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Fed-funded Research Impact Tracker in the Works

By Matt Jones

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The annual ritual that National Institutes of Health directors make of heading to Capitol Hill to justify their fiscal budgets and to make the case for supporting biomedical research could become easier — if a new initiative to monitor federal investments in science achieves its goals.

Driven by a partnership between the White House, the National Science Foundation, NIH, and an interagency cooperative called the Federal Demonstration Partnership, the new project seeks to make it easier to assess the impact of federal funding on employment, scientific advances, and health outcomes.

The initiative, called Science and Technology for America’s Reinvestment: Measuring the Effect of Research on Innovation (STAR METRICS), will be a two-phased effort that will change reporting practices for institutions and will make it easier to measure a number of impacts of federal funding for science, officials at NIH, NSF, and FDP told GenomeWeb Daily News this week.

The project will create a portal that will enable institutions to deposit information on grants and research, as well as new reporting mechanisms. The portal will also eventually be used to connect funded research with a wide range of outcomes related to science, health, and employment.

“STAR METRICS will yield a vigorous, transparent review of how our science investments are performing,” NIH Director Francis Collins said in a recent NIH statement.

“It is essential to document with solid evidence the returns our nation is obtaining from its investment in research and development,” added John Holdren, director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Funded with $1 million in its first year by NIH and NSF, the five-year initiative first will aim to make reporting for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 easier and then measure the impact of that funding.

The collaboration will then turn its focus to monitoring the impact of funding in four areas: economic growth, workforce outcomes, scientific knowledge, and social outcomes.

“In the short term, we’ll know the impact on jobs. In the long term, we’ll be able to measure patents, publications, citations, and business startups,” Collins added.

The effort dovetails with Collins’ stated aim of increasing awareness of the payoffs of biomedical research and the value of transparency. Not long after becoming director at NIH, Collins said that overseeing federal funding is “a matter of public trust,” and that the institutes “are committed to getting out the latest research about prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.”

The FDP will work with OSTP, NIH, NSF, and a number of research universities to achieve its major goals, including streamlining administrative processes and minimizing the administrative burden on principal investigators, while making it easier to measure the value and impact of federally funded research.

STAR METRICS will have three central components. One focus will be to develop a set of report templates on outcomes that will be useful for universities and their stakeholders.

FDP’s Director, Susan Wyatt Sedwick, told GWDN this week that current reporting practices, including those specifically for ARRA funding, are onerous and are taking valuable time and human resources away from other projects.

“We need to figure out how to make things more efficient, and that’s what the FDP is — it is streamlining, and [it includes] processes to deal with granting and reporting requirements,” explained Sedwick, who also is associate VP for Research, and Director of the Office of Sponsored Projects at the University of Texas at Austin.

“It’s survival for these institutions,” she said, explaining that her university has “carved out manpower” from an existing staff that was already over-burdened.

Another aim will be to work with principal investigators to develop report materials and templates on outcomes that they will use to connect to the scientific community and investors.

The third part of the initiative will develop ways to demonstrate the initial and cumulative impact of science investments on a wide range of outcomes, such as scientific innovation, patents, start-ups, student advancement, publications, and others.

“This is a way to have all of that information to show how the investment in research returns to the taxpayers,” Sedwick added.

“The benefits of the outcomes of the research doesn’t stop when we close out the award and file the final technical report,” she explained.

She said the portal that will enable searches for technologies that have been discovered or patented, and that it will follow graduate students and post-docs, including where they go and what they do after the funding runs out.

"It really does reach out beyond the life of the award," she said.

Stefano Bertuzzi, of NIH’s Office of Science Policy Analysis in the Office of the Director and a leader on the project, said that the approach to STAR METRICS started with a central problem.

“The data on the impact of the federal funding is not in one place. What STAR METRICS is trying to do is to create an infrastructure that pools the data from universities, and that data will inform on different things,” he told GWDN.

Phase I, he said, will focus on jobs. “We have a good sense of how many PIs and co-PIs and how many fellowships [are supported] with the awards we make, but we don’t know what the PIs and the universities do with the grants that we give them," he said. "For example, a PI can hire a post-doc, or a graduate student, or a secretary and we don’t capture that.”

This phase will be able to capture all that data.

“The real impact of science – creating jobs is very important – but funding science is about innovation and the impact on society,” Bertuzzi explained, and Phase II will address this larger issue.

“We want Phase II to go beyond just the mere counting of jobs and [toward] understanding what has been the impact on knowledge, what has been the impact on society, and on national competitiveness from the investment that these taxpayers are paying.”

Bertuzzi also said that the new tools will enable ways to search through, sort, and pursue data related to science funding that will be a service to the taxpayers that fund NIH’s $32 billion budget.

“When you’re dealing with a budget of this size and it’s taxpayer’s money, telling a good story or anecdote about what you have accomplished with it comes a little short,” he explained.

“While we have always done a great job reporting on what our investments have been and telling stories of discovery, I think we need to move toward a more analytical framework on which to peg the stories of discovery. And I think that STAR METRICS offers exactly this,” he added.

Julia Lane, Program Director for the Science of Science & Innovation Policy program at the National Science Foundation and a core collaborator on STAR METRICS, told GWDN that she expects that the new portal and tools will see the support they need from the Obama Administration, because to some extent that is where it started.

She said that the program “came out of the White House originally,” and that Holdren’s science and policy office “has been extremely engaged and supportive.”

“We’ve had widespread support from the White House at all levels,” she noted, including the Office of Management and Budget, and the office of Vice President Joseph Biden, which is overseeing ARRA reporting and has been, she said, “extremely enthusiastic.”

Having support from Biden’s ARRA staff does not mean that the system will be ready in time to replace the stimulus reporting tools before their deadlines come up, Sedwick said.

The project is currently in a pilot phase and the FDP is hoping to collect data from 50 universities that are contributing to the initiative in October, Lane added. The partners also will meet this August, and after that she expects the first phase will start.

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