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.
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.