Your Grant In Review: Hard Luck Blackmail

You know how you are just going along, minding your own business, doing your thing and then all of a sudden you Notice Something? Something that might be called a meme in the blogosphere and a trend or fad in real life? Well I noticed one in NIH grant land recently and it is utterly annoying.


I've actually started noticing the trend over the past round or two of grant reviews but it is the most recent round where things came to a head. So by this point I have multiple exemplars in mind which have come through the study section on which I serve. Furthermore, I've had a few colleagues who serve on other study sections mention the same trend.
The trend is for the following argument, laid out subtly or in stark glaring relief:

"I really, really, really need this money or else I will have to Shut Down My Lab and the world as we know it will come to an End, OH NOES!!!!!11!!!"

Okay, I might be slightly exaggerating the emphasis at the end there. But I'm not exaggerating the explicit appeal that one of the critical factors which the PI thinks the reviewers should be considering is that they are running on grant fumes. That the reviewers should be assigning a superlative (read: fundable) score simply because the lab "needs" it rather than because, say, the NIH needs this particular bit of proposed science to be done.
I am not sympathetic.
Or, to be accurate, I am sympathetic to the situation of a PI facing 1) loss of job and/or denial of tenure or 2) a huge setback in a research program that has been laboriously built up over years. I am also sympathetic to the plight of any grad students or postdocs who will be losing their jobs and/or places to do work because of funding problems.
Generically. In the abstract.
What I am not sympathetic to is the supposition on the part of these applicants that their situation is unique or different in any way from the hundreds of other investigators across the country.
Many of my friends have had to downsize right in the middle of a humming program that took them years of work to build up. Ditching trainees and technicians and in some cases unbelievably valuable resources of one type or another.
So don't whine about your situation in your application. Don't plead that you are especially deserving. Because you are not. And it just comes across poorly that you fail to recognize this.
____
p.s. The person you should be whining to about how your lab is going to come crashing down is your Program Officer. She is the one that can take this special pleading and turn it into a pickup or a brief interval of Bridge R56 funding.
p.p.s. For some very odd reason in the examples where I run across sufficient detail, it is PIs who are apparently on hard money for their salary that are doing this. I am even less sympathetic when I consider those soft-money PIs who are facing the same dire straits and not trying to guilt the panel into funding them with this sort of nonsense.

14 responses so far

  • whimple says:

    I'm very surprised that PI's explicitly put this begging in an application... does this go in the introduction (response to critiques for A1, A2) or in the main grant?
    That being said, I think the beggars have a point, even if inelegantly expressed... that science is better served by keeping their lab operating, than by giving yet another R01 to a lab that already has one (or more).
    The underlying philosophy is that the NIH's essential concept of funding projects is flawed, and that there would be more validity to funding people, because real progress doesn't come from more of whatever perspective we already have, but from diversity of opinions and research foci.
    It's wrong to say they should be begging the PO instead of the study section... of course, they are begging both, not either-or. In any case, no matter what the NIH claims, including the chanted-by-rote "study sections don't fund grants, institutes fund grants", everyone knows that's a flat-out lie and that the study sections, through their control of scientific merit ratings, are the ones that de facto hold the purse strings.
    This is a difficult time in academic biomedical science. I think there should explicitly be a contribution to grant scoring of "uniqueness"... in other words, if this lab doesn't get funded to do this, will someone else just go and do this work two weeks later anyway, or will this work not happen at all? You might think that "innovation" covers this, but in my experience pooking around the crisp database of funded grants, innovation isn't a major factor in what gets funded (this may be field specific).

  • DrugMonkey says:

    In any case, no matter what the NIH claims, including the chanted-by-rote "study sections don't fund grants, institutes fund grants", everyone knows that's a flat-out lie and that the study sections, through their control of scientific merit ratings, are the ones that de facto hold the purse strings.
    Yes and no. In the sense that study sections assign the scores which are used by Program, yes. In the sense that Program is not obligated to respect these rankings, no.
    Every grant which is scored more poorly than the supposed fund line and more poorly than other grants which are also over the fund line (and not funded) that gets picked up tells you that the study section ratings are not everything.
    This is very important for PIs to understand because their behavior can be a determining factor with respect to these out-of-review-line grant pickups.
    R56 bridge awards can be awarded to any grant that isn't triaged if I have the rules correctly. They have been saying quite explicitly that one of the purposes is to keep labs from closing if the money is going to zero. Program awards these, not study sections.

