Collins warns Universities to roll back soft money jobs...sortof

Jan 21 2010 Published by under NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

Frequent commenter pinus has alerted me to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed which reports an interview with NIH Director Francis Collins. In comments, he appears to be warning local institutions that they are going to have to stop with the soft-money jobs and find a way to start supporting investigators themselves. Particularly the younger investigators.


Dr. Collins also said he wanted universities to steer more money to younger researchers, to avoid letting their researchers rely solely on federal grants

because there isn't going to be as much federal money anymore...

the NIH, the nation's largest provider of money for academic research, is warning universities that federal support will almost certainly decline after last year's infusion of money from the stimulus measure.


Expanding on the theme...

Some universities are also becoming too reliant on NIH money, allowing faculty members to obtain all of their income from federal research grants, Dr. Collins said.
Such faculty members run at least three or four research projects at a time, and "that turns that investigator into a grant-writing machine perhaps more than a doing-of-science machine," Dr. Collins said. The practice suggests that the university is overreaching rather than investing in its core areas of expertise, he said.

Aha, I can spot a buzz phrase when I hear one. "core areas of expertise". What the hell is that supposed to mean? Either he is talking about investigators working on too broad an array of projects within on laboratory (given the comment about 3-4 projects) or about Universities simply having too many NIH-funded investigators working on too broad an array of subjects.
The first possibility is ever so slightly out of touch because IMO it takes something close to $500K in direct costs to run even a moderately decent laboratory program in most areas. Given the $250K modular cap, this means that people are going to have multiple awards focused on the same topic of interest core area of expertise. Figure out a way to off load big chunks of salary from the NIH dime to the University dime and you will drop the number of awards, yes. But this has nothing to do with focus on core areas of expertise within the laboratory.
The second possibility is arguable...but I wonder about economy of scale issues and the continuing enthusiasm for translational and cross-disciplinary work. The larger research Universities pull off some big wins precisely because there is a broad array of local expertise, Core facilities featuring really big ticket equipment that is running around the clock on a wide diversity of projects, etc...all the way down to amortization of the security guard and janitorial costs across a larger workforce.
Director Collins also is aware of the age problem.


But Dr. Collins said he was looking more at universities themselves, saying that the age bias actually originates with institutions that don't allow their younger researchers to apply for grants.
The NIH has been encouraging universities to adopt strategies such as the fellowships run by the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. There, scientists are given laboratory space and guidance immediately after they get their doctoral degrees, Dr. Collins said.
..
Dr. Collins said he recognized the risk "that you'll take a talented person and throw them out before they can swim, and ultimately have somebody who just crashes and burns." But the Whitehead Institute experience shows that there are truly talented and deserving researchers at younger age levels who currently get "shoved into a postdoc position that might go on five, six, seven years."

Oh, good thing we have this little Whitehead experience to inform us. Because, you know, the fact that two scientific generations ago everybody got their jobs within three years of defending the PhD and they didn't "crash and burn" couldn't possibly tell us anything. The fact that we are talking about people being in their mid 30s or older by the time they have to "swim"...yeah, that doesn't tell us anything. It is just insanity to pretend that there is some sort of weird risk here. As always, I want to see the data. What on earth supports the notion that these dang kids these days will "crash and burn" if they are given the opportunity for independent laboratory research at age 28 instead of age 38? Where. Are. The. DATA?????*
One final thing really irritated me. It runs along my general critique of the NIH when it pretends not to want to dictate to local Universities and research institutions.

"There's a whole lot of ideas people have floated, and it doesn't look as if so far we're making much progress, so this is a hard problem," he said.

Yeah, real mystery here dude Director. Look, the NIH does all kinds of things that are essentially absolute mandates to Universities. You gotta be square with animal and human subjects regulations or you aren't getting any money. You have to do all the accounting stuff and supply progress reports. Your overhead rate is negotiated. It delves into scientific and specific grant-mechanism issues too. "Evidence of institutional support" for certain things like shared-equipment grants comes to mind. There are other policies large and small which work out to effective dictation of local behavior.
The concept is thoroughly established. So if the NIH is serious, there is a pretty simple way to do this. Just tell Big FancyPants U that they will be receiving a scheduled plan for improvement of their hard money and/or junior faculty ranks in the biomedical departments. The benchmarks for increasing their percentages will be met or the NIH will apply across the board cuts to each and every research grant at the University. On a progressive schedule over the next, say, 5 year interval. Or the NIH could just refuse to award any new grants (again, the awards are to the institution, not the investigator, remember?)
If you think the Universities wouldn't snap into line post-haste you haven't been paying attention to the dependence on the federal dime.
Now, I'm not saying this is necessarily a good idea and it would be unbelievably disruptive to the current research force. People entrenched in the current soft-money economy would be losing their jobs. Mid-career people would be hit hardest, I would assume. That means me and many of my readers so....yeah. But what I really can't stand is the NIH selectively throwing up its hands and lamenting "what can we do, it is all the fault of the Universities".
I find that totally disingenuous. They enjoy a tremendous power of the purse. They use it for some things and have done so for decades. Why not for this?
Okay, now that you are all fired up..the deflation.

