For members, by members

The public affairs committee engages with NIH and NSF

Published October 01 2017

Two messages came out of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Public Affairs Advisory Committee’s 2017 meetings with leaders at the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. First, at the highest levels, the NIH and NSF value and support basic research. Second, NIH and NSF leaders have some advice for investigators who are crafting proposals.

Advocating for you

Each year, the ASBMB PAAC joins with trainees from around the country to take your message directly to Congress. This year, in 100 meetings across Capitol Hill, we advocated for robust, sustained and increased federal funding of biomedical research. But we didn’t stop there; PAAC members engaged directly with the federal agencies that fund ASBMB members. In meetings at the NSF and at seven NIH institutes and centers, or ICs, PAAC members posed questions to NSF leadership and NIH IC directors and their staffs. These questions, of interest to the members of the ASBMB and developed by PAAC members, examined the details of policies and initiatives the NIH and NSF are taking to ensure robust support for basic research. We also voiced our commitment to the principle that advocacy is a two-way street; thus, we paired our questions to the funding agencies with our broad and strong support for their missions and continued success.

Basic research — value and support

Heading to meet with the agencies, we were concerned that recent pushes to prioritize translational research, such as the Precision Medicine Initiative and the Cancer Moonshot, would come at the expense of basic research. Yet in talking with NIH and NSF leaders, we found that support for basic research is strong and pervasive. George Mensah, senior adviser at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Center for Translation Research and Implementation Science, said, “Without fundamental discoveries, there would be nothing to translate.”

The multifaceted support for discovery research is emphasized by a range of funding strategies. The National Institute of General Medical Sciences recently announced technology development R01 and R21 proposals (PAR-17-045 and PAR-17-046) that are examples of this support. These awards provide protected space for development of new technologies for which a proof of principle exists yet significant technical hurdles remain. NIH leaders also emphasized that basic research and translational research move forward together, a prime example being the bench-to-bassinet effort linking basic research into cardiovascular development and pediatric cardiovascular genomics to the Pediatric Heart Network. Results from basic cardiovascular research address questions pursued by the Pediatric Heart Network, which in turn provides results that guide basic biomedical researchers in further studies.

Grants: a view from the other side

What should investigators do in times of tough budgetary challenges filled with continuing resolutions and stagnant funding? We’re all familiar with the first stage of the grant process, the endless hours of writing, shaping and honing the proposal. NIH and NSF leaders provided advice to investigators for what you can do prior to submission to set your grant on the best footing.

NIH leaders highlighted program announcements with funds set aside as a strategy for investigators to target in a tough funding environment. To find these opportunities, look for program announcements with a “PAS” prefix, as these have money allocated to the program. One such example is PAS-15-029, a program with $5 million set aside for basic research.

Members of the Public Affairs Advisory Committee met with leaders at the federal agencies that fund ASBMB members, including the National Institutes of Health. National Institutes of health photo

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke leaders encouraged investigators to write their grants for the research that the investigator wants to do, not the grant the investigator thinks that the NIH and NINDS want to see. If there is no direct disease link and the research is strictly basic neuroscience, so-called “basic/basic,” the NINDS suggests that investigators should not try to shoehorn in a disease link, as this results in lower success rates compared with basic/basic grants.

Similarly, NHLBI leaders urged investigators not to get too cutesy with naming of grant applications. Rather, applicants should remember that some award details, such as titles, are public and that legislators may not understand or may misinterpret names that aim to be clever. Grant titles should be written to encompass the whole story at a low level of scientific literacy.

In response to a question regarding perceptions in the research community of low success rates for resubmissions at the NSF, program officers advised that principal investigators use a short section of the project description to address reviews of previous submissions in a direct yet positive manner. This approach, combined with discussions with your program director, can help you avoid the pingpong effect in which sequential reviews appear to direct principal investigators in different directions.

Marching onward

As ASBMB members keep pushing the limits of science, the PAAC will continue pushing to keeping science funding in the conversation and to advocate on behalf of ASBMB members for increased and sustained basic research funding. As the PAAC fights for research funding policies that maximize opportunities for ASBMB members, you can stay tuned to the ASBMB Policy Blotter for advocacy news and resources. PAAC visits to the NIH and NSF are a key part of these advocacy efforts, and we encourage you to join us by participating in the ASBMB Grassroots Advocacy Network.

Get involved today, make your voice heard, and help shape the conversation.

Photo of Rick Page Rick Page is an assistant professor in the chemistry and biochemistry department at Miami University. Follow him on Twitter.