NINDS's Building Up the Nerve

Episode 12: Managing the NINDS Portfolio

March 20, 2020 NINDS Season 1 Episode 12
Episode 12: Managing the NINDS Portfolio
NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
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NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
Episode 12: Managing the NINDS Portfolio
Mar 20, 2020 Season 1 Episode 12

Learn how NINDS monitors its portfolio from the Director of Science Policy and Planning, Dr. Paul Scott, Policy Analyst Dr. Sophia Jeon, and Program Director Dr. Anna Taylor.

Building Up the Nerve is a podcast from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke for neuroscience trainees that takes you through the life cycle of a grant from idea to award at NINDS with the people who make it happen. We know that applying for NIH funding can be daunting, but we’re here to help—it’s our job!


Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Learn how NINDS monitors its portfolio from the Director of Science Policy and Planning, Dr. Paul Scott, Policy Analyst Dr. Sophia Jeon, and Program Director Dr. Anna Taylor.

Building Up the Nerve is a podcast from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke for neuroscience trainees that takes you through the life cycle of a grant from idea to award at NINDS with the people who make it happen. We know that applying for NIH funding can be daunting, but we’re here to help—it’s our job!


Lauren Ullrich:   0:02
Welcome to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke's Building Up the Nerve, a podcast for neuroscience trainees that takes you through the life cycle of a grant from idea to award at NINDS with the people who make it happen. We know that applying for NIH funding can be daunting, but we're here to help. It's our job.

Lauren Ullrich:   0:22
Hi, I'm Lauren Ullrich, a scientific program manager at NINDS

Marguerite Matthews:   0:25
and I'm Marguerite Matthews a Health Program Specialist at NINDS and we're your host today for Building Up the Nerve. In the previous episode, we discussed how NINDS monitors grant performance after the award.

Lauren Ullrich:   0:38
And for this, our last episode, we're going to talk about how NINDS monitors its portfolio as a whole and acts as a responsible steward of taxpayer money and how it sets its funding and priorities. And as always, I want to state the disclaimer that everything we talk about may only be relevant for NINDS. So if you're applying to a different NIH institute, it's always best to talk with them about their policies.

Marguerite Matthews:   1:07
Joining us today are Dr Paul Scott, Director of the Office of Science Policy and Planning, Dr Sophia Jeon, a health science policy analyst, and Dr Anna Taylor, program director in the office of the Director and Division of Extramural Activities.

Paul Scott:   1:23
Hello. My name is Paul Scott. I'm the director of the Office of Science Policy and Planning here at NINDS. Our office has several important responsibilities for the institute. We coordinate NINDS interactions with Congress, which of course, is important because Congress is where we get our funding. My office coordinates strategic planning and prioritization activities as well as evaluation activities for the institutes. And we also help out with a lot of portfolio analysis. I've been an NIH since 1996 and at NINDS since 1998. Before coming here, I actually came to NIH as a AAAS science and technology policy fellow. Prior to that, I was a postdoc in a circadian neurobiology lab in San Antonio, Texas. In terms of hobbies, I just really enjoy spending time with my family, and I'd like to listen to music, all kinds of different popular music.

Sophia Jeon:   2:14
Hi, I'm Sofia Jeon and I'm a health science policy analyst in the office of Science Policy and Planning. So Paul is my boss. So as Paul mentioned, I do a lot of things related to congressional affairs. I help make sure that NINDS communicates with Congress in an effective and timely manner. I've been at NIH since 2014 and I've been at NINDS since 2016. So a little over three years now. I was a postdoc before I came to NINDS. So I was a postdoc  at the National Eye Institute, which is one of the institutes at NIH. I'm actually an immunologist by training. So I studied autoimmune diseases in the eye. I thought neuroscience is cooler, so I jumped onto neuroscience, I would say my hobby is keeping my 20 month old son entertained, that's how I usually spend my time, but sometimes that can feel like work. So my hobby in the truest sense of the word is probably reading.

Anna Taylor:   3:19
Hi, I'm Anna Taylor, as Lauren said. I'm a program director in the division of extramural activities. My job is different than many program directors. I don't manage a grant portfolio, but what I do is manage a program called the NIH NeuroBioBank, which is a network of six brain and tissue repositories that collect and distribute brain tissue for use by the research community. But in addition to that, I oversee a couple of more general programs. I oversee the NINDS R35 program, which is a program that is relatively new, and it's designed to support all of an investigator's NINDS research under one funding vehicle and that will hopefully limit the ability for researchers to constantly have to be applying for grants. And the last part of my job is working in extramural policy and analysis. So I do a lot of portfolio analysis that are involved in policy development. So, for example, one recent policy that we released was a modification of our special council review policy, which serves to limit the amount of funding any one particular investigator can have. So there was a lot of pre analysis that went into the development of that policy, and I also worked to develop and implement that. I've been at NIH for about 12 years. And like Paul, I came to NIH as a AAAS science and technology policy fellow. Um, prior to that, I was a postdoc at Wake Forest University and studying motor neuron degeneration. So I'm also a neuroscientist. And, um, one of my hobbies outside of the office is traveling. And, you know, unfortunately, life doesn't allow me to do it as much as I'd like, But I love to see all parts of the country and the world and I particularly have a fondness for beaches.

