I had a very fascinating comment pop up in a prior thread following a post which described the relationship between Congressional budget passing and the ability of the NIH to fund grants. This was motivated, I will remind you, by a comment at writedit's place from a trainee who was holding a 3%ile score (i.e., well within any likely payline) and anticipating a NIH fellowship award on Dec 1.
There were a couple of exchanges until finally another (?) commenter laid down enough rotten egg to merit another post. It started with:
Sure. I'm bitter about some aspects of this career and not bitter about others. Some of those issues I talk about on the blog affect (or affected or might affect) me personally and some only apply to others. So what? On the whole this is a pretty good business to be in, which I talk about now and again. You think people should just shut up and not complain about anything having to do with their professional lives? Get real.
Now another reason for answering this question has to do with this comment:
I'm actually asking because I am curious, as a research administrator
Okay, I'll credit this as true. If so, we have a serious problem here if the people administering government programs for the support of science actually think these things. It actually explains quite a lot about how cavalier some "research administrators" seem to be about issues that are highly important to the funded research staff out and about in the rest of the country.
full circle back to mandatory vs. discretionary grant programs. Interstate highways are mandatory, a research project that is funded out of millions of applications, is discretionary. Two different unrelated pools of MONEY.
This is because this and another commenter want to, as usual, focus on the trees instead of the forest of the general point that I am making. It boils down to this.
The NIH is a government program like any other. It is, in the end analysis, an extension of the will of the US citizens. Like any other program, expenditure or service of the US federal government. You can whinge all you want about your own political preferences but once a program is in place they are all the same from a philosophical stance.
When our country decides to pay a warfighter or a politician or a scientist it is all the same. When it chooses to build a road, contribute to local school districts' educational budgets, pay for health care for the older folks or buy a fancy new fighter jet....it is the same.
An extension of the will of the people.
If you want to characterize one of these as some sort of "gift" or handout or "FREE" money...you need to characterize all of the government activities in the same way. Conversely if you characterize any of the government activities as needed, necessary or something other than a gift than you are full of stuff and nonsense to refer to any other specific program as a "gift".
This whole mandatory/discretionary nonsense is a bunch of crap. Yes we understand that the government structures some of its expenditures so that they are easier to change month to month, year to year and decade to decade. So what? How is the timeframe or ease of change relevant to how it should be viewed?
And in this I've answered the next question:
Please can I ask this question... Why is there the expectation that the federal government should subsidize your livelihood?
Well, if this commenter is on the federal dime we might turn the question on him/her. Why should it subsidize *your* livelihood? Are you expected to fight out your ability to do your job on a 5yr (haha!) cycle for 10% hit rate? Are you expected to fight out your ability to have a job and get paid? Are you sanguine about a 4 mo gap in salary while Congress fails to pass a budget? Is every other aspect of the federal layout equally sanguine? ...cause I seem to remember some pretty loud whining during some previous "shut down the federal government" disputes between prior Congresses and Presidents.
Obviously there are levels of expectation. In some senses, nobody is guaranteed any job under our political system. I happen to think that is okay. But there is also some degree of community compact and trust between employer and employee that, IMO, maximizes mutual benefit, productivity and all around good social stuff. In the case of NIH-funded science I do think that recently we have veered so far over into uncertainty of resources and uncertainty of career that the enterprise itself, meaning the desired goal of the federal effort under the NIH, is getting submaximal output.
why PIs balk at submitting reports and gripe about applications, when in reality you get close to millions over several years in "gift" money to run a lab and all they ask is for a yearly report?
Well I can't really help out with the first one. I don't "balk" at submitting my annual progress report, I support the necessity myself. The reason we gripe at applications, as you well know, is that the process takes us away from what we are really supposed to be doing. You know, creating new knowledge and reporting it into the archival literature. Training the next generation of scientists to take over for us. Trying to transmit our knowledge to the public which employs us (and government research administrators) as well. But again, this is not "gift" money. Far from it. We are not doing this as some sort of self-indulgent fluff entirely at our own behest. We are doing this because the taxpayers of the US have decided, and expressed in the course of the political system, that they wish to purchase scientific advances. We scientists are employees of the tax payer when it gets right down to it. We are being paid to do a job and we do it.
Really in the case of grants there are no "deliverables". You don't promise a cure for AIDS and they don't expect one from you, they just expect you to try.
Sure there are deliverables. Knowledge. We're supposed to generate new understanding of the natural world, broadly put. And that's exactly what we do. There is uncertainty and failure to deliver, perhaps, but all the government can do is to halt payment or fail to award subsequent funding (unless there are specific penalties built in or fraud/misconduct). This is just the same as any other government layout, all of which expect some sort of deliverable result. Building a new government warplane or administrative software system or stretch of interstate... none of these differ from science in any categorical way that I can detect.
What other profession on earth has that kind of flexibility?
Look, dude, I'm starting to hear a little of the green monster come out here. If you will recall, the point of my prior post was to criticize Congress for not getting their budgets passed on time. I didn't say anything to criticize NIH program officials who are mere pawns of that appropriations process. Yeah, this gig is pretty cool and has a lot of upsides. I happen to like it quite a bit myself. But there are a lot of other jobs which have other kinds of upsides which we do not enjoy. Do we need to start talking smack about gold plated toilet seats, defense contract overruns, bailouts for companies "too big to fail", the infamous FBI software system that wasn't, NIH intramural output per dollar spent and Lord knows what other government actions that look like pretty cushy gigs to an NIH-funded extramural PI?
Let me come back to my core realization. Let us just suppose this person is a program officer at the NIH. I don't know that it is, but let us suppose. This is a person who thinks that NIH grants are some sort of "gift" to be lavished or withheld as some sort of whim? really? This might explain why the institution as a whole seems so cavalier about the impact of the way they do business. Unfortunately, viewing their corner of the government's business in this way actually interferes with the success of that little corner of activity.
How so? Well there are some relatively direct impacts. First, the uncertainty and variability of funding impedes scientific progress. I don't care what kind of science you are talking about, there are going to be benefits of sustained resources whether they be trained staff, colonies of gene-altered mice, physical research space or some other things. Part of the PIs job is to keep those resources steadily maintained over time- uncertainty or unanticipated delays in the granting process compromises output. Second, the overall impression of a good or bad career arc influences who stays in the business for the long haul. Some people who might be fantastic scientists are going to take a look at this process and run for
the hills industry or take teaching-only jobs. Some are going to exit the career because they failed to get tenure based on grant-getting criteria that reference a time long-past instead of the present. The point here is not to levy blame but to point out that there is an impact. It matters how well NIH manages its extramural research force.
Finally, in a practical sense, the more you expect the scientists to spend their time writing endless applications for funding, the less time they have for concentrating on the science. Sure, technically grant preparation is not on the NIH dime. But that is ridiculous. Even if a PI is in a sufficiently hard money job to technically prepare applications on University time, it sucks up their time. Time that would otherwise have been spent thinking about and working on the NIH-funded projects. No matter how you parse it, the NIH is getting less output for their money if they are failing to optimize the awarding of grant moneys.