Slate on biomedical researchers' response to Challenge grants

Apr 30 2009 Published by under Careerism, Grant Review, NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

Amanda Schaffer has a piece up on Slate subtitled "The biomedical research community goes bananas for $200 million in stimulus funding".
I dunno. It just comes across as kinda negative to me.

the lure of stimulus funding has aroused such a carnival-esque atmosphere that many biomedical scientists have ceased doing much actual research....The grant-writing mania is palpable across academic and medical institutions....lottery mentality has been especially acute ...Most of the half-dozen researchers I spoke with declined to talk on the record, for fear of jeopardizing their applications....This has involved a lot of all-nighters and an "almost comedic reshaping of what people do,"...The strict two-year limit is just "throwing money at a bunch of unsustainable new things," a genetics researcher told me.

It's not too bad, gets things mostly right. Oh, just go read the thing and comment, eh?
Discl: I was interviewed by Schaffer for this.

30 responses so far

  • becca says:

    "the lure of stimulus funding has aroused such a carnival-esque atmosphere that many biomedical scientists have ceased doing much actual research."
    Trouble is, what the public thinks of as Actual Research involves wearing a white coat and playing with bottles*.
    What scientists at the grantwriting level do is more talking on the telephone*. So grantwriters don't do much Actual Research anyway.
    *note: the "playing with bottles" vs. "talking on the telephone" are quotes from Dr. DistinguishedMentorNeuroscientist Greybeard as the responses his two children gave to "what does your dad do?"; they reflect children's perceptions of the post-doc and PI stage of scientific careers and are not to be taken as reflective of my personal views of the Awesome Responsibility that PIs take on, so please don't direct me to another one of those tiresome "Trainees are Teh Clueless about THINKING like a PI" posts; unless it is going to actually help me learn to, you know, think like a PI more quickly.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    No, no, I'm with you on this one Becca. In fact I make it a prescription, not just a description.

  • Eskimo says:

    Part of the point of the piece seems to be criticizing the limited timescale of the stimulus package framework (promise you'll show results for your wild transformative idea in two years!)
    And given that the money comes from the stimulus package/that Senator from Pennsylvania, that's sorta inevitable. It's like criticizing the rain for being wet.

  • neurowoman says:

    I thought it was interesting that the U Penn School of Medicine administrator estimated that under normal conditions faculty spend 50% of their time pursuing grants. Does this sound about right to most of you all? If not, is 50% high or low?
    I also thought the piece was unnecessarily negative.

  • Dr. Feelgood says:

    I was just called today to review challenge grants. I hear they have 15000 according to the SRO....Delicious waste of my fucking time. If I see anyone's on here, I'll just give you a "1" ok? Fuck everyone else.....
    Doc F

  • whimple says:

    Does this sound about right to most of you all? If not, is 50% high or low?
    Sounds illegal. Grant writing is not allowed to be part of NIH dollar supported percent effort, since it is illegal to use government funds to lobby the government for more funds.

  • grannyG says:

    I am still perplexed about the interest in challege grants. for a while, i thought everybody knew something i did'nt. It just seems to be such a small percentage of the stimulus pie, 2% right? for my part I have put in my administrative suppliment, and plan to try a R21, or two, next cycle.

  • PeggyOh says:

    15,000! I don't normally read Slate, but it reads like telephone tag in a language you don't really understand. I'm guessing the sources were misquoted (I can just imagine the conversation on April 26th, "Yes, I am spending 75% of my time on grants." First, note the verb she uses: pursuing vs. working. Second, on April 28th, that same researcher will probably spend 75% of their time preparing for finals or a student's defense or an administrative meeting. grannyG: everyone I know worth their salt or with a shred of common sense has been saying just that since the NIH publicly released the RFAs. Or simply, "the rich keep getting richer."

  • Luigi says:

    15,000 is what I heard a couple weeks back, and posted here. That's probably a minimum, based on what I heard at dinner last night with someone from NIH. Truly, unless you were already tagged for one of those (and you should know who you are), there was not much point in applying.
    Good news is -- I also heard there were relatively few supplements. So congrats if you got one of those in. Also congrats to people previously-above-payline or who have new submissions already in the system. Heard about one colleague whose grant hasn't even been reviewed yet who was offered the first year.
    Slate is right to paint this farce negatively. If this NIH ARRA circus were any other organization at any other time, we'd be outraged at the inefficiencies and corruption, rather than drooling, begging, and clapping. Talk about a $45B banana republic!

