The title for these is “Modular R01s in Cancer Control and Population Sciences (R01 Clinical Trial Optional)“, and it is the use of “modular” that caught my eye.
This also includes the following “This FOA will promote a diversity of research topics and scientific challenges in the population sciences that lend themselves to a shorter time span and reduced budget. This FOA encourages and supports ESIs and grows the ESI applicant pool and portfolio.” although there is nothing here that seems to limit it to ESI PIs. Program decision making may, of course, effectively make this an ESI mechanism but it would require some work to figure this out. I also see no obligation that proposals need to be for less than five years.
So why are they asking for modular proposals?
In brief summary, the “modular” R01 refers to proposals that are limited to no more than a request for $250,000 in direct costs per year. The budget is not specifically itemized and it has to be requested in “modules” of $25,000. This scheme was put in place 6/1/1999, the limit has never been altered and the spending power of this amount has been almost halved by the implacable advance of inflation.
Since the expectations of peer reviewers for scientific scope have not diminished in accordance with this declining spending power, and if anything expectations for proposal scope and productivity have increased, applicants have increasingly chosen to use the traditional budgeting process. This permits proposals to be considered for up to $499,999 in direct costs without specific Program pre-approval.
The 2018 call led to 10 NCI R01 grants funded in FY2019, 18 in FY2020, 6 in 2021 and 3 in 2022. The 2021 call led to 10 grants funded in FY2022 and 8 in FY2023. For reference, NCI funded 722 new R01 in FY2023 and 686 in FY2022. It’s a little hard to be accurate* from the RePORTER search without getting into individual direct costs but something like 102 R01 awards in FY2023 and 120 awards in FY2022 were at or below the modular limit. That means only 14% of new R01 in FY2023 and 17.5% in FY2022.
In FY2014, NCI funded 505 new R01, of which 307 (60.7%) were $250,000 direct or less. In FY2004, NCI funded 667 new R01, of which 568 (85%) were under the modular limit.
In FY1998, a year before the modular budgeting process was initiated, NCI funded 469 new R01 of which 423 (90%) came in at total costs of $400,000 or less. The entire NIH funded 3,445 new R01 in FY1998 of which 3,134 (90.1%) were for $400,000 or less, so it is nothing unique to NCI. In FY2023, the entire NIH funded 5,042 new R01, of which 808 (16%) were below the $400,000 threshold. The modular limit was designed to include approximately 90% of all R01 proposals and now it covers 16% of R01 proposals.
It could not be any clearer that the response of PIs to the refusal of NIH to raise the modular limit with inflation is to resort increasingly to traditional budget process applications so as to restore/maintain the spending power of “one grant”. At NCI this has meant going from approximately 10% of proposals over the modular limit when it was put in place to 86% of proposals over the limit in FY2023.
NCI have issued a special FOA to try to get investigators to submit more proposals within the modular limit. This is unusual**. What is their purpose?
It can’t be the usual scheme of trying to fund more grants for a given amount of money, every IC has the right to make programmatic decisions to pick up smaller grants over more expensive ones outside of the order of peer review. They also have the right to cut budgets however they like. Given that success rates for R01 at NCI have been low lately, 12% in FY2021 and 12.8% in FY2022, it is almost certain that there are many very good proposals under the modular limit that were not going to be funded and are available for pickups.
A PAR permits, but does not guarantee, review in special emphasis panels, if the idea is to get peer review to treat smaller scope proposals fairly. In scanning over a small sample of the awards under the PAR-21-190 it does not seem to be all SEP review. So it can’t be that. They’ve issued it as a PAR for the special “referral” considerations, whatever that amounts to.
The number of awards, 10ish, per year is not going to move the needle on anything in a big way. It isn’t going to convince applicants that it is generally in their interest to stick with modular. It isn’t going to get peer review to match review to scope.
I don’t get it.
*I’m using a $400,000 cutoff in the RePORTER search to roughly screen for the full modular ones. It may include a few that are over the limit.
**The only other FOA I found with modular in the title, other than housekeeping FOA, was this one from NINR, limited to their K recipients and likewise mentioning it is to increase success for ESI PIs.