Understanding Indirect Costs at NIH

Few topics prompt more questions or seem to stir up more controversy than the subject of Indirect Costs. Everyone seems to have an opinion about how they are calculated, on what a grantee’s institution spends them, and whether any portion should be funneled back to the grantee and his/her department or school. Invariably, my clients who are research development staff, research administrators, and research deans voice loud and often contradictory opinions on this topic (sometimes contradictory to my own opinions!)

For those of us involved in NIH extramural grants, the more we can understand about this controversial topic, the better. Here are two resources I have found helpful as I dig around to educate myself on the topic. I hope you find them helpful as well:

  • “Indirect Costs 101- How NIH Supports Research Infrastructure for Extramural Research”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1XvVibv2opQ
    Sally Rockey, PhD, Deputy Director of NIH Extramural Research
    September 2015
    This ~22-min presentation gave me some historical perspective on IDC and dispelled some common myths. It is a useful primer to understand the intent of IDC and how it is used to pay for grant-related services at an institution that cannot be tied to a specific project, such as administrative costs, facility costs, etc. It also explains that NIH does not negotiate the indirect rate with institutions, and that this trans-federal negotiated rate is re-negotiated typically every four years.
  • “Indirect Costs: Keeping the Lights On”
    by Heidi Ledford, published in Nature, November 19, 2014
    http://www.nature.com/news/indirect-costs-keeping-the-lights-on-1.16376
    This article talks about the wide variability between indirect rates at universities (ranges from 20%-85%). The spread is even greater at hospitals and non-profits. Non-profits have the highest indirect rates. This information is graphically displayed in a cool interactive scatter plot—if you hover your mouse over a data point, the stats for institution pop up. The article also discusses that institutions often receive less than the amount negotiated because of restrictions placed on what they can receive for particular types of support (for example, there is a cap on the amount devoted to administrative costs.)

Adult Marijuana Use Doubles Over Past Decade

According to an article today in JAMA Psychiatry, An estimated 9.5% of adults in this country use marijuana, and 30% of users meet the criteria for marijuana use disorder. These numbers are double those from ten years ago. The work was conducted in the NIAAA intramural lab of Dr. Bridget Grant.

These findings highlight the changing cultural norms related to marijuana use, which could bring additional public health challenges related to addiction, drugged driving and access to effective treatment,” states Nora D. Volkow, M.D., director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which contributed funding to the study. This and other comments can be found in an NIH-issued press release today.

Other recent findings from NIDA- and NIAAA-funded studies:

At present, 23 states have medical marijuana laws and 4 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use. These numbers will continue to rise. The study authors note that public education about the dangers associated with marijuana use will be increasingly important to counteract public beliefs that marijuana use is harmless.

Remember the NIH R56 Funding Mechanism?

Anyone remember the NIH R56 funding mechanism? Started in 2005, the goal of the R56 is to provide 1-2 years of funding to promising submissions that are outside the funding range. Two important things to know about the R56:

  • You may not apply directly. The recipients are typically chosen by program staff. Need I continue to beat my “get to know your program officer” drum? Please, please develop a relationship with your NIH PO whenever possible. They are more important to your career than you think, in many ways.
  • Applications chosen are not necessarily just outside the funding range. While the description of the award does state it is for “R01 applications with priority scores or percentiles that fall just outside the funding limits”, it goes on to state that “Nominees for the award must be in the most meritorious half of the priority or percentile range” (i.e., not triaged). Of the few clients I know who have been selected for an R56 over the years, in one memorable instance the grantee had an R01 ranked 30%, but the PO knew him well and strongly believed in his work (see “get to know your PO” above).

NIA recently issued a blog stating that they will be aggressively utilizing the R56 in response to fierce competition for a limited pool of money. Robin Barr, Director of Extramural Research at NIA, states:

“Instead of setting an R56 funding line and paying applications in order of how they performed in review, we asked program staff to choose applications that we could not otherwise fund, based on the degree to which the proposal’s merit (and so the score given to a subsequent submission) might be improved by a single year of funding.”

Has anyone heard if any other ICs plan to increase use of the R56?