"Geez, could NIH Program staff be any less helpful?"

Aug 04 2008 Published by under Careerism

Dr. Yun Gun has been listening to all of her mentors on the value of keeping in contact with the Program Officials at her favorite Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Finally working up her courage, she calls the PO.
Next thing I know, she's in my office smacking me upside the head and ranting about what a frustrating waste of time it is trying to get the critical information she wanted out of Program. "could they be any less helpful?.....revise and resubmit? no duh! I want probabilities...I'm not asking for guarantees, I just want to know how this borderline score app is looking...they asked for JIT, the app is within the hard payline so why can't they just say when....what, are they afraid of getting sued?!!?!!"


Although slightly fictionalized for dramatic purposes, this is not an uncommon situation. Indeed, a comment on a recent post asks:

Is it permissible to approach program officers via email? Or do they avoid written communication for fear of legal concerns?

to which PhysioProf responded:

Of course not. The only thing they avoid is making promises of funding until awards are actually issued.

Oh yeah, you betcha!
It makes perfect sense to applicants. You get a borderline score on a grant application- decent but off the hard funding line that the IC in question is willing to discuss. Yet still within a few percentage points giving you hope that you may make it into the grey zone and actually get picked up. So what you are looking for is just a little bit of help as you are triaging your effort for the next grant round. Instead you get the Program-zombie-mantra:

"I advise you to revise and resubmit in hopes of improving your score"

Aaaauuuggghhhh!!!!!

Don't they get it? You aren't looking for a guarantee of funding for cripes sake! And you are already quite familiar with the need for continual revision and score improvement, thankyouverymuch! Here's the thing: Your time is finite and you need to choose which of about a half dozen applications you might be working on this submission date. Revising and resubmitting is not necessarily a guarantee of funding even if you were off the line by only a couple of percentage points. So each and every grant you choose to work on is subtracting from a chance to work on another revision, new app or different mechanism that might eventually lead to funding. PIs who are deep in the swing of things are making these calculations for each and every round. Which proposal has the best chance of improvement this time?
Is this really news to that frustratingly obtuse PO at the other end of the line?
No, it is not. Of course not. They know perfectly well what you are asking about, even if they play really dumb. (Ok, that's actually a leap of faith, some of them are really, really good about pretending they do not have the foggiest notion what time it is on PI street!)
I've seen a couple of Program staff respond to a question about this at a meet-n-greet session at a meeting once. Even your cynical narrator was a bit taken aback.
Audience Member: "I mean, c'mon, it isn't like anyone is going to sue you!"
PO: "Umm, actually that's not true. Let me tell you about the time we....."
Thereafter were a few vignettes about the nutty PI who threatened (or worse) to sue a PO for allegedly "promising" a grant which did not subsequently get funded and the like.
That made me reflect on how different mindsets are for those of us who came up in the current environment and just expect by default to have to revise grants like crazy, absorb triages, put in multiple apps, etc. Different from those who had never been triaged, may have never even had to ever resubmit an application and basically got their fish every time they dropped a lure in the pond.
Yes, Virginia, these people exist. Or at least they did up until about 5 years ago. They feel...entitled. When you see the odd ranting from senior PIs about the broken review system and how "some assistant professor from nowhere is denying me my money" (sigh, yes, a quote)...suing Program Officers who are just trying to do their job is not such a stretch.
So yes, Dr. Gun, it is very frustrating to get certain types of information out of your PO. It would be helpful to recognize that they have legitimate reasons for keeping mum on the chances of even a 1%-ile application until the Notice of Grant Award (NGA) has actually been issued. Understanding what you cannot extract from a PO (I'm not saying I don't still go fishing myself...) helps you to keep your conversations focused on what useful information you can get out of the Program staff.

24 responses so far

  • PhysioProf says:

    I don't even ask them about all this "probability" shit anymore. I just want to know exactly what they learned at the fucking study section about how I can improve my score. And if they weren't even there, then fuck 'em: they got nothing for me.

  • Doolin says:

    As a federal employee, I long ago learned that of all the strange and overly complicated rules we have to follow, none are taken more seriously than the ones about obligating the federal government's funds. Anything that even hints at promising federal money outside the proper procedures runs the risk of a career move into furniture making (at least for us GS system people).

