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A Strategy for Assessing Science: Behavioral and Social Research on Aging
a research portfolio, and to provide support to areas that are seen as needing additional attention. In addition, research managers may use formal announcements as a way to bring relevant work together for direct competition rather than having projects come in at different times. BSR has used the full range of options available for identifying new and promising research areas and for encouraging scientists to develop those lines of research.
NIH does not offer many tools to its research managers to exercise discretion in identifying research areas that are not, or are no longer, programmatic priorities. In a tight budgetary context, an institute may take “negotiated” reductions in grants and, in doing so, may make greater reductions in grants in substantive areas in which there is less interest or perceived payoff. Some institutes and centers give program managers latitude in making these judgments. For example, an institute or center might declare that, unless there are specific programmatic or policy reasons, applications will be paid up to 85-90 percent of the funds available. The remaining funds may be allocated to meet programmatic goals without special action of the advisory council. This strategy is typically used when the grants involved are close to indistinguishable in quality according to reviewers’ judgments. Another discretionary tool is that program managers can elect to decline to have a project assigned to the institute or center if it is over $500,000 in direct costs and does not fit their program priorities.
Institutes, of course, can discourage proposals in an area by simply reducing the amount of funding they provide to it and by publicizing the low absolute and relative success rates of proposals in the area. An institute may also communicate a desire to spend less in a given area by omission: it can publish areas of interest and leave some areas off the list. Expressions of interest (or disinterest) tend to circulate quickly in the scientific community and may influence decisions about research to propose. However, these processes may produce mixed signals and misunderstandings between program officers and researchers about whether it is fields of study that are being deemphasized or specific proposals. In general, though, it is not easy or popular to declare an area of inquiry to be of low interest, so a research manager needs a solid basis and organizational support for such a declaration.
1. This concern may play out differently in different review processes. In NIH study sections, members normally come from several disciplines, even if they have in common concern and expertise in a particular research area or field. If researchers in different disciplines have different standards in these terms, the differences in standards are unlikely to perturb the overall decision process unless panel members habitually defer to the judgments of panel members rating proposals from their own disciplines.