Ask DrugMonkey: The NIH PA and PAR

March 4, 2014

A communication to the blog raised an issue that is worth exploring in a little more depth. The questioner wanted to know if I knew why a NIH Program Announcement had disappeared.

The Program Announcement (PA) is the most general of the NIH Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs). It is described with these key features:

  • Identifies areas of increased priority and/or emphasis on particular funding mechanisms for a specific area of science
  • Usually accepted on standard receipt (postmarked) dates on an on-going basis
  • Remains active for three years from date of release unless the announcement indicates a specific expiration date or the NIH Institute/Center (I/C) inactivates sooner

In my parlance, the PA means “Hey, we’re interested in seeing some applications on topic X“….and that’s about it. Admittedly, the study section reviewers are supposed to conduct review in accordance with the interests of the PA. Each application has to be submitted under one of the FOAs that are active. Sometimes, this can be as general as the omnibus R01 solicitation. That’s pretty general. It could apply to any R01 submitted to any of the NIH Institutes or Centers (ICs). The PAs can offer a greater degree of topic specificity, of course. I recommend you go to the NIH Guide page and browse around. You should bookmark the current-week page and sign up for email alerts if you haven’t already. (Yes, even grad students should do this.) Sometimes you will find a PA that seems to fit your work exceptionally well and, of course, you should use it. Just don’t expect it to be a whole lot of help.

This brings us to the specific query that was sent to the blog, i.e., why did the PA DA-14-106 go missing, only a week or so after being posted?

Sometimes a PA expires and is either not replaced or you have happened across it in between expiration and re-issue of the next 3-year version. Those are the more-common reasons. I’d never seen one be pulled immediately after posting, however. But the NOT-DA-14-006 tells the tale:

This Notice is to inform the community that NIDA’s “Synthetic Psychoactive Drugs and Strategic Approaches to Counteract Their Deleterious Effects” Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs) (PA-14-104, PA-14-105, PA-14-106) have been reposted as PARs, to allow a Special Emphasis Panel to provide peer review of the applications. To make this change, NIDA has withdrawn PA-14-104, PA-14-105, PA-14-106, and has reposted these announcements as PAR-14-106, PAR-14-105, and PAR-14-104.

This brings us to the key difference between the PA and a PAR (or a PAS):

  • Special Types
    • PAR: A PA with special receipt, referral and/or review considerations, as described in the PAR announcement
    • PAS: A PA that includes specific set-aside funds as described in the PAS announcement

Applications submitted under a PA are going to be assigned to the usual Center for Scientific Review (CSR) panels and thrown in with all the other applications. This can mean that the special concerns of the PA do not really influence review. How so? Well, the NIDA has a generic-ish and long-running PA on the “Neuroscience Research on Drug Abuse“. This is really general. So general that several entire study sections of the CSR fit within it. Why bother reviewing in accordance with the PA when basically everything assigned to the section is, vaguely, in this sphere? And even on the more-specific ones (say, Sex-Differences in Drug Abuse or HIV/AIDS in Drug Abuse, that sort of thing) the general interest of the IC fades into the background. The panel is already more-or-less focused on those being important issues.  So the Significance evaluation on the part of the reviewers barely budges in response to a PA. I bet many reviewers don’t even bother to check the PA at all.

The PAR means, however, that the IC convenes their own Special Emphasis Panel specifically for that particular funding opportunity. So the review panel can be tailored to the announcement’s goals much in the way that a panel is tailored for a Request for Applications ( RFA) FOA. The panel can have very specific expertise for both the PAR and for the applications that are received and,  presumably, have reviewers with a more than average appreciation for the topic of the PAR. There is no existing empaneled population of reviewers to limit choices. There is no distraction from the need to get reviewers who can handle applications that are on topics different from the PAR in question. An SEP brings focus. The mere fact of a SEP also tends to keep the reviewer’s mind on the announcement’s goals. They don’t have to juggle the goals of PA vs PA vs PA as they would in  a general CSR panel.

As you know, Dear Reader, I have blogged about both synthetic cannabinoid drugs and the “bath salts” here on this blog now and again. So I can speculate a little bit about what happened here. These classes of recreational drugs hit the attention of regulatory authorities and scientists in the US around about 2009, and certainly by 2010. There have been a modest but growing number of papers published. I have attended several conference symposia themed around these drugs. And yet if you do some judicious searching on RePORTER you will find precious few grants dedicated to these compounds. It it no great leap of faith to figure that various PIs have been submitting grants on these topics and are not getting fundable scores. There are, of course, many possible reasons for this and some may have influenced NIDA’s thinking on this PA/PAR.

It may be the case that NIDA felt that reviewers simply did not know that they wanted to see some applications funded and were consequently not prioritizing the Significance of such applications. Or it may be that NIDA felt that their good PIs who would write competitive grants were not interested in the topics. Either way, a PA would appear to be sufficient encouragement.

The replacement of a PA with a PAR, however, suggests that NIDA has concluded that the problem lies with study section reviewers and  that a mere PA was not going to be sufficient* to focus minds.

As one general conclusion from this vignette, the PAR is substantially better than the PA when it comes to enhancing the chances for applications submitted to it. This holds in a case in which there is some doubt that the usual CSR study sections will find the goals to be Significant. The caveat is that when there is no such doubt, the PAR is worse because the applications on the topic will all be in direct competition with each other. The PAR essentially guarantees that some grants on the topic will be funded, but the PA potentially allows more of them to be funded.

It is only “essentially” because the PAR does not come with set-aside funds as does the RFA or the PAS. And I say “potentially” because this depends on their being many highly competitive applications which are distributed across several CSR sections for a PA.


*This is a direct validation of my position that the PA is a rather weak stimulus, btw.

As always when it comes to NIDA specifics, see Disclaimer.

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6 Responses to “Ask DrugMonkey: The NIH PA and PAR”

  1. DJMH Says:

    You are an education on a daily basis, DM…


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    Glad you found it useful DJMH. Say, when are you going to return to blogging????


  3. DJMH Says:

    Post tenure.


  4. Dr Igg Says:

    Excellent DM, thanks.

    The Special Emphasis Panel is in effect for the entire life of the PAR – in this case 5/8/17, and possibly longer if the PAR is renewed. Essentially a standing study section is established (e.g., ZDA1 XXX) for the life of the PAR. This means that if a grant is reviewed as an A0 in the SEP, then revised and resubmitted as an A1, will the application go back to the same ZDA1 study section. Am I right on this?


  5. drugmonkey Says:

    I am not clear on that. If it is a repeating study section name, I don’t think there is any appointing of members. So there is no guarantee that it will be the same panel in that sense. The SRO would likely be the same, as long as they haven’t moved from NIDA…


  6. The Other Dave Says:

    I always thought that PAs and PARs were a result of some loudmouth convincing people at NIH that his field is under-appreciated.


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