Why bridging funds are critical in today’s funding environment
By Clay Clark – @biochemprof
I’ve just returned from study section in Washington, D.C., where I and twenty-two other scientists met to review grants submitted to the National Institutes of Health. As a bit of background into the process, I receive the grants about six weeks before the meeting, and I spend countless hours reading and critiquing the grants. A grant proposal receives a score based on several criteria and is given an overall impact score between 1 (high impact) and 9 (low impact).
Based on the initial scores from three reviewers, the top half of the grant proposals are discussed by the study section. Following a summary of the proposal by the three reviewers, and questions by the panel, the proposal receives a score from each panel member. The proposals are then ranked against other grants in the study section and given a percentile score. Confusing? I invite you to read a thorough description of the review process here. NIH also has a series of videos that explain the process.
One conclusion that I’ve come to over the almost six years of reviewing grants for NIH is that universities should give serious consideration to bridging funds. I’ll define “bridging funds” as money supplied to a researcher when his grant did not get funded or renewed, so long as the researcher is productive and is attempting to get the grant funded or renewed.
As the budget at NIH has decreased in the past few years due to budget cuts, the scores in some study sections have become increasing compressed. This means that the top half of the proposals may have an overall score of three to four (out of nine). DrugMonkey blogged about the problems in score compression last year, so I refer you to that discussion. In a recent blog, Judith Greenberg, acting director of NIGMS, shows that over the past four years, the success rate for R01 applications decreased from 33% to 24%. This “success rate” is defined as the percentage of reviewed grants that received funding. Although grants in the top 50% will be discussed by a study section, only a few of those grants will be funded by NIH administration, even though the reviewers agree that many of the proposals are quite strong.
A timeline of the process would probably help, and I’ll use my own lab as an example. Currently I have five graduate students, one post-doctoral associate, and three undergraduate students in my lab. If my current NIH grant ends in June of next year (2013), then I’ll need to submit a proposal in October of this year (2012) as a renewal of my current grant. In a recent blog, I discussed grant renewals and the need for remaking oneself every four-to-five years, so I won’t talk about that aspect of the process here. The grant that I submit in October of this year would be reviewed in February of next year (2013) by a panel similar to the one I’ve described above. If it receives a very good score, that is, a score deemed “fundable,” then I would have continued funding when my current grant ends in June of 2013.
Hopefully you see the problem with this scenario. NIH study sections discuss the proposals with scores in the top fifty percent, but NIH administration funds proposals in the top twenty percent, or so. This means that many grants are deemed worthy of discussion by the study section but are not funded by the administration. Researchers with unfunded grants will have to resubmit their proposal in the next round, typically six months from the initial submission. The researcher will examine the critiques, collect additional data, if required, and adjust the proposal accordingly before resubmitting.
Again using the example of my lab, if my grant is not funded during the first review, then I’m screwed. Well, not me per se, but the people in my lab. My five graduate students, one post-doctoral associate and three undergraduates may be out of work. You may see them standing on a street corner with a sign that reads, “Will pipette for food”, so please be kind to them. Their salaries and tuition/fees (for graduate students) depend on my grant getting renewed.
This is where the bridging funds are important. How can I pay salaries for my students and post-doc when there is a gap in funding? By the time I resubmit my grant, and if it receives a better score the second time, and if it’s funded, then I’ve had a gap of several months between the end of my current grant and the start of the funded proposal.
Should I call it a day? Forget about research and just enjoy working a normal 40-hour week until I retire? Should I fire all of my students and my post-doc? Sell all of my equipment on ebay? Hell no. A big part of getting funded is being persistent, especially when current funding levels are so low.
The university should invest in the research programs of investigators with lapsed funding so long as the investigator tries to get the grant renewed. Again using my lab as an example, if the university provides $100,000 in bridging funds to keep my students employed while I resubmit my proposal, then the payoff is worth it. The bridging funds allow me to collect more data, maintain productivity, and address questions raised by the reviewers. Importantly, the bridging funds keep people employed. A research proposal funded by NIH is likely worth more than one million dollars over the life of the grant. At NCSU, current indirect costs charged to an NIH grant are set at 49%. This means that the university receives between $350,000 and $500,000, depending on the amount of equipment purchased and a few other parameters, for each NCSU investigator with a funded R01 grant. So, the bridging funds are a good investment by the university. The funds provided by the university during a funding gap ensure that the lab is productive and continues to collect critical preliminary data to address critiques provided by the NIH reviewers.
It’s not hard to envision how this can be accomplished. Use the indirect costs (AKA overhead receipts) provided by the funding agencies. Set up a fund from which investigators can draw during the funding gap. The pool of funds can be replenished by the new overhead receipts once the grant is renewed. It’s a gamble, but it will pay off by reinvigorating research programs.
In our current system in the Life Sciences (part of the college of agriculture and life sciences, CALS), the researcher would ask for bridging funds by first going to the head of the department, who then negotiates with the Dean of the College and/or the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs (who provides money for teaching assistantships) and the Associate Dean for the NC Agricultural Research Station (NCARS), who provides research funding.
While the college has done an admirable job of providing bridging funds when possible, the investigator is left to feel like a pariah. Caught in the middle and unappreciated.
Where’s the buy-in from the university? From the provost to the dean of research to the dean of CALS to the department head, each level of the bureaucracy takes part of the overhead receipts from a grant. Why, then, is it left to the college to provide bridging funds? Why is the researcher left to feel like a failure?
The university should recognize that bridging funds are an investment in productive and successful faculty researchers and set up a mechanism for researchers to keep their personnel employed as they struggle to get grants renewed. It’s a good business model, and it makes sense, especially in the current funding environment.