  • S. Rivlin says:

    As a past member of a study section, I experienced once the wrath of a "senior PIs about the broken review system and how "some assistant professor from nowhere is denying me my money". And yes, that senior PI gave up, I assume, the constant battle for NIH funding, since he is now a highly paid employee of the pharmaceutical industry. In a way, it has to be a real loss for science, as said PI was a star, a leader in his field of expertise and still relatively young when he made the move to "the other side." One has to wonder how many good scientists leave science all together due to unsuccessful efforts to be funded by the NIH. To me it seems like a selection process that does not necessarily select the best.

  • pinus says:

    I feel like I am one of the lucky ones.
    My program officer has been great over the past few years. I really look forward to meeting up with him/her at meetings now...although..she/he is usually SWAMPED at meetings with PIs who are trying to find out about grants.

  • Writedit says:

    Today I saw the 5th NoA (notice of award) come in for an A0 or A1 when the PI had already submitted the next revision (A1 or A2, which in some but not all cases had been reviewed). In each case, the PO had been encouraging but noncommittal, advising the PI to revise and resubmit as DM notes. None of the PIs would have dreamed of skipping a cycle on the off chance their last submission would eventually get funded, and I never would have advised them otherwise. Further, none were bitter about taking the time & effort to submit a grant whose review didn't "count". They were too excited about getting funded and recognized that they got a free tutorial in writing introductions & observing (without pressure) the study section's response to their revised application. Nice real-world practice - & more intel for me in helping other PIs. In one case, the A1 was officially funded, but then the program officer told the PI to use the A2 research plan, which had some revisions to the methods etc., for the actual work conducted.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    SRiv- So what would be better? What tweaks or wholesale changes would you favor? How to escape the cycle of competition while still leaving a fluid system that is, in theory, able to correct for biases and able to adopt new ideas and techniques rapidly?

  • anony says:

    I think we have to take a step back and think about what the goals of the system are, as opposed to what the goals of the individuals in the system are. We have this debate every time funding gets tight, and then there are some tweaks around the edges (the identification of investigators as "new" with no clear consensus on what should be done with that information as an example). Fundamentally, though, the system will be "broken" every time we have to make the really difficult decisions, because there is no way to make those completely fairly. This logic applies to every case where we're deciding between closely matched options. The only way we've come up with to try deal with that particular problem of decision making is the "free market" and I'm not well versed enough to think about how well that works (and I suspect it fails, too). Ultimately I think nothing changes because the system is "working" (that is science is being generated) even while individuals are being chewed up and discarded.

  • PhysioProf says:

    the identification of investigators as "new" with no clear consensus on what should be done with that information as an example

    Wrong. There is a very clear consensus on what should be done with new investigators. Every Institute reaches down past the regular payline to fund new investigator R01s.

  • anony says:

    "Wrong. There is a very clear consensus on what should be done with new investigators. Every Institute reaches down past the regular payline to fund new investigator R01s."
    I believe this is institute dependent, though I bow to others greater knowledge (if appropriately cited).
    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/new_investigators/institute_center_practices.htm

  • PhysioProf says:

    Like I said, every Institute reaches down past their regular payline to fund new investigator R01s. And no one gives a shit about your standards for bowing.

  • Anony says:

    wow, I get to be the target of pp's pottymouth. But really -- I'm supposed to accept this on blind faith of pp? How does one get this info from a non anonymous source? Would a program officer verify it? And do all new investigatirs get the benefit? Or is it a soft criterion-- that some new investigator grants will be picked up below a certain payline?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    anony, one thing that you may (?) be overlooking is the generic ability of Program to pick up whatever the heck they want basically at any time. So official policy statements made by ICs (i.e., 'citable' info) are only a part of the picture. The other part of the picture is what they are doing at any given time and this is the sort of information I doubt you will ever be able to get a clear bead on. All we have to go on is what happens to people we know.
    Take the official NIDA policy from the link you cite:

    NIDA identifies new investigators; each application from a new investigator is carefully reviewed in making funding recommendations to ensure that the special circumstances of a new investigator are taken into account.

