Program Provides Alternative Path to Funding for Research Grants

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As securing research funding becomes more and more competitive, a new public-private program gives researchers a second chance if their highly ranked grant applications to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) do not receive an award. The Online Partnership to Accelerate Research (OnPAR) provides a portal for researchers who did not receive funding to upload their NIH-submitted abstracts for review by other organizations that might want to support their projects.

OnPAR is a collaborative effort of NIH and Leidos, a company that works in the health, defense, and engineering markets. The innovative program is designed to support applications that score well: within the 30th percentile or high when percentiles are not used. Leidos is developing and operating the program.

Although NIH awarded $4.3 billion for new research projects and renewals in 2015, the agency’s budget “doesn’t allow us to fund everything that we think could have value to the biomedical research enterprise,” said Sherry Mills, MD, MPH, director, Office of Extramural Programs at NIH.

Of the 52,190 applications submitted in 2015, only 9,540—or 18.3 percent—received NIH funding. “That leaves quite a bit of meritorious science on the table,” Mills said. “We all recognize the importance of what researchers are doing and want to be in the best position to support it.”

How it works

Abstracts submitted to OnPAR are screened and passed along to funders, called sponsors, when they fit funders’ research criteria. If interested, sponsors connect with the principal investigators to see the full NIH applications and reviewers’ comments.

A pilot OnPAR program began in March 2016. The seven sponsors involved focused on specific diseases and included the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Melanoma Research Alliance, and Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy. Sponsoring funders pay a subscription to be in the program.

Only 18.3 percent of the 52,190 applications submitted in 2015 received NIH funding. “That leaves quite a bit of meritorious science on the table.”


Sherry Mills, MD, MPH
Office of Extramural Programs, NIH

OnPAR is free for research investigators, and abstracts may be submitted at any time. By late May, about 150 unfunded abstracts had been received. Thirty percent met sponsors’ criteria and were passed along. “That doesn’t mean the others aren’t valuable,” said James Pannucci, PhD, former director of the life sciences division at Leidos. He noted that abstracts remain in the database for a year and would be considered as new sponsors whose criteria they do meet enter the program.

Eun-Kyoung Breuer, PhD, an assistant professor of radiation oncology and molecular pharmacology and therapeutics at Loyola University Chicago, applied to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of NIH, for funding last year. Although her application for a study related to breast cancer oncogenes ranked well, it did not receive an award.

The NCI program officer suggested Breuer submit the abstract to OnPAR. She did so almost immediately. Both investigators and funders benefit from OnPAR, she said. No new application or search for funding is needed by the researcher. Sponsors see only original applications that have been highly rated through the rigorous NIH review process.

“It’s a very encouraging program that increases the chance of getting funds,” said Breuer.

Not a substitute for NIH funding

According to Mills, OnPAR has the potential to help both established and junior investigators. Laboratories would be able to sustain existing projects while newer researchers would gain another chance to develop their work. OnPAR sponsors could make a significant contribution to fully fund a project “or at least sustain researchers while they revise and resubmit [to NIH],” she said.

“[OnPAR] keeps momentum from being lost, expands the field, and gives [the] opportunity for biomedical research to go forward,” Mills noted.

OnPAR serves a pressing need in the scientific community, echoed Alexander Ommaya, DSc, senior director, clinical effectiveness and implementation research, at the AAMC. “These grants can cover partial expenses—enough to keep the momentum of a project going—although not enough to cover full costs to the extent that federal agencies do. For that reason, it’s important to note that OnPAR is promising, but it is not a substitute for NIH funding.”

Pannucci stated that OnPAR will grow beyond its pilot phase in September. He expected the partnership to add 12 more funders from a wider range of organizations and anticipated sponsors from pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, foundations, and other nonprofits would be added as the program expands. “There’s almost no limitation to who can join from the sponsor side,” he said.

Ommaya urged the scientific community to continue advocating for federal funding for medical research. “Our investment in research defines the future of health care and education,” he said.