THE OTHER NIH: The life and work of the extramural staff at NIH

by Seema Kumar

Ask any of the 4,500 extramural staffers at NIH whether their intramural colleagues know what extramural scientists at NIH do on a day-to-day basis, and all you may get is an inscrutable smile. They may be tactful enough not to broadcast the point, but many extramural administrators believe that the intramural community is not only clueless about what the extramural staff do here at NIH, but also totally unaware of and ill-prepared for a research life in the outside world. What's more, this opinion is not reserved for postdocs in the intramural program -- it embraces even senior staff.

"I doubt if intramural scientists even know about the existence of an extramural program," says Judith Greenberg, a former intramural researcher who is now an extramural administrator at NIGMS. "I certainly didn't ... If you were to poll people walking around on campus and ask them, 'Is there an Extramural Program?' a lot of people might wonder what you are talking about."

Greenberg is not alone in her suspicions. "I really think that the intramural scientists think very little about us," says Joan McGowan, a program administrator in NIAMS' Bone Biology and Bone Research Branch. But she and Greenberg add that intramural scientists' obliviousness is an understandable instance of "out of sight, out of mind."

"They really don't see us that much ... If you are in a lab, you tend not to go to building 31 which is all extramural, and it is even more unlikely for you to go to the Westwood Building," says Greenberg. In fact, Greenberg quips that all that intramural scientists may know about their NIH extramural colleagues is that they belong to the cadre of people at NIH who dress in suits or jackets and ties.

But in a more serious vein, the extramural administrators also suspect intramural scientists' ignorance goes to the heart of their work, namely, the grants process.

"Most intramural scientists, even senior people, do not know how the grants process in the extramural program works until it is time to leave [NIH]," says Jerome Green, Director of the Division of Research Grants (DRG), the central office that receives all extramural grant applications.

Greenberg agrees. "Many senior intramural scientists have no concept of the grant process and therefore are not in a good position to advise their outgoing fellows or postdocs, either," says Greenberg, who is Program Director of the NIGMS Genetics Program. The extramural scientists say that the basis for this lack of knowledge lies in the way the intramural program is structured. Intramural scientists are, by design, freed of the burdens of grant writing so that they can devote their time and energies to conducting high-risk, innovative research. Given this atmosphere, say Greenberg, McGowan, and Green, it can be very easy to not know about the grants process or to lose touch with it. But the fact remains, they say, that when intramural researchers finally leave NIH, they may be at a disadvantage in the extramural world if they are not aware of the grants process of NIH, the primary support for biomedical research in the outside world.

Intramural scientists may or may not agree with the extramural staffers' grim review, but could undoubtedly profit from a few pointers that the extramural experts have to offer, including how the NIH grants mechanisms operate, what to expect in terms of NIH funding, and how to write winning proposals.

To help bridge the intramural-extramural gap, we present a glimpse of extramural life at the NIH. We start in this issue of The NIH Catalyst with a day in the life of extramural NIH. In the next issue, we interview experts from the DRG and others who offer a popular course called "How to Write a Grant," and we conclude with a feature on mentoring and career development to prepare young scientists for tlife after NIH.

A Day in the Life of Extramural NIH

Considering that the raison d'être of extramural NIH is to fund research, it won't come as a surprise that a day in the life of an extramural scientist typically revolves around some aspect of the NIH grant process -- sifting through grant applications, considering which ones are worth funding, keeping up with grantees' progress, or counseling grantees throughout the process. But what may come as a surprise to intramural researchers, says Green, is the size, range, scope, and variety of the NIH extramural grants operation that administers and manages 85% of the NIH budget with a staff of 2,800.

"We are not all alike," says McGowan. "There is quite a spectrum of individuals [in the extramural program]; some are involved more in science than in [grant] mechanisms, and some are more involved in mechanisms than in science."

Depending on the science-vs.-mechanism emphasis and on whether they work in contracts, programs, review, or management of grants, extramural researchers' work responsibilities might differ considerably, says Dennis Mangan, Director of the Periodontal Diseases Program at NIDR and a former intramural researcher at NIDR. "Grants managers often come from a business background and are number wizards, whereas contracts experts know both science and business and how to handle contracts with sensitivity and attention to detail," Mangan says. "Program folks come from a scientific background and are the contacts for extramural researchers who have questions. Review staff who come with a strong scientific background select and lead the study sections -- the committees that reviews grant applications -- and summarize the study section's review in logical, adequate terminology."

Although their backgrounds and day-to-day duties may vary, the extramural staff's work has a common goal: to facilitate the conduct of research that advances the science and health of the country by using taxpayers' dollars. That, says Mangan, involves a lot of communication.

