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.
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.