Marguerite Matthews:   5:24
So will one of you tell us how NINDS manages its research portfolio?

Anna Taylor:   5:29
In general NINDS has a number of different ways that it manages its portfolio. But for most grants that come in unsolicited and that is not as part of any specific topic area that we've issued a call for applications on, NINDS set a payline and funds nearly all of the applications that get a percentile score within that payline. For example, in fiscal year 18 our pay line is set to the 16 percentile. If you submitted an application that scored at the 16 percentile or better, chances are high that you would have been funded. In general, we fund all R01s, R21s, and R03s in that way. There are a couple of exceptions to this payline, including the funding level for early stage investigators, those people that are within 10 years of their terminal degree and haven't gotten an R01. The pay line for early stage investigators as much higher because that's a priority area that's been identified by NIH.  There are sometimes other priority areas that have been identified and they may have higher paylines too. And one example of that is Alzheimer's disease and related dementias. And that sort of leads to the second way that we manage our portfolio. Sometimes we don't get to decide. Sometimes high priority areas were identified for us by Congress or by the administration and we're charged with developing programs that are responsive to those priorities. This is currently true for, like I said, for Alzheimer's disease and related dementias, is it's true for the BRAIN Initiative, and also, most recently, the HEAL Initiative, which is focused on the opioid crisis. In each of these cases, significant funds have been directed towards these specific areas to catalyze the field. But at heart NINDS is a science organization and most of our program staff are scientists, and as a result, we'd like to take a scientific and data-driven approach to how we manage our resources. So one of the ways that we do that is through the use of portfolio analysis to get a better understanding of the research we fund so we can identify areas that require additional attention. One example of this is an analysis of the general areas of science that we fund across the research spectrum, from basic science to clinical research. And a systematic evaluation of our portfolio we learned that our investment in basic research declined significantly between 1997 and 2011 going from 51 to 21%. As a result, we've made significant efforts to bring this number higher through FOAs targeted to basic research and also by communicating to the research community that basic research does great in review, better than any other type of research we analyzed.

Lauren Ullrich:   8:05
So how can the public find out more about this process, about what we're funding and what our priorities are?

Paul Scott:   8:15
In terms of finding out what we're funding terms of specific grants. There is a portion of the NIH website called Reporter, which you can look up funding by any number of parameters by area, by year, by area of the country. And so that's a really good way. It's publicly available and allows you to do a lot of different types of analyses, and that's a good way of knowing terms of the grant portfolio. If you're interested in applying for a specific type of research, the NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts lists all of what are called FOAs, funding opportunity announcements. That's a good source to also look for. On the NINDS website we have a lot of information on our NINDS-specific programs and FOAs and different priorities. I think our advisory Council, our national Advisory Council, which meets three times a year and is the second level of review, has a portion of the meeting is an open session where they discuss policy issues and a lot of times that touches on what the priorities for the institute should be, and those are all now video cast so you can watch it through video live or they are archived you can watch it later. The last thing I would just mention is a lot of our specific workshops. A lot of times, the program directors will have workshops in specific scientific areas, and a lot of those are also sometimes video cast. So that's another way of learning about what might be priorities in a specific area.

Anna Taylor:   9:40
One thing Paul, just to add about Reporter is that it's a really great way to identify other people that are doing the kinds of research that you're doing. So you can, for example, copy and paste on abstract that you wrote into Reporter and find other types of research that are being funded in that area. You can see what study sections they were reviewed at. You can find out what institutes are funding research in that area and who the program officers are that cover that portfolio. So it's a really great way to figure out where, in the sort of NIH system, the type of research that you're doing is funded and how to find resources that could potentially help you.

Lauren Ullrich:   10:21
Right, right. And for a trainee, you could use it to help you identify potential postdoc mentors or collaborators. I think we've talked about Reporter a lot on this podcast, but it's because it's really useful, I think, and not enough people know about it.

Marguerite Matthews:   10:38
I think researchers new to NIH funding often feel like they're responding to the priorities that NINDS has set by applying for grants. But how do researchers in the extramural community help NINDS set its research priorities?