  • qaz says:

    Wow, lots to say.
    Neurowoman #4 - Partially, the question becomes what counts as proposal writing. Certainly if you count getting preliminary data as well and time planning and thinking about how to structure a grant so as to get it funded, 50% is not unreasonable. If you're just counting writing time, then it becomes harder to measure. For example, do you count time spent complaining and moaning about having to write the grant? If you're just counting time sitting at a computer typing words that actually end up in the grant, it would be less. But 50% effort is not at all out of the ballpark for any of the successful (meaning funded) faculty that I know.
    That being said, there's absolutely no question that if a way was found in which the right scientists (meaning me!) could be funded without having to go through the grant-writing process, much more and much better science would get done. I've proposed before that we should have ongoing sinecures for basic levels (say one R01 worth) in which a PI "making good progress" (whatever that means) is funded for another five years. Good progress could be identified by sending in the papers published in the last five years. Some mechanism would be required to handle n00bs and people who fall off the radar and greedy empire-builders, but there's really no reason we can't fund the basic 1xR01 lab without this nightmare grant structure. And PeggyOh #8, no, that 50% effort estimate is based on amount of time spent over years, not over days.
    Whimple #5 - Grant proposals are not lobbying the government. They are proposals for solving the government's problems (in this case where to put science money). In fact, there are grants you can get (e.g. an exploratory center P20) which are explicitly for designing, building, and writing very large P50 center grants. A friend of mine has one. Now, if you spent NIH time lobbying the senate to increase NIH's budget, that would be illegal.
    GrannyG #6 - I don't know about anyone else, but I sent in a Challenge grant because I didn't have anything else in that POs with money to spend could provide for me. Once a grant is in the system, POs can find ways to fund it if they really want. But without anything in the system, you're not in the game.
    PeggyOh #8 - 15,000 is the estimate by scientists counting numbers sent in by their university and the numbers by people looking at the ID number of their submitted proposals. So that's probably right.
    And finally, Luigi #9, while I agree that this is horribly inefficient, I still don't see the corruption. I don't think it's helpful to call this corrupt. Let's figure out a way to fix the inefficiencies, but let's do it by calling it what it is accurately (we are scientists after all, and accuracy is important). These are systems designed to get money to scientists who are going to do work with returns that are too far in the future for short-term R&D but that are also critically important for our society's well-being. They do so moderately well, but have a lot of inefficiencies in them that could be replaced with the right kind of overhauls.

  • Luigi says:

    Oh, qaz. You disappoint me. I am tempted to label you either an apologist or someone with little imagination. Can you really not think of better ways to spend billions on biomedical science? How will the ARRA bolus contribute to a sustainable research enterprise? How will it promote excellent science over frantic money-grubbing? NIH could have turned the money down, saying it would only exacerbate the problems associated with unpredictable funding rates. Or spent it all on 'buy now and have it pay off for years' infrastructure needs. Or used it all for regular grants like NSF did. I have huge respect for NIH staffers; they are brilliant and helpful people. I sympathize with regard to the task. But jeepers!
    OK, so 'corruption' was a little strong. But that's what we call it when third world warlords scrabble over unrealistically sustainable chunks of international aid. So I figured it might fit. Stuff like the ARRA NIH bomb is turning U.S. Biomedical science into a banana republic.

  • Luigi says:

    Official prediction -- within 2 weeks, all the high-profile Challenge Grant applicants will whine so loudly that NIH will reverse the 'promise' to fund new investigators and above-the-payline projects that otherwise would have gotten money, and will instead double or triple the amount going to challenge grants.
    Cynical? Yes. But I'd bet a lot of money on it.

  • DrZZ says:

    NIH could have turned the money down, saying it would only exacerbate the problems associated with unpredictable funding rates.

    I think that is false. Congress doesn't write a big check that gets put in the NIH bank account that the NIH and only the NIH gets to decide what to do with. Congress passes a law and the NIH has to follow that law. This law especially, where the NIH part of the funds is only a little more than one percent of the total (and thrown in at the very last minute), was not written with NIH needs in mind. There are two big problems with this law: first, the time pressure and second, this isn't just filling in a new number in the usual NIH appropriation, it is an entirely different law. Somebody has to figure out which usual NIH mechanisms are fully compatible with the new law, which need to be modified somewhat and which are just plain incompatible. Combine that with the time pressure and it's easy to see why no one is very happy with the situation. But thinking that NIH can just ignore the parts of the law that don't make sense for biomedical science is just delusional.

  • Luigi says:

    DrZZ, are you trying to tell me that no one from NIH, or on behalf of NIH, lobbied for a slice of the ARRA pie?
    What are you smoking?

