Grant Supplements and Diversity Efforts

November 18, 2016

The NIH announced an “encouragement” for NIMH BRAINI PIs to apply for the availability of Research Supplements to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research (Admin Supp).

Administrative supplements for those who are unaware, are extra amounts of money awarded to an existing NIH grant. These are not reviewed by peer reviewers in a competitive manner. The decision lies entirely with Program Staff*. The Diversity supplement program in my experience and understanding amounts to a fellowship- i.e., mostly just salary support – for a qualifying trainee. (Blog note: Federal rules on underrepresentation apply….this thread will not be a place to argue about who is properly considered an underrepresented individual, btw.) The BRANI-directed the encouragement lays out the intent:

The NIH diversity supplement program offers an opportunity for existing BRAIN awardees to request additional funds to train and mentor the next generation of researchers from underrepresented groups who will contribute to advancing the goals of the BRAIN Initiative. Program Directors/Principal Investigators (PDs/PIs) of active BRAIN Initiative research program grants are thus encouraged to identify individuals from groups nationally underrepresented to support and mentor under the auspices of the administrative supplement program to promote diversity. Individuals from the identified groups are eligible throughout the continuum from high school to the faculty level. The activities proposed in the supplement application must fall within the scope of the parent grant, and both advance the objectives of the parent grant and support the research training and professional development of the supplement candidate. BRAIN Initiative PDs/PIs are strongly encouraged to incorporate research education activities that will help prepare the supplement candidate to conduct rigorous research relevant to the goals of the BRAIN Initiative

I’ll let you read PA-16-288 for the details but we’re going to talk generally about the Administrative Supplement process so it is worth reprinting this bit:

Administrative supplement, the funding mechanism being used to support this program, can be used to cover cost increases that are associated with achieving certain new research objectives, as long as the research objectives are within the original scope of the peer reviewed and approved project, or the cost increases are for unanticipated expenses within the original scope of the project. Any cost increases need to result from making modifications to the project that would increase or preserve the overall impact of the project consistent with its originally approved objectives and purposes.

Administrative supplements come in at least three varieties, in my limited experience. [N.b. You can troll RePORTER for supplements using “S1” or “S2” in the right hand field for the Project Number / Activity Code search limiter. Unfortunately I don’t think you get much info on what the supplement itself is for.] The support for underrepresented trainees is but one category. There are also topic-directed FOAs that are issued now and again because a given I or C wishes to quickly spin up research on some topic or other. Sex differences. Emerging health threats. Etc. Finally, there are those one might categorize within the “unanticipated expenses” and “increase or preserve the overall impact of the project” clauses in the block I’ve quoted above.

I first became aware of the Administrative Supplement in this last context. I was OUTRAGED, let me tell you. It seemed to be a way by which the well-connected and highly-established use their pet POs to enrich their programs beyond what they already had via competition. Some certain big labs seemed to be constantly supplemented on one award or other. Me, I sure had “unanticipated expenses” when I was just getting started. I had plenty of things that I could have used a few extra modules of cash to pay for to enhance the impact of my projects. I did not have any POs looking to hand me any supplements unasked and when I hinted very strongly** about my woes there was no help to be had***. I did not like administrative supplements as practiced one bit. Nevertheless, I was young and still believed in the process. I believed that I needn’t pursue the supplement avenue too hard because I was going to survive into the mid career stretch and just write competing apps for what I needed. God, I was naive.

Perhaps. Perhaps if I’d fought harder for supplements they would have been awarded. Or maybe not.

When I became aware of the diversity supplements, I became an instant fan. This was much more palatable. It meant that at any time a funded PI found a likely URM recruit to science, they could get the support within about 6 weeks. Great for summer research experiences for undergrads, great for unanticipated postdocs. This still seems like a very good thing to me. Good for the prospective trainees. Good for diversity-in-science goals.

