On Mad solutions, RFAs and Bunny Hopping

If I take his point aright, Mike the Mad Biologist has proposed a Mad solution to the problem of too many high quality applications chasing too few NIH grant dollars.

I think more of the NIH budget needs to be much more focused and targeted, and less researcher driven.

Waitaminnit! The investigator-initiated schema is the very essence of the NIH's success, is it not?


Continuing with Mike the Mad's argument:

The problem, I think, is more fundamental than this. It's analogous to college admissions at highly selective institutions (e.g., 5-15% acceptance rates). Most of these schools would be able to accept an entire class, get rid of it, take the next 'class' down, get rid that, and take the third cohort...and not miss a beat. And most will admit that if they went an additional class down, the drop off would be very little*. Ultimately, admissions officers have to come up with reasons to disqualify qualified students.

Which is a point that I keep trying to make, with much less success. It is a reality that is hard to communicate to anyone who has not sat on study section after study section, reviewing a boatload of very meritorious proposals. I find it hard to break people of the assumption that surely they are better than average. That surely their proposals should not be ...streamlined! Triage is for those other goofs who can barely string two words together, propose half-baked woo-science, have barely ever published a paper or whatnot. Sadly, no.
Then MtM takes a bit of a step off of the path Investigator-Initiated purity.

Many of the participants were frustrated that NIAID wasn't funding certain areas adequately (e.g., pharmacokinetics). I'll never forget what the program officer said: "I can only fund what is sent to me."
The point is that, as DrugMonkey noted, it's too difficult for reviewers or program officers to reject proposals based on their unsuitability for the goals of NIH, since these goals, even within certain areas, are too broadly defined. My experience has been that with very targeted calls for proposals, there are far fewer proposals submitted, and it's much easier to flat out reject them because many proposals are not germane to the funding objectives.

Well, I don't know how true this is. The only example I know of where an IC director put his/her foot down and said "I don't care how good the scores are, nor that we've been funding this stuff for years....No. More!" is the Insel effect at NIMH. When Insel took the helm he made it clear that he was gunning for the basic behavioral/cognitive/psychological projects which had very little relevance to mental health (in his view). College sophomores pressing buttons, pigeons pecking keys, rats pressing levers...I interpreted the Insel policy to be directed at those paradigms. The very limited view that I have suggests that yes, NIMH has been pushing out some of their previous wheelhouse investigators and categorically pulling or denying off-topic proposals.
Furthermore, I've previously discussed the gray area in which Program staff use discretionary grant pickups to reshuffle the order that arises from study sections. It is unclear to what extent this occurs across all of the NIH but it does happen, I assume frequently. I have plenty of personal knowledge stories of grants being funded at scores that make it clear that they were discretionary pickups. (Yes, including at least one of my own awards.) The NIH does not, however, seem to ever present data on how many grants are awarded out of line with the initial priority scores. Wouldn't that be an interesting slide to review?
Nevertheless, MtM seems to be calling for a greater proportion of grants to be funded through the Request for Applications mechanism. The key parts of the RFA which distinguish it from the Program Announcement is that the RFA is usually a closely described set of scientific goals, has a single nonstandard receipt deadline and supposedly has a commitment to fund a minimum number of proposals. I say "supposedly" because I am familiar with one case in which no funded grants resulted from an RFA call. I should note that it appears to me that RFAs have (by intention) broader downstream effects. Many of the PIs who did not happen to receive funding from their initial submission to an RFA turn right around and send a revised version of their proposal right back in at a normal submission deadline. Some of these end up with funding. So additional awards do get funded which are directly motivated by the RFA even if not funded through the RFA itself.
This brings me to our good friend whimple and his or her original example of bunny hoppers.

Say I work on the mechanics of bunny-hopping. My papers get sent for review to colleague bunny-hoppers, my grants are reviewed by the bunny-hopping study section, and there is never really an opportunity (ESPECIALLY with the study section) for a non-bunny-hopper to stand up and say, "look, other than the bunny-hoppers, nobody really cares about bunny-hopping

This was a serious point and relevant to the supposed powerlessness of POs to dismantle navel-gazing areas of science in which the peers keep assigning each other good grant scores. So you may want to go read that comment thread. Nevertheless it also became an amusement of YHN:

Take bunny-hopping and go with it. Assume you are submitting your next proposal to a study section with a large number of bunny-hopper scientists. Write up some Aims of interest to you that relate to bunny-hopping. Maybe toss out some experiments.

There were some good ones from bsci, Noah Gray and the BM. I offered this:

Aim I: To determine if long distance bunny hopping results in increased liability to abuse drugs.
In this Aim bunny hopping will be employed as a model of compulsive exercise akin to a proposed "running addiction" phenotype in humans. The goals are to determine if a compulsive hopping paradigm established in the laboratory disrupts general reward pathways leaving animals at increased liability to develop compulsive drug taking behavior.

Okay, why am I bringing up this old stuff? NIDA has just issued the bunny-hopper RFA!!!

The goal of this Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) is to stimulate investigations, using animal models or human subjects, of neurobiological and behavioral mechanisms that underlie the effects of physical activity on brain function across the lifespan as well as research designed to improve the translation of existing knowledge of the effects of exercise and physical activity into strategies for the prevention and treatment of drug abuse.

12 responses so far

  • Becca says:

    *insert Steven Colbert here* Nailed it!
    I think your wording of the RFA would inspire better science than the NIH version. Of course, I think your hypothesis is exactly backward, but that's all the more reason I want somebody to do the experiments.