  • Luigi says:

    This is a decent read:
    "In fact the president's plan is that once the economy starts up," Collender said, estimating that may be around 2011, then "there will be some fairly ambitious deficit-reduction efforts on the table."
    When that happens, some tough choices will be made, he said, and that will impact the research community. "One of the problems this community has," he told the AAAS audience, "is that you have allowed yourselves somehow to become the poster child for pork-barrel spending … and that has to stop."
    That Collender is a smart guy.

  • qaz says:

    Luigi - I never said that the 2-year challenge grant or stimulus supplement ARRA was the right system for science. I think it would have been great for NIH to spend it on infrastructure. (That's what a lot of the money (administrative supplements) is going for anyway. Remember that the Challenge grants are only a small portion of the total.) In fact, what I've said all along is that any complex grant system is bad. We should have 5-year checks where we make sure you did good work and give you another 5 years and let the scientist figure out what the right project is. Basically, everyone gets 1 R01 as long as you are doing good work.
    But you said "corruption". The problem with the ARRA is not corruption. It's inefficiency. It's what are we going to do in two years. [rant] Using the word "corruption" is the kind of cr*p that is thrown around by people trying to destroy government - it's the kind of cr*p that leads to the government being unable to accomplish society's goals. "Corruption" is the kind of cr*p that makes people think that business is more efficient than government. But Blackwater contractors make 10 times what soldiers do. And private schools cost tens of thousands more than public. Government is not remotely as corrupt as business, but because business doesn't need to report all of its gory details, we don't see it. To suggest that science is "corrupt" is disingenuous at best.[/rant] Don't use the word "corrupt" unless you mean it.
    I am not an apologist. I am a scientist and my goal is to do the best science I can and I believe, truly believe, that the science I do is worth what society spends on me.
    Nor do I have little imagination. I have made suggestions for better systems. I have proposed some of them here. I have proposed some of them directly to program directors and institute directors. The fact that they have not been implemented is not my fault.
    I do not see how claiming that government funding of science is corrupt is imaginative in any way.
    PS. It's not corruption when "third world warlords scrabble over unrealistically sustainable chunks of international aid"; it's corruption when third world warlords steal that international aid for their own use. If a third world warlord was to get that aid and use it to improve the lives of his or her country that would not be "corruption". (It would be unlikely to happen, but it would not be "corruption.") It's not the unrealistically sustainable chunks of international aid that are corruption, it's the fact that the warlords keep it for themselves.

  • qaz says:

    PS. Not all business is corrupt. Did not mean to imply that. Most businesses are not corrupt. But neither is government, particularly the US government, particularly, the scientific arms of the US government.

  • Dude, Luigi is just trolling you, and not even cleverly.

  • qaz says:

    Dude, Luigi is just trolling you, and not even cleverly.

    Yeah, but someone is wrong on the internet!

  • Luigi says:

    Uh, CPP: The term 'troll' is no longer politically-correct. We prefer the term "provocatively-inclined".
    Do you want discussion here or not?
    I like that qaz has got a little fire in him. If we had a little more opinion in science instead of bland ass-covering timidity, maybe we wouldn't be in the mess we're in!

  • If we had a little more opinion in science instead of bland ass-covering timidity, maybe we wouldn't be in the mess we're in!

    Good point, holmes! In fact, if it weren't for you, this entire blog would just be languishing in bland ass-covering timidity. Thank fucking god we've got you around to ask the hard questions.

  • Pain Man says:

    we were fortunate enough to get a specific request from a director, but others are just hoping for comments on new ideas. problem is I hear you'll be getting a line or two of comments at best. the scramble has also allowed postdocs to write something besides an NRSA (i.e. thinking about budgets and personnel).

  • DrugMonkey says:

    And did the postdocs find that experience educational or onerous, Pain Man?

  • Luigi says:

    we were fortunate enough to get a specific request from a director, but others are just hoping for comments on new ideas.

    I know several people tasked with reviewing challenge grants. None applied for the damn fool things, and none of the reviewers I know are in much a mood to do anything besides get the stupid things off their desks. How would you feel if you were just unexpectedly loaded down with several hundred pages to read in the next few weeks? Cheery and brimming with thoughtful advice? Ha!
    The challenge grants most likely to be funded are, in my opinion: 1) The ones pre-designated, and 2) The ones that manage to make a decent point with as little of the regular proposal bullshit as possible. Personally, I would like to shove every page beyond the third up each applicant's ass. Rejectees should not try to interpret the score or comments.