Paul Scott:   10:53
I think, I would say, is that the input from the external community to NINDS is extremely important. Well, it's it's actually more important. I would say it's essential. Because obviously we can't know everything about what the scientific community feels is important or what the priorities are, what the exciting areas of inquiry are out there, and so we're always seeking ways of getting that input. And so this could take a variety of forms. I mentioned before, you know, we hold workshops where we invite members of the outside community to come in and give us input on properties in an area. Sort of on a larger scale, occasionally we have strategic planning or prioritization activities where we might form a specific working group of our advisory council that will really delve into the area and give us specific recommendations on what are the important areas in the field, what should the priorities would be, what are the needs in the field? And so that's another way. And lot of times with those activities, we also have ways of trying to get broader community input that the working group can gather. One of the ways we do this is through what's called a request for information or RFI. This is where we'll put out a general call for input on a specific area. We'll ask a number of questions. Anybody can respond, and a lot of times it's really helpful in terms of getting the broad input in terms of what the whole community feels are important areas.

Lauren Ullrich:   12:12
One of the things we've talked about on this podcast a lot is the difference between NINDS and NIH and how we as an institute work with NIH as a whole. But we haven't really touched on how NINDS interacts with other federal agencies in the executive branch and also Congress. So I was wondering if you could outline that process for us.

Sophia Jeon:   12:41
So we interact quite frequently with other federal agencies. There is a couple of different ways that we do that. One that comes to mind is through big research collaboration via big initiatives, just like the BRAIN Initiative--I think most of you have heard of the BRAIN Initiative. So we collaborate with DARPA, the National Science Foundation, IARPA, and all these other big federal agencies. We also have what's called a memorandum of understanding, MOU, with some of the centers at FDA, to help coordinate funding activities and provide updates i specific disease areas or just scientific areas. And more, I guess casually, I mean, program directors and staff, they usually interact with other agencies' staff through meetings and workshops, but also some people serve on what we call trans-NIH working groups and sometimes committees and scientific panels. So we make sure that every activity that we do is well coordinated, and we make sure that we coordinate research activities across different agencies. So in terms of Congress, there's different ways also for us to communicate. As Paul mentioned, we get our funding from Congress through the appropriations process, so we have some formal ways to communicate through written reports. The appropriators on the Appropriations Committee usually like to receive updates about how we spent the money last year and how we plan to spend the funds in the future. So we usually submit reports to Congress and update them on certain disease areas that they prioritize. Also, we sometimes go down to the Hill and participate in staff level or member level briefings. Usually it's about an hour long meeting where NIH staff would go down and present what we are doing in a certain area. Sometimes we also receive draft bills that they're working on so they don't have the scientific expertise usually, the policy makers don't, so we have to make sure that everything that goes on the bill is feasible and, um, scientifically accurate. So we do this through what's called a technical assistance, so we provide technical assistance for bills. And sometimes they just, you know, sometimes they pick up the phone and just call us and ask us questions. So, um, we try to answer those questions in a timely manner.

Paul Scott:   15:28
The only thing I would add in terms of what Sofia mentioned with the technical review is that, as a federal agency, we're not allowed to take an official position on a piece of legislation that is affecting us. That would be--that's against the law. So we can never say we endorse or we don't endorse a specific bill. But as Sophia said, sometimes they'll send a draft to us to get our scientific input to make sure that the bill, what its stating is accurate.

Lauren Ullrich:   15:52
And you mentioned appropriators. I'm not sure that our audience will know what they are. Will you give us, like the 30 second version of who appropriators are and what they do and their relationship with NIH.

Paul Scott:   16:07
So, uh, appropriation is another way of saying the funding. And so the appropriation committees in Congress in both the House and the Senate, those are the groups of members who were responsible for funding the federal government and the agencies. And they're split up among the different departments. So ours is the Labor, Health and Human Services Committee. And they will usually have hearings in the spring where they bring witnesses in. And then they develop a budget and a bill to fund government, and that gets wrapped into the larger process. Sothey're obviously very important because they're the ones who are deciding how much money NIH will be getting. We're not allowed to lobby Congress for how much money we should get. We can answer their questions if they have questions about that. But that's actually something that your trainees should know is that it's very helpful when the scientific community tries to visit your local congressional member or write a letter to them talking about the value of what the research that you're doing is, how exciting it is, and the fact that the congressional members should support funding for NIH.

Lauren Ullrich:   17:09
Yeah, that was actually my job in a past life. Before I worked here, I was at Society for Neuroscience helping members actually advocate for NIH and NSF funding, and I know a lot of scientific societies do things like that, and trainees used to express a lot of hesitation about talking with members and sort of not knowing what to say, but, um, as somebody who was on the other side of that, scientific societies work very hard to make sure that members feel prepared. And so it's definitely a good opportunity to see a little bit behind the scenes of what happens in Congress to go to a Hill Day or participate in a lab tour for a congressman and things like that.

