There’s a podcast (mp3) on this linked to the Open Mike blog here.

The NIH is going to reduce their use of Program Announcements to advertise their interest in receiving applications on scientific topics. Previously, various stripes of PA including PAS (set aside funds, like an RFA) and PAR (special emphasis panel convened for review) were published to solicit grant applications on specific topics. The above linked podcast indicates that now these interests will be advertised with a Notice of Special Interest (NOSI). The NOSI are published as a Notice (e.g., NOT-DA-20-039) and they point to existing FOA, like parent R01, R21, etc as the FOA link you actually will apply under.

One super key point is that you have to indicate the specific NOSI as follows in your submission:

For funding consideration, applicants must include “NOT-XX-20-0xy” (without quotation marks) in the Agency Routing Identifier field (box 4B) of the SF424 R&R form. Applications without this information in box 4B will not be considered for this initiative.

As the podcast indicates, normally you wouldn’t put anything there. And it also warns that your application may not be considered under the NOSI interests if you forget. “May not”. Yeah.

Note that as with the specific PAs, these NOSI may have different key dates, other submission instructions or variations on the usual mechanism themes. Total duration of an R01 might be limited to 3 years, for example. So read carefully.

You may want to know, as I do, why is NIH doing this? Well the only thing that was repeated in the podcast that made any sense was the speed of getting these approved. Dr. Jodi Black, Deputy Director of NIH’s OER, said on the podcast that they can get the information out quicker. She claimed that the old way might require up to a year to get a PA approved and published and that they can get these out in 4-5 weeks. Since the FOA itself (i.e., the parent R01 FOA) is already approved.

Ok, sounds great. Everything is faster.

Does it get you anything? Is it worth it to pay attention to the weekly NIH guide and scrutinize it for NOSI that might work for you? Should you use NOSI?

Yes. Ish.

Dr. Black seemed to be saying that the prior PA purpose was, and the NOSI purpose is, to advertise NIH interests. A naive PI, as I once was, might assume that if you have work that fits really, really well with the PA that this should get you some extra benefit. Like, some credit at review for meeting the goals of the PA.

A naive PI, as I once was, might likewise assume that meeting the goals of the PA was one of the only ways to get Program on your side for a pickup of a borderline score.

When I got on study section I was quickly disabused of the notion that meeting the goals of the PA did much for you during initial review in a standing panel. Sure, the diligent reviewers would notice if the application was under a PA that described a scientific interest. Especially if they were favorably disposed towards the grant already. But I can’t recall a single case where it seemed to make much difference. The grants were reviewed on the grounds typical for the section. “Significance” was reviewed based on the reviewer’s own view of the importance, not that one of the NIH ICs had stated what was important to them. Occasionally I have even heard what amounted to jury nullification or revolt, where the reviewer was essentially in disagreement with the IC’s expression of importance for the topic!

BTW, sex differences research topics were often the subject of focal PA from my ICs of closest interest. We all know how that went.

As I gained more experience with the murky view on Program decision making and pickups, I came to the conclusion that PAs weren’t all that much help with borderline pickups either. Unless it was the very specific case of a PAS or RFA with funds already committed, there was never any guarantee (*actually not even with RFA, but you know what I mean) any grants would be funded for a given round. Program would certainly pickup a parent R01 proposal over a specific PA/RFA proposal if it met their other suite of interests (e.g., “our long term funded investigator- no not you DM – is running out of money”).

I still submit apps relevant to focal PAs and I now submit apps under NOSI. Why not, right? It can’t hurt, is my thought. But I have a much, much lower estimate of how much it might help to get my grants funded.

On a recent case, for example, I was bouncing emails around with some Program Officers and eventually one of them let it slip that the IC in question may be listed on the NOSI but they really didn’t expect to put any money into it. I interpreted this as “meh, if there’s a REALLY good one from our buddy PI who we (meaning the IC brass / powers that be) luuurv to pieces than maaaaaybe it will get some special consideration”. I ended up not doing an app for that particular “special interest”.

(Yes of COURSE my lab is the best possible lab for that particular interest…but without POs being on board with the topic in any real, hard dollars kind of way…it’s a waste of time.)

But since you never know when a NOSI is going to tip the difference on an application that just missed the payline by a smidge, I’m going to keep paying attention to NOSI announcements.