Lose NIH Funding, Lose Lab?

May 09 2008 Published by under Careerism, Grantsmanship, NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

Abel Pharmboy pointed to a piece in The Scientist entitled "Losing Your Lab" which discusses the plight of the soft-money researcher who has run out of funding. Actually, the plight of one researcher in particular. The commentary is, however, getting interesting and I thought many of our readers might want to go play.
There are a couple things in the article however that seem a bit off-kilter to me.

one morning when he arrived at work and went online, he found that, to his surprise, the grant application he had submitted to explore this hypothesis had been returned, without review. For many scientists, this news would be discouraging. But for Schneyer, who was funded largely on soft money, it was much worse. It meant he had to close his lab.

See what I mean? Grants are only rarely "returned without review". Triaged maybe? Read down a little bit and you come up with maybe two triages of one of his grants and a single triage of this one under discussion? Sorry, but for a soft money job, this guy wasn't trying very hard. When you are down to one remaining grant, you need to be submitting something each and every round my friends. Yes it sucks that this has to be done but this is the freaking system!!

After two tries, Schneyer submitted a grant as a new application, then revised it twice more, for a total of five submissions. Then, it was funded.

Yup. Sounds about right. The article seems to be saying that he's getting screwed or something. I mean it tries to make the general point about how this sucks as a system but it ends up trying to convince that this one guy was hit unusually hard. Not so.

By 2005, 3,896 needed renewals of their grants, but only 1,262 requests were awarded; the success rate had fallen below 33%. So among nearly 4,000 scientists who were working off NIH funds in 2005, more than 2,600 lost that support. In 2007, more than 4,100 scientists were denied renewals of their R01s.

This is just irresponsible journalism. What are they trying to say here? It implies, of course, that these scientists were unfairly cut off from all NIH funding. Those of us who are in the game know this is far from the real story. How many were A2 requests? How many PIs had other projects ongoing? The phrasing within the context of this article implies that 4,100 scientists were left looking for new jobs just because of not getting a specific grant renewed. Ug.
Anyway, the situation does blow for soft money scientists. So, like I said at the top, go over there and comment.

5 responses so far

  • Bill says:

    So you're not a "soft money scientist"?

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Interesting article --- thanks for the tip. I notice several comments blaming greed and short-sightedness on the part of universities and research institutions. Similar comments have been made here and elsewhere, noting that the institutions don't seem to take the same hit that individual investigators and labs take in these tough times. And we all have had the experience of feeling nickel and dimed by our institutions. At the same time, I get the sense that this is the PI version of the whiny postdoc blogs that always complain about exploitative PIs. What do you think?

  • PhysioProf says:

    So you're not a "soft money scientist"?

    Are you asking if DM's a soft-money scientist, or a soft money-scientist?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Bill, I operate in an environment in which one is obliged to cover 100% of one's salary with grant funds. Not only that but in an environment which in all ways that really matter requires funding that is willing to pay (astronomical) federally approved overhead rates, basically NIH and other fed gov sources. I am furthermore sufficiently down the totem pole that endowed chair type philanthropy is not likely to come my way. In short, yeah, I'm about as soft-money as it gets.

  • BiophysicsMonkey says:

    "I get the sense that this is the PI version of the whiny postdoc blogs that always complain about exploitative PIs. What do you think?"
    I don't mind that I'm expected to be NIH funded. I do mind that so many institutions don't seem to consider sustainability at all when making their plans. By shifting more and more positions to all soft money, a university or Med. school can maintain a much larger research component than they could otherwise, but the whole thing can be gutted is the funding climate takes a downturn (for the record, my position is not all soft money, it's more traditional).
    The other negative effect is that soft money driven growth directly impacts the funding climate. There seems to be a general consensus that the "ideal" funding success rate is somewhere around 20%. At that level, peer review can genuinely separate the wheat from the chaff, and not be forced to make arbitrary, hair splitting distinctions between proposals that are essentially of equal quality. Also, the need for multiple resubmissions (see DM and PP's previous posts) is reduced, which allows PIs to strike a better balance between doing science, writing papers and writing grants.
    Soft money positions allow institutions to immediately expand at the first sign of the NIH budget increasing, which ensures that funding success rates will stay below the "optimal" 20% level.

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