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Friday, October 24, 2014

NIH Group Analyzes Grant Processes at Other U.S. Agencies and in the United Kingdom

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Scientific Management and Review Board (SMRB) on October 14 heard descriptions of the grant processes at other U.S. federal research agencies and at two funding organizations based in the United Kingdom.

Charged with providing guidance to the NIH Director on the organization of the NIH and the implementation of its funding portfolio, a SMRB Working Group since May has explored ways to streamline the grant review, award, and management process. Previous sessions featured presenters from NIH's Office of Extramural Research, the Center for Scientific Review, several NIH institutes and centers; and academic researchers with extensive service on peer review panels.

Sonny Ramaswamy, PhD, Director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) presented an overview of the grant-making arm of the agency and the average timelines for applications and awards. He said that the agency was struggling to find ways to shorten its process, which takes approximately 25 to 38 weeks on average. Dr. Ramaswamy flagged USDA's reliance on Requests for Applications (RFAs) or "solicited research" as a key difference between the NIH and USDA granting process, which adds approximately 14 to 16 weeks to the timeline to develop and announce the funding opportunity. Another key difference is that most USDA grants provide one year of funding, with some providing two years; NIH grants typically provide three to five years of support.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) grant review and award process, and potential expediting strategies, were discussed by the agency's Joanne Tornow, PhD, Deputy Assistant Director for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences. She stated that 94 percent of NSF's FY 2013 budget went to extramural research. Of the 48,999 proposals received, the agency funded 10,829 new awards. Approximately three-quarters of all proposals are processed within six months of receipt, with potential bottlenecks caused by difficulty identifying reviewers, additional steps in the review process (e.g., site visit, review by the Director's Review Board or by the National Science Board, etc.), missing documentation, the agency processing a large volume of applications, or the uncertain status of the federal budget. Dr. Tornow noted that NSF has several pilot projects underway to test changes to specific aspects of the peer review process. These include virtual review panels and use of shorter preliminary proposals to reduce the number of full applications that need review.

Representatives of the U.K.'s Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council also described their grant processes. Both models incorporate face-to-face interviews with applicants in addition to written reviews.

Alyson Fox, PhD, Wellcome's Head of Grants Management, briefly described the application and review process for both its Investigator Awards, which are equivalent to the NIH R01 grant, and Intermediate Fellowships for postdoctoral scholars. Both processes take approximately 18 weeks with external reviewers engaged only after staff determine applications to be "shortlisted" for further review. During questions and answers, it appeared that this process would not be scalable to NIH, since Wellcome reviews only 160 to 180 applications per cycle for the Investigator Awards and 220 to 250 preliminary applications for the Intermediate Fellowship program.

Declan Mulkeen, PhD, Chief Science Officer for the Medical Research Council briefly described the approximately six month review process by which it funds 350 to 400 individual awards per year. Dr. Mulkeen noted that the process had been reduced from nine to 12 months by implementing shorter application forms and eliminating post-review resubmissions.
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