Not a very "SMART Plan", no.

Nov 13 2009 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

PhysioProf has the call on a letter published in Science Magazine. One Professor Debomoy K. Lahiri, Ph.D. (Univ website; Research Crossroads) is kvetching about the NIH policy to support previously unfunded investigators and as usual comes off looking idiotic.

Increasing the grants funded below the quality cutoff to nearly one-fifth of all funded grants will not serve the goal of helping new investigators. If such applicants are not held to the stringent process of producing a grant that meets R01 quality requirements, what will happen to them when they are no longer new investigators and are then subject to the same rigors as the rest of the field?


Do we have to go over this again and again and again? The proposals are equally good and likely better than many of the senior investigator grants scoring higher. Save for the one factor of a more-junior PI. Study sections are biased. The best of the New Investigator proposals that I've seen are fantastic. Many times they get worse scores than demonstrably inferior (ideas, execution and grantsmithing) proposals from established investigators. The adjustment policy redresses this inequity. Period.
Moving along we get to some rather interesting interpretations of history from this guy.

This practice is reminiscent of the R23 and its replacement, the R29 First Independent Research Support and Transition (FIRST) award (2). However, these two early-investigator programs were discontinued by NIH because of unacceptable differences between these awards and R01s, including evidence that awardees of the R29 were less likely to secure subsequent R01 funding than were early-career investigators starting with an R01. The R29 mechanism was also under-resourced (3).

Neither of these statements will draw factual opposition from me. I first put up the below figure on the old blog June 27, 2007. My point in that post echoed Dr. Lahiri as it happens.

In the days of the R29/FIRST, the overall budget cap meant that the PI would be struggling to pay for research technicians, grad students and postdocs. Usually the PI struggled just to get the basic necessary resources in place to do actual science (there are always unanticipated costs). Or, made decisions to drop those extra experiments, that expensive new equipment, subjects in expensive human or monkey studies, etc. In either of these two cases (less money or less time) the PI ends up screwed a few years later when it is time to compete for real because progress has been minimal.

newinvestawardbytype.gif
source (slide 62)

The difference is that Dr. Lahiri totally and completely fails to note that the problem with the R29 was not that investigators somehow failed to be beaten into real grant writers. It was because the award was too freaking small and review panel bias that n00bs should have a "starter" award was reinforced by the existence of this mechanism. As you can see by this figure R01s have almost always accounted for at least half of New Investigator's first NIH award but the existence of R23, R29 and more recently the R21 award (which is perceived in some camps as the starter award for untried investigators) ate into those percentages. The immediately following slide (#63) of the powerpoint file shows the total number of awards and it tells the same story, btw. It was the five years of crippled funding and the perception (some of which was self-applied in a Stockholm syndrome of sorts) that one had to modestly accept this limited funding and make good before getting real money that was the problem. Not the relative easy standard of grantwriting. I have seen some awarded R29 apps, btw, but have never reviewed any.
Now we arrive at Dr. Lahiri's....well, surely this is a Modest Proposal. Right?

I propose a new type of grant: the Senior Mentor-initiated Academic Research Training (SMART) award. To obtain this funding, senior faculty must apply to recruit junior faculty or new investigators and groom them for future independent work. If the university or the equivalent research institute provides a fostering environment and scientific resources, NIH should match the SMART funding. In this way the grant could be used to better new scientists, with the help of senior faculty, instead of representing just another revenue-generating scheme for institutions.

Riiiiiight. We need even MORE paternalistic structures (hellloooo Center, Program Project, collaborative BigArsedR01, etc) in which senior investigators get all the credit (and exercise much control) over the work of junior scientists. Scientists who, I will remind you, have 6 yrs of graduate training, another 3-6 of postdoc training, many pubs. Overall, considerably more experience than most of our current senior investigator population did when they got their first independent position and first NIH R01. Under funding lines, I will remind you, that were higher than the one-fifth that the good Dr. Lahiri is complaining about now.
Yeah....this will really help to establish these junior investigators as independent scientists. Sure it will.

22 responses so far

  • Anonymous says:

    "To obtain this funding, senior faculty must apply to recruit junior faculty or new investigators and groom them for future independent work. "
    isn't this what postdoctoral training is supposed to be? so now you have to do a post-postdoc?

