‘Time Is Elastic’
OER Adapts to Fresh Challenges of Pandemic
They were already big-wave surfers over at the Office of Extramural Research, that group responsible for the orderly, shrewd, fair—and seemingly invisible—distribution of about 80 percent of NIH’s annual budget.
They had managed to swallow ARRA (the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, which added a massive $10.4 billion to NIH’s budget, to be spent in 2009-2010), reorganized themselves under new leadership imported from NHLBI, begun to tackle the challenges posed by organized offshore rule-breaking and kept up with balancing the demands of OMB, HHS and Congress, not to mention the nation’s research community, which depends on OER for support.
Then along came a big RNA virus called SARS-CoV-2 and a global pandemic of the disease it causes, Covid-19.
“This is different than anything, including ARRA,” said Dr. Jodi Black, OER deputy director for the past 4 years. “This is so negatively affecting our entire ecosystem, our whole enterprise. OER is trying to figure out how to lighten the blow. It’s very challenging. We’re working 12-hour days, squeezing in the covid job with our regular jobs.
“There’s never a dull moment around here, that’s for sure,” said Black, whose day job includes co-chairing an Office of Science and Technology Policy group on reducing the burden of grant administration throughout government, including NASA, DoD, NSF and other agencies. “We may not have any sexy new discoveries to report, but we provide all the underpinning for it.”
Both Black, a pathologist who spent more than a decade at CDC and had her own lab (“I grew up in the federal government”), and her boss, NIH deputy director for extramural research Dr. Mike Lauer, hail from NHLBI division leadership. Black comes from the Division of Extramural Activities and Lauer led the Division of Cardiovascular Science. “We think a lot alike when it comes to developing supportive infrastructure for the internal and external community,” said Black.
Lauer had been a practicing cardiologist and epidemiologist at the Cleveland Clinic before coming to NIH. Together they share a vision of an OER more user-friendly and supportive—which is the approach they are taking with the current crisis.
“OER is like the master implementer of all this functionality,” said Black, ticking off the office’s myriad responsibilities. “If it broke, it would be a big problem.”
She credits a cast of skilled lieutenants with keeping the office balanced on its surfboard:
- Michelle Bulls, who directs the Office of Policy for Extramural Research Administration, “is helping us understand OMB and HHS regulations on grants, so NIH can provide the flexibilities needed to help ensure the extramural research can weather these extenuating circumstances,” said Black.
- Inna Faenson (“A genius!” says Black) oversees eRA, or Electronic Research Administration, a system that has supported the research administration needs of NIH staff and the grantee community for more than 20 years. eRA has had to evolve rapidly to accommodate new requirements for tracking covid-related awards. Making quick adjustments to capture rapidly evolving needs is par for the course for OER systems. Faenson also had to pull off the feat of migrating all eRA systems to cloud computing in the midst of a national emergency, an effort that had been 2 years in the making.
- Dr. Jose Ruiz, director of the NIH Guide, has been posting funding opportunities for Covid-19. “He has responded very quickly,” Black noted, issuing about 40 notices of special interest. To get funding for covid research to the community as quickly as possible, NIH is offering competitive supplements to existing awardees “so they can use their expertise to expand their scope to work on the pandemic,” said Black, “and administrative supplements, for researchers whose skills match an area of current need.”
- Megan Columbus, OER communications director, whom Lauer has labeled the office’s “movie director,” has been helping ensure that the research community feels supported during this time. She noted, “OER has put out policies that let researchers continue to get paid on NIH grants even though their labs are closed, that allow clinicians to redirect their time from doing grant-supported research to doing Covid-19 patient care and that allows them to donate personal protective equipment from NIH grants for public health care purposes. We have facilitated getting emergency funding announcements on the street, and more.”
- Dr. Pam Kearney, director of the OER human subjects and clinical trials oversight division, and Dr. Patricia Brown, director of NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, both rapidly developed guidance for disruptions of studies involving people and animals to maximize the safety and well-being of human and animal participants. Brown and her team also put on multiple webinars and promoted the extensive materials they maintain on contingency planning for animal care and use programs.
- Sally Amero, NIH’s review policy officer, quickly developed guidance for peer reviewers and staff about the handling of applications during this national emergency.
Also keeping the enterprise going as if there weren’t a pandemic happening are Dr. Sheryl Brining, director of the Office of Research Information Systems, who manages NIH RePORTER, the NIH Data Book and RCDC—Research, Condition and Disease Categorization—which shows where NIH is spending its money; Dr. Kay Lund, director of OER’s Division of Biomedical Research Workforce, “is making sure that the next generation of researchers—a high priority for [NIH director Dr. Francis Collins]—is getting early-stage support, across all of the institutes and centers” says Black.
Other key players include Dr. Patricia Valdez, OER’s research integrity officer; Dr. Paula Goodwin, the program administration officer; and another ex-NHLBI’er, Dr. Matt McMahon, who runs Small Business Education and Entrepreneurial Development.
“These are just a few of the many, many people in OER who have been making all this happen; there are so many more in OER who are deserving of credit,” Columbus said.
“Everyone is working double-time,” said Black. “We’re in this twilight zone—it’s surreal. We have non-stop meetings, weekend work. This is a rare and unfortunate research environment. We face the potential loss of the next generation of researchers, but we’re doing everything that we can to save them.
“We do have staff that have gotten ill,” she noted. “There is a lot of anxiety, and a lot of need, all happening simultaneously.
“Time is elastic,” she concluded. “You have to have that attitude to work in OER.”