The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has just released its NIH-Wide Strategic Plan, Fiscal Years 2016-2020. This is a well-written statement that puts strong emphasis on the value and accomplishments of NIH and the research it supports. The strategy for carrying out its objectives centers around four interdependent objectives:
- Advance Opportunities in the Biomedical Sciences.
NIH will seek opportunities for advancing research in three interdependent areas: fundamental science, treatments and cures, and health promotion and disease prevention. There is a strong endorsement of basic research with a clear articulation of its value. Translational research and clinical research are emphasized in the discussion of treatments and cures. In the health promotion/disease prevention area a number of initiatives like precision medicine, the children’s health outcome, and vaccine development are highlighted
- Foster Innovation by Setting NIH Priorities
This objective emphasizes the importance of scientific opportunity. In addition, it calls for NIH to “continue and strengthen its commitment to a transparent, evidence-based process. Principles include nimbleness, portfolio analysis, and “burden of disease as an important, but not sole factor.” As an example of transparency, there is an interesting graphic on page 28 showing the overlap between funding and priority score. NIH will make public a standard metric for funding each year and will also harmonize approaches to decision making by making certain that I/Cs set their paylines to “provide maximum flexibility for the use of the select pay option.”
To enhance nimbleness, NIH will explore the strengths and weaknesses of different grant programs including milestone-drive research supported by the Common Fund, fast-track review of SBIR, scientific challenge prizes. NIH will also use new tools like Big Data to identify scientific opportunities and will enhance portfolio analysis to identify high performing areas of research or areas of potential overlap among I/Cs.
- Enhance Scientific Stewardship
In support of its mission, NIH will undertake efforts to ensure the recruitment and retention of an outstanding and diverse research workforce. NIH also proposes to build upon its recent activities to encourage rigor and reproducibility. There are planned efforts to make the peer review system stronger by enhancing diversity and encouraging grantees to serve on study sections. A pilot program is proposed to assess whether the breadth in the overall NIH portfolio would be increased more by an increase in the number of investigators supported rather than an increase in the number of projects funded. Partnerships with federal agencies, non-profits, and industry are also described as ways to increase the reach of NIH-funded research.
- Excel as a Federal Science Agency by Managing for Results
NIH will take a leading role in the effort to develop and validate metrics for measuring the effectiveness of scientific investments. This will include better ways to measure the outcomes of its research grants and training funds. The agency will embark on a more robust program of workforce analyses and evaluations of its peer review processes. New approaches to review, including asynchronous, electronic reviews and editorial board models, will be tested and validated. Evaluations of the reproducibility initiatives are also proposed.