Hey NIH! How about using the stimulus as a testbed for new ideas?

Mar 03 2009 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

A recent exchange with reader Dave indicates that at least one IC will be putting any grant on the books that is within 10 percentile points of the current funding line will be considered for R56 / Bridge award.

My understanding was that if payline was 10%, everyone between 10 and 20% (who wouldn't normally get funded) gets considered for an R56

The R56 has been around for awhile and frees up Program to do some hard negotiating to pay partial awards out of the PIs proposal that did not make the funding cut. They can cut the years and budget and say "take it or leave it". Well, this concept has been a part of almost any official pronouncement on the NIH response to their dollop of stimulus money so it isn't really a surprise. But for some reason Dave's comment has me thinking.
What can we learn from this?


I've been thinking about how we can use this interval of unusual Program tricks to generate the data to support a permanent change in the way of doing business. A change that might address some of the time wasting. In a prior post I recommended an approach to alleviate revision-churning (this was before the limits were changed to single round of revising):

The ICs should set a "desired" funding target consistent with their historical performance, say 24% of applications, for each Council round. When they do not have enough budget to cover this many applications in a given round, they should roll the applications that missed the cut into the next round. Then starting the next Council round they should apportion some fraction of their grant pickups to the applications from the prior rounds that were sufficiently meritorious from a historical perspective. Perhaps half roll-over and half from the current round of submissions. That way, there would still be some room for really outstanding -01 apps to shoulder their way into funding
The great part is that essentially nothing would change. The A2 app that is funded is not going to result in scientific conduct that differs in any substantial way from the science that would have resulted from the A1/15%ile app being funded. New apps will not be any more disadvantaged by sharing the funding pie with prior rounds than they currently are facing revision-status-bias at the point of study section review.
Yet a great deal of time and effort would be saved.

Okay, so maybe what we can figure out with this massive upsurge in R56 pickups is if a would work. Suppose they turn this R56 thing into a new SOP.
First, drop the R21s altogether. Everybody puts in R01s.
Not enough preliminary data? R56 can help.
Aim 3 depends on the success of Aim 1? R56 just for Aim 1.
Worried about "risking" a 5 yr / full mod on a New Investigator? R56 is their friend.
Now, true, I'm not a big fan of cut budgets and timelines. But this has some real promise to fix some of the things that are really frustrating. It won't work well for everyone's proposal but in some cases this could save everyone a lot of time and effort and the mystery money that is supposed to magically generate strong preliminary data.

15 responses so far

  • Dave says:

    I like the creative thinking, but am going to crap on your parade anyway...

    First, drop the R21s altogether. Everybody puts in R01s.

    This turns R21s into crappy R01 proposals, increases the burden on reviewers, and does not well serve the applicants. You and I both know that two aims can be great, but if a third aim is a humongeous disaster it reflects poorly on the whole proposal. Sometimes an R21 is really the appropriate thing. Let people ask for it. Right now, for example, I want to transition part of my lab's work into some different technology. I am sure I can do it, and can write a compelling story about what I want to do, but I am not in a position to write a convincing R01 based on the new technology stuff yet. An R21 is appropriate for the transition.
    Or are you saying more people should be willing to ask for 2-year R01s? That's another matter, and actually I can't think of a downside to it as long as reviewers kept the timeline in mind when they were judging 'potential payoff'. Another reason why 'productivity per dollar' should be an explicit review criterion. But I digress...

    Not enough preliminary data? R56 can help.

    Remember that R56s are fundamentally different when it comes to peer review, in that there is none for an R56. I like the idea of R56s, but I also like that they are very limited. Too many makes the funding process too political. The stimulus package *IS* poliical, so I have no problem with abundant R56 use for that. But long term, I think reliance on R56s is not appropriate.

    Aim 3 depends on the success of Aim 1? R56 just for Aim 1.

