From the Deputy Director for Intramural Research

The DDIR Innovation Award Program

Supporting Collaborative Research Projects and Centers

Michael Gottesman

Michael Gottesman

Charles Dearolf

Researchers have natural interactions with other members of their institutes and centers (ICs) and with their laboratory neighbors down the hall, but the demands and pace of research life can make it difficult at times to widen that circle of colleagues. One of our goals in the Office of Intramural Research is to promote scientific activities and events that reach across IC boundaries. Hence, OIR has traditionally supported a range of activities such as the scientific interest groups and the Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series to bridge these gaps.

With the goal of sparking new partnerships, we are pleased that this year we could provide financial support to promote collaborative research projects and centers through the DDIR Innovation Award Program. The program was made possible by the generous contributions of the intramural scientific directors, who provided almost $6.9 million to support worthwhile projects. The Innovation Award Program was a major recommendation of the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director’s report on Long-Term Planning for the NIH Intramural Research Program.

The Innovation Award Program provides seed money for innovative and high-impact research while stimulating interactions among investigators. We particularly welcomed proposals in the scientific fields that were identified as priorities as part of the intramural long-term planning process (inflammatory diseases, cell-based therapies, microbiome, drug resistance, neuroscience, RNA biology and therapeutics, vaccines, natural products, and animal modeling), but other topics were also considered.

The program offered three types of award to principal investigators. One type, to build scientific communities, was for program project awards to enhance collaborations among researchers working in the same or a similar scientific field. A team of three to five principal investigators (PIs) could propose a set of distinct but scientifically related individual projects.

A second type, to build research capacity, was to facilitate the creation or expansion of centers and facilities. Some research approaches, such as those requiring high-throughput technologies, expensive instrumentation, or a particular expertise, may be most effective when organized within a center or facility that interacts with investigators from multiple ICs. For this category, PIs from two or more ICs could submit a proposal to develop new scientific approaches, or a large-scale implementation of a current biomedical approach, centered on equipment and infrastructure.

The third type, to build bridges, was for smaller-scale collaborations with extramural investigators or industry. Priority was given to projects that would have a predictable, positive impact on human health or that involved patented or patent-pending inventions.

We distributed a call for proposals in March, and the response from the intramural community was overwhelming. We received 158 letters of intent (LOIs). Approximately half of these were invited to submit a full proposal, and 69 full proposals were submitted. The proposals were each reviewed by two or more intramural investigators. We had to recruit almost 100 reviewers to obtain the appropriate expertise for the different applications. In all, more than 450 investigators participated, either as reviewers or as project heads or collaborators on an LOI or a full proposal.

The Intramural Research Program (IRP) currently employs a little over 1,000 PIs, so almost half participated in some manner in the award program!

The program granted 25 awards, ranging from $48,000 to $750,000. A full list and description of the successful projects are available at https://oir.nih.gov/about/ddir-innovation-awards. It was incredible to read about so many innovative ideas percolating in the IRP, though I’m not surprised at the wide-ranging creativity of our investigators. We wish we could have funded additional projects, as there were more worthwhile ideas than available funds.

We are encouraged that the DDIR Innovation Award program has stimulated investigators to initiate conversations with their intramural colleagues. As for the future, the program’s fate is contingent on the budget situation for the IRP. We are guardedly optimistic that we’ll be able to offer the program again next year. We envision that the program could provide a second year of funding for a subset of the ongoing projects as well as start-up funding for new projects. Regardless of the outcome, this year’s program was a success, and we will be looking forward in the next few years to hearing about the results from the supported research.


PHOTOS BY ERNIE BRANSON