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Reducing Administrative Burdens on Cancer Researchers

, by NCI Director Dr. Norman E. Sharpless

NCI Director Dr. Norman E. Sharpless

Credit: National Institutes of Health

Securing and maintaining a grant from NCI requires cancer researchers to prepare the initial application and comply with additional requirements during the life of the grant, which is demanding and time-consuming. In this blog post, Dr. Sharpless describes NCI efforts to reduce administrative burdens on NCI grantees and shares helpful resources.

At NCI, we are proud to support outstanding cancer science through a rigorous process that identifies the most meritorious research. In recent years, we have seen dramatic growth in applications from cancer researchers seeking NCI support. This growth is a sign of the enthusiasm of the research community during an era of rapid progress and abundant scientific opportunity. Yet, this situation also increases competition for finite resources. 

I have previously discussed the effects of this increased competition on paylines and funding success rates, but here I’d like to describe a different problem for extramural researchers:  administrative burden related to existing grants.

Securing a grant from NCI is challenging but maintaining and renewing that grant also requires significant effort. I understand this firsthand, as an academic researcher who has written many NCI and National Institutes of Health grant applications for a variety of mechanisms throughout my career. 

Many challenges related to securing, maintaining, and renewing a grant involve meeting administrative requirements. These requirements are important and are often set by federal law and the regulations and policies that implement these laws. Understanding them can be difficult—reporting rules are inflexible, grant funding announcements can be complex, and grants policies evolve. 

Despite efforts by NCI to reduce burdens on researchers, annual grant renewals and competing resubmissions require that investigators address topics such as human subjects, vertebrate animals, and new intellectual property filings, even when these topics may not be relevant to that specific grant.

As a result, the burden on NCI-funded scientists is substantial. NCI understands how these requirements—albeit important for assuring good science—can distract scientists from research in the lab or clinic. What researchers care about most is concentrating on their science and contributing to ending cancer as we know it. Meeting administrative requirements can sometimes feel like a distraction from a researcher’s primary mission. 

As I have visited cancer centers across the country, I have heard time and again how the paperwork effort involved in securing, maintaining, and renewing a grant can increase stress and contribute to burnout and attrition. At NCI, we acknowledge these demands, and we are working to ease them, while at the same time meeting our requirement to be good stewards of federal research funds. 

Extending award length

Since writing a competing renewal requires significant effort, one way to reduce administrative burden for some scientists is to award grants for seven years instead of five: 

  • Since 2015, we have provided seven-year grants through the Outstanding Investigator Awards. Researchers receiving Outstanding Investigator Awards have demonstrated sustained and high research productivity, so NCI feels it is low risk to award additional years of funding to this group of scientists. Outstanding Investigator Awards allow researchers to test high-risk hypotheses supported by a higher level of funding and for more years than is possible under a traditional research project grant. 
  • Since 2018, NCI has used the Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) Award (R37) to extend the length of time that early-stage investigators receive funding under their first substantial independent grant. These awards are available to early-stage investigator applicants who receive scores within the payline NCI sets for MERIT Awards. An R37 award also allows scientists a longer period to conduct their research and to foster their creativity, which may help ensure they do not become discouraged and consider switching careers.
  • Since 2019, we have allowed Cancer Center Support Grants (P30) that receive outstanding scores to extend their P30 project period from five to seven years. Rather than recompeting as their grant ends, centers with outstanding scores can request an additional two years of funding using a streamlined application that receives expedited review. This is NCI’s most administratively demanding program. NCI recognizes that the P30 renewal process is arduous, and therefore by adding two years to the length of the grant for a cancer center with an exceptional renewal score, we believe we can significantly reduce the administrative burden of these complex awards.

These three initiatives are very popular, but I want to emphasize that they are pilot programs. NCI will continue to rigorously evaluate the extra time for funding provided by Outstanding Investigator Awards, MERIT Awards, and Cancer Center Awards to assure they are worth the increased out-year costs, and that they enhance researcher productivity without a loss of essential NCI oversight.

NCI’s grantee focus 

Extramural scientists are among NCI’s most important “customers,” and providing excellent service is a core NCI operating principle. We understand that applying for and renewing a grant can be confusing, especially for early-stage and new investigators. We try in various ways to demystify the process. Examples include posting helpful resources on our website, hosting webinars, and engaging through social media. 

For example, helpful training sessions include how to apply for Small Business Innovation Research awards and how to apply for programs to promote diversity or support training. If you are interested in these and other programs, please consider accessing the resources listed below.

For those who need support applying for NCI grants, human interaction is essential. NCI program officers and project managers attend conferences to meet the grantees they support. These NCI officials are an excellent resource, and helping grantees and prospective grantees is their primary responsibility. NCI’s Office of Grants Administration serves as another helpful resource. Talking with a program officer or project manager may be more efficient than attempting to work through a complex issue by email. If you cannot reach them, contact the NCI division or center director, or if all else fails, contact me.

Applying new policies

Whenever we consider new policies designed to improve science, we also consider the unintended consequences that the policy can have on the workload of scientists we support. This has been central to our thinking about how to implement policies on conflict of interest, data sharing, statistical design, rigor and reproducibility, and many other topics. Each of these topics is important to science, but grant policies must be implemented in a thoughtful way to avoid diminishing research output. NCI strives to ensure that well-intended policies don’t hinder scientific progress.

The bottom line: Administrative compliance is important to assure valid, principled science, but it does impose a burden on scientists. NCI continually strives to make life easier for our grantees to maximize their scientific productivity—it’s a top priority for us.

Resources for the NCI Grantee Community 

Division of Extramural Activities/Office of Grants Administration
Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities
Small Business Innovation Research
Center for Cancer Training
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