A couple of recent pieces in Science will be of interest to those of you concerned about the demographics of the NIH-funded independent scientist pool [h/t: writedit]. The first one details the prior NIH head Elias Zerhouni's attempt to make his administration's support for New Investigators permanent NIH policy. The second News Focus details interviews conducted with NIH funded investigators over the age of 70.
Much of this is familiar territory but I was struck by the use of the term "affirmative action" to describe the NIH's attempt to keep funding for new awardees viable.
First up, what did Zerhouni attempt to correct?
In 2003, when NIH's budget stopped growing, the situation "collapsed," Zerhouni says: The number of R01-like research grants (known as R01 equivalents) going to first-time investigators slipped to 1354 in 2006, the lowest level in 9 years.
In 2007, he set a target of funding 1500 new-investigator R01s, based on the previous 5 years' average. Some institutes struggled to reach their targets, NIH officials say. At the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, for example, the shift to new grants meant that only 9% to 10% of established investigators with strong peer-review scores received funding, whereas 25% of comparable new investigators did, says NINDS Director Story Landis. She maintains, however, that "it's not as though a huge number of investigators lost out."
[program directors] came on board when NIH noticed a change in behavior by peer reviewers. Told about the quotas, study sections began "punishing the young investigators with bad scores," says Zerhouni. That is, a previous slight gap in review scores for new grant applications from first-time and seasoned investigators widened in 2007 and 2008, Berg says. It revealed a bias against new investigators, Zerhouni says.
Okay, I applaud them all for noticing and getting on board and all that but someone's missing the point. New Investigator awards were going down 2004, 2005 and 2006 before the heavy hand of NIH programmatic pickups descended. It is the "slight-gap" that revealed the bias against new investigators! The widening gap after the news about New Investigator policies began getting around just puts a fine point on the main issue. Study section behavior is what needs to be directly addressed and the application of BandAid solutions at the Program level is making things worse!
How so? The use of the term "affirmative action" tells us all we need to know. This brings in the GoodOldWhite(haired)Boyz dogwhistle to assert that New Investigators are rightfully receiving poorer scores and need an artificial leg up. That, my friends, is what most people holding the reins of power in academic science hear when the term affirmative action is brought up. What people are not hearing in any meaningful way is the term bias. Which implies, correctly in my view, that irrelevant considerations of career status, prior R01-funding, etc are being applied to diminish highly meritorious proposals in favor of equally- or less-meritorious proposals from those on the inside.
From the News Focus:
Biochemist Carl Frieden, 79, of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, also says he will let peer reviewers tell him when it's time to close his lab. He says that although he's sympathetic to the struggles of young scientists, funding should be based strictly on scientific merit, not age. "We're the only profession judged by our peers every 3 to 5 years. If older scientists can pass that trial, I'm comfortable with that," he says.
Right. Because the ImmaculatePeerReview is a perfect judge of scientific merit...sigh. Oh, well, some of those interviewed understand:
For molecular geneticist Robert Wells of Texas A&M University in College Station, who is just 70 but gave up his NIH grant and has been closing his lab for the past 2 years, the difficulties young investigators face were foremost in his thoughts. "If I and other old birds continue to land the grants, the [young scientists] are not going to get them," he says. He worries that the budget won't be able to support the 100 people "I've trained ... to replace me."
Back to the first piece on Zerhouni's parting gift I note something interesting that has been trickling in the back of my mind ever since I started paying attention on study section.
NIH will also fine-tune its policy to tilt it in favor of early-career scientists. The goal is to adjust for the recently discovered fact that only about 55% of investigators who receive their first NIH grants are at an early stage of their career. The rest are scientists who had been funded by other agencies or came from NIH's intramural program or from Europe after being forced to retire there. "It was embarrassing" to realize, for example, that the new investigators included two department chairs with Veterans Administration funding, Landis says.
There is an awful lot of text in this post, so I am going to break it up with something totally hot.
The Redline Conquest Team, reviewed here. $899.99 frameset and $1,159 Ultegra build kit from Excel Sports.
Funny, I noticed this trend after about two rounds of study section. Namely that the New Investigator pool included many quite-senior investigators who had enjoyed quite substantial support from nonNIH sources in their careers. Surprise, surprise, proposals from these "New Investigators" did better than did those of recently transitioned New Investigators. I still find it mind-boggling what properties of the NIH grant review / award system seem obvious to applicants and study section reviewers and yet is a "surprise" to the people who actually hold the raw data that would allow them to perform definitive analyses.
This is why I continue to exhort you all, from grad student to seasoned investigators, to take every opportunity that arises to talk NIH grants shop with any NIH representative you come across.
At this little meeting there was a nice dinner session on obtaining NIH grants. The session was hosted by two well funded extramural researchers (albeit in clinical areas) and one program officer. They all gave excellent talks although this particular dinner was not very well attended (my fellow junior investigators, WTF are you thinking skipping out on these things?).
Word up, jp!!
Final shot from the Zerhouni piece:
some scientists may be uneasy about the cost, says Howard Garrison, spokesperson for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland: "Every time you give a leg up to a young investigator, you're pushing someone off the edge of the cliff."
A total and scurrilous lie. The older investigators are disproportionately (compared to the genuine New Investigators) likely to hold multiple grants and to have hard money jobs. The idea that each award to a New Investigator pushes an established investigator "off the cliff" is laughable. Please challenge this silly notion if you happen to run across it DearReader. Let us turn this statement around, shall we?
"Each time you give yet another award to an established investigator who has full salary support and/or other research support, you are kicking a transitioning investigator back off the edge of the towering cliff she has just surmounted."
I like my version better.