Last year, U.S. researchers received about 42,500 pieces of bad news from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Their grant proposal had been rejected; they wouldn’t be receiving a piece of the agency’s roughly $30 billion federal funding pie. For many, the next step is to cast around for slices of smaller pies—grants from nonprofit disease foundations or investments from private companies that might keep their projects alive.
Now, a new program aims to play matchmaker between these researchers and second-chance funders. The Online Partnership to Accelerate Research (OnPAR), a collaboration between NIH and the defense, engineering, and health contractor Leidos, lets researchers upload rejected NIH proposals to an online portal where potential funders can review the scores received from reviewers, and decide whether to put up cash.
The program, launched as a small pilot at the beginning of March with the participation of seven nonprofit disease foundations, is likely to meet a warm reception in the research community. “It’s novel and it’s clever,” says Ray Dorsey, a neurologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York who studies funding trends in biomedical research. “NIH [applications] are just brutal to put together, and this is a chance to at least derive additional value from these things that otherwise kind of just die on people’s computers.”
Beyond the convenience for researchers, though, Dorsey and other experts say the success of the project will hinge on whether private funders see value in using OnPAR in addition to their existing grant review process. A lack of commitment from foundations derailed a similar project, launched in 2011 by the National Health Council (NHC). The year-long OnPAR pilot, described by its creators at Leidos today in Science Translational Medicine, will be a new test for the matchmaker model.
Leidos researchers conceived of OnPAR based on an observation about the research foundations that were among their clients. “They all highly regard the NIH peer review process,” says James Pannucci, director of the life sciences operation in Leidos’s health division. To enable those private funders to see proposals that didn’t make the cut at NIH, the agency will encourage researchers with relevant proposals scoring in the 30th percentile to submit their abstract to the OnPAR website. For now, those uploads will be curated by Leidos; the foundations can request that a researcher send the full NIH application, including scores from reviewers. The first seven participants are foundations that focus on specific diseases, including the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and the type I diabetes foundation JDRF. Pannucci says he hopes to expand the pool of funders to include pharmaceutical companies and venture capital firms.
The model had obvious appeal for NIH, says Sherry Mills, director of extramural programs at NIH’s Office of Extramural Research, who helped develop the program. “There are more meritorious applications than we can fund. This would keep the science going and offer the applicants an opportunity to continue doing the research important to us.” NIH funded the setup of the online portal, but won’t fund the project going forward—Pannucci expects the participating sponsors to keep the project afloat after the full-scale launch.
This isn’t the first time NIH has collaborated on a matchmaking effort for its unfunded applicants. The agency worked with the NHC on an online portal called HealthResearchFunding.org, which amassed a database of 42 patient organizations and 600 peer-reviewed research proposals, but never led to a funding agreement. “Though there was great interest in the research community, [the pool of] nonprofit organizations that had the extra capital to invest in this research wasn’t as large as we had hoped,” says Nancy Hughes, NHC’s vice president of communications and marketing. In 2012, NHC and NIH abandoned the project.
Mills says the new partnership takes that experience to heart by seeking a firmer commitment from participating organizations. The foundations in the pilot haven’t committed to spending a certain amount on projects discovered through OnPAR, but “they have at least assured me that if they find the appropriate science that matches their mission, that they are willing to put money behind it,” she says.
It’s not yet clear whether other funders will see value in OnPAR. Many large research foundations tend to have well-established grant review procedures, and they aren’t hurting for worthy proposals, says William Chambers, senior vice president of extramural research and training at the American Cancer Society. “On our end—and this may well be the case for a lot of folks—we have more applications that we view as outstanding that we would like to fund than we have resources for.” He says this matchmaker model would be valuable if it also facilitated partnerships between organizations to co-fund a project. Pannucci says Leidos plans to accommodate such arrangements, but that will likely have to wait until after the pilot, once more investigators and sponsors sign on.
In the meantime, even small grants from little-known foundations could prove valuable to needy researchers, says geneticist Donald Bowden of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who received crucial support from the American Diabetes Association before winning a series of lab-sustaining NIH grants. If young investigators don’t have the preliminary data to woo reviewers, “that’s where a foundation with a modest amount of money … would get them over the hump.”
That’s also the endgame for NIH, Mills says, and will be one measure of OnPAR’s success: “We’re hoping at the end of the process, when the funds have been expended, those applicants will come back to the NIH pool having advanced the science.”