The National Research Committee of the American Heart Association (AHA) is responsible for determining the characteristics of research awards offered by the AHA National Center, which recently have totaled approximately $50 million annually, and for the peer review process that selects awardees. This committee is composed of representatives from each of the 14 Scientific Councils and 6 at-large members, each of whom serves a 5-year nonrecurring term. Members of the Research Committee usually have been recipients of AHA research awards and almost always have served previously in peer review capacities for AHA affiliates, the National Center, and the NIH. Most Research Committee members are current department or division directors within their respective institutions.
For more than a year, as a component of an initiative called “Preparing for the 21st Century” that touches on all aspects of AHA activities, the National Research Committee has been reviewing its current portfolio of research awards and considering alternatives for the future. In this endeavor, we have sought and received input from many AHA volunteers and staff working in both national and affiliate programs.
New Programs for 1996
This process culminated in March 1995 with Research Committee approval of a complete revision of the research programs offered by the AHA National Center. These changes will not affect applications received in 1995 but will become effective for applications received in 1996 and awards beginning in 1997. At that time, all of the current programs—Established Investigator Award, Clinician-Scientist Award, Minority Scientist Development Award, Grant-in-Aid, and Medical Student Research Fellowship—will be replaced by three new types of grants, as follows.
1. The Scientist Development Grant is a completely new program, targeted at beginning investigators. This 4-year grant will provide $65 000 annually, including up to $30 000 for salary and fringe benefits, with the remainder devoted to project support. Applications may be submitted in the final year of a postdoctoral fellowship or within the first 4 years of a faculty appointment. Peer review criteria will include originality and scientific merit of the proposed project (which cannot overlap with other funded work), prior productivity of the applicant, and evidence that the award will promote independent status for the applicant. This grant program will supplant the existing Clinician-Scientist and Minority Scientist Development Awards. We anticipate awarding approximately 70 of these grants in 1997.
2. The Established Investigator Grant, a 4-year award, will provide $75 000 annually, including up to $35 000 for salary and fringe benefits, with the remainder devoted to project support. The applicant pool will be similar to the existing Established Investigator program, targeting investigators between 4 and 9 years beyond their first faculty appointment. Peer review criteria will require that successful applicants have demonstrated outstanding progress in leading an independent research program, and they must propose an original project of high scientific merit. Unlike the existing Established Investigator Award, the proposed project can have no scientific overlap with other projects funded by NIH or other sources. We anticipate awarding approximately 50 of these grants in 1997.
3. The new Grant-in-Aid program will be similar to the existing Grant-in-Aid but with several important differences. First, more substantial projects can be proposed, with up to $55 000 in annual support for up to 3 years, including 10% institutional overhead costs. No salary support for the investigator is provided. Second, unlike our current policy, there will be no restrictions on eligibility based on seniority or academic rank. The emphasis in peer review will be on innovation, originality, and potential impact of new research directions. We anticipate awarding approximately 100 of these grants in 1997.
Rationale for Changes in the National Center Research Portfolio
This revised set of research programs was developed to utilize the limited pool of available funds most effectively in support of the mission of the AHA. The Research Committee has been concerned for several years that beginning investigators are particularly vulnerable to the currently restricted availability of research support from the NIH. Traditionally, the AHA has maintained a special interest in supporting young scientists who might otherwise be unable to continue in research careers. For the past 2 years, we restricted the Grant-in-Aid program to junior investigators as a stopgap measure to meet this need, but the new AHA Scientist Development Award provides a more satisfying and definitive approach.
With the needs of beginning investigators covered by the AHA Scientist Development Grant, we were then free to open up the Grant-in-Aid program without restriction so as to solicit the best possible projects from the entire research community. The revised Established Investigator Grant should free institutions and investigators from the frequently awkward situation encountered when the proposed project for an Established Investigator award overlaps with NIH support. In all three programs, larger awards focus resources on a somewhat smaller number of awardees but provide more substantial support. This proposed approach appears sound in the face of current realities with respect to federal support for biomedical research.
Support for Physician-Scientists and Underrepresented Minorities
The termination of the Clinician-Scientist and Minority Scientist Development Awards should not be interpreted as a retreat from the long-standing goals of the AHA in supporting physician-scientists and in promoting inclusiveness in our research programs. We believe that both of these goals can be met more effectively through the new portfolio. With respect to physician-scientists who previously would have been eligible for the Clinician-Scientist Award, we expect the number of AHA Scientist Development Awards to be sufficient to support an equal or greater number of such individuals. We will monitor the reality of this prediction over time, and the special perspectives provided by physician-scientists will continue to be considered in the composition of peer review committees.
We expect these new programs to provide greater opportunities for underrepresented minorities to receive research support from the AHA, despite the discontinuation of the Minority Scientist Development Award program. As a tangible step toward increasing the involvement of minority investigators, the National Research Committee voted to set a floor of 6% of all funds invested through these three new programs for funding applications from underrepresented minority scientists. Applications from minority investigators will be evaluated and scored in the common pool, but funding decisions will include this criterion. The AHA Scientist Development Grant should prove particularly helpful to female and minority investigators, since we expect such individuals to be more highly represented among younger as opposed to older applicants.
Relations Between National Center and AHA Affiliate Research Programs
These decisions on the part of the National Research Committee concern only that portion of AHA research dollars (currently about 50%) that are administered through the National Center. An additional $50 million in annual research support is currently provided from the 55 AHA affiliate organizations around the country, each of which determines the manner in which their affiliate research funds are used. In principle, the overall mission of the AHA—the reduction of disability and death from cardiovascular diseases and stroke—is best served when National Center and affiliate research programs serve complementary needs and work together to support those projects and individuals most likely to serve that mission.
The structure of these new national research programs has been strongly influenced by comments received from AHA affiliate volunteers and staff, and we continue to welcome such input. We also hope that decisions made by the National Research Committee will influence actions taken by affiliates with respect to their own research programs. For example, the trend toward more substantial awards and a tighter focus on projects of the highest merit seems appropriate and necessary in these leaner times, and these principles have been strongly supported by the Research Program and Evaluation Committee, the volunteer committee within the AHA charged with oversight of the entire research enterprise, including both the National Center and AHA affiliates. Several affiliates already have endorsed the new set of programs from the National Center and are seeking to structure their local research portfolios in a complementary manner.
Other Changes and Future Plans
Beginning with applications received in 1995, national AHA peer review committees no longer will provide written critiques to unsuccessful applicants. This decision was based primarily on the need to keep costs of peer review at a minimum while maintaining the highest standards of quality in evaluating increasingly large numbers of applications. The Research Committee also is conducting trials of several methods for identifying less meritorious applications through some form of preliminary review (triage). In addition, other changes in the peer review system that would reduce the time elapsed between submission of the proposal and notification of awards to successful applicants are under consideration.
These policy changes and the new research programs to be launched in 1996 will be subjected to the same ongoing scrutiny with which the Research Committee has monitored past and current national AHA research programs. Comments and suggestions from the cardiovascular research community are welcomed and are most appropriately channeled through your Council representatives.
Dr Williams is immediate past chairman of the AHA National Research Committee.
- Copyright © 1995 by American Heart Association