants find the system cumbersome and incompatible with software and databases used by most research and academic institutions. The working group acknowledged and expressed its support of the NIH Office of Extramural Research’s (OER) efforts to “overcome these difficulties.”
  • Implement a pre-application process. – Citing the fact that a number of funding agencies and organizations employ a pre-application process in which potential applicants submit a brief summary of an application prior to submitting the full application, the Board found that the idea warranted further exploration. It recommends that NIH consider piloting this approach on a broader range of applications beyond the limited scope the agency is currently engaged.
  • Fund investigators, not projects. – Initiatives in which promising investigators received funding based on their overall research program rather than on specific projects minimizes non-research requirements, thus lessening the administrative burden on researchers. The Board recognized and endorsed NIH’s current piloting of awarding longer grants to provide stable support and cited the National Cancer Institute’s Outstand Investigator Award designed to provide long-terms support to investigators who have extraordinary records of cancer research productivity and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences’ (NIGMS) Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA), a single unified grant (See Update, October 6, 2014).
  • Encourage grantee institutions to provide greater input to researchers preparing grant applications. – The sharing of best practices would be beneficial to the entire academic biomedical research community. Conversely, the Board agreed that the sharing of best practices “would be best at the institutional level,” a recognition that there is not a specific role for the NIH in this area.

Receipt and Referral

On average, the receipt and referral process takes two weeks and very few referrals are contested. Accordingly, the Board did not identify particular ways to streamline this step of the process.

Peer Review

  • Increase the pool of potential reviewers. – The SMRB notes that a “substantial number of established investigators are not engaged in peer review for various reasons.” The Board, however, felt that “less-established investigators also have a role in the peer review process…expanding the reviewer pool to include additional early career investigators could both alleviate burden and directly help early stage investigators learn the process by participating in it.” The Board also noted the importance of including more diversity in the reviewer pool to reflect the growing diversity in the research workforce and recommends that “in addition to those with PhDs and medical degrees, … NIH should consider extending review invitations to those with a wider variety of degrees, such as those in dentistry, nursing, veterinary science, and public health.”
  • Streamlining and improving upon peer review meetings. –The Board affirmed the value of in-person meetings, but “strongly encouraged exploration of virtual meeting options, especially among established review groups where many of the participants have had in-person meetings in the past.”
  • Modifying the review cycle. –Currently, both primary peer review and secondary Advisory Council review occur in three cycles per year. The Board briefly considered reducing the number of cycles per year from three to two, but ultimately decided that such a change was unlikely to affect the number of applications NIH received, resulting in greater burden for the two remaining cycles.
  • Implement a continuous submission policy for all grantees. –Noting that the National Science Foundation (NSF) recently piloted a continuous submission policy for one of its programs that unexpectedly resulted in a substantial reduction in the overall number of applications received, the SMRB recommends that “NIH should consider pilot testing an expanded continuous submission policy.”
  • Strategically increase NIH review staff to handle larger volume of applications.

Award Decision

  • Fast track awards for high priority applications.
  • Share best practices for strategies to reduce time to award.
  • Provide partial funding of some grants while awaiting final NIH budget appropriations. – The Board found that instituting a partial funding process early in the fiscal year could be of great benefit to investigators and research institutions. It recommends that NIH devise processes by which partial funding and subsequent full funding could be achieved with minimal administrative burden.

Award Issuance

The Board recommends that NIH evaluate its just-in-time procedures to identify potential mechanisms to enhance efficiencies including modifying existing procedures.

Award Management

During its deliberations, the Board heard from OER regarding the various ways it is working to relieve administrative burden. OER is encouraged to continue to pursue these efforts.

Other Opportunities to Streamline the Grant-making Process

  • Hire efficiency experts to review the granting process.
  • Consider using prize authority to solicit ideas for streamlining the process.
  • Modify NIH’s budget and spending authority. – Noting that the “current appropriations process is not optimal for scientific research,” the Board points out that the NIH “planning and decision making would benefit most from the certainty conferred by multi-year budgets. Ideally, a five-year budget, coinciding with the length of most NIH grants would allow NIH the stability to engage in long-term planning while maintaining requisite flexibility.” Accordingly, the SMRB encourages NIH to “convey the impact of delayed funding on advancing the nation’s medical research priorities to motivate decision-makers to consider solutions to achieve an expanded timeline for NIH spending authority.”

The draft report now goes to the full SMRB for consideration and approval.

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Posted in Issue 13 (July 14), Update, Volume 34 (2015)

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