Research Project Grant Support For "Younger Researchers"

Jan 25 2010 Published by under Careerism, NIH, Peer Review

Young Female Scientist has an interesting post up concerning Francis Collins's recent oblique comments on "soft-money" positions. One of her major points--one that she has emphasized numerous times in the past--is that it is both unfair and terrible for the scientific enterprise that post-docs are almost invariably not permitted by their institutions to serve as PIs on research project grants (i.e., R01s, R21s, R03s, P01 projects, etc).
One of her subpoints is the following:

It all seems backwards to me. Seems to me that the university should be allowed to guarantee resources IF AND ONLY IF the grant is awarded. Then the university isn't risking anything.
But NIH WON'T LET THEM DO THAT.

It's not that NIH at the administrative level won't allow universities to guarantee resources if and only if a grant is awarded. It's that study sections trash grant applications on the Investigator and Environment scoring categories when the PIs are perceived as not being genuinely independent investigators.
There are a number of reasons for this study section behavior, some good and some not so good.
Reasons for this behavior include preventing lab heads with large labs from further increasing the size of their empires through R01s being applied for by "junior PIs" who are not independent, and are continuing to work within the research program of the large-lab head. Another reason is that study sections perceive that this forces to institutions to make the decision whether to devote resources to a new PI with the understanding that they have proven their abilities in the past via substantial publication records and have excellent plans for future independent research, rather than exist in some "exploited" soft-money role.
Another reason is that essentially all members of study sections are tenure-track or (now more frequently) tenured faculty members (or the equivalent) and they want to protect their privileged status as such, by limiting RPG awardees to other tenure-track (or equivalent) investigators, and not allowing perceived rabble in the door.

26 responses so far

  • Cashmoney says:

    not allowing perceived rabble in the door
    is that the "good" or the "not so good"?

  • becca says:

    @Cashmoney- depends, are you rabble?

  • Pascale says:

    I wonder how fast this would change if NIH started limiting the number of grants one could PI?

  • whimple says:

    A post-doc submitted R01 application is submitted from someone who lacks either the demonstrated ability or motivation to obtain an independent faculty position. Either of these are deal-breakers for the capacity of the proposed work to be completed in a timely manner and correctly preclude funding. In short, the assumption is "you suck" until you prove otherwise. The post-doc has opportunities to get started on proving their worth by getting an NRSA, or a K99/R00, by publishing quality work in well-known journals, and of course, ultimately by obtaining a faculty position. Since 80% to 90% of post-docs will never hold a faculty position and since 80% to 90% of the R01s submitted by faculty aren't good enough to get funded, what possible hope is there for a post-doc submitted R01? The argument also applies to other mechanisms like R03, R21 while suggesting a P01 is beyond ludicrous.
    It's also worth remembering that for post-docs supported at 100% effort by NIH funding it is illegal for them to apply for NIH grants.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Either of these are deal-breakers for the capacity of the proposed work to be completed in a timely manner and correctly preclude funding.
    Whether they are predictive "deal-breakers" or not, the notion that the work will not be completed and that it is "correct" to prevent funding has been empirically falsified (in spades).
    I have a lengthy list of individuals in my field who got their major funding start with lesser-than conditional job offers who went on to succeed at least as well as their peers who received traditional asst prof job appts prior to funding.

  • DSKS says:

    I wonder how fast this would change if NIH started limiting the number of grants one could PI?"
    Is that really constructive, though? Ultimately, the NIH has to find a balance between cultivating new talent, but also exploiting the talent that has already shown itself. And if you have PIs running a tight ship and being productive, it would seem sensible to invest in them further.
    I'm not a PI, so I can't be accused of pulling the ladder up behind me when I say that the NIH needs think carefully about going too far with respect to responding to the postdoc bottleneck by pushing for more PIs. First, I don't think this is the only solution to the problem of the bottleneck. Second, new investigators cost a lot in terms of time, space and money to establish, and to go through all that only to have them enter into a now partly manufactured uber-competitive funding environment, where some may well burn-out along with the investment made in them, is not strategically sound.
    Inre Collins' issue with soft money: does anyone know what fraction of the total NIH expenditure on salaries goes to soft money PIs? Is it really that significant that reining it in would save some green for The Man? It just seems to me that if postdocs, techs, grad students and a fraction of every PIs salary is already paid for by soft money, that this would be a slightly limited cost cutting exercise. Or is it really a symbolic gesture towards institutions to pull their finger out and pitch in some support here?