    What in the heck does this mean? Absolutely zero. If so inclined, the PO can argue "Geez, the study section didn't take the special circumstances into account, fund it" or "Nope, perfectly appropriate score, sorry buddy" for the exact same application. And I don't mean to single out NIDA, a brief scan tells me that NIMH, NIAAA, NINDS and NIAID are similarly weasely in their supposed policies. So you can read it any way you want. What really matter is what they are actually doing with new investigator grants.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    How does one get this info from a non anonymous source? Would a program officer verify it? And do all new investigatirs get the benefit? Or is it a soft criterion-- that some new investigator grants will be picked up below a certain payline?
    This comment and a recent post over at YFS which wondered why ICs don't issue "This exact score = fundable NRSA" remind us that one of the apparently less-obvious things about the selection of NIH grants for funding is that the study section score is only ONE part of the puzzle.
    I'm going to repost something I wrote in the early days of the old blog....

  • CC says:

    anony, one thing that you may (?) be overlooking is the generic ability of Program to pick up whatever the heck they want basically at any time. So official policy statements made by ICs (i.e., 'citable' info) are only a part of the picture. The other part of the picture is what they are doing at any given time and this is the sort of information I doubt you will ever be able to get a clear bead on.
    I think that that, plus the ambiguous and somewhat discrepant policies of the different institutes, were his points in the first place.

  • PhysioProf says:

    And there is absolutely no question that every Institute is reaching below their normal payline to fund new investigator R01s.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    DM,
    The Federal kind of science funding that has developed over the past 30 years in the US has created a monster that rips its owner (the public) of funds that could be used for better purposes. This monster is the huge SUV gas guzzler type that its owner cannot continue to drive due to high gas prices. The SUVs (Super University Venues) we have today are sufferung the same fate of the Tahoes and the Explorers of the auto industry. University administrations have invested federal grant money overheads in expanding their research facilites and inflating their administrative personnel to accomodate NIH funded scientists. These universities now find out that they cannot continue to pay for these huge facilities and personnels. They cannot even fill them up with the scientists they were hoping to recruit thruogh showing off these monster facilities. Many of the scientists whose grants allowed them to seek the institution that was the highest bidder for their service are now find themselves losing their NIH funding, forcing them to downsize their operations. Our SUVs are not prepared for the tough economic times and neither do their scientists.
    Scientific research is an endeavor that should be funded by the university that choose to have it as part of its curriculum. If a university chooses to fund its research via the hiring of "rich stars" whose fortune is not guaranteed for more than 3-5 years, that university will find itself in a real bind when its atars cannot continue to fund their stardom. It is a risky investment where the return does not justify the risk. The present system of funding science (paying only for old knowledge with a supposedly profitable application) is the noose with which, we scientists, are hanging to die our own endeavor.
    What is the solution? I am not sure I have an answer.
    Eventually, knowledge today is a commodity that has a price. So are the scientists that produce it. Universities are getting just a small return on the new knowledge their scientists produce (i.e., patents), but most of this knowledge is traded for free. The federal government that funds a great deal of this newly discovered applicable knowledge does not show much return on its investment either, except the opportunity of helping foriegn students and postdocs receiving American quality experience, which many of them take back home to benefit their own countries.
    Universities should not run like corporations, where the only thing that counts is the bottom line, that is because science that is not profitable in the short-run will affect negatively that line, and thus, is either eliminated or discouraged. Endowment funds, which most universities do have today, should be an integral part of the funding for new research. Scientists should not be the fund-raisers of their universities, spending their most precious time dealing with paperwork and administrative duties. Most of this work can be done by an administrative person whose time costs 1/5 or less of that of the scientist.

  • anony says:

    CC -- "she", btw.
    PP & DM: I guess you're telling us that you know of individual new investigators whose grants were funded at pay lines lower than senior investigators whose grants were not funded? And, that you know of them from every institute?
    I do understand that any grant that isn't "triaged" can be picked up for a variety of reasons and funded, and that new investigator status might be the main reason that this is done. But, this kind of hidden knowledge -- and kudos for you guys for blogging about it -- is part of a broken system. It's also the kind of thing that is particularly prone to bias. And, if we have no knowledge of the statistics of it, we can't judge whether bias is playing out, either (it might well not be, but we can't know). So, I'm annoyed by the ambiguity and complications of the new investigator situation, and see it as precisely the kind of "tweak" around the edges that doesn't really make a difference.

  • PhysioProf says:

    So, I'm annoyed by the ambiguity and complications of the new investigator situation, and see it as precisely the kind of "tweak" around the edges that doesn't really make a difference.

