On April 24 and 25, 2023, NIAMS Extramural program staff, Institute leadership, and other members attended the first scientific planning retreat under Dr. Criswell’s leadership. The retreat was structured such that presentations were minimal and most of the time was reserved for discussion.
The agenda was organized as follows:
- Session 1: How to support science - How to use NIAMS funds for greatest impact?
- How do we use NIAMS funds for greatest impact?
- How do we make funding decisions?
- How do we assess impact and set priorities?
- Session 2: Learn from successes - Partnerships
- What can we learn from our successes?
- Which partnerships are crucial to making the most of our resources?
- Session 3: How to better support investigators?
- Session 4: What are NIAMS values and its reputation?
Session 1: How to support science - How to use NIAMS funds for greatest impact?
How do we use NIAMS funds for greatest impact?
The first session of the retreat focused on the Institute’s guiding principles for funding and ways it can best support all investigators.
NIAMS is committed to advancing scientific knowledge and improving public health by funding research of all types that is central to the Institute’s mission. In addition to maintaining a balance of support for the broad range of diseases within the NIAMS mission, NIAMS also must support a balance of basic, translational, and clinical research; interdisciplinary team science and individual grants using the R01 mechanism; and independent research grants and training and career development programs.
As NIAMS continues to consider all possibilities to balance support for diverse topics and various types of projects, staff will review gaps, unmet needs, and underserved areas in each of their programs. Furthermore, NIAMS will consider ways to leverage NIH programs and funding opportunities to advance priorities such as broadening workforce diversity and advancing investigators’ transition to research independence.
Collaboration was a common value stated throughout this session and throughout the retreat. NIAMS also continues to value early-career investigators including recipients of its mentored career development awards. Communication is another priority, with staff maintaining open communication with applicants and providing fair and equitable access to all investigators.
How do we make funding decisions?
At the retreat, the group discussed the merits of setting a strict published payline with few select pays, a lower payline with more flexibility in select pay, or no payline at all. As part of that discussion, the group considered how select pay is used across NIH and how it has been used at NIAMS in the past. All participants agreed that regardless of what decisions NIAMS makes related to making funding decisions, communicating NIAMS funding policies clearly to investigators and other interested stakeholders is essential.
How do we assess impact and set priorities?
Portfolio analysis can reveal how an application fits into what NIAMS already supports and its relationship to stated scientific priorities. Staff can identify research gaps, needs, and opportunities by looking at publications and outputs, performing portfolio analysis, and attending conferences to stay updated. Other strategies include hosting roundtables, publishing Requests for Information, and holding discussions with the NIAMS Advisory Council.
Success has many definitions. For example, it could mean whether an individual project proved or disproved a hypothesis, the contribution of a researcher’s body of work to the field or a health outcome, the number of investigators or projects supported by NIAMS, the ability of a training program to make a difference in a recipient’s career trajectory, or whether NIAMS or the NIH was able to administratively structure a new program and successfully award meritorious applications. Toward the end of the session, the conversation turned to the importance of time; decades may be needed to appreciate the impact of an investment.
Conversations of how to measure success and assess impact also included different measures of success such as the number or relative citation ratio (RCR) of scientific publications; academic promotions, awards received, committee service, students and fellows trained, subsequent grant support of a principal investigator (PI); patents or small business licenses obtained; completion of relevant clinical trials; changes in clinical practice/clinical guidelines; or qualitative measures (e.g., expert review). Based on the premise that diverse portfolios are more impactful, staff also discussed the importance of geographic diversity of awardee institutions, awards to minority serving institutions, awards to applicants with less prestigious reputations, and grants to investigators at various career stages.
Session 2: Learn from successes - Partnerships
Part 1: What can we learn from our successes?
For this discussion, success could be interpreted to mean successful changes to clinical practice or programmatic successes that are allowing researchers to be more efficient or effective. However, NIAMS is authorized by the Public Health Service Act, and public health drives its mission. Therefore, discoveries that contribute to improving people’s lives are always the end goal, keeping in mind that predicting which project will lead to the next big breakthrough is impossible and decades may pass while discoveries are translated to health outcomes.
