Concept: NCCIH MERIT (Method to Extend Research In Time) Award To Promote Innovation and Diversity in Complementary and Integrative Health Research
Project Concept Review
Council Date: September 8, 2023
Program Director: Wen G. Chen, Ph.D.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has always been at the forefront of supporting innovative and groundbreaking research through its Common Fund High-Risk, High-Reward (HRHR) Research program. This initiative aims to recognize and encourage scientists with an exemplary track record of creativity to pursue novel approaches to significant challenges in the realm of scientific discovery. Within the HRHR program, there are two prominent awards:
- NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, which is for scientists who use their originality to develop and apply pioneering approaches to major research challenges in new research avenues
- NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award, which supports both individuals and teams undertaking unconventional, groundbreaking research with the potential to reshape current scientific paradigms
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has been an enthusiastic participant in the HRHR program. Over the past decade, NCCIH has successfully secured nine Pioneer Awards and four Transformative Research Awards. These awards, primarily supported by the NIH Common Fund, were assigned to NCCIH due to their alignment with our research focus—interoception, microbiome, structural biology, social brain, and functional genomics. While NCCIH has made significant strides in recognizing and supporting pioneering research, challenges in retention, grant administration preferences, diversity, and attracting current investigators to explore the HRHR program remain.
Retention: Among award recipients, we have observed a trend toward lack of sufficient incorporation of complementary and integrative health approaches into new research projects to be supported by NCCIH. Instead, some researchers have moved to obtaining new Method to Extend Research In Time (MERIT) awards or other sustained funding commitments, such as R35 grants, from different NIH Institutes and Centers (ICs).
Administration: Some investigators, even though their pioneering work aligns with NCCIH’s mission, have opted for their HRHR grants to be managed by other ICs. This preference appears to stem from a perception that more long-term funding opportunities are available through other ICs.
Diversity: Scientific success hinges on a diverse and inclusive environment. To foster innovation and broad perspectives, labs must strive to recruit trainees with diverse backgrounds and scientific research experience. This diversity of perspectives and experience helps drive discovery. Longer-term funding assurance may offer investigators a better opportunity to expand their trainee, scientific diversity, and inclusion efforts.
Attracting NCCIH Investigators to the HRHR Research Program: Could extended funding serve as an incentive for existing NCCIH investigators to pursue innovative and transformative scientific exploration supported by the NIH HRHR program?
Through this proposed initiative, we believe we can help address these issues and ultimately not only support NCCIH’s mission by bolstering an investment in HRHR projects but also strengthen the foundation of the broader scientific community through efforts to increase diversity.
Purpose of Proposed Initiative
This initiative proposes to establish a new funding mechanism at NCCIH, called Method to Extend Research In Time (MERIT) awards. It addresses the above challenges by 1) providing highly competitive 10-year funding support for current and former NCCIH Pioneer and Transformative Research Awardees to develop innovative and cutting-edge research programs specifically aimed to study complementary and integrative health approaches, 2) requiring the development and implementation of a plan focusing on the recruitment and training of diverse trainees, and 3) including a 5-year interim review and evaluation process conducted by NCCIH program staff, the NCCIH director, and the NCCIH Advisory Council to help determine extensions of the MERIT awards during the 10-year period.
The objectives of this NCCIH MERIT awards initiative include:
- Providing stable, long-term grant support to former and current NIH Director’s Pioneer Awardees and Transformative Research Awardees whose awards are administered by NCCIH and whose research has demonstrated high impact, productivity, and innovation.
- Investigators may not apply for a MERIT award. Instead, former or current Pioneer Award and Transformative Research Award investigators submitting an R01 to NCCIH directly studying one or more complementary and integrative health approaches, receiving a score within NCCIH’s published funding zones, and being considered for funding will be eligible to be nominated for a MERIT award. The MERIT award will provide funding for 5 years and could be renewed for up to 10 years if the awardee submits a MERIT extension application no later than 6 months prior to the ending of the first 5-year award.
- NCCIH MERIT award candidates may not be funded concurrently by another IC’s MERIT award or a similar long-term grant (e.g., R35).
- NCCIH program staff will identify candidates for MERIT awards based on the established eligibility criteria. Potential candidates will be requested to submit a 10-year plan to recruit and train diverse trainees with two 5-year benchmarks to NCCIH program staff, who will then prepare a Special Action item for members of the NCCIH Advisory Council. NCCIH program staff will also prepare a Special Action item for the NCCIH Advisory Council for the MERIT extension request.
- The NCCIH Advisory Council will review, discuss, and approve the selection of new MERIT awardees at the May Council meeting each year but may review, discuss, and approve MERIT extension requests at all Council meetings.