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Second chance for rejected grants

OnPar Project offers top NIH proposals to private funders

by Andrea Widener
March 25, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 13

Fierce competition

NIH gets far more grant applications than it funds.

Research project grant applications to NIH in 2015: 52,190

Applications funded: 9,540

Success rate: 18.3%

Average award size: $477,786

Source: NIH

Scientists whose NIH grant proposals were left on the cutting-room floor in the current tight federal funding environment may get another chance.

The newly announced Online Partnership to Accelerate Research (OnPAR) will give applications that are highly rated by NIH peer review panels yet are unfunded a stab at acquiring support from private organizations.

Given historically low federal funding, the proposal is bound to be good news for researchers. “We think it’s a great idea,” says Sherry Mills, director of NIH’s Office of Extramural Programs.

OnPAR was developed by Leidos, a contracting company that works with both government and private clients. Employees there had heard about how many top-rated grants weren’t getting NIH funding, explains Jim Pannucci, director of the life sciences operation at Leidos. And they knew that for small nonprofits that fund research, reviewing applications can be time-consuming and expensive. “We realized we can probably do a very good job with this type of matchmaking,” Pannucci says.

NIH will not directly provide applications to OnPAR. It will notify unfunded applicants whose scores fall in the top 30%. Researchers can then choose to send their abstracts to OnPAR. Leidos will match abstracts with interested funders, who will then ask for the full grant application and ranking.

Salvatore La Rosa, a chemist and vice president for R&D at the Children’s Tumor Foundation, is excited about OnPAR. “What we want to find is a high-risk, high-reward type of proposal that fell off the NIH review.”

Right now, OnPAR is in a pilot phase that is limited to seven disease-centered nonprofits, including La Rosa’s group. “It will give us a chance to see the enthusiasm of the community,” Mills says.

Leidos has heard from other nonprofits as well as pharmaceutical and biotech companies that are interested, Pannucci says. If all goes well, Leidos wants to expand the system to other federal funding agencies, both in the U.S. and internationally.

La Rosa is particularly excited about using OnPAR to connect with pharmaceutical companies or venture capitalists to jointly fund research projects. That would make his group’s limited budget go even further.

This also provides a chance to convince more scientists to expand their research areas, he says, possibly to include children’s tumors. “If we find a very interesting application, no matter what, we really want to fund it.”



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