  • isn't this what postdoctoral training is supposed to be? so now you have to do a post-postdoc?
    My non-scientist spouse said the same thing when I (a postdoc) explained the plan to him. It sounds a lot like "research associate professor" positions... which (in the US) turn can quickly turn into an eternal limbo between postdoc and tenure-track.

  • Olala says:

    Not only that, this "idea" of "SMART" (yeah) awards has been dominating in Europe for a long time and is now completely abandoned for obvious reasons. Embarrassing that someone actually write that 2009. I am now coordinating a European network of around 80 early career groups, over 20 neuroscience depts in >14 countries with the aim to foster the interactions and collaborations, and yes, we require mentors, but to be honest, aside from some really honestly good mentors (and all the best to them), however most (>80%) couldn't care less, they're only in it for political points, YET the early career people manage quite well to interact anyways. And publish better/more innovative/more interesting papers than their "mentors". I will be back, Dr Lahiri's comments reveal a catastrophical lack of knowledge that throw us back some 40-50 years, there are actually more interesting subjects - and more relevant - that should be discussed asap.

  • New Asst. Prof. says:

    Bleh! As a new investigator chasing her first R01 as PI, but far from her first as Co-I, I just can't buy this "there won't be any mentors around for all these young folk" attitude. In truth, the only ones I'm hearing this from at my institution are people who have other, genuine reasons to be worried about their OWN ability to get funded.

  • pinus says:

    looks like SNRI is hiring too. I wonder how supportive the department is to new folks. Kind of frightening if a senior member is basically calling for the abolishment of new labs.

  • Cashmoney says:

    That's hilarious, pinus. Oh to be a fly on *that* wall...

  • hahahah says:

    typical phenotypic AD traits and subtle parental imprinting

  • A Reader says:

    Put me in the group of people who don't think SMART is so smart. As Olala pointed out, this sort of structure has been common in Europe but is being phased out because everyone knows it is inefficient and somewhat degrading for young investigators. However, I agree with the Science letter writer that different paylines based on seniority are a bad idea.
    And I'm disappointed, DM, in your continued defense of this idea.
    "The best of the New Investigator proposals that I've seen are fantastic. Many times they get worse scores than demonstrably inferior (ideas, execution and grantsmithing) proposals from established investigators. The adjustment policy redresses this inequity. Period."
    You still don't get it, do you? Your view of this is narrow minded.
    As you well know, there are five 'core' NIH review criteria: Significance, Investigator, Innovation, Approach, and Environment. These things are weighted differently by different reviewers. Significance, Innovation, and to some extent Approach are all arguably independent of experience. A good idea is a good idea. You, DM, are clearly in the camp that believes young investigators tend to be most innovative. I am not going to argue with that, because I think on the whole that's probably true. But let me make an argument for why senior investigators might come out ahead with regard to the other criteria;
    Significance: Wild-eyed naive young'uns tend to think everything is significant. Wizened senior investigators have spent their lives thinking about the problem, weighing approaches, deciding critical issues. Why not trust an experienced hand over a newbie when it comes to judging whether something is significant for the field? If a guy who has been leading the field for decades tells me something is important, I am going to take him seriously.
    Investigator: Tried-and-true vs relatively untested. Reviewers are placing bets with taxpayer money. Which is the more responsible bet? Some people like to play the lottery. Some people would rather invest in bonds.
    Approach: Senior investigators have tried a lot of things, had lab members that have tried a lot of things. They have been privy to thousands of unpublished anecdotes about bogus assays and tricks of the trade. They tend to know what works and what doesn't. Sometimes a senior investigator's approach doesn't sound sexy. But it probably works.
    Environment: Senior investigators have spent years building their lab and social and scientific networks. They have risen up the ladder. They have power. Environment isn't just where someone is and what sort of people are around; it's also important to consider whether or not the applicant can effectively take advantage of these resources.
    If you see things like this, then it's easy to imagine that senior investigators' applications would be viewed more favorably for very good reasons.
    We should also remember that the pool of young investigators includes people who are simply not going to cut it as independent scientists. The pool of senior investigators, by definition, does not. Therefore, it should not be surprising that senior investigators would have higher funding rates in a fair system. To think otherwise is like saying that the population as a whole has more chance of living to 100 years old than people who are already 90.