The trouble is that from the perspective of the PIs in the audience, this is just another rich-get-richer scheme whereby free labor is added to the laboratory accounts of the already advantaged “haves” of the NIH game. Salary is freed up on the research grants to spend on more toys, reagents or yet another postdoc. This mechanism is only available to a PI who has research grant funding that has a year or more left to run. Since it remains an administrative decision it is also subject to buddy-buddy PI/PO relationship bias. Now, do note that I have always heard from POs in my ICs of closest concern that they “don’t expend all the funds allocated” for these URM supplements. I don’t know what to make of that but I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if any PI with a qualified award, who asks for support of a qualified individual gets one. That would take the buddy/buddy part out of the equation for this particular type of administrative supplement.

It took awhile for me to become aware of the FOA version of the administrative supplement whereby Program was basically issuing a cut-rate RFA. The rich still get richer but at least there is a call for open competition. Not like the first variety I discussed whereby it seems like only some PIs, but not others, are even told by the PO that a supplement might be available. This seems slightly fairer to me although again, you have to be in the funded-PI club already to take advantage

There are sometimes competing versions of the FOA for a topic-based supplement issued as well. In one case I am familiar with, both types were issued simultaneously. I happen to know quite a bit about that particular scenario and it was interesting to see the competing variety actually were quite bad. I wished I’d gone in for the competing ones instead of the administrative variety****, let me tell you.

The primary advantage of the administrative supplement to Program, in my viewing, is that it is fast. No need to wait for the grant review cycle. These and the competing supplements are also cheap and can be efficient, because of leverage from the activities and capabilities under the already funded award.

As per usual, I have three main goals with this post. First, if you are an underrepresented minority trainee it is good to be aware of this. Not all PIs are and not all think about it. Not to mention they don’t necessarily know if you qualify for one of these. I’d suggest bringing it up in conversations with a prospective lab you wish to join. Second, if you are a noob PI I encourage you to be aware of the supplement process and to take advantage of it as you might.

Finally, DearReader, I turn to you and your views on Administrative Supplements. Good? Bad? OUTRAGE?

COI DISCLAIMER: I’ve benefited from administrative supplements under each of the three main categories I’ve outlined and I would certainly not turn up my nose at any additional ones in the future.

*I suppose it is not impossible that in some cases outside input is solicited.

**complained vociferously

***I have had a few enraging conversations long after the fact with POs who said things like “Why didn’t you ask for help?” in the wake of some medium sized disaster with my research program. I keep to myself the fact that I did, and nobody was willing to go to bat for me until it was too late but…whatevs.

****I managed to get all the way to here without emphasizing that even for the administrative supplements you have to prepare an application. It might not be as extensive as your typical competing application but it is much more onerous than Progress Report. Research supplements look like research grants. Fellowship-like supplements look like fellowships complete with training plan.

20 Responses to “Grant Supplements and Diversity Efforts”

  1. Geo Says:

    If only there were occasionally some interesting news about science on this blog.


  2. I-75 Scientist Says:

    These are definitely good things for enhancing diversity and helping to train more scientists. Where I am, many PIs are aware and write for them.
    I’m just disappointed they won’t provide them to R00 awards. I had a student this summer that wanted to stay on full time for a year or so as a post-bac. If the requirement is year left of funding, why then not provide it for R00s? I would have had a little over 2. This was a individual that had the academic skills, but really needs a year or so of training to be competitive. A supplement would have made taking a risk and hiring them an easy decisions, but it came down to being a small/just getting started lab that doesn’t have the employees to help train them or the resources to dedicate to training an individual with likely lower output for a while. My department also has a 10wk summer program that this would be great for covering an individuals salary and some research support.

    Oh well, more pressure for getting that R01 I guess.


  3. becca Says:

    Is there any follow up data on the URM who were funded under administrative supplements? In a perverse way, I felt like the lack of financial investment on the part of the PI made them less invested in the trainees career, but it’s just anecdotal. Even if it proved to be a common outcome, I’d still support the program, but it might need to be tweaked.


