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Fandom of the OPERA:
Extramural NIH Lets Pixels Do More Peer Review

By Rich McManus

More than 200 members of the NIH extramural community turned out May 13 to learn from NIH's Office of Policy for Extramural Research Administration (OPERA) that reinvention is alive and well at NIH, with the strong support of its principal patron, Vice President Al Gore. Indeed, the pressures to slim down and sleeken may be more numerous now than when Gore first unveiled the National Performance Review at the outset of the Clinton administration.

According to OPERA Director Geoffrey Grant, a whole host of factors are combining to force NIH to reevaluate the way it does business with its public -- mainly scientists at academic medical centers. Although reinventing government is still a watchword in Washington -- "It's not dead and it's not going away," declared Gore spokesman Stephen Butterfield -- it has been joined by such "drivers for change" as a stringent review of administrative costs at NIH now ongoing at the behest of Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.), a cap of 26 percent on administrative costs borne by universities, the new Government Performance and Results Act that asks "What did you get in the way of outcome from the investment of public funds?", and greater competition for federal funds, among other challenges, said Grant.

Sporting a patriotic Old Glory tie, Grant equated reinvention with electronic research administration (ERA), a method of using computers and the Internet to trim the time it takes for NIH to review applications and proposals from potential grantees, and make awards to the most meritorious submissions. Subsequent progress reporting (and in some happy cases, invention reporting) can also be accomplished via computer. With certain expedited awards, peer review-by-pixel aims to reduce the time it now takes for NIH to respond to a fine idea -- what traditionally took 9-18 months to turn around might be reduced in the future to 4-6 months, Grant said.

The training seminar for extramural science administrators featured presentations by project leaders on a number of priority initiatives for FY 1997: progress reporting/scientific coding, modular research grants, receipt and referral, and expedited review/award. Presentations on IMPAC II and the ERA "Commons" project rounded out the agenda.

Despite their different focuses, each project shares a unifying, and occasionally rather touchy, point of view: beneath the euphemism of "reengineering" lurk such tough questions as "What do we really need to know from each other and when?", "Is the labor fairly divided between NIH'ers and clients in academia?" and "Can we waste as little of our time as possible on routine administration?"

The feistiness inherent in streamlining (which NIH has cleverly turned to its advantage by asking "Why bother?" at every laborious step of the review/award process) emerged subtly during the meeting. An NIH'er stood up to ask NPR's Butterfield what rewards might accrue to the savvy reinventor. "There is no reward for effective reinventors," admitted the spokesman. "The reward that people take away from this is very much an internal one. No one is getting more money. It's exclusively a psychic reward of better serving the American people." NIH staff seem to be self-motivated to do the right thing, he said, by making sure that no more funds than are absolutely necessary are devoted to administration rather than research.

The NIH'ers proceeded from the main lecture hall at Natcher to the balcony breakout rooms to steep themselves in details of specific reinvention projects. Online demonstrations helped walk attendees through facets of ERA, screen by screen.

"Increasingly," said Grant, "we're talking about collaborative research administration...and seeking more opportunities to talk about how we're doing our work together [with universities]. We're developing business rules, and sharing activities more than ever before."

Attendees learned that reinvention is, at the very least, trying to develop better relationships between NIH and its extramural partners while reducing the time and costs of doing business for all concerned.

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