    No need for an R56. Just cut the budget and/or award for fewer years. This is already fairly common at NSF. NSF reviewers are already explicitly told that they have the option of recommending funding for a subset of excellent aims, and program officers will do so.

    Worried about "risking" a 5 yr / full mod on a New Investigator? R56 is their friend.

    Again, this is what R21s were for. But again, I see no problem with having a common 'funding mechanism' more similar to what NSF has. At NSF, for example, there is really mainly one type of grant (I don't even know what it's called, it's so standard). But using this same mechanism, people ask for anywhere from 1 year to 5 years (usually 3-4 years), and for wildly varying amounts of money, depending on need. Some people, after all, have to hire a Russian icebreaker and go to Antarctica to tag penguins or dig up ice cores; others only need a new desktop computer to develop their bioinformatic algorithms. The key here is that reviewers all see the budget, see the budget justification, and comment on it explicitly*. NIH would have to get rid of modular budgets, and stop preventing people from talking about money.
    *Certainly there are rules/guidelines at NSF, and I have a really interesting anecdote about a very recent experience. But discussing it here would compromise my identity here AND break NSF's strict confidentiality rules. NSF is so strict, that according to their guidelines it's really not even appropriate for anyone to know I've reviewed anything for them. Which I think is fine. But my name isn't 'Dave' anyway. Or is it?

  • I think you are misunderstanding how R56 awards work, at least up to now. (Maybe they'll change it.) There is no renegotiation of specific aims, and the pending R01 remains pending. R56 awards are never given on unfunded A2s, and the R56 is explicitly meant to provide an opportunity to keep working on the project while a resubmission application is prepared.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    PP, nothing I am proposing is incompatible with your comment so wtf are you talking about? There is a de-facto renegotiation of Aims because of the proffered scope and for the one case I for which I have direct knowledge of the situation, the PI and PO agreed what was going to be done with the R56 $$.
    Dave, think outside the box, dude.
    At any rate the major point here is not to focus on the exact mechanism that might be used down the road. It is to ask if the present episode of partially funding the additional 10%ile points worth of proposals works out well or is a disaster. Then NIH could use this information to inform changes in their more sustained practices into the future...

  • BB says:

    Didn't the acting director state in a memo that ARRA funding priorities is to go to projects that can be completed in 2 years (with new hires, etc.)?
    Get rid of the R21? Seems to me, instead of shoving RO1s into 2 year grants, one should expand R21s under ARRA.

  • Dave says:

    Dave, think outside the box, dude.

    Dude, I am already outside the box, and trying to tell you what it looks like out here.
    You said that the R56 mechanisms could somehow be twisted to become a mechanism for short-term renegotiated grant funding. But CPP told you that the R56 is not really a grant like what we normally think of as a grant, so wouldn't really work they way you think it would. For example, as CPP pointed out, it isn't given for A2s, but that's the most logical thing to fund short-term, right? Why renegotiate something that the applicant has a chance to yet revise? In fact, a revision really is a sort of renegotiation, right?
    I also pointed out that the R56 mechanism sidesteps peer review. I think that's a bad idea.
    At the core of it, I recognize that you weren't really hung up on R56s as much as advocating for some sort of mechanism by which otherwise failed R01 applications could get limited funding after renegotiation of aims. I am fine with that; I told you that NSF already does that, regularly. But keep in mind that aims are never judged as stand-alone projects, so an unintended consequence of your 'vision' is that proposals best suited for smaller grants (like R21s), but shoehorned into the R01 mechanism, don't get funded at all. Which is not so good, because I think there is a need to recognize, treat differently, and fund smaller shorter term projects.
    Thinking even bigger, remember that NIH is not the only source of funding. Depending on the project and amount you need, other funding agencies may be more appropriate. Got a compelling biomedical project that really only needs money for a postdoc? Try a private foundation (AHA, MDA, NARSAD, etc). Many explicitly target support for early or otherwise unfunded investigators (Searle, Whitehall, etc). Private agencies are also often willing to take risks without too much preliminary data, if your record of productivity and ideas are good. Got a project that maybe isn't so obviously related to disease and has a strong training component? Try NSF, where they aren't hung up on curing cancer or alzheimer's. Got a great record of productivity and really just want mad money? Try renegotiating your contract. Every year lately I have been invited, and enthusiastically accept the chance, to talk about my research and schmooze with rich potential donors. Most money donated to universities is earmarked for specific purposes. I make my institution look good and argue on their behalf, but I know I'll likely benefit. Even if that money doesn't come to me, helping them helps me. Dean-love is a powerful thing.
    In the end, things haven't changed much from when Columbus begged Isabella for cash on the promise of a shorter trade route to the Indies, and delivered Aztec gold and tobacco instead. Only now we promise cures for cancer, and deliver cell cycle proteins and kinases and stuff.