Any new restrictions in that area, however, "would have to be phased in over a fairly long period of time because many universities and faculty members would find that quite disruptive," he said.

Yeah, they (the NIH) say this every time the subject of reeling in the soft-money issue comes up. Because so many high-profile research institutes and Medical schools are up to their ears in the soft-money practice. All across the country Congressional districts. And there would be such a political outcry if the NIH really tried to face down the Universities...it is no wonder they tread lightly.
__
*I know, I know, I'm being unreasonable. But you see this assertion made either overtly or implicitly all the time. It is never backed up by a serious rationale that considers that you only learn some things by doing, that Mozart was dead for 7 years by the time he got his first R01, opportunity cost of truncating an independent career by 10 yrs...the list goes on. And yet we don't even start from a data based observation that those who got a major grant at age 28 are somehow less capable than those who got it at age 38.

20 responses so far

  • JD says:

    It is really unclear why he is saying this? Is it simply for PR purposes or is there genuine concern at the NIH about excessive soft money positions?
    I do think that gradualism is usually the best strategy for these types of issues -- sudden policy changes and bans would do far more damage than good.
    As for the sink/swim issue: I also want to note that mistakes are actually a positive learning experience if done correctly and allowing junior people to jump in the deep end might actually be more effective training than 10 year post-docs.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    As for the sink/swim issue: I also want to note that mistakes are actually a positive learning experience if done correctly and allowing junior people to jump in the deep end might actually be more effective training than 10 year post-docs.
    Totally agree.

  • whimple says:

    Heh heh heh. Collins doesn't have to do anything at all, as he well knows. If paylines stay at the (generous) 15% level for another five or ten years, the Universities will fire nearly all of their soft-money faculty and solve the problem for him. He's just giving the U's the heads-up on the upcoming carnage so they can start going through their lists of soft-money faculty now to decide who they really want to keep and what they're going to do with them.

  • antipodean says:

    So are we supposed to swim, crash, burn, sink or what? 'Cause even I can't sink and burn at the same time.
    But then again I don't even know what a hard money position looks like.

  • learning citizen says:

    Would someone explain what is a SOFT-MONEY faculty position please ?. Thank you.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Entirely grant supported. The person has to secure her own salary through grant awards. No grantee, no jobee

  • anonymous says:

    He was somebody like me then.

  • neurolover says:

    Your frustration at the talk v no walk is par for the course for a number of NIH-controlled situations. Here they're complaining about soft money, but if they wanted they could just require that PI's on grants have part of their salary guaranteed by their institution, call that the part they think can't be charged to a project (including developing new grants). They could limit the required percent effort of PI's (both top and bottom ranges).
    They could also open up access to publications by requiring that NIH-sponsored work be published in journals with open access, and paying open access fees. They could force data sharing by requiring data producers to bank their data at NIH.
    They do none of those things. But they do talk about them, 'cause people like the to talk.
    (Oh, and I think whimple is right; that this wasn't a policy but a warning).

  • JAT says:

    Want to use money more wisely? For one, stop funding those truly useless big roadblock clinical research that has been done ten different ways with ten different outcomes. How many clinical research is needed to know "exercise is good for you"?

  • neurowoman says:

    I'm confused about the age issue as combined with the soft money issue. If universities allow younger researchers (that is, older postdocs) to compete for grants, and they get grants that fund their salary, then where do they go when there are so few 'hard-money' (TT) jobs? You end up with more soft-money (junior research) faculty... I agree that institutions have overreached in the sense that it costs them little to keep on hiring soft money faculty who bring in overhead. But eliminating soft money positions entirely is tough on those of us in a holding pattern due to family/spousal reasons...
    If you want to force universities to cough up hard money to support faculty, hit them where it hurts - indirect costs. The NIH should use a lower indirect % (say 25% instead of 50%) if the PI's salary is supported more than 3 months by grants (i.e. a typical summer salary). That'll get the med schools' attention.

  • Tentatively holding a bottle of Jameson and waiting for CPP's response.

  • Anonymous says:

    'The NIH should use a lower indirect % (say 25% instead of 50%) if the PI's salary is supported more than 3 months by grants (i.e. a typical summer salary). That'll get the med schools' attention.'
    I want to like that idea because it costs the institution less to increase a salary line than the loss they take in IDCs, given that the PI maintains their grant.
    It chaps my XXX that institutions spend lots and lots of IDCs on maintaining their bloated administrative structures. Nuff said.

  • Namnezia says:

    They could also open up access to publications by requiring that NIH-sponsored work be published in journals with open access, and paying open access fees.