  • juniorprof says:

    I'll admit, I did a double take when that RFA appeared in my inbox. Perhaps not more than others I've seen though. Aside from that, I'm not touching this one with a ten foot pole.

  • bsci says:

    Must hurry and polish my bunny hopping protocol. Thanks to DrugMoney's advanced warning, I have a big head start on the other applicants!
    On one of the earlier notes: Most of these schools would be able to accept an entire class, get rid of it, take the next 'class' down, get rid that, and take the third cohort...and not miss a beat
    I've never been in a study section, but I'd love it if they asked all reviewers, "If prioritizing funds was not an issue, is this project clear enough and relevant enough to deserve support? If not, do you think it would be after addressing specific concerns in a revised application?" While I don't know if/how this information would be used in an actual review, it would be fascinating to get a better handle on how many good proposals are rejected for lack of funding.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Aside from that, I'm not touching this one with a ten foot pole.
    ??? why not? the balance of purely investigator initiated versus Program-interest versus Congressional mandated projects doesn't have that much baggage does it? I mean, the balance is a current reality. There is one, it changes over time and some investigators feel strongly one way or the other. What's so tricky about discussing it?
    Myself, I happen to think that the investigator-initiated purists are a bit hysterical and don't credit the degrees of freedom that always remain, even when responding to an RFA.

  • juniorprof says:

    why not
    A 5 year R01 for effects of physical activity across the life-span? Somehow that doesn't add up, even for rats and mice. I have no problem with the idea, although I might argue that the money could be better spent on publicizing tax breaks for gym memberships or just turning in an exercise diary with your tax return.
    Myself, I happen to think that the investigator-initiated purists are a bit hysterical and don't credit the degrees of freedom that always remain, even when responding to an RFA.
    You won't hear an argument from me on that one. I've been responding to RFAs like a madman, in addition to the investigator-initiated R01 I sent. Some research can be couched a million different ways, I'm lucky that mine can be.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    A 5 year R01 for effects of physical activity across the life-span? Somehow that doesn't add up, even for rats and mice. I have no problem with the idea, although I might argue that the money could be better spent on publicizing tax breaks for gym memberships or just turning in an exercise diary with your tax return.
    oh, on the scientific merits? First, it should be obvious that this is motivated by the usual. An interesting correlation in human populations where it is uncertain there is a specific causal role of "X". In this case the correlations run from "teenagers who exercise are less likely to do drugs" (e.g.) to "an activity plan seems to help in human nicotine abstinence experiments" (e.g.). One can easily sketch out the alternative explanations when it comes to the human condition. Second, there is a small, older literature on access to running wheels as a reinforcer in laboratory rats- if you buy the drugs-as-reinforcers thing, perhaps exercise can substitute. There are also one or two papers directly pitting access to wheel against access to drug and they mutually suppress each other (e.g.) (curiously nobody talks about this in the context of the Premack principle from what I've read)
    Just from these little bits here, you can dream up an endless number of behavioral experiments to determine if there is or is not a likely biological role even before you get to biological correlates of any such effects! They do not require life-long exposure conditions either.

  • Lamar says:

    you don't believe drugs of abuse are reinforcers?

  • pinus says:

    I am actually really interested in this. I am trying to think of a way I could spin one of these NEW INNOVATOR applications myself.
    Also, mildly related, and interesting article that came out in PNAS early online...how environmental enrichment can 'reverse' aspects of addiction. I only saw the title, so this notice is not my endorsement for how good it is (however, it might be great?).

  • DrugMonkey says:

    you don't believe drugs of abuse are reinforcers?
    Of course access to drugs of abuse has a reinforcing effect. What I am not convinced of is whether consideration solely of the reinforcing efficacy of drugs tells us much about drug abuse and dependence. My point in the comment above could perhaps be expanded to say that just because animals or people may substitute exercise for drugs in a nondependent state this does not mean that exercise will do anything for the dependent individual.
    pinus: this one?
    http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2008/10/24/0806889105.abstract
    looks like environmental enrichment attenuates cocaine conditioned place-preference and coc reinstatement of CPP as well. locomotor sensitization to cocaine is aquired at a similar rate but is not as durable when tested post-cocaine.
    guess what part of the environmental enrichment was? access to a running wheel.....
    thanks for the head's up on this one, On first read it sure looks like the usual higherIF crap in which the behavioral conditions that seriously question the whole interpretation have been subjugated to some alleged "mechanism" studies.
    with respect to your plans are you saying you want to use the RFA topic to construct a New Innovator application? Don't you think you would lose 'innovation' points if the RFA is out on the topic?

  • pinus says:

    I see your point...perhaps I should seek clarification. I received this from the NIH just the other day...
    "NIH welcomes proposals for 2009 NIH Director's Pioneer Awards and New Innovator Awards. Both programs are part of the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research and support exceptionally creative scientists who take highly innovative, potentially high-impact approaches to major challenges in biomedical or behavioral research."
    I was under the impression that these awards had to be related to the recent roadmap iniatives that came out...while not exactly what the RFA refers too, I thought that there was some room to relate the two.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    it would be fascinating to get a better handle on how many good proposals are rejected for lack of funding
    On a per-round basis I'd say that we could easily go down to 30-40th percentile without it being a complete waste of money.
    that's my highly subjective view of "good". YMwillV on this, believe me.

  • N.B. says:

    Wow. That clarification was necessary. Until I read this particular entry, I was under the apparently mistaken impression that whoever brought up bunny-hopping was talking not about Lepus but about first-person shooters.
    Anyway, carry on with serious discussion about NIH grants.

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