Writedit ponders a recent Nature piece on PIs who hold largish numbers of awards and dollars from the NIH. The post from writedit covers some recent policy proposals seeking to limit the total number of awards any one PI can hold.
My points of perspective are as follows. First, the "major research funding" target, the good old R01 is very typically $250K in direct costs ($385 with a fairly typical overhead rate). I think this is only the start and reasonably serious, yet small, labs probably need two of these concurrently to make a go of it. Let's say half a million to a round million (depending on whether the Nature numbers include overhead or not). I am familiar with a program or two that exist in the $5 Million in direct costs range. These latter are big operations, no doubt.
A chap quoted in the Nature piece insists all is kosher:
"Different people can achieve different things in 20% of their time. You should always reward the best science," says David Rawlings, the 51-year-old director of the Research Center for Immunity and Immunotherapies at the University of Washington in Seattle. He was supported last year by nine NIH grants worth $3 million.
From a certain perspective, perhaps. If you have a big team of very senior and accomplished postdocs and senior scientists you can do a lot of science that is by all appearances under the direction of one PI. My question is always that of opportunity cost. How much more would be accomplished by taking one of those highly trained individuals in the BigCheez's domain and giving the grant to her to run with?
There is also the inevitable wastage when you don't have to make every dollar count. And when you have $10Mil in NIH grants, well, not every dollar has to count! I will admit this is a double edged sword. Extra cash means you can hire more postdocs without being over-fussy about their capabilities. This means that you have a better chance of getting that diamond in the rough. Of taking advantage of "a hundred monkeys at a hundred lab benches". But it also means waste. Extra cash means the PI gets to try out more and more harebrained ideas...which might be genius or complete crap.
The chances that one of these hugely funded labs competes snootily in the rarefied atmosphere of CNS publishing likewise decreases the ratio of data generated / data published.
So obviously it is a question of tradeoffs. But still. Extraordinary funding should require extraordinary justification. One wonders what the justifications for funding of this rogues gallery were.