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NIDDK Extramural Chief Wants to 'Respond to Science'

By Anna Gillis

Dr. Robert Hammond wants researchers to spend less time on grant paperwork and more time on science. For that to happen, "we have to ask ourselves how our grants and contracts policies hinder science," says Hammond, who recently became director of NIDDK's Division of Extramural Activities. "My vision is that the NIDDK DEA will work within the institute and across institute lines to respond to the rapidly changing directions of science."

He has asked NIDDK's DEA to evaluate new types of grants and application procedures to accommodate changing research trends. Among those under consideration are glue grants and phased innovation awards, which other NIH institutes have already tested. He will draw on his previous extramural experience with NCI, NIA, his earlier stint at NIDDK, and from his time on the NIH STEP committee.

Dr. Robert Hammond

NIDDK's DEA administers more than $1.1 billion in funding. The R01 grants, which are given to principal investigators working on discrete projects, are the institute's most common award, but they clearly do not work well in certain situations, according to Hammond. Increasingly, complicated problems are tackled by collaborations among widely scattered research groups. "There's a lot of 'big-budget' research now, and we're seeing more applications for 'consortium science' and interdisciplinary efforts."

Glue awards could help such projects, says Hammond. An NIGMS innovation, the grants pull or "glue" together already funded investigators at different institutions. They tackle broad questions beyond the scope of individual labs. Last year, NIGMS awarded $5 million to the Alliance for Cellular Signaling, a group of 50 researchers at 20 institutions that will study how cells "talk" to each other. NIDDK-supported projects in obesity, stem cell biology and hepatitis are some of the areas that possibly could benefit from "synergistic capabilities of the glue grant," adds Hammond.

How scientists apply for grants and how funds are disbursed also have to change to be flexible enough to keep pace with technological advances, according to Hammond. In fields where technology changes quickly, scientists particularly feel the impact of funding gaps. Researchers sometimes lose their technical advantage and momentum when they are forced to wait a grant cycle or more before bringing a promising line of work to the next level. Small businesses, in particular, can't wait 9 or more months between the first and second phase of funding, explains Hammond.

To ease these problems, he is considering phased innovation awards like those first tried by NCI. It's a fast-track approach to funding fast-moving technology, says Hammond, who returned to NIDDK from NCI, where he was an associate director in that institute's DEA.

Researchers seeking phased awards submit two applications at once. The first (R21) covers the pilot stage of technology research. If researchers meet agreed-upon milestones, the second application is approved through staff review, allowing the program to proceed uninterrupted. NCI has awarded these grants to support the development of innovative technologies for molecular analysis of cancer. Phased innovation awards could eventually support NIDDK's efforts in the genetics of complex disease, with a pilot phase to test the potential of new technologies and a second phase to support a full-scale developmental study.

So individual researchers and collaborations can have more time to prepare good applications, Hammond says, NIDDK will make concept approvals available on the institute web site soon after each NIDDK advisory council meeting. The council has always discussed new research priorities in public sessions, but the information often didn't move into the scientific community until the requests for applications were published.

Changing NIDDK's grant-making style requires that everyone involved get reeducated, says Hammond. He has started regular coordinating sessions for extramural staff, and he wants to streamline grant evaluation so that it is less burdensome and time consuming for reviewers. He sees extramural staff and reviewers as a team working together to identify and support the best research. "We will always be looking for ways to rapidly move money toward good science," he says.

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