Marguerite Matthews:   17:49
So is there anything else that you think that in NINDS researchers should know about the process of setting research priorities and funding?

Sophia Jeon:   17:58
So one thing I forgot to mention earlier, is that in terms of setting our priorities, another stakeholder group that is really important for setting priorities is, uh, NGOs, non profit groups, disease advocacy community. They really do a lot to impact how we set our priorities at NINDS. So as Lauren mentioned, like scientific societies like SfN and other disease advocates, they have also funding for postdocs and graduate students, and you can really take advantage of these as well. NIH is really not the only funder. So I think they actually encourage younger investigators to take advantage of their little seed funding so that you can really get started and then be prepared for bigger NIH grants like R01s. So I think that's one thing that I hadn't really appreciated before in the lab. I always thought that NIH was like the biggest, but there's other societies and foundations that you can really look up and try to engage.

Anna Taylor:   19:10
I think for my perspective, one of the things that a lot of people on the outside don't fully appreciate is really how much of our money goes towards grants that we don't actually solicit. So, for example, I think it's up to 70% of our funds go towards so-called unsolicited research that is, basically an investigator gets an idea and submits an application, and if it gets a good score, we pay it. And so this idea of following the money and following research priorities might not necessarily be in your best interest, particularly if you're trying to break into a field where you don't have a lot of expertise and you're just trying to capitalize on, you know, where you think there's extra money. So by virtue of this, I think it's important to do what you like to do and do the kind of research that you're good at and just submit an application and keep trying and take feedback from review and try again.

Lauren Ullrich:   20:12
That's also a theme that's been running through this podcast.

Paul Scott:   20:16
I think the only thing I would add is, in some ways restating what we had said before in terms of we as an institute put a lot of effort into communicating and educating Congress on the value of the research that's funded. What advances are coming out of it? How is it leading to new scientific knowledge, reducing burden of disease, improving the health of our country. But you know, the scientific community and including trainees, have an important role to play here as well. So some of the things that you can do, which may not be obvious, is, you know, always cite your NINDS funding when you publish a paper or give a presentation or, you know, you may be interviewed by the media on some cool finding that you've done and make sure that you make it clear the source of your funding. Because ultimately the American taxpayer is the one who's funding your research and so the more that we can educate them and the representatives in Congress, the better for you, the better for your field, and the better for NIH.

Marguerite Matthews:   21:11
Well, thank you all for joining us today and sharing some interesting tidbits on the process of NINDS's research priorities. And can I ask you all to say maybe one last piece of advice for our future applicants?

Anna Taylor:   21:25
Well, I think it's important to recognize that all of us at the table here are scientists, and we all went to graduate school. We all did postdocs and yet we ended up here at NIH. And so if you have questions about what you want to do with your future, you know, recognize that there's a career path for you at NIH and in a number of other places, and we don't see it as a success or a failure if you end up anywhere other than in an academic lab.

Sophia Jeon:   21:54
Yeah I think it's important to pay attention to what your strengths are, and by strength, I mean, like, you know where you really find joy when you're working, because there's different activities. When, you know, when you're in graduate school, you may go to scientific meetings and workshops and find interacting with other scientists really joyful. You may like pipetting and, you know, working of a lab. That's great for you, too. And, um, I think just paying attention to that really helps determine which career path might be right for you. So keep doing the good work.

Lauren Ullrich:   22:28
Okay, Marguerite, do you have any, uh, last parting advice for our listeners?

Marguerite Matthews:   22:34
I think from what we learned today, it's important to recognize how important you are both inside of the lab, but also outside. So don't take for granted that you are both a citizen and someone who is involved in various aspects of the research community. So as was mentioned before that we all are essential to this enterprise. So even trainees, graduate students, you are very important to NINDS and whether or not you receive funding directly from us, you're just being in the field is important.

Lauren Ullrich:   23:07
I would just say: be an informed citizen of your community, right? I think that's been a theme throughout this podcast, and hopefully you listening to this podcast is a step on that journey for you. But there's a lot that happens behind the scenes, and we try our best to communicate everything to the community. But it can be hard. And so it also is incumbent upon you to seek out that information and learn how the process works and not just be holed up in the lab. 

Lauren Ullrich:   23:45
Okay, well, that's all we have time for today on Building Up the Nerve. So thank you again to our guests this week for sharing their expertise. You can find past episodes of this podcast and many more grant application resources on the web at 

Marguerite Matthews:   24:02
And be sure to follow us on Twitter @NINDSdiversity and @NINDSfunding. Email us with questions at And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcast or your favorite podcast app so you don't miss what may be in store next season. Until next time!