    They do do this sort of. Any pubs that are supported by NIH funds are supposed to be uploaded to a free server (PubMed Central). See:
    http://publicaccess.nih.gov/submit_process_journals.htm

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Funny how my comments on that very issue in response to various posts on this blog in the past were mocked and attacked savagely for stating, more or less, what that Collins is saying. Of course, American universities are all like drug addicts, sucking on NIH money. Their dependence on Federal money must be curtailed and the best way to do it is to stop the supply of the stuff they are addicted to. Yes, it will be painful; yes, many people will lose their jobs (postdocs and soft money junior faculty). But why academia should be different from the rest of the country? If I'm not wrong, the unemployment rate among university academicians and administrators is significantly lower than the rate in other fields. Once the addicts overcome their addiction, they'll emerge from the treatment as better managed and more efficient institutions.

  • whimple says:

    I don't think that goes far enough. Universities have to get rid of tenure. That way underperforming/unneeded workers can get laid off, just like in the ENTIRE REST OF THE WORLD EXCEPT FOR ACADEMIA.

  • JD says:

    "If you want to force universities to cough up hard money to support faculty, hit them where it hurts - indirect costs. The NIH should use a lower indirect % (say 25% instead of 50%) if the PI's salary is supported more than 3 months by grants (i.e. a typical summer salary). That'll get the med schools' attention."
    If I recall correctly, the NSF solution was to create a limit for the % of salary that could be paid by all NSF grants combined. That allowed many grants to be held to pay for serious research programs but meant that the PIs needed to be funded through some other mechanism.
    That would be pretty dramatic. On the other hand, the NSF was supporting a lot fewer full time faculty which made this a viable approach.

  • qaz says:

    When dealing with the sink/swim issue of junior faculty, I think a better analogy might be tightrope walking (while juggling chainsaws) and that there's a big difference between flying blind and flying without a net. It's one thing to say that one should go straight to faculty with only a short postdoc (something I agree with very strongly) and another thing entirely to say that if you have trouble in your first few faculty years you should be thrown out on your ear. What we need is more institutions actually dedicated to building their own team and fewer trying to buy established faculty with lots of grants.
    Also, the IDC and salary issues are actually very different beasts. IDC makes universities prefer faculty with grants to faculty doing good research (and teaching). The salary issue allows universities to hire faculty with minimal risk. Also, cutting IDC wouldn't help with the salary problem because universities would simply increase the required salary coverage to cover costs. If you want to force universities to pay more hard salaries, the only way to do it is to do what NSF did and create a maximum possible PI salary monthly coverage from all grants.

  • JD says:

    "I don't think that goes far enough. Universities have to get rid of tenure. That way underperforming/unneeded workers can get laid off, just like in the ENTIRE REST OF THE WORLD EXCEPT FOR ACADEMIA."
    I always have ambivalent feelings about this approach. While it is true that tenure is abused, I am not convinced that reducing job security is really ideal for having the best science happen. I'd be much more interested in constructive suggestions on how to identify poor performers (in a field where people may work many years before a result appears).
    In particular, we don't have the same clear metrics businesses due (money being made or not) but rather have to rely on proxy measures of output. Other organizations have the same issues (peacetime military, for example) and also find this challenging.
    But I do think a good system for evaluation needs to be part of the process. Is it grant success? Publications (total or per year)? Teaching? Mentoring? Service? How do you weight different elements?
    I find it a complex question, myself. It's easy to find outliers who are clear cases but much harder to develop "bright lines".

  • John Peloquin says:

    Regarding the tenure issue- I spend way too long as soft money faculty in the Un. of California. During my stint, I think I was aware of maybe one individual who was "dead wood". The other faculty were very critical of people whom they thought were underperforming. One would have to have a very thick skin indeed in that environment to live with the disdain and criticism that would be directed at someone who wasn't pulling their weight. And conversely, I'm aware of more faculty than I could begin to count whose research produced unpopular or "inconvenient" results that resulted in political pressure etc. being brought to bear against them. For example, one of my graduate committee members was the subject of such attacks (they tried to get him fired) because his research showed that a policy developed by a powerful politician was actually making matters worse in the problem it was supposed to solve. So tenure is not the problem.

  • Andrew Foland says:

    "Universities have to get rid of tenure. That way underperforming/unneeded workers can get laid off, just like in the ENTIRE REST OF THE WORLD EXCEPT FOR ACADEMIA."
    People outside of academia demand higher salaries to compensate for the risks associated with the possibility of being laid off. Does anyone think university administrators would couple the ending of the tenure system with faculty salary increases? (Does anyone want to buy a really beautiful bridge I have in Brooklyn?)
    It's much easier for universities to compete on nonmonetary compensation than monetary compensation. And even if you think all researchers love their science so much that they'd work for less, do you really think all their spouses do?

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