September 22, 2016
Photo: Stephen I. Katz M.D. Ph.D.
Photo: Stephen I. Katz M.D. Ph.D.

Dear Colleagues:

Biomedical researchers are driven by imagination, curiosity, and the excitement that comes with every new insight into how organisms function or new strategy that improves people’s lives. These findings build upon one another, expanding the knowledge base from which future studies emerge. Every so often, a particularly innovative set of experiments dramatically changes how we conduct research, interpret results, care for patients, or prevent disease.

NIH has launched several programs over the past decade to support investigators as they pursue such ambitious, paradigm-shifting ideas. The NIH Office of Strategic Coordination manages three of these efforts through the NIH Common Fund, including the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, New Innovator Award and Transformative Research Award. Projects awarded under these initiatives go well beyond the types of research that would be supported under the longstanding R21 NIH/Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant Program mechanism, which also emphasizes innovation. Some NIH Institutes and Centers offer their own funding opportunities, such as the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ Outstanding New Environmental Scientist (ONES) Award.

The NIAMS Supplements to Advance Research (STAR) from Projects to Programs opportunity, which I described in my December 2014 letter, was our first program to foster more innovation from scientists whom we support. STAR provides additional funds to early-established investigators (e.g., researchers who have recently renewed their first NIAMS R01 award) so they have freedom to explore some of their related, but higher-risk ideas on which they might build their careers.

Last month, we launched a second program for scientists at all career stages. Our Research Innovation for Scientific Knowledge (RISK) initiatives are:

  • Research Innovation for Scientific Knowledge (RISK) for Skin and Rheumatic Diseases (X02 pre-application, PAR-16-381),
  • Research Innovations for Scientific Knowledge (RISK) for Skin and Rheumatic Diseases (R61/R33, RFA-17-008),
  • Research Innovation for Scientific Knowledge (RISK) for Musculoskeletal Diseases (X02 pre-application, PAR-16-382), and
  • Research Innovations for Scientific Knowledge (RISK) for Musculoskeletal Diseases (R61/R33, RFA-17-009)

These encourage pursuit of unusual observations, testing of imaginative hypotheses, exploration of creative concepts, or discovery of ground-breaking paradigms within the NIAMS mission. We are looking to support bold ideas that challenge prevailing theories or practices.

The RISK program will request and review projects in two stages. First, investigators are asked to submit a three-page narrative that includes a description of the problem or challenge that will be addressed, and how the outcomes will transform our understanding of arthritis or musculoskeletal or skin diseases. To better provide us with a sense of a project’s potential impact independent of a researcher’s or an institution’s reputation, reviewers will not have any of the applicant’s identifying information in this pre-application stage.

Investigators whose pre-applications are found to be highly innovative and most relevant to the RISK program will be invited to submit a detailed plan to test their new ideas. Those applications will be carefully evaluated for scientific and technical merit by a peer review study section convened by the NIAMS Scientific Review Branch. At this stage, applicants will be asked to provide identifying information, and reviewers will assess investigator expertise and research environment during the review. Investigators can request up to $250,000 a year for two years to rigorously test their idea. Should this work unambiguously support the investigator’s central hypothesis, we may provide a third year of support so the concept can be further validated and explored.

If you are a scientist with an idea that you consider to be too risky, premature, controversial, or unconventional for traditional NIH mechanisms such as the R01 or R21, please send us your pre-application by October 4 (PAR-16-381) and October 18 (PAR-16-382), 2016.

We are very excited about the potential of this initiative to advance skin, rheumatic, and musculoskeletal disease research, and we look forward to hearing from you.

Stephen I. Katz, M.D., Ph.D.
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
National Institutes of Health

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