On August 20th, NIH published NOT-OD-12-140, which announces a new Special Council Review policy as a step toward more effectively managing extramural research support.
A key fact behind the perceived need for this new policy is that NIH support from Congress has been relatively flat for nearly a decade – with no signs of that changing in the near future – and thus their buying power for awards is shrinking. At various meetings and presentations over the past year, Dr. Sally Rockey, NIH’s Deputy Director for Extramural Research, has been discussing the need for some tough decision-making with regards to how to “continue to fund outstanding biomedical research during austere times” (Rock Talk blog). Among the ideas described, is the Special Council Review (SCR) for particularly well-funded investigators.
The details of this new review procedure have altered slightly over time as the folks at NIH collected public input on their ideas. The threshold for triggering SCR has been reduced from $1.5 million in total award costs per year to $1 million in direct costs per year, which better reflects the actual support for scientific work by the investigators by taking institutional indirect costs out of the mix. And, importantly, this new policy does not stipulate a cap on funding. As Dr. Rockey put it in a recent blog post, “the Special Council Review process provides a consistent prompt for the Advisory Council to consider the amount of funds a principle [sic] investigator receives, yet allows each NIH institute and center (IC) to retain enough flexibility to fund the best science in support of their respective missions.”
Only new and renewal applications for investigators currently receiving $1 million or more in direct costs on research project grants will go through special review. Most P01s and other multi-component applications, multiple PI applications, applications in response to RFAs and administrative supplements will be excluded from special review.
This new policy was piloted in May 2012 and is modeled on a review procedure that has been in place in NIGMS previously. As the number of applications for NIH funding continue to increase and the cost of doing research also increases while the NIH budget stays flat or is reduced, clearly decisions have to be made. A number of additional options are on the table for consideration within NIH as additional approaches to effectively managing the NIH research support portfolio, as I’ve described in a prior post and Dr. Rockey has discussed a number of times.