An Interview with NEI’s Dr. Mike Oberdorfer

Science GRO’s Elizabeth Hoffman had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Mike Oberdorfer, Program Director at the National Eye Institute, about how NEI is faring in the NIH budget process. Dr. Oberdorfer directs the Strabismus, Amblyopia and Visual Processing program and the Low Vision and Blindness Rehabilitation program at NEI.

Science GRO’s Elizabeth Hoffman had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Mike Oberdorfer, Program Director at the National Eye Institute, about how NEI is faring in the NIH budget process. Dr. Oberdorfer directs the Strabismus, Amblyopia and Visual Processing program and the Low Vision and Blindness Rehabilitation program at NEI. Both of these programs fund clinical and behavioral research and might be especially interesting to psychologists who study visual perception, attention, or rehabilitative health.

NEI doesn’t have a strict pay line, unlike most other Institutes and Centers. Can you explain how the Institute sets its priorities and makes its awards?

As one of the smaller Institutes, NEI does not set a rigid pay line. If the proposal is strong and favorably reviewed, we try to fund it. We largely fund R01s (Investigator initiated research applications) and R21s (an exploratory grant mechanism). Nonetheless, the priority score and percentile are very important when reviewed well by the Center for Scientific Review (CSR - the first stop in the grant review cycle). The R21s are not percentile ranked. The review panels at CSR are instructed to give special attention to new investigators, but we often give a second look to make sure first time grantees don’t fall through the cracks.

How has NEI been affected by the very lean budget for NIH?

Hovering around $660 million, the NEI budget is virtually unchanged since 2004. As with the other NIH Institutes and Centers, a recurring flat budget coupled with increasing research costs that climb about 4 percent each year mean that awards are steadily declining. Many opportunities are emerging in health and disease and you can’t grasp all of them, especially with a diminishing budget. So, the negative impact grows every year. The budget situation affects both sustained portfolios and emerging areas. We made 1097 awards in FY07, compared to 1054 this year. This translates to about a 4 percent reduction – roughly equivalent to the annual increases in research costs. In the current budget climate, we are really looking for a maintenance level of funding.

Has there been a change in behavioral science applications over the years?

We get inquiries often. Former grantees at NIMH, NINDS, NIA, and elsewhere may find interest in NEI. My advice is to write the strongest application but not worry about crafting your application to favor assignment to one place or another. The three main CSR study sections for my programs are CVP (central visual processing), BDPE (biology and diseases of the posterior eye) and AED (anterior eye disease). A fourth is CP (cognition and perception). Low vision and blindness rehabilitation is assigned all over the map, which is troubling. There are no special emphasis panels anymore so the level of expertise is not always deep enough and strong applications may not get fundable scores. With biomedical and behavioral research growing increasingly innovative and complex, what we need are more special emphasis panels with reviewers crossing multiple disciplines.

Are there training or retraining programs at NEI of which psychologists should take greater advantage?

The NEI supports postdoctoral fellowships through the F32 mechanism. Most of our predocs are supported on institutional training grants. We support a limited number of predoctoral fellowships using the F31 mechanism limited to underrepresented minorities or applicants with disabilities. We also support a number of training opportunities using the K award mechanism (physician scientists awards), but since every NIH Institute differs, applicants should call to see what may be of interest and appropriate for their training needs.

Does NEI have collaborations about which psychologists should be aware?

Yes. About 0.07 percent of NEI’s neuroscience budget, or $2 million, comes from the NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research, a cooperative effort among the NIH Institutes and Centers that support neuroscience research, including cognitive and affective neuroscience. We also have an ongoing collaboration with the National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research at NICHD to fund health assessment research focused on disability. As for interagency partnerships, NEI participates in the Collaborative Research in Computational Neuroscience (CRCNS) program, a collaboration between NIH and the National Science Foundation that supports innovative computational neuroscience - human, animal, and theoretical. All of the proposals are reviewed at NSF, and review groups are pulled together expressly for this purpose so that there is terrific expertise.

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