Meetings were identified as key for identifying topics that are ripe for the initiation of projects that become successful. NIAMS staff attend meetings where they identify emerging topics, and the NIH can convene meetings, often in partnership with scientific communities, to identify gaps and opportunities.
Patients provide a crucial perspective when attempting to address clinical issues and should be included in discussions whenever possible.
Successful partnerships build on common goals and must be mutually beneficial. There has been at least one example where NIAMS wanted to partner with others on an activity but could not because the amount of funds the Institute was willing to contribute was not sufficient to interest the other partners.
Extramural partnerships in the form of Cooperative Agreements were viewed as having more flexibilities than earlier partnerships that took the form of contracts.
Public perception can be an issue when NIAMS is leading large projects supported by funds from other sources. Care must be taken to emphasize that such partnerships are a way to “grow the pie” and are not taking funds away from the Institute’s ability to support individual investigators.
Part 2: Which partnerships are crucial to making the most of our resources?
Building on the above point about “growing the pie,” several initiatives have helped the Institute to procure extra funds and enabled it to stretch its budget and fund as many investigators as possible. Some partnerships have required NIAMS to play an active role in administering the grants, thus requiring an allocation of staff time beyond funds, while others have required minimal staff time and very little (or no) funds from NIAMS.
Partnerships have several advantages. Not only can they increase funds for the Institute, but they can also help develop relationships with staff from other Institutes and Centers and provide NIAMS with an opportunity to represent the Institute’s mission in NIH initiatives. At the same time, they have drawbacks such as increasing the workload of program directors; care must be taken to ensure that the added work does not affect their abilities to manage their NIAMS-specific scientific portfolios. In addition to adding to program directors’ responsibilities, partnerships can require additional staff time from Scientific Review Officers, Grants Management staff, and others who support these initiatives.
Small group discussions focused on a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis of partnerships. Factors to consider before engaging in a partnership include source of funding, relevance to NIAMS mission, common goals and shared interest, and impact on workload. Some indicated that NIAMS should probably be selective and only sign on to initiatives that are relevant to the NIAMS mission, yet others noted that participating in initiatives that are not directly related to NIAMS scientific mission have benefited the Institute by bringing attention to and providing support for the Institute’s scientific areas.
While people may disagree on the details, there was a unanimous agreement that NIAMS is interested in pursuing partnerships.
Session 3: How to better support investigators?
Much of the discussion focused on training the next generation of scientists and supporting a balanced workforce. Participants noted that setting a balance between the largest NIH funding mechanism— R01 Research Project Grant—and the different training and career development awards and funding for vulnerable investigators requires professional judgment at the Institute level. In addition to discussing strategies to use when making select pay decisions, program directors and others indicated a need to explore other resources, information, and programs that could contribute to a robust workforce.
The topic of mentoring generated enthusiasm. One suggestion was to work with professional societies that provide lists of investigators who are willing to serve as mentors to broadly advertise the availability of such resources.
Communication was another recurring theme. Because investigators interact with many individuals across the NIH, NIAMS could think more broadly about how staff collaborate with trainees and investigators. Several Institutes, Centers, and Offices maintain rich resources to which NIAMS staff can refer applicants (e.g., NIAID, NCI, the Office of Intramural Training and Education).
Session 4: What are NIAMS values and its reputation?
When staff were asked to describe what NIAMS is known for, responses clustered around the following themes:
- Many mentioned that NIAMS is collaborative. NIAMS has a reputation of being a good team player. NIAMS staff are helpful and friendly.
- In line with the capacity to be collaborative, NIAMS staff are considered responsive to requests and emails from principal investigators and others. Staff are accessible, approachable, tactful, and clear.
- Historically, NIAMS has been known within the NIH to be one of the Institutes and Centers that relies heavily on study section-derived percentiles to identify the best science for funding. It historically has offered few initiatives with set-asides funds, and the Institute is looking for ways to emphasize priority areas going forward.
- NIAMS has a low budget relative to the impact of diseases and conditions within its mission.
- NIAMS also has the reputation of a good steward that acts with integrity. NIAMS is committed to its mission and the research it supports. It follows policy and is transparent in its decisions. NIAMS has consistent messaging across programs. Staff read progress reports and review applications fairly.