I'd seen some sort of press release on this before but for some reason there is a new NIH brag note out today. It informs us that the NIH will be investing $27 Million to build yet another useless failed attempt to create social networking and professional networking entities that are specific to scientists.
Charming and Loaded! [source]Before into the specifics, let's talk about opportunity cost. Thanks to a newfound tool to snoop Indirect Cost rates I feel more comfortable with my assertion that ~55% is a decent estimated IDC rate for the larger public Universities with heavy research focus. An IDC rate of ~90% applies to a number of the smaller, private research institutions
that think very highly of themselves with a big reputation. This gives us our range for the full-modular R01 ($250,000 in direct costs for 5 years) as something between $387,500 / yr ($1.94M for 5 yrs) and $475,000 / yr ($2.38M / 5yrs). In rough numbers we are talking about anywhere from 11 to 14 full-modular R01 awards that are being poured into this project.
Of course, since this is the ARRA / stimulus funding, this amount of money is being poured in over a mere two years. Thus, 28-35 two-year intervals of full-modular R01 funding.
It better be one charming [muppethugging] pig*.
Let us focus on the goals of the social networking/semantic web project that the NIH press release notes is headed up by one Michael Conlon at the University of Florida (UF Press Release). Additional notes (and sources) are here. The project is U24RR029822, VIVO: ENABLING NATIONAL NETWORKING OF SCIENTISTS (CRISP hit, unfortunately I can't figure out how to directly link RePORTER results yet) which runs for two years at a cost of just over $6M per year. This is part of the ARRA stimulus which is why it is so short, I imagine. Hard to translate this to R01s because they are typically for more than two years. Perhaps our cost marker should be the R21 which is generally a total of $275,000 direct cost over a two year period. This gives us a total cost range of $426,250-$522,500 or an opportunity cost of about 23-28 R21 awards. Well, how charmin' is this pig?
The project Abstract notes:
The project will provide six deliverables: 1) A first release of the software to be used at the seven participating institutions focused on institutional resources. This release will be used to help establish internal support for the system and build understanding of system value; 2) A second release incorporating all national networking features which will be used by the seven participating institutions to demonstrate the viability and utility of national deployment; 3) A third release incorporating features requested by the NIH and the project's Executive Advisory Board, fully integrated with the corresponding resource discovery solution, enabling full national networking capability; 4) a community support process to insure sustainability; 5) a sustainable, open product development process; and 6) a national, on-going governance process. The national networking of scientists enabled by VIVO will provide a fundamental new capability to improve biomedical research and human health.
VIVO is this thingy at Cornell if you want a sample. I ran a quick search for "drug abuse". I am not impressed that applying this technology more broadly gets us much beyond Google, frankly. And this is the root of my objection. I've seen a number of these scientist-networking things get launched. Mostly to a resounding failure. Professional networks don't beat LinkedIn because they don't have the volume of people- networking is all about numbers and not, despite what these quixotic souls seem to think, about specificity of the coverage. Socio-professional networks are going to have a very hard time beating Facebook. You have to have users and lots of them to make these networks function. And scientists are a very conservative bunch when it comes to seeing how new technologies that appear to be a frivolous waste of time might become a functional part of their work. (For my young friends, you should have heard the kvetching about email when it first hit the streets in a serious way. Seriously. Ask your departmental graybeards if they think you should be Facebooking and blogging and Twittering science. Go ahead. Ask 'em. The response you get is identical to the approach the graybeards of 2-3 decades past viewed email and websites and the like when they first started getting pervasive. Identical.)
Well, perhaps there is something here that is new. That makes success more likely. Hard to tell what they are going to do just from the abstract of course. How about the grant structure and funding announcement, any clues there?
The mechanism of funding is the U or Cooperative Agreement mechanism- these are something between a normal grant and a contract in terms of the control exerted by Progam. Being vaguely familiar with the operation of at least one of these U projects, I will note that Program is very involved in the conduct of the research and can make various mid-course demands. Also, they tend to have a very (very) defined idea of what they are looking for in advance. The original announcement of the U was RFA-RR-09-009: Recovery Act 2009 Limited Competition: Enabling National Networking of Scientists and Resource Discovery (U24). The Objectives of the RFA were to:
develop and implement pilot or prototype tools and infrastructure that facilitate connection of basic, clinical, and translational investigators, students, and individuals with specific expertise and interests; facilitate access to information about available resources, including data, animal models, reagents, assays, cores, literature, materials, and tools; and encourage increased collaboration and scientific exchange nationally.
Communication and collaboration across disciplines and institutional cultures have been difficult but scientific expertise and resources exist broadly. Projects supported through this initiative will provide a test-bed for the development, implementation, and adoption of these new approaches to collaboration and communication that represents the diversity of biomedical scientists and institutions.
Although multiple approaches could be appropriate for these projects, the NCRR is interested in distributed or federated approaches to both research networking and resource discovery with local control of information sources. Applications that propose a centralized approach to information sources are not responsive to this FOA.
All projects must implement a working prototype or pilot in which all partner institutions participate prior to the end of the two-year project period. A plan for evaluation of the prototype should be included. Each project team must produce a final report which should include accomplishments, challenges, lessons learned (what did not work or could work better), and results of the evaluation.
Responsive Projects note:
Responsive projects should fall into one of the two following categories. It is expected that one application will be supported in each area. Applicants must specify which category they are addressing.
* Research Networking: Research networking tools that provide national visibility of human resources (scientists, investigators, physicians, clinicians, other experts) in all areas relevant to biomedical research to enhance collaboration and facilitate biomedical research. Examples of particular types of expertise include, but are not limited to: biomedical science, behavioral science, community-based research, computational sciences, veterinary science, basic discovery research, animal based research, clinical research, translational research, ethics, scientific management, informational sciences, social sciences, statistical and research design, physical and structural sciences, etc.
* Resource Discovery: Could include web portal that allows comprehensive querying of resources irrespective of source and type of resource. The types of resources should include the whole range of possible resources that scientists utilize in their work. These include, but are not limited to: materials, animals, publications, technologies, cores, instruments, tools, reagents, cell lines, and assays. The resources must be searchable from multiple perspectives such that users from various environments and scientific areas can easily locate useful information.
Meh3. Not one dang thing in there that I can see that is going ot make this any more successful than any of the other attempts moving forward either as privateer efforts or using available, commercial, ad-supported technologies. In short, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, WordPress and Blogspot. Possibly Scopus. Open Science wackaloons of various stripes. A very hard gang to beat.
The opportunity cost of 23-28 Exploratory/Developmental R21 awards to conduct actual research makes it seem like a very costly bet to me.