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NIH Record

NIH Roundtable Discusses Reinvention Initiatives

By Mary Jo Hoeksema

The Office of Extramural Research recently sponsored its second "Reinvention Roundtable," a meeting at which top-ranking NIH officials received frank input from representatives of the research community on some of the agency's key extramural reinvention initiatives.

"The roundtable was an excellent opportunity for us to communicate directly with representatives of the extramural community about those reinvention initiatives that are still in the discussion stage," said Dr. Wendy Baldwin, NIH deputy director for extramural research. "The input they provided will be an invaluable resource as we proceed with the design, and eventually the implementation, of these ambitious projects." Roundtable participants included NIH advisory council members, research scientists and administrators. Representatives from prominent scientific organizations were invited to observe the proceedings and contribute as members of the audience.

NIH hosted its first Reinvention Roundtable on July 14, 1994, shortly after the agency was designated a "reinvention laboratory" by Vice President Gore's National Performance Review, which was established to help agencies create a government that works better and costs less. Participants at the first roundtable provided pivotal feedback, which influenced the design of the initial extramural reinvention projects undertaken by NIH. The second roundtable featured presentations on the status of Electronic Research Administration (ERA) -- an effort NIH is pursuing to conduct grant applications and related business transactions electronically via the Internet -- and other proposals that are in various stages of development.

Participants learned about proposals that would shorten the time from receipt of a grant application to award for the most meritorious applications; simplify the grant application and award processes by reducing the amount of budget detail and other related information that must be provided at the time of application; and improve the communication of research progress. The presentation on ERA included a preview of the NIH Commons system, which is still under development, and demonstrations by two grantee institutions -- the University of California at Los Angeles and Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- of the internal systems they are developing for the future exchange of research-related information with NIH.

The UCLA and MIT demonstrations drew a positive response from participants, who marveled at the technology. Rather than expressing caution, most roundtable participants strongly encouraged NIH to maintain the momentum toward development of a common electronic interface with the extramural community. While some aired concerns about Internet security, most participants agreed with Dr. Ron Newbower of Massachusetts General Hospital who said, "Let's not have the perfect get in the way of the good."

A presentation by Geoffrey Grant, director of NIH's Office of Policy for Extramural Research Administration, and Dr. Ronald Geller, director of NHLBI's Division of Extramural Affairs, on the proposed modular research grants initiative also sparked spirited discussion. The proposal, developed by a trans-NIH working group last year, would allow applicants to request financial awards up to $150,000 in increments of $25,000. Under the proposal, applicants would be required to provide a budget narrative, but not a detailed budget. Applicants would also be excused from providing checklists and "other support" pages at the time of submission. According to Grant, the objectives of the modular research grant are to offer investigators and institutions a mechanism of project support that facilitates science and simplifies administration and to offer NIH staff the opportunity to focus professional expertise on essential management requirements.

Reaction to the modular grant proposal was mixed. While most participants praised the proposal's innovation, others expressed concern about how it might affect science. Dr. Joseph Campos, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, had concerns about "decoupling an application's financial detail from its scientific detail." Speaking in support of the modular proposal, Dr. Mildred Ofosu, associate dean of research and director of the office of sponsored programs at Delaware State University, said that it might "reduce the level of bickering over minor [budget] details during review and free up more time for scientific discussions."

"We were pleased that the participants came ready to engage the issues and to share their candid opinions about the potential benefits and pitfalls of these initiatives that they could foresee," said Grant.

OER is assessing the feedback it received from roundtable participants and using this information to help develop a strategy for advancing reinvention initiatives in the next fiscal year.

"I felt that this reinvention roundtable was as successful as the first one we convened 2 years ago," said Baldwin. "I intend to hold more of these meetings in the future as a way of involving the extramural community in our reinvention efforts in a more dynamic, direct manner."

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