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Covid-19 funder update: The National Institutes of Health

Senior figures at the US biomedical funder explain their priorities for supporting grantees through Covid-19

As the largest biomedical funder in the world, the National Institutes of Health in the United States supports vast numbers of researchers whose work has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. The funder, whose 2020 budget was nearly $42 billion, has awarded almost 50,000 grants to more than 300,000 researchers.

Last May, NIH director Francis Collins told Congress that lab closures due to Covid-19 would cause $10bn of NIH funding to “disappear”. With its budgets granted by Congress, the NIH received extra funding to deal with the pandemic in coronavirus relief packages passed in the early stages of the outbreak. But that extra funding has been largely directed at supporting research on Covid-19 rather than at bridging the costs caused by disruption to projects.

Reprioritising funds

Speaking at a webinar held by the advocacy group Research!America on 11 January, NIH principal deputy director Larry Tabak said “the last supplement did not include specific funds for working through some of the challenges that extramural investigators are facing”, referring to an additional $900bn coronavirus relief package that was signed into law over Christmas as part of a huge $2.3 trillion spending bill.

“We are nevertheless committed to doing what we can to try and redress some of these challenges,” Tabak said, adding that without additional resources the NIH would “reprioritise what we already have”.

Tabak outlined three priorities for supporting NIH-funded researchers through the crisis. “The first priority is early stage, early career scientists and that includes trainees, career development, awardees and early stage investigators,” he said. “The second category are established investigators, who are obviously performing meritorious work, that are at risk of losing all funding,” he added, with the third category for high-priority clinical trials.

Expanding on support for researchers at risk of losing funding, Tabak said that the individual institutes and centres within the NIH would consider bridging awards for researchers in the final year of a project. “Obviously there’s an inherent loss of costs if somebody loses all their funding and then has to restart again.”

Early career researchers

Mike Lauer, deputy director for extramural research at the NIH, explained more about the support on offer for early career researchers. “These are the people who are potentially most vulnerable to the adverse effects of the pandemic,” he said, quoting a survey that found new faculty positions had declined by 70 per cent in 2020 compared with 2019.

One measure the NIH has taken is the launch of the Stephen Katz award programme, providing project grants aimed at early career investigators, where preliminary data are explicitly not allowed. The award, launched in 2020, is geared towards researchers who are interested in a change of direction in their research. “The idea here is that early career investigators may feel trapped—that in order for them to get into the NIH system, they have to engage in research that is directly related to what they were doing during their training,” Lauer said. The first deadline for applications is on 26 January, with further deadlines throughout the year.

Another way the NIH is supporting early career researchers is by extending the eligibility period in which researchers can be considered for awards, Lauer added, and the NIH is allowing researchers to submit preliminary data after they have submitted their application.

Having surveyed NIH grantees on the impact of the pandemic, Lauer said that a major concern, particularly among early career researchers, was whether review panels would penalise applicants for a drop in productivity. “We’ve actually issued explicit instructions to reviewers to disregard situations that are directly related to Covid-19, and to explicitly disregard temporary declines of productivity,” Lauer said.

For researchers with existing awards, Lauer outlined that the process for no-cost extensions in the second year of awards was “much easier than in times past”, but that third-year extensions would “require a lot of thought” and be handled on a case-by-case basis. Lauer also said funded extensions were possible for fellowships and career development awards, but he indicated that decisions would be made by individual NIH institutes or centres.

At-risk groups

Throughout the pandemic, concerns have been raised about the disproportionate impact that disruptions are having on women and minorities. “We are painfully aware of the fact that women and people from traditionally underrepresented groups tend to be at even greater risk than the general population of our investigators,” said Tabak.

He explained that the reason the NIH was doing a lot of things on a case-by-case basis was that each challenging situation was different. “Regardless of what resource set we have, it will never be enough. Let’s be candid about this,” Tabak said, adding that the NIH would “have to do this in a way that deals with those who are most at risk”.

Lauer pointed out that the NIH had not seen a drop in the proportion of applications led by women, nor a shift in where applications were coming from. Overall, there has been an increase in the total number of bids during the pandemic. “It’s maybe about somewhere between a 5 and 10 per cent increase in the number of applications,” Lauer said.

Similarly, the NIH has increased the number of grants it has processed, despite the disruptions. “Productivity has, if anything, gone up,” Lauer said. Moving activities online has also had unexpected benefits. In the annual NIH grants seminar held in October, Lauer said that more than 13,000 people attended online, compared with a typical attendance of 900 to 950.

“Ironically, we never would have tried it had it not been for the pandemic.”