The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) has a long history of supporting multi-investigator team science through Program Project Grants (PPGs). The purpose of a PPG is to support integrated, collaborative research programs that have a well-defined, central research focus or objective. The current PPG Program requires a minimum of three individual research projects per application. Each individual research project must be a distinct, separate, scientifically meritorious research effort led by an independent investigator, the Project Leader. Individual Projects should be interrelated and synergistic so that the research ideas, efforts, and outcomes of the Program offer a distinct advantage over pursuing the individual projects separately. Each PPG contains cores that serve to promote synergy across the program.
Currently, PPG applications in response to the NHLBI P01 FOA are reviewed in two stages. First, applications are reviewed individually by a tailored Special Review Committee, representing expertise in the specific scientific areas of the proposal. The Special Review Committee evaluates the technical merit of the individual projects and cores. Next, the application is reviewed by the Program Project Review Committee – a standing study section, which discusses the merit of the overall application and votes the application’s overall impact/priority score. The NHLBI 2017 Funding and Operating Guidelines explain that P01 applications with priority scores within a published Zone of Consideration may be considered by the Institute for funding. Both impact/priority scores and programmatic priorities are used by the Institute when making funding decisions.
As responsible stewards of public funds, the Institute routinely examines major programs and activities. Toward this end, the NHLBI assembled a Working Group of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Advisory Council and its Board of External Experts in January 2016 to examine the PPG mechanism and make recommendations regarding the status of PPGs at the Institute. The group was charged with making recommendations in three main areas: 1) criteria by which to assess PPGs, 2) policy on solicitations for PPGs, and 3) peer review and funding guidance.
The Working Group turned its attention to several challenges aligned with their charge. Many NHLBI PPG grants are particularly long-lived. This may give investigators the impression that if they submit a new PPG application it is unlikely to be funded. In addition, a tension exists related to the larger scale and higher cost of these programs, which also typically have more infrastructure support, relative to other activities within the NHLBI portfolio. Thus, the Working Group focused on identifying cost-effective strategies to support multi-investigator, team science.
The primary themes emerging from Working Group discussions were as follows:
- The PPG grant mechanism has been, and continues to be, valuable and worthwhile
- A two-tier peer review system is both valuable and efficient to assess PPG applications
- The realities of modern science demand increased flexibility in PPG application guidelines regarding the structure of allowable Projects
From these three themes, the Working Group settled upon five actionable recommendations, which were presented at the June 2016 meeting of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Advisory Council:
- Retain the PPG Program as a highly valued and unique asset of the NHLBI
- Retain, but modify, the current two-tier peer review system
- Encourage inclusion of Early Stage Investigators (ESI) as Project Leaders in PPG applications
- Develop policy modifications to address renewals and Cores in PPGs
- Increase Flexibility of Multi-investigator applications
Given that scientific advances will likely continue to be accelerated by the nimble formation of multi-investigator, cross-disciplinary research teams that can collaboratively address a thematic set of compelling research questions, these recommendations are designed to streamline and augment the PPG Program by encouraging new meritorious applications and enhancing heart, lung, blood, and sleep collaborations.
The NHLBI is grateful to the Working Group for developing these recommendations and plans to develop implementation strategies to enhance the PPG Program at NHLBI in the future. The Institute is committed to keeping the investigator community apprised of changes to the PPG Program that stem from these recommendations and will release a Notice in the NIH guide to inform the community of the implementation approach.
PPG Working Group Members
James Crapo, M.D., National Jewish Medical and Research Center (Chair)
Bradford Berk, M.D., Ph.D., University of Rochester Medical Center
Allen Cowley, Jr., Ph.D., Medical College of Wisconsin
Jonathan Epstein, M.D., University of Pennsylvania
Gilbert White, M.D., Blood Center of Wisconsin
Jeffrey Whitsett, M.D., Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center
Valerie Prenger, Ph.D.
Lisa Postow, Ph.D.
Denis Buxton, Ph.D.
Manjit Hanspal, Ph.D.
Emmanuel Peprah, Ph.D.