NIAID Adjusts Paylines Throughout the Fiscal Year

Funding News Edition: August 19, 2020
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One way you can plan ahead for future applications is to pay attention to concepts approved by NIAID’s Advisory Council. Concepts indicate NIAID’s plans for funding opportunities to address research gaps and needs.

Credit: NIAID

A common recommendation among NIH observers is that institutes should provide five-year budget outlooks, which would help investigators anticipate and prepare for budget changes. Unfortunately, there are too many variables for us to produce reliable forecasts, such as what funding levels Congress and the President will agree on, the number of grant applications we will receive annually, the change in average costs for those grants, and policy changes affecting the grant application and award process.

These same variables present a challenge in meeting our main budgetary goal: supporting a robust portfolio of investigator-initiated research and generating higher success rates by sustaining payline levels. In the absence of concrete, five-year projections, we instead forecast and plan for the unknown by setting conservative paylines at the beginning of the fiscal year and adjusting them upward until we reach a final payline.

Paylines exist as one way to fund the best science across multiple scientific areas as determined by peer review. This works in combination with percentiling, which ranks applications relative to others scored by the same study section. See NIAID Paylines and Understand Paylines and Percentiles for additional details.

In setting NIAID's paylines, our budget office takes into account several factors, including our expected appropriation, application volume, and awarded grants' projected average costs. At the beginning of the fiscal year, we set provisional paylines because of uncertainty around incoming applications and we frequently operate under a continuing resolution that provides funding at the same level as the previous year. Once a final appropriation is passed, and we know more about the number of applications and their average cost, we adjust the payline. For every year in recent memory, we’ve kept or raised the paylines after a final appropriation is passed.

An application from the first cycle that scores within NIAID’s final payline will be funded, even if it was beyond our interim payline at the time. The chart below shows how payline adjustments correspond to Council rounds and review cycles, and our page Overview of R01 Process provides more information about the funding timeline. Although some applicants speculate that applications submitted for the third review cycle benefit disproportionately from improved paylines, we have no evidence to support this idea and recommend against timing the submission on that basis.


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One way you can plan ahead for future applications is to pay attention to concepts approved by NIAID’s Advisory Council, which are indexed at Concepts—Potential Opportunities. Concepts indicate NIAID’s plans for funding opportunities to address research gaps and needs. While not all concepts become initiatives, they highlight NIAID’s interests and are good topics for investigator-initiated applications.

There are other budgetary tools NIAID uses to support a robust portfolio of investigator-initiated research for those applications that do not score within the payline. In the past, we’ve adjusted the amount of funding for R56-Bridge awards, selective pay, and competing research levels as necessary to optimize our paylines and success rates. We’ve also made uniform adjustments to both competing and noncompeting grants.

So, while NIAID cannot provide a long-term budget outlook, we do use the mechanisms available to us to create stable success rates at the highest paylines possible. To learn more about this topic, read Background on NIAID Funding Opportunity Planning and the Budget Cycle.

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