"We communicate with a lot of different people," says Mangan. "With our grantees, we communicate to address their concerns and needs. We also work with the DRG, our Grants Management Offices, and with other program officials, both within our institutes and at other institutes." This means that "every extramural administrator has to develop good communication skills and be comfortable working with, talking with, and writing people on a daily basis," says Mangan. They must have good organizational skills, diplomacy, and an ability to write and express themselves, says Greenberg. The program and review staff must, in addition, keep up with the scientific literature and the latest advances in their specific area of expertise and "know what the needs of our programs are. Are we short on grants in a particular area? Are there scientific "holes" in the program? And if there are, then those factors go into consideration for funding," says Greenberg.

Unfortunately for some, a day in the extramural life does not involve hands-on bench research or teaching. Some extramural NIHers miss that, but being an extramural administrator offers a wider perspective and new challenges and rewards. "You have to take a whole new attitude about science," says Mangan. "As an intramural scientist, I was focused on me, my lab, and my work in a small area of periodontal diseases. When I came over here, I had to take my blinders off and learn to look at the entire range of grants on periodontal diseases that were in my portfolio -- from the most basic molecular science all the way across to the clinical sciences. And that was a challenge."

McGowan concurs. "You have to have a scientific perspective that is greater than your own area ... You are looking for opportunities to stand back from science and ... see if a particular application fits in well with what is needed in the program rather than whether this is the right clone to use," she says. "I find it very gratifying to be a facilitator of science. I thought I would miss teaching, but I use my teaching skills on scientists around the country."

Mangan found that "you start getting a thrill out of watching someone else achieve success in something that you might have wanted to do in your own lab ... But perhaps the most satisfaction we get now is in ... seeing the young scientists succeed and grow to become good mentors for the next generation of scientists."

What happens on a typical day in the extramural program is closely intertwined with the three funding cycles each year during which the DRG receives a total of nearly 40,000 grant applications. Grant applications are reviewed by 1 of 100 study sections, each with an average of 18 experts from around the country. These experts are identified and nominated by an NIH Scientific Review Administrator, who also coordinates the study section. The study sections review the applications, and then pass them on to the appropriate institutes with a summary report and a score. There, the applications undergo another level of review at institute-wide Council meetings. On the basis of the study section's scores, the reviewers' comments, the summary statement, the Council's review, and the institute's programmatic needs, the application is considered for funding. Each institute has a team of Health Scientist Administrators who help the Institute Director make final decisions on which applications will get funded. "Only 20 to 22% of all applications get funded, and the competition is very keen," says Green.

Maintaining accessibility in the system is a key part of extramural administrators' jobs. "We work with investigators before, during, and after their application process and answer their questions on what NIH or our institute is looking for in the grant and discuss the merits of their ideas and the type of grant they should apply for," says McGowan. Program directors also help scientists focus on their scientific areas and guide them through the application process. "For some investigators, the grant-writing process is a very scary and a very nebulous process. What we are here to do, a part of our jobs, is to help them through that process as best we can, given the resources we have and the time we have," says Mangan.

An important aspect of the extramural life revolves around the study sections. "We try to attend the study sections to listen to the reviews of the applications. We listen for any major concerns about the grants and the reaction of the study section with regard to whether they considered the project exciting, novel, necessary, timely, and state-of-the-art," says Mangan.

Personal notes, along with the study section's summary statement, help extramural program staff explain to investigators why their grant did not get funded and to advise them on resubmissions. "There is a fair bit of handholding in all of this," says Greenberg. "When people don't get a grant, they may feel that their job is at stake and they need encouragement, advice, or a reality check. So we spend that kind of time with the investigators as much as we do talking to them about their results."

Study section summary statements also help program staff prepare for Council -- the second level of review held by the individual institutes. "We have to go into Council prepared to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of applications, what we intend to do about them, and strategies to solve any problems within an application," says Mangan.

Once the review is complete, the Health Scientist Administrators -- most of whom have Ph.D.s -- make recommendations about which grants should be funded. "When the institute makes decisions about what to fund, we don't have to take reviews in perfect numerical-priority-score order," says Greenberg. "We take into account various things such as whether an area is underrepresented, and once we make those funding decisions, we are responsible for administering them throughout their active phase -- typically three to five years."

Once the funding decision has been made, program staff members notify grantees of their awards, which differ from their requested dollar amounts, and work with the Grants Management Office to send out official notices and pay memos -- official memos that initiate payments on grants -- to successful applicants.

(Look for Part II of this feature, a discussion on the NIH grant review process, how to write a grant, and mentoring and career development for young scientists in the July issue of The Catalyst.)