William Elwood of the National Institutes of Health

APA talks with William Elwood, facilitator of OppNet − the NIH Basic Behavioral and Social Science Opportunity Network

APA:  Can you give PSA readers an overview of the aims of the OppNet initiative?

Dr. Elwood:  Simply put, OppNet is a truly trans-NIH initiative to expand the agency’s extramural funding of basic behavioral and social sciences research (b-BSSR).  All OppNet members share a common aim: to increase NIH’s extramural research on basic mechanisms of behavior and social processes that relate across NIH’s Institutes, Centers, and Offices (ICOs) and across public health challenges.  Toward that end, all OppNet’s funding opportunities complement existing NIH initiatives and portfolios in b-BSSR. 

OppNet’s official mission statement and two main goals are as follows: “The mission of OppNet is to pursue opportunities for strengthening basic behavioral and social science research (b-BSSR) at the NIH while innovating beyond existing investments.

  • “OppNet advances basic behavioral and social science research through activities and initiatives that build a body of knowledge about the nature of behavior and social systems. 

  • “OppNet prioritizes activities and initiatives that focus on basic mechanisms of behavior and social processes; that are relevant to the missions and public health challenges of multiple NIH Institutes, Centers and Offices (ICOs); and that build upon existing NIH investments without replicating them.”

APA:  It seems OppNet and its partner institutes have made a strong effort to involve researchers in the decisions about emerging opportunities in basic social and behavioral research.  What steps have you taken, and what are you planning to do, to make sure OppNet fosters timely basic social and behavioral health research?

Dr. Elwood:  I wouldn’t say, “It seems.” I’d say, “It’s true!”  APA and its members —  among other researchers — were among the 318 respondents to OppNet’s Request for Information that accepted data during January and February 2010.  The more detailed data analysis was a substantive component in our planning.  For example, the breadth and depth of responses regarding circadian rhythms and sleep issues led a team of NIH program directors to propose this topic for potential funding opportunities.  With approval from our Coordinating and Steering committees, they now are Fiscal Year 2011 funding opportunity announcements (FOAs).  We in OppNet definitely listen to our stakeholders—extramural researchers and advocates alike–and we include their views in our planning process.

The next opportunity we have for public input is our conference on Thursday and Friday, October 28-29, 2010, in downtown Washington, DC.  Participants will spend the majority of their time in topic-specific breakout sessions to provide OppNet with information we’ll use for shorter- and longer-term planning.  The specific topics are:

  • Cognition and emotion 

  • Culture and health 

  • Decision-making 

  • Development over the lifecourse 

  • Gene-environment interactions 

  • Model animals, human applications 

  • Neuroscience approaches in basic behavioral and social science research (b-BSSR) 

  • 21st Century trans-disciplinary approaches in b-BSSR 

  • Use of b-BSSR advances in future applied research

Each session has at least one NIH and one extramural facilitator to ensure discussion from multiple perspectives.  Your readers will find more information at the OppNet website or our registration website.

APA:  Tell us how the administration of OppNet works and how the partner institutes are involved. 
Dr. Elwood:  All 24 NIH Institutes and Centers (ICs) that fund research and four program offices within the NIH Office of the Director fund and manage this initiative.  Our Steering Committee consists of ICO Directors or their designees.  Their suggestions and questions consistently impress me.  Drs. Jeremy Berg (Director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences) and Richard Hodes (Director of the National Institute on Aging) are involved co-chairmen who also value NIH program directors and our extramural communities for their respective expertise — but the involvement of our other directors might surprise you.  For example, when Dr. Larry Tabak, NIH’s new Principal Deputy Director, met with a small OppNet group regarding the final funding process for our Fiscal Year 2010 grants, he made comments about some of the research projects and asked specific questions about others.  Our 2011 funding opportunities expressly invite model-animal researchers to apply.  That’s a direct result of the involvement of Dr. Story Landis, Director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.  Not only did she encourage all the concept teams to account for model animals as each team wrote a FOA, but also she asked detailed questions throughout the writing and approval process to be certain they made this happen.  Even better, she was impressed with the result. 