  • qaz says:

    Luigi - I sure as hell hope that you are NOT reviewing Challenge Grants. The Challenge Grant had a very specific rule structure (and 3 pages was not that structure - if anyone had written only 3 pages, they wouldn't be meeting the specs of the mechanism, any more than if they had asked for 5 years of money). If you do not feel up to reviewing Challenge Grants, then you should not accept the request to review. You can always say "no" to a request to review. I'm happy to have an argument with you, but do you have any data on which challenge grants are likely to be funded? No? Didn't think so. (Since no one does, not even the program officers.) Challenge grants are an opportunity to fund science and stimulate the economy. So you didn't waste your time on it. Good. Let the rest of us actually get to work. And, if we're really going to be scientists, let's see how things shake out before speculating based on no data.
    PS. Doc F - if you tell me who you're reviewing, I'll tell you if it's me and you can give me a 1! (:
    PPS. Luigi - you've thrown around a lot of "provocatively-inclined" posts. If you think you have a better system for funding science, let's hear it.

  • Pain Man says:

    DM-well I for one found them educational : )

  • DrugMonkey says:

    If you think you have a better system for funding science, let's hear it.
    Simple. If you are iconoclastic, a self-declared genius who works outside the system, man, (and your name is Sol or Dave or Luigi)...full funding for life.
    Perfect system.

  • Luigi says:

    Wah wah wah. You guys are more evidence that Slate nailed it. Stop making stuff up and attributing it to me.
    Where have you seen me say that the NIH award selection system should not be based on peer review? Nowhere, because I haven't.
    Where have you seen me say that NIH POs and SRAs are all morons with easy jobs? Nowhere. In fact, I've said the opposite.
    No -- what I have been fiercely critical of is the way NIH has handled some of the ARRA money.
    I think supporting projects previously above the payline (10-20%) was a good idea. However, I think NIH should have supported fewer grants for longer than two years. Doing so would have been completely within the law. NSF did it, for example.
    I think infrastructure & equipment grants were a good idea. However, I don't think they should have been organized as competitive supplemental awards, which only make sure that the rich get richer, and the places & people that could most benefit from the infrastructure & equipment lose (again).
    But to the point of this thread: The Challenge Grants.
    Do I think there is something fundamentally wrong with the idea of Challenge Grants? No. I think it's great that NIH managed to come up with a list of areas they consider critically important, and communicate that list as fast as they did. Looking through the Challenges, I thought most were very reasonable. In a way, it's wonderful that the biomedical community has responded so robustly -- it means some areas of concern for NIH are likely to be addressed. And I also think it's good that the money allotted to Challenge Grants was relatively tiny. The Challenges were very very specific, after all. My only real problem with the challenge grants is that they were organized as part of the ARRA. As such, they have turned into a goofy money grab that will unfortunately be handled sloppily. Really, it's the applicants that have turned this into a fiasco. 200-300 proposals from one institution? More than one proposal per investigator? Come on. It's like NIH waded into a crowd of unruly 5 year olds with a big bag of candy and yelled 'Candy for everyone!' ...And then expected the kids to line up nicely and wait their turn for exactly one piece of whatever happened to come out of the bag. It's sad that American biomedical scientists have largely distinguished themselves as unruly 5 year olds, and sad that NIH didn't see it coming,
    Anyway, I think Challenge Grants should become a permanent thing. There's talk of that, and I support it. I am worried, unfortunately, that the pressures of this introduction to the mechanism may lead to it's distortion for the future -- basically ruin a good idea. Hopefully not. But we'll see. If NIH holds firm to what they've promised, applicants don't whine, and reviewers are strict* -- then I think things will work out OK.
    *By 'strict', I mean making sure the applicants directly address the Challenge in a practical and straightforward way. It is obvious within 3 pages whether one has or not. Remember the challenges were very specific, and the project period relatively short term. Coincidentally, the single most common mistake I see on undergraduate essay tests (it's finals week) is that they tend to barf everything they know onto the sheet rather than actually answer the question succinctly and directly. You teachers out there know what I mean -- answer sheets with text filling every nook and cranny and overflowing onto the back of the page are rarely from the best students. You know before starting on it that you're unlikely despite the abundance of words to find a correct answer in there. It's sad that professional scientists aren't much different than wayward undergrads.

  • It's sad that professional scientists aren't much different than wayward undergrads.

    Exactly! If only all professional scientists were as wise and brilliant and mature as you, then everything would be totally fucking awesome!!
    Thank motherfucking god you are willing to provide your incredible insights to the rest of us poor misguided wayward undergrads.

  • Luigi says:

    No need to be overly gushy, Comrade.
    But thanks. I appreciate your support.

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