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Envisioning NCI’s Future: Annual Plan and Budget Proposal for FY 2021

, by L. Michelle Bennett, Ph.D.

L. Michelle Bennett, Ph.D.

Director, NCI Center for Research Strategy

Dr. L. Michelle Bennett, director of NCI’s Center for Research Strategy, provides an overview of priorities from the NCI Annual Plan and Budget Proposal for Fiscal Year 2021 that are especially relevant to current and future NCI-funded researchers, including supporting more investigator-initiated research and maximizing opportunities in emerging areas of science.

Are you curious about how NCI identifies emerging research opportunities, sets priorities, spots gaps, and develops research initiatives to address them? Although scientific planning occurs throughout the year at NCI, we value the opportunity to thoughtfully reflect on accomplishments, outline opportunities, and imagine the future of cancer research. 

At NCI, we do all this through our annual plan and budget proposal, which we submit directly to the President and transmit to Congress as required by the National Cancer Act of 1971. For nearly 50 years, the annual plan has been the vehicle NCI uses to identify the funding necessary to achieve the aspirational goals of the National Cancer Program.

One month ago, NCI released the Annual Plan and Budget Proposal for Fiscal Year (FY) 2021. In this blog, I’d like to call your attention to priorities in the plan that are especially relevant to current and future NCI-funded researchers. The most compelling NCI priority is the need to keep pace with the significant surge in investigator-initiated applications the grants community is submitting to NCI. To fund more meritorious ideas, NCI recommends a bold funding increase, allowing NCI to improve the payline for R01 grants from the current 8th percentile to the 15th percentile.  

Paylines and Success Rates for NCI R01 Applications Remain Low Chart

The increase proposed in the annual plan—representing a major aspirational goal for NCI’s FY 2021 budget—would help us reduce the gap between the dramatic increase in high-quality applications NCI receives and our ability to fund them. With the funding boost, NCI could support more discoveries, allow more innovative minds to focus on cancer, and generate more opportunities to prevent, detect, and treat the disease. As our readers may recall, NCI Acting Director Dr. Douglas Lowy offered a compelling rationale for what we propose in the annual plan in his recent NCI Bottom Line blog post

As we imagine the future of cancer research, questions abound that need answers. Investigator-initiated research has stimulated many scientific opportunities during the past decade. The FY 2021 plan focuses on three emerging priorities: the immune system and microbiome, artificial intelligence, and implementation science at the interface of cancer. These are three compelling research opportunities, and we know there are many more. 

As the largest funder of cancer research, NCI must tackle cancer from every angle—from basic research to translating knowledge into the clinic and the community. Robust and sustained investment in cancer research will lead to new prevention, early detection, and diagnosis strategies, improve treatments available to cancer patients, and enhance quality of life for cancer survivors.

You’ll also note that the annual plan highlights the experiences of researchers and patients. The stories of researchers reflect the dedication, commitment, and compassion of researchers seeking to advance scientific knowledge in support of patients. And the stories of patients highlight the courage, tenacity, and optimism of those who participate in clinical trials so other patients may benefit. The 27% decline in the death rate from cancer during the past 25 years in the United States is due in large part to researchers and patients like those we highlight in the plan.

As you’ll see, our strategy includes supporting more investigator-initiated research and maximizing opportunities in emerging areas of science. That’s why we hope you will not only read what we consider our most important strategic planning document, but also share the vision and message of the annual plan with your colleagues and communities. Of course, we welcome insights, ideas, and comments about what you read!

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