  • whimple says:

    I have a lengthy list of individuals in my field who got their major funding start with lesser-than conditional job offers who went on to succeed at least as well as their peers who received traditional asst prof job appts prior to funding.
    When paylines where at what level? Your past experience in this regard is not relevant today. On a related note, who's going to review this deluge of post-doctorally initiated grant requests you contemplate allowing?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    My list of individuals include those who started back during the prior "sky is falling" episode. Of course the recent one is recent and only time will show how many people have emerged successfully. I can think of a couple right off the bat, yes.
    with respect to your second question, I have always advocated letting more junior people review grants, yes including senior postdocs who are not yet independently appointed.
    the new college of reviewers strategy also has a great deal of potential to absorb an increase in grant application numbers, even if I object to it on other grounds.

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    At the end, it is simply 'supply and demand.' The demand is constantly on the increase while the supply does not or, if it does, then at a much slower pace. Until universities find other sources of funds to pay for scientific research, the bottleneck will be there. The dependence of most pre- and medical science on NIH funds is only going to get worse and with it the numbers whimple used.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    So do I take it, S. Rivlin, that you are now on board with the idea of mandatory retirement of scientists at age 65 (and all maxed out at cap salary to boot) so they will stop sucking up all the grant dollars when every cognitive study in the world shows their intellectual capacity is on the decline? That would help ease the demand problem, wouldn't it?

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    Where cognition is concerned, this kind of generalization, DM, is meaningless. To have a 70-year old Einstein still doing research is better than ten 40-year old PIs who compete with each other for a million dollars to be the first to isolate X protein responsible for portion of the Tourette syndrome.
    Where funding of scientific research is concerened, I think universities should use the same tools they have used for decades to raise money for their athletic departments and start raising money for their scientific research; enough money that the tenure system will not fall apart and that scientists could concentrate on research rather than accounting.
    Higher education is not for everyone. The most talented ones should get it no matter what is their economic situation. The less talented ones, if they want it, they should pay for it, a lot. Tuition money then can be used to pay the salaries of the best scientists-teachers on tenure track. Those who are not among the best, if they desire to continue their scientific research as non-tenured, will have to scrape for grant money to pay their way.
    Does science really needs all these postdocs who aspire to become PIs? Or scientific research can do with much smaller cadre of scientists?

  • With a smaller cadre come less production, and thus we push the boundaries of science less further. I'm not saying pension off all the old geezers, but if you guys don't think you have a seriously stacked deck in your favor in terms of grant funding, then you sir are too damn ignorant to poor piss from a boot!

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    Genomic,
    A significant portion of the present cadre of scientists is composed of 'factory workers' (postdocs) who will never make it as PIs. These workers allow big, fat PIs to push the boundries of NIH money grubbing so they can hire more workers. Science today has a glut of workers who contribute little to the critical mass of scienctific production. I believe that science can do even better, actually much better, with less soldiers. Most of the soldiers today are doing mainly leg and hand work, not brain work. For the former, technicians would suffice; for the latter, we need only the best, whether they're geezers of teenagers. The way I see it, the scientific enterprise in the US is suffering from hidden unemployment that everyone prefers to ignore.
    As for myself, I'm retired, after a 40-year career in research, making a scientific contribution of renewing a field that is now thriving, without having an army of postdocs. Never more then one postdoc at any given time, one technician and, at most, two doctoral students.

  • anonymous says:

    Well, this is uncharacteristically elitist, but I think there is a reason that a PI is a PI and a PD is a PD, just as, in the medical/medical research world, there is a difference in a fellow and an Attending. Some fellows are better/smarter than Attendings, good for everybody. But a PD is still *doing* the work that a PI has already done. PDs should have to reach a certain level of achievement before they are granted the status of a PI. That's how it is, and unless we are willing to radically restructure the rest of society (into a truly egalitarian one, for example), that's how it should be.

  • Anonymous says:

    NIH should be funding research projects and not researchers. If someone has three tremendous projects, NIH should fund them all. Institutions invariably lose money on research. Cost sharing is rampant. Deciding which faculty or staff tracks in which to invest is necessarily and prudent.

  • pinus says:

    I wonder what the impact of the discretionary budget freeze is going to have on NIH paylines. Grim times ahead I fear.