  • Dude, you are being way to gentle on this Lahiri fuckwad. Maybe she's bitching and moaning because she's got a competitive renewal coming up in 2010 and she knows that she's not gonna get the automatic reacharound from her study section cronies and program buddies?
    I wonder what is up lately, with Neuron publishing that piece of dreck from David Hubel and now Science with Lahiri's self-centered lies? Thank god these fucking assholes are old, and will be getting out of the fucking way soon!

  • kikiriki says:

    I was wondering how Lahiri managed to get his piece in Science. Oh boy, yes indeed, everything happens for a reason.

  • A Reader says:

    Lahiri is male, not that old (I'd guess pushing 50), and obviously a reasonably successful grant-getter.
    But he lists being in 'Who's Who' on his Biosketch! (http://snri.iusm.iu.edu/documents/biosketches/lahiri%20bio.pdf)
    Shouldn't 'World's Greatest Dad' on a coffee mug count too?

  • A Reader says:

    p.s. I love that the internet allows anonymous people to make fun of others.

  • But he lists being in 'Who's Who' on his Biosketch!

    ZLOLZ!

  • Dario Ringach says:

    Another solution to the study section bias.
    Gather investigator proposals and have only two cycles every year for them (so you get enough of them in one cycle).
    Then score and fund that group independently of the other investigators.
    After you get your first R01, you have to play in the big leagues.
    Why wouldn't this work? It would generate a constant influx of the best young blood around.

  • Europe says:

    The European Research council (ERC) has separate grants for early and advanced researchers. Both are rather big (several million euros for 5 years), although the "starting" awards are smaller (say, by half).
    This separation biases against more senior researchers:
    Getting a starting ERC award is competitive, but doable for bright scientists. Getting an advanced award is very difficult, even for very good and established researchers.
    (In a typical institution, there will be 5-10 starting awards and 1-2 advanced awards.)
    This is a great scheme that is intended to move Europe out of the feudal system it had in the past (and still has in many places).

  • Schlupp says:

    "In a typical institution, there will be 5-10 starting awards and 1-2 advanced awards."
    Um, what "typical institution" would that be? Oxbridge, presumably. Some of the smaller COUNTRIES do not have that many awards.

  • Dario Ringach says:

    @PhysioProf - I actually thought the Hubel piece in Neuron was rather reasonable... Why do you think it was "dreck"?

  • ally Buff says:

    I think that dear CPP was on drugs when he wrote that.

  • @PhysioProf - I actually thought the Hubel piece in Neuron was rather reasonable... Why do you think it was "dreck"?

    http://physioprof.wordpress.com/2009/10/31/hoary-crapola-from-a-towering-giant/

  • T.H. Huxley says:

    Hi,
    Just a question – we just got our priority score on an NIAID R01 competing renewal application: 32 (using the new 10-90 priority score system). Does anyone have any idea, based on the previous submission cycle and any other info they’ve heard about, what kind of percentile that score might convert to?
    Thanks!
    T.H.

  • Europe says:

    @Schlupp
    You are right, and indeed, the whole program gives a much smaller number of awards than NSF or NIH.
    However, in places other than Oxbridge, there might be a couple of starting awards an no advanced awards, which supports my main point about the relative number of ERC starting and ERC advanced grants.

  • DSKS says:

    A Reader makes a compelling case for the established investigators.
    I disagree with the following point, though:
    "Significance: Wild-eyed naive young'uns tend to think everything is significant... If a guy who has been leading the field for decades tells me something is important, I am going to take him seriously."
    Meh. I'm not sure there is really an experience correlation here. Firstly, tomorrow's most potent innovations often leave few shadows in the past, and sometimes I think the investigator free of the blinkers of history and experience has often been better positioned to predict the "Next Big Thing" (youth certainly seems to rule in the hightech industry). In contrast, anecdotes abound inre Old Pros resisting the new ideas that challenge the sometimes highly inflexible preconceptions so firmly rooted in their history and experience.
    "ATP? A neurotransmitter?! AHAHAHAHAHA!... Oh, that's lovely. Do you do childrens' parties?"

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