    It is, indeed, making a huge difference in getting new investigators their first R01s and keeping them in the game. It's not merely a tweak; for some institutes the new investigator payline is half-again the normal payline. What the long-term consequences of that will be--both positive and negative--are certainly up for discussion.

  • anony says:

    "It is, indeed, making a huge difference in getting new investigators their first R01s and keeping them in the game. It's not merely a tweak;"
    interesting pp -- but, I presume that this doesn't mean that every new investigator grant at or above that payline gets funded, merely that some of them do? Or are you saying there are institutes where *every* NewI grant gets funded at double the payline as the regular grants? If the former, who gets to decide which of the New I's above the New I payline get funded?
    I still think there's a bunch of variability by institutes on this question.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I guess you're telling us that you know of individual new investigators whose grants were funded at pay lines lower than senior investigators whose grants were not funded?
    Yes. As I know of mid or senior investigator's grants that are funded at scores / percentiles that are worse than some other grants which did not get funded.
    And, that you know of them from every institute?
    Nope, just the ICs with which I have some familiarity because of people I know personally who receive awards. Some conclusions can be drawn as well from what gets eventually funded / not funded out of my study section with the caveats that 1) I don't pay that close of attention so there is some salience bias and 2) study section member frame of reference is always the post-discussion score without any knowledge of how the full-panel vote went down.
    It's also the kind of thing that is particularly prone to bias. And, if we have no knowledge of the statistics of it, we can't judge whether bias is playing out, either (it might well not be, but we can't know).
    Yep. Agree completely. See my re-post.
    it as precisely the kind of "tweak" around the edges that doesn't really make a difference.
    what PP said. You don't even have to take his word for it as many of the recent powerpoints from the GZ (or was it Scarpa) feature the figure where he points out the reversal in the sliding New Investigator award trend- of course, they downplay the fact that these are IC 'pickups' which were necessary to redress what was happening at the study section level.

  • Trish says:

    My father is a retired scientist from Baylor College of Medicine. He was an expert grant writer. However, that's not why I'm writing. I wrote to the NIH complaining about a big grant they just funded. I don't know what you want to study. But, this was a large study on tobacco and it's impact on pregnant woman and a host of other tobacco "impacts". I found this ludicrous. Why study every nuance of a substance that we know is extremely harmful? I got a response back trying to justify the studies. My take on this grant money...there's more going on that the written policy of determining what gets funded.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Why study every nuance of a substance that we know is extremely harmful?
    A fair enough question Trish and a very common one when it comes to tobacco and alcohol.
    From the personal perspective of a creator as well as consumer of the information that is generated by continued efforts to understand the mechanisms by which, and situations under which, various recreational drugs are toxic: We can always stand to know more. Some individuals are going to be at higher risk because of genetic liabilities or environmental factors or co-administered drugs, drug histories, etc. Others will be protected, of course, which is also good to know, albeit perhaps not as critical. This is all predicated on the fact that despite it being known that a substance is "extremely harmful" as you put it, plenty of people still use those substances. Instead of saying "if you don't understand this is bad and stop using it, too bad for you", I find it valuable to continue with efforts to inform people of risks, identify risk categories as specifically as possible and to possibly develop avenues for therapy.
    Out of curiosity do you make it a habit to "write to NIH" about grants to which you object?

  • juniorprof says:

    I think that Trish has raised a very valid point. In the case of tobacco I find it increasingly hard to understand the justification for further studies on tobacco tox (not nicotine and other nicotinic receptor agonists -- which might have some beneficial medicinal qualities for a variety of diseases) when these studies never exist in an atmosphere with any real chance of tobacco criminalization. Let's face it, that stuff is the scourge of humanity. If there is any justification for making drugs illegal the case must be strongest for tobacco. The stuff can kill you a thousand ways, it will decrease your quality of life (one way or another) and there are no real barriers to a road to life-long addiction. My personal opinion is that the medical community ought to get serious about tobacco and take a stand to push to get the stuff off the shelves of every store in the US (and the world for that matter). Imagine the health care costs savings if you took tobacco off the shelves tomorrow. Sure, several million people would go bat shit for a few weeks but soon enough they might be able to breathe clearly again at least enough to save a few bucks on gas to take a walk.

  • This site was... how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I have found something which helped me.
    Many thanks!

Leave a Reply