  • JohnV says:

    Oh well, there's always patent law 🙁

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    "I wonder what the impact of the discretionary budget freeze is going to have on NIH paylines. Grim times ahead I fear."
    The impact is already there, but is still unseen by most (hidden unemplyment). If the freeze will be implemented, everyone will see it.

  • DSKS says:

    "I wonder what the impact of the discretionary budget freeze is going to have on NIH paylines. Grim times ahead I fear."
    I don't think we're in for "grim times" so much as "different times".
    Rivlin,
    I don't understand your use of the term, "hidden unemployment", as it doesn't seem to fit with the conventional definition. Are you simply talking about the fact that much of the scientific workforce is supported by public funds that, if pulled, will uncover their unemployment?
    Also, it seems to me that on the one hand you are advocating that we preferentially exploit the brains of the best, but that we must take care to limit their resources at the same time, regardless of how many exciting ideas they might have and how competent they might be in marshaling multiple personnel to execute them. It's as if you're treating science like a game that must abide by clubhouse rules, rather than an enterprise that we desire to be as productive as possible in enhancing our quality of life as quickly as possible.
    And then there is also the fun and highjinks of trying to discover precisely who the "best" actually are, or even what the best contemporary advances are, as the only accurate way available to us now is generally via long distance hindsight.

  • It's as if you're treating science like a game that must abide by clubhouse rules, rather than an enterprise that we desire to be as productive as possible in enhancing our quality of life as quickly as possible.

    Rivlin's problem is that he was always a small-time small-town shopkeeper scientist, who only attacked scientific questions that could be addressed with a small-time small-town mindset. He is constitutionally incapable of comprehending that there exist scientific questions that can only be addressed with big-time big-city approaches built upon interdisciplinary teams, some quite large.
    It's like when hayseeds come visit the big city, and the scope and scale of activity is just so overwhelming that it creates the illusion of total pointless chaos, when it is actually quite productive and well-organized, just in a way that the hayseed lacks the conceptual tools to comprehend.

  • whimple says:

    I believe "hidden unemployment" actually refers to underemployment. In this case, to the postdoctoral population that is both qualified and waiting for permanent faculty positions that would have been available had the NIH's historical exponential growth been maintained and that now won't exist under current steady-state to declining funding levels. The issue is the long-term sustainability of academic medical science. Suppose paylines stay at 15% forever. What fraction of existing labs can continue to exist without research-lethal gaps in funding that can no longer be "bridged" by the fiscally bankrupt Universities?

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    DSKS,
    First, to your point about the hidden unemployment. The fact that the majority of postdocs today are employed mainly with government funds and will never make it beyond the level they are at, is a pretty strong indicator of unemployment - engineers building roads rather than designing them. The stimulus money will keep them where they are a bit longer, but these funds are gone or about to be freezed and then many employed postdocs will be unemployed and with them many of their own bosses. It is clear that the enterprise of science just cannot support all these potential employees beyond the temporary positions that are completely dependent on federal funding.
    As to the best brains, we may not have a qualified system to discovere them early enough and cultivate them, but the doctoral thesis and the postdoctoral period are too late stages for making these determinations; the money was already spent on the unqualified. I have seen enough idiots who becaome doctors. The bar is too low and many unqualified graduates are graduating and then expect to become fully certified and employed scientists.
    The claim that science today is built on interdisciplinary teams is true, yet it does not mean that such teams must be composed of large group of employees - qunatity is not necessarily quality. The fact that such teams are as large as they are is due mainly to the cheap labor that the system created. This cheap labor has been in existence for several decades now and will soon fall apart as the economy is in the pits. It is also a major cause of the unsatisfaction that the members of this bloated labor force have with the system they were made believe would be their career, for which they invested much time and money.
    Your game analogy could very well be the correct one, just as it is befitting other endeavors of society. Science today is a competitive endeavor similar to the playoffs, winners take all, losers go home. The problem is that those science crowns as winners are those who manage to grab the most NIH money, not necessarily the best scientists.

