NIMH to Investigators: "UR Doin It Rongz"

Dec 08 2008 Published by under NIH Budgets and Economics

I recently had the opportunity to hear NIMH Director Tom Insel give a presentation of current and upcoming NIMH funding priorities. He referred to the charge of the most recent NIHM Strategic Plan which lists four major categories.

* Promote discovery in the brain and behavioral sciences to fuel research on the causes of mental disorders
* Chart mental illness trajectories to determine when, where, and how to intervene
* Develop new and better interventions that incorporate the diverse needs and circumstances of people with mental illnesses
* Strengthen the public health impact of NIMH-supported research

Okay this sounds like normal translational stuff, right? The question is always to determine how committed a given IC is to the theme. NIMH appears to be quite committed indeed.


In the course of Insel's presentation he made some interesting remarks about how his goal was to convince the investigators to get on board. By moving the NIMH dollars into more solicited (by RFA) proposals. He said that in the past they had about 8% of their grant dollars in solicited projects. The new target is to be 20-25% of the budget. Big change. When asked by a question how NIMH would be working with extramural researchers to smooth the transition, Insel said "Well, we're already doing it for 2008 its just that we didn't make a big deal of it."
Bring it NIMH!
Other fun comments:
The new mission statement includes the term "cure". Brave stuff indeed to suggest our goal should be to "cure" schizophrenia, ADHD, major depression and the like. Bravo.
Did you know that NIMH was founded in 1947 by Truman explicitly to deal with "combat neurosis"? I did not know that. Obviously Insel is anticipating a return to roots in the near future.
When asked if the shift to 20-25% solicited research was going to backfire by stifling innovation, Insel dodged and weaved a bit but ultimately scored points with the observation that study sections were inherently anti-innovation. "If all the people on the panel agree a grant is good...almost by definition it is not innovative". And he alleged that each and every Council round under his watch the "grants in the 15-25%ile range have the greatest ideas" and the "0-10%ile grants are not that innovative". Whoa.
Insel was asked about the tension between his calls for bench to bedside and bedside to practice translation and the conflict of interest scandals associated with the Grassley investigations. He responded that NIH was trying to get more authority to make rules for NIH grantees. Interesting. Of course with what we know about the most egregious cases the allegation is that the scientists in question were already failing to follow the existing disclosure requirements of their institutions. So what are new rules going to do?

5 responses so far

  • pinus says:

    When I was speaking to a NIMH program officer she told me the same thing....more money is going in to RFA's. She strongly suggested trying to find a RFA that I could put an application under.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    It's one thing for them to talk. Telling us that they are moving from 8% to 25% of their budget placed in solicited proposals is somehow more salient.

  • pinus says:

    Yeah...that is pretty amazing. I wonder if other institutes will follow suit?

  • Dave says:

    Sounds reasonable, and I too like that at least someone at NIMH recognizes the fact that study sections are fundamentally designed to weed out truly creative ideas & approaches.
    Except that when one actually searches the RFAs, it becomes apparent that most RFAs seem designed to pound money into whatever subject a select few Big Kahuna Established Labs wrote a bunch of reviews on two years ago.
    In which case really all RFAs do is support the nascent dogma, while diverting money from less established but potentially more exciting ideas (and people who are generally more productive per dollar).
    Review panels at NSF lately have been asked to flag, when appropriate, certain applications as 'transformational' -- independent of the overall quality of the proposal. Basically, reviewers are asked to identify projects which, if successful, would change how we think about an important thing. These 'transformational' projects get special consideration when the program officer makes funding recommendations.
    I don't know why NIH just doesn't have panels do something similar, instead of channeling more money into RFAs. It would basically be the equivalent of 'increasing the payline', like NIH does for new investigators & other politically appropriate but ultimately arbitrary groups. Except that it would actually increase support for more creative science.
    A colleague told me about a time he sat on an RFA panel where the proposals were so bad that the panel wrote and signed a letter recommending that NONE of the proposals get funded. But since the money was set aside for the RFA and those were the applications NIH had, most applications were likely funded anyway. Apparently, one of the best applications by far was a test of whether prayer ameliorated symptoms of Fragile X mental retardation. I was told that the prayer proposal was unusually good in that it at least proposed a logically defined experiment. That's the problem with RFAs; they divert money to a problem, but they don't make the applications any better.
    NIH needs to stick to the basic wide-open R01 and simply implement review criteria that emphasize what they are looking for. And then of course CSR needs to ENFORCE those review criteria (a subject we've discussed here already).

  • Dr. Feelgood says:

    We had one of those Grassley "victims" in our department. She is a total lying drug company whore. If they would just give her more money to market drugs, that would really be bench to bedside (to wallet).
    Dr F

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