In a previous column, I described NINDS as including the Office of the Director, and two components that serve, respectively, extramural and intramural research. In the next two columns, I will explain, in turn, how each of these components of NINDS work.
“Extramural research” occurs at institutions other than the NIH. NINDS and the other Institutes at NIH fund extramural research through grants, cooperative agreements, and contracts. In fact, NIH is the largest funder of “outside” (i.e., extramural) research in the world!
The institutions funded by NINDS are mostly universities around the U.S., but small businesses and international institutions also receive funding from NINDS to do research that serves the mission of the institute: to seek fundamental knowledge about the brain and nervous system and to use that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease.
NINDS, like every institute at NIH, receives a sum of money every year from Congress through a process called “appropriation,” and must work together with the other institutes to distribute those funds to researchers across the country and the world. NINDS receives many, many times as many applications as it has money to fund. In fact, right now only about 16% of applications submitted to NINDS receive funding. So how is it decided which applications to fund?
Grant applications submitted from outside NIH must be submitted by published due dates which are timed to coincide with one of three cycles of review and award every year. and assigned to NINDS are first reviewed for their quality and possible significance of the science proposed. These are the single most important criteria that makes the difference between applications that are or are not funded.
All grants go to an Initial Review Group and then assigned to a Study Section for scoring relative to whether the project is worth doing; whether the way it is proposed to be done is meritorious; and whether the team that proposes to do it is equipped and able to accomplish what they propose. Initial Review Groups are like a “jury of the applicant’s peers.” They are made up of scientists in the same field as the applicants assigned to that particular Initial Review Group. The Scientific Review Officer that oversees each study section assigns three or four of the 20 to 30 Initial Review Group members to independently read each application and prepare a written review in advance. At the meeting, these assigned panelists provide their initial evaluations and lead a discussion of the proposals’ strengths and weaknesses among all of the group members. Ultimately, each Initial Review Group member gives each application a score. The scores for each application are averaged, and usually NINDS funds these applications in score order until it has used the money it has received from Congress allocated to extramural research. Written reviews are typically provided to the applicant within 4-6 weeks with a summary of the points that led reviewers and the panel to their final score. It is important for applicants to reach out to the NINDS program official that is assigned to their proposal to determine if the grant is being considered for funding and what the next steps should be.
There are a few infrequent exceptions to the score order rule. For the most part, they apply to what we call “near miss” applications: those that came very close to the cutoff score for funding. Such an application might get funded if the applicant is an early career stage investigator – someone within 10 years of finishing his or her training. If you are interested in learning more about the grant process from the perspective of trainees, I urge you to check out our excellent podcast, “Building Up the Nerve.”
Another way a “near miss” application might be funded is if it concerns a specific issue for which Congress has allocated funds that cannot be used for other types of projects. Currently, there are special funds allocated to NINDS for research that seek to combat pain without causing addiction (the NIH HEAL Initiative); develop tools and techniques to better understand how the nervous system works (the NIH BRAIN Initiative); and to understand, diagnose, and treat some non-Alzheimer’s type dementias called ADRD (or Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias).
Finally, a “near miss” application might get funded if it addresses an issue or question that is a high priority for NINDS.
Once the leadership of the NINDS extramural program chooses the group of grants to be funded, the “pay plan” for that third of the year must be reviewed and approved by a group called the National Advisory Council of NINDS (NANDS). The NANDS includes scientists, physicians, ethicists, and lay persons whose work focuses on neuroscience and neurological disorders. For a grant to get funded by NINDS, it has to be approved for funding by this council. Their second level of review looks at the “big picture” and focuses on how a given body of proposed research will advance the mission of NINDS on behalf of the people and communities it serves.
NINDS funds extramural grants for basic, translational and clinical research and many research-related functions, like training the next generation of neuroscience researchers and convening groups of researchers at a workshop so they can help guide the direction of a particular area under study. NINDS only makes an investment when experts in the field and representatives of patients and families say it is worth it to do so. It is no wonder these investments so often result in important advances in the fundamental understanding of the nervous system and supporting evidence for hope and healthier lives for people living with neurological disorders!