Our Coordinating Committee has a program director-level member for every ICO member.  We also have a group that I refer to as the “OppNet friends,” NIH employees with expertise and/or interest in b-BSSR.  The Friends often attend our meetings and participate on our workgroups, including the teams that wrote our FOAs.  Your readers always can find the list of committee members on our Web site.

APA: How is OppNet funded, and for how long?

Dr. Elwood:  NIH founded OppNet as a five-year initiative to sunset at the end of Fiscal Year 2014.  In our first year, we had $10 million in funds from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act and an additional $2 million from the Office of AIDS Research.  If the Congress passes the OppNet-specific portion of the President’s 2011 budget, the NIH Director’s Office will fund half of our $20-million budget; the other half will come from the 24 ICs using an assessment based on each IC’s overall Congressional appropriation.  The fact that this assessment is based on overall budget, not on an Institute’s social/behavioral budget, demonstrates a strong commitment to the behavioral and social sciences.  The plan for OppNet’s final three years is $30 million each year.

APA:  How will reviews for the applications be organized?

Dr. Elwood: In FY2011, all OppNet’s funding opportunities are RFAs.  Requests for applications almost without exception result in RFA-specific review panels.  Consequently, NIH’s Center for Scientific Review will convene special emphasis panels for all our 2011 funding opportunities, save OppNet’s R13 RFA (RFA-CA-10-017) for funding scientific meetings.  CSR seldom reviews the R13 mechanism, so the host IC for this OppNet FOA, the National Cancer Institute, also will host the review panel.  Most of our RFAs request letters of intent; our program directors and scientific review officers will use the letters not simply to estimate the number of applications we’ll receive, but also to recruit as reviewers experts who apparently plan not to apply!

APA:  Do you have any advice for scientists who are preparing applications – what should be emphasized?

Dr. Elwood:  First, all OppNet’s 2011 funding opportunities are one-time RFAs.  I said that earlier, but it bears repeating in this context.  We have no plans to reissue them.

Second, scientists should search for OppNet FOAs by going to the OppNet website or searching the NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts with “OppNet” as a search term.   OppNet has a discrete funding pool but cannot issue funding opportunities using its own two-letter code, “OP.”  Instead, we rely on our members to serve as “Host ICs” that issue FOAs with numbers that use each host IC’s two-letter code.  The NIH IC that issues an OppNet FOA for public consideration is not necessarily the NIH Institute or Center that ultimately will manage a funded OppNet project.  For example, the National Institute on Aging (NIA), which has the code “AG,” released our RFA on self-regulation (RFA-AG-11-010), and NIA will provide the initial grant number to all applications that respond to this announcement; each application also will have a secondary assignment, “OP,” for OppNet.  After the receipt deadline and before funding, OppNet program directors will review all the applications for responsiveness and for relevance to the 24 ICs.  Applications most relevant to NIA will keep their initial numbers; the others will receive new numbers that reflect their respective reassignments.  Applications withdrawn for lack of relevance or that will not receive funding will maintain NIA numbers regardless of focus.  All applications will maintain their secondary OP designations, however. 

Third, read each OppNet FOA thoroughly.  This is an overall grantspersonship tip; nevertheless, it’s especially cogent for OppNet because the RFA framework allows NIH to withdraw unresponsive applications before they ever get to the review process.  Confidentiality rules preclude me from disclosing how many OppNet applications we withdrew in Fiscal Year 2010.  Nevertheless, I can tell you that I completed all the paperwork to withdraw these applications and contacted every investigator and signing official for every application.  These tasks led me to conclude that this is an important tip to share with researchers. 

Fourth, write a one-page concept paper and send it to a program officer listed on the RFA.  Obviously, this is good grantspersonship practice tip — but it’s superb practice for OppNet if researchers want their respective applications to make their way through the peer review process for potential funding consideration afterward.


For more information,consult the OppNet website.