  • neurolover says:

    Interesting that you think this propensity is higher among "hard money" applicants. Why, do you think? Of course we know you haven't actually made an analysis of the trends, but assuming your trend is correct, do you think it's cause hard money folks just think of themselves as being entitled? that they have a job, that they're not going to be able to do without the funding, as opposed to a soft money person, who won't have a job at all?
    I think you're poking at an important problem, which is the way in which we all think our own troubles are unique, and special, as compared to other people's circumstances. Sometimes, that's 'cause we know things about ourselves that someone else doesn't. But, that's true for everyone, right? Everyone has some special circumstances.
    I do think the system is broken right now, but I think we need to talk about how it's broken in a way that damages science and society and not ourselves, not particular individuals. My concern right now is that broken systems damage the vulnerable first. We know about the plight of new investigators who never get an opportunity to get that initial traction. Another worry is minorities and women. When the men's Ivy's decided to admit women, they did so by expanding their class sizes. It's more difficult to be inclusive when the system is constricted. I'm noting it in our graduate program, and in the foundation grants I'm seeing awarded. My suspicion is that when we do the stats after the constrained period in science, we'll see a decrease in the proportions of awards to women and minorities, as well.

  • drdrA says:

    'For some very odd reason in the examples where I run across sufficient detail, it is PIs who are apparently on hard money for their salary that are doing this. I am even less sympathetic when I consider those soft-money PIs who are facing the same dire straits and not trying to guilt the panel into funding them with this sort of nonsense.'
    I can't take that comment seriously without some actual ##s about how many hard money and how many soft money people you have observed doing this (just for starters). I just don't do any anecdotal evidence anymore.
    Second- I'm not sure I would be more sympathetic to this plea from soft money people either. They KNEW what they were getting into when they took that soft money position at high-profile place, as opposed to lesser profile place with some undergraduate or graduate teaching responsibilities. I don't mean to sound cold- but there are some calculated trade offs here.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    drdrA, I didn't mean to imply I'd be cool with special pleading from anyone.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Life sciences and the scientists who practice them are funded solely by grants from Federal agencies. The complete reliance of research universities on such funding for their research is not different from owning a big SUV as your only vehicle and when the amount of gas available in the market is limited and very expensive you find yourself not being able to afford driving it to work anymore. It is mainly the responsibility of the university to either replace the SUV with a smaller, more efficient vehicle, maybe even a bicycle, or find an alternative fuel. Unfortunately, universities today are addicted to the SUV and they let the best drivers lose their jobs. So many universities have huge endowment funds and rich foundations yet, they'll happily fund football and basketball teams long before they'll spend even one dime funding their research and researchers.

  • bill says:

    Life sciences and the scientists who practice them are funded solely by grants from Federal agencies.
    I don't know much about industry either, but at least I remember it's there.

  • Preach it, Dr Rivlin. I am totally with you in this respect.
    DM sez:

    That the reviewers should be assigning a superlative (read: fundable) score simply because the lab "needs" it rather than because, say, the NIH needs this particular bit of proposed science to be done.

    In helping junior investigators formulate their responses to the previous review, I always encourage them to write the angry, whiny response first then put it in their desk (or recycle bin). It feels good and gets the bile expressed completely so that it doesn't infiltrate other areas of the revised proposal. Then we work on a well-formulated introduction to the revised application - as you note, the best response to reviewer criticisms is compelling science.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    bill,
    Since when the industry is funding science for the sake of science?

  • bill says:

    Eh? Regardless of why they're funding it, they're funding it. The sentence I quoted is simply wrong.
    And if we're switching topics to "science for the sake of science", who *does* fund that? Certainly not the NIH, nor any funding body I know of.

  • whimple says:

    And if we're switching topics to "science for the sake of science", who *does* fund that? Certainly not the NIH, nor any funding body I know of.
    Howard Hugues does this.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    And the NSF does it, too!

  • bill says:

    Whimple -- yeah, Wellcome and Soros probably do too. I was forgetting about the big private funds. Maybe Gates as well.
    SRivlin -- I have the wrong impression of the NSF then; I'll take another look.

  • drdrA says:

    No, Gates doesn't fund science for the sake of science- their two main funding areas for global health are:
    * Access to existing vaccines, drugs, and other tools to fight diseases common in developing countries
    * Research to develop health solutions that are effective, affordable, and practical
    No science for the sake of science there.

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