  • DSKS says:

    "The fact that the majority of postdocs today are employed mainly with government funds and will never make it beyond the level they are at, is a pretty strong indicator of unemployment - engineers building roads rather than designing them."
    I strongly disagree. Those that leave research will do what they've always done: simply move into another career track. That's not "hidden unemployment" (which refers to a government statistical fudge) but a natural element of workforce dynamics that is prevalent in the public and private sectors.
    As it is, assuming the economies of China and India don't implode (which is not out of the question, but unlikely), the bottleneck is likely to be relieved in the US simply as a result of increased competition for what is almost a predominantly foreign pool of early career scientists. So you might get your wish for a slimmed down research workforce regardless of the NIH budget limitations.
    "It is also a major cause of the unsatisfaction that the members of this bloated labor force have with the system they were made believe would be their career, for which they invested much time and money."
    Well, I have only limited sympathy for those who think, or allow themselves to be deluded into thinking along these lines. On what other career track is the act of stepping onto the first rung of the ladder a guarantee that one will ascend to the top? Certainly nobody in the private sector is still misguided enough to assume such a certainty.
    BTW, your use of the road analogy is interesting and appropriate. There's nowt use in this world for engineers if there are no builders to turn plans into concrete and steel. Unless road building is something that engineers could just as easily do for themselves if it wasn't for their administrative responsibilities preventing them from getting away from the drafting board 😉

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    DSKS,
    You do separate foreign postdocs in US academic labs from American postdocs and then minimize the hidden unemployment issue. You may be right, but still, most foreign postdocs would stay here if they could and many of them do. Actually, a greater portion of these postdocs find their academic positions in this country than American postdocs. You just need to look for them on the NIH list of grant awardees and on thousands of publications that include their affiliations. I know because I were one of them.
    I absolutely agree that a postdoc position is the lowest on the totem pole. A postdoc is an apprentice who learns the ins and outs of the vocation in order to become a practitioner of this vocation herslf. Unfortunately, many of them cannot expect to proceed beyond the apprenticeship. In many other endeavors the reality in the field determines the demand and supply for an apprenticeship in a given endeavor, including medical specialties. Not so in scientific research. The funding system of premedical and medical research in the US has created a strange situation where there is a great demand for a temporary labor force (2-5 years), which has no hope of climbing up the totem pole and which is usually easily replaced by the next cadre of temporary workers. Once the funder of this demand and work force cuts and limits the funding this work force will shrink significantly.
    Of course, we can invest in the training of technicians who will do most of the work that postdocs do today by offering special schools and courses for that very purpose, I believe that in the long run, it is a better solution that will provide stable job market and where postdocs will be limited to no more than 3-4 years of postdoctoral research, after which they are or their own or, if they so choose, they could become Ph.D. technicians, given that there is an opening for it.

  • msphd says:

    Wow, one of those rare occasions when CPP kind of agrees with ME??? Bizarre.
    Some very interesting discussion here, and educational. Whimple, as usual, makes some very good points.
    I want to re-iterate the point that some postdocs have already ghost-written more funded R01 grants than some current junior faculty have ever even outlined. So assuming that postdoc-written grants would automatically suck because we are more junior is falsified by testimonials that there are indeed, highly experienced postdocs who are highly qualified to be writing grants independently.
    @drugmonkey, I know that in the past it was not unheard-of for people to convert a non-ideal position + grant ---> tenure-track position. But does this really happen in a crappy economy? And were a lot of these people you speak of trailing-spouse types, especially women?
    @comment 14, who wrote a PD is still *doing* the work that a PI has already done
    I call BULLSHIT. My PI did a postdoc for 3 years. Mine has already been twice that long. Haven't I already done more than twice as much? You bet your ass I have.
    It's very unfair and illogical. There's enough competition and luck factors involved in science and hiring as it is, without the added instability of drastic budget changes to the mix.
    If Obama's plan really goes through, I suspect things will be very painful for a long time, before they have any chance of improving. To me it sounds like cutting off the nose to spite the face.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    @drugmonkey, I know that in the past it was not unheard-of for people to convert a non-ideal position + grant ---> tenure-track position. But does this really happen in a crappy economy? And were a lot of these people you speak of trailing-spouse types, especially women?
    Time will tell, I suppose. I can't think of any in the past 6 mo, say, but it isn't like I have my hand on the pulse of all the US biomed jobs. i guess at some point in the future I might look back and see it all ended in 2009 or something...
    and no, not trailing spouses or even all women.
    Given the Francis Collins noises about cracking down on soft money jobs, we may never be able to tell if tight paylines put an end to postdoc + Rgrant transitions or if Unis started responding to the FC comments..or even if local warfare between medical schools and the traditional part of the campus shut things down.

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