  • Dave says:

    Seems to me, instead of shoving RO1s into 2 year grants, one should expand R21s under ARRA.

    Won't work. Not enough time for an RFA and subsequent review. By law the money has to be spent by fall 2011 (anything longer is not judged by economists to be appropriately 'stimulatory'). I think the R56 mechanism was a good way to go. I don't know what the 'challenge grant' thing is going to end up as. And as far as I know, neither do NIH personnel yet. But that's a minor chunk of the money. From what I hear, the vast bulk of the $10B is getting poured by POs onto people with proposals in the system already scored but just outside the pay range.

  • whimple says:

    I wonder if these R56 things will go to new investigators, and if so, whether that will be helpful, hurtful, or none-of-the above. I'm sure the tenure committee members have no idea what to make of these things.

  • whimple says:

    I bet this destroys 5-year R01 based program pickups. They're going to go with a hard cutoff at the (unaffected) payline and give everyone else these 2 year jobbies.

  • Dave says:

    Whimple:
    On the CV, it will look like...
    NIH/NIDA R56XXXXX "Molecular analysis of science blogging", PI: Drug Monkey. 2009-2011. Total award (direct + indirect): $643,515
    ...which looks a hell of a lot better than nothing.
    (But not as good as an R01 with a bigger amount)

  • whimple says:

    But is looks a lot worse than R01XXXXX ($1,250,000 directs) you got as a programmatic pickup.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    writedit's place is really the place to keep track of the rapidly emerging/disappearing policy statements..
    http://writedit.wordpress.com/2009/03/03/nih-stimulus-funding-strategy-announced/
    There are the occasional tickles that NI grants may actually be funded all the way....or at least more of them.

  • Pinus says:

    challenge grant info released today.
    Time to get writing!

  • whimple says:

    Sure, EVERYONE will be writing (me too). The administrators here have practically wet themselves with excitement.
    All this money is going to be wasted. 80% of grants goes to salary... who's salary can you pay for two years? A post-doc? Where are all these post-docs going to suddenly materialize from? Last I checked there wasn't a huge line of unemployed post-docs waiting for this to happen. The NIH should have given the money back to congress and said, "Sorry, we can't operate this way. Take your $10B back and increase our year-on-year budget by $1B instead. That saves congress $8B! What a deal!"
    I am just amazed and dismayed at this display of concentrated stupid from the people in charge.

  • GirlPostdoc says:

    How about helping us Canadians out with all the abbreviations. I'm still trying to navigate the labyrinth of available funding. When you use the terms R21, R01, R56 etc., it would help tremendously if you defined them (ie criteria). I read the post but it wasn't until I started reading the comments and even then I could barely figure out what each of these were. Although things are simpler up north, the value of science seems on the decline.
    http://girlpostdoc.blogspot.com/

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I have a glossary linked up on the top bar. It has definitions or at least links for many abbreviations used hereabouts. Once you get into it you will see why I do not bother to redefine NIH funding mechanisms each and every time I refer to them. This is blogging, yo!

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