  4. The NSF used to have administrative diversity supplements, and then about 5 years ago they got rid of them. From what I saw, it was due to budget cuts. Of all the things to cut due to budget limitations, this seemed like a poor decision on their part. No one is getting rich off of the NSF. The supplements were actually being used for the right reason.


  5. I-75 Scientist Says:

    If we’re going by anccedotal evidence, I can point to a couple PIs that got their starts thru these supplements. And, Ts/Fs and others also reduced PI financial burden, but they usually don’t reduce interest in training. So, yeah, hard data would be good.


  6. socsci Says:

    @I-75: I know an assistant prof who got a postdoc diversity supplement on his R00. I believe R00 is on the list of acceptable mechs.


  7. drugmonkey Says:

    This whole “financial investment” business is misplaced in my experience. There are good and bad mentoring relationships independent of the source of funding.


  8. drugmonkey Says:

    The R00 is not listed on the parent announcement. However, it may be the case that some ICs have decided to supplement them. Individual ICs can always tweak the way they use a particular mechanism.


  9. Matt Says:

    I was told no to a predoc R00 diversity supplement via NINDS, I had 2.5 years left at the time.


  10. I-75 Scientist Says:

    Interesting. Maybe I need to talk a little more with PO if opp comes up again and see if possible. Although this particular PO is pretty much by the letter of the PA type person (and usually no help in figuring out unclear items).


  11. drugmonkey Says:

    I-75 Sci-

    I didn’t mean to imply individual relaxation of rules on an ad hoc basis. I meant that if someone was known to have received a diversity supplement for R00 it *might* be the case that the Institute in question has issued their own FOA to extend the eligibility.


  12. drugmonkey Says:

    Or I could have simply googled. Check this out

    The parent call included R00 once upon a time. The current re-issue does not.


  13. drugmonkey Says:

    I also want to point out that there is a list of tweaks / updates added to the parent notice.

    NIAAA will only consider them on a two-deadline timeline.

    Specific additional funding mechanisms added by NIOSH/CDC include R00

    Etc. have to do your homework…..


  14. I-75 Scientist Says:

    No worries. thanks for the information. Wasn’t really thinking ad hoc anyways. Mostly that the PO I’ve communicated with is newer to the IC, and sometimes doesn’t seem to be up on everything (my impression from interactions with them compared to previous). One of those things where email conversations don’t work well to get all the information needed.


  15. drugmonkey Says:

    That NIOSH / CDC tweak is cosponsored by OER. And it doesn’t say the codes were added *only* for NIOSH / CDC awards. So I’m not sure how this applies across the other ICs. A little confusing.


  16. jmz4 Says:

    Interesting, I wasn’t aware that this was a thing. It does seem good that it allows some flexibility in providing funding for approved projects, and lets the POs steer money to bolster certain non-scientific priorities. Your gripe is really with the buddy-buddy nature of the system, which is probably more grievously apparent in other aspects of the NIH award scheme.

    So, how is this used in practice? Lets say I have a new R01, and I get an application from a well-qualified post-bac who wants to spend two years in the lab, and is an URM. Do I hire her and then request the supplement? Is it allowed to have the supplement cleared (but not disbursed) and then make the offer?


  17. drugmonkey Says:

    The supplements are IME like a fellowship. A specific person is identified and they are not transferable. I don’t know whether it matters if they are working in your lab already but see above about being funded off the grant in question.


  18. anonymous PI Says:

    The diversity supplements don’t really make sense to me. In the case of students or postdocs, these are people that the PI has already made a commitment to mentoring (maybe this is not the rule, but that’s the way it is in practice in the vast majority of these supplements). To be eligible, the PIs already have stable, abundant NIH funding. So how does this promote diversity in science? Should I be putting all my effort into recruiting more minority students because just maybe I can get their salaries covered upon the whim of a PO?


  19. drugmonkey Says:

    One grant with 1-2 years to go is “stable and abundant” eh?


  20. drugmonkey Says:

    R03 and R21 are eligible, btw.


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