"Harassment of the unfunded by the funded"

Jun 14 2010 Published by under #FWDAOTI, Careerism, NSF, Tribe of Science

I mean really. You just can't make this up.


The goals of this forum do not include supporting to harassment of the unfunded by the funded. If you have received funding, or if you don't see any problems with NSF's current practices, I honestly offer you my congratulations. Please feel free to leave constructive comments and observations that lay out your views.
But I've seen too many internet forums taken over by smug minorities to allow that to happen to this one.
All posts of a judgemental or mocking nature will be deleted as soon as I see them.

I don't know why I am so fascinated by this guy's quixotic campaign of complaint about how the NSF is broken because s/he hasn't yet managed to get funded.
I suppose it is because we have the exact same phenotype of person complaining about the NIH. I guess I feel like hearing the perceptions (accurate or not) that are out there helps me to craft my message to the faculty I run across that are outraged about the NIH.
I always wonder in a case like this just how hard the person is working to get funded. It is one of the things we don't talk about much. How many apps have you put in to get X number of grants.. me, I'd have to go to Commons. I can't possibly remember. It isn't like I could do more than ballpark it if some junior faculty member asked me.
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Update: Thoughts from Odyssey at Pondering Blather on targeting your application to specific reviewers motivated by commentary at the "NSF is broken" forum.

22 responses so far

  • Orac says:

    I could actually estimate how many NIH grants I've applied for without going to Commons. However, include the DOD, the Komen Foundation, and all the other grant sources to which I've applied, and I have no idea how many applications I've put in over the last two years.

  • There is just too much fucking good science out there and not enough money to fund it all. It sucks but this is the system that we have. Is it horribly broken, no, is it unfair, yeah but so is life. If you have a productive lab, good track record, and can play the damn game, then you might have a chance at getting your piece of the pie. To those who fulfill all of the above criteria and don't get it, it sucks but keep trying. To those who whinge and moan and can't cut the mustard, tough nuts you weren't good enough. You can't shake the branches of the scientific money tree and expect to get all the cash you want. Its a goddamn competition we all can't be winners. If I get turned down for a fellowship am I going to bitch about a broken system. No I don't have time for that shit, my time is better spent getting feedback and writing a better application. If anything in the blogosphere the funded are pretty damn good about giving helpful advice to get the unfunded funded.

  • Lorax says:

    Last week I got 2 "did not discuss" last week (fun week). My current streak is 0/8 or close to that. Got another in and more in the hopper for the next few deadlines, its just the way it goes. Apply, Apply, Apply, repeat more than necessary.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    To those who whinge and moan and can't cut the mustard, tough nuts you weren't good enough.
    Now you are making me wonder. It would be fascinating if the NIH tracked failure modes.
    How many investigators submit to the NIH and get funded? Parsed by number of applications submitted, of course.
    How many complete an award (by mechanism) and never get another one?
    I think they may track career progress for training grant awardees but I wonder if they ever did for FIRST awards vs R01s and whether they are doing so for K99/R00s.

  • Lorax says:

    Oh yeah, did I mention it was last week?

  • GMP says:

    DrugMonkey is validly asking: maybe this person is not submitting enough proposals? We could extend to ask whether perhaps the proposals could be improved?
    This is a tough one: do we pass judgement on a colleague or give him/her the benefit of the doubt that he/she is doing all that's necessary (submitting enough proposals, to varied funding bodies...) My attitude is that this person is not a student or a postdoc; he/she went through training like the other PI's and was obviously hired in a professorial position, so there is no reason to assume he/she does not know what needs to be done... I have met a couple of new faculty who were oblivious to how important it was to write grants (neither lasted past year 3 on tenure track), but by-and-large people know that they have to keep submitting, revising and resubmitting, looking at multiple programs and funding agencies if need be...
    NSF is difficult; ~15% or so funding rate across NSF (number is from the mouth of my program officer a few months ago), means you have 1 in ~7 new proposals chance to get funded. I have had good grants funded and some equally good or better ones not funded. We should probably give the colleague the benefit of the doubt that he/she is doing everything right but has had poor luck so far.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    so there is no reason to assume he/she does not know what needs to be done
    I beg to differ.

  • whimple says:

    How many investigators submit to the NIH and get funded? Parsed by number of applications submitted, of course.
    From the discussions of reforming peer review at NIH last year, I don't think the NIH scores this.
    How many complete an award (by mechanism) and never get another one?
    Well... "never" is a long time to wait. 🙂 They did this for R29s and found they were overall a bad idea in terms of subsequently getting an R01 and dropped the program for this reason.
    My guess is that the number of people with the ability and drive to actually get a tenure-track faculty position who then subsequently didn't get major funding because they didn't "work hard enough" (does that mean "were lazy"? the tautologous definition of "didn't work hard enough" = "didn't get funding" isn't very interesting) is pretty small. The low pay lines are very damaging for new (and established) faculty, even with the ESI bump. Every revision and every new application takes time, effort, scientific capital and ideation capital for which an unfunded effort yields close to zero return on investment. Meanwhile there's no shortage of hungry young(er) ESIs coming down the pipe looking for their piece of the pie. Frankly, I worry about the sustainability of the NIH's project-oriented vs investigator-oriented approach. My prediction is there will be a small number of well-funded (multiple R01) PIs, a number (deliberately set by the NIH) of temporarily funded ESIs, a number of faculty that don't get tenure due to lack of funding (but not necessarily lack of effort), and a huge pile of tenured investigators who on a stochastic basis don't get that critically timed renewal that causes them to fall out of the NIH money tree and never be able to climb back in.

  • My prediction is there will be a small number of well-funded (multiple R01) PIs, a number (deliberately set by the NIH) of temporarily funded ESIs, a number of faculty that don't get tenure due to lack of funding (but not necessarily lack of effort), and a huge pile of tenured investigators who on a stochastic basis don't get that critically timed renewal that causes them to fall out of the NIH money tree and never be able to climb back in.

    My personal speculation--based on observing the collective behavior of program staff in two different ICs--is that not only is this a likely outcome over the next five years, but is an *intended* outcome. The NIH realizes that limiting the support of highly productive PIs so that every fucking mope can have an R01 is counterproductive to the statutory goals of the NIH. And they realize that we are still dealing with the bloat of PIs induced by the doubling, which was to some extent extended by the ARRA bolus.
    I see program staff making decisions that lead me to conclude that they are encouraging attrition from the R01 applicant pool. The fact is that there are currently numerous PIs in the R01 applicant pool who never would have been there if not for the doubling, and who need to be shed. This shedding process was delayed by ARRA, but it is coming now, and program staff want to try to ensure that this shedding occurs in a way that leaves the remaining R01 applicant pool as scientifically productive as possible.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    How many investigators submit to the NIH and get funded? Parsed by number of applications submitted, of course.

    Whoops, I meant to muse "How many investigators submit to the NIH and never get funded?"

    The fact is that there are currently numerous PIs in the R01 applicant pool who never would have been there if not for the doubling, and who need to be shed.

    I'm curious on what basis you make this statement. I mean, in a certain sense it is true that more money in the system might result in more PIs being funded. But to say "never would have been there" you are saying this goes beyond chance. That there are PIs whose applications would never, ever get below, say the 25%ile being picked up in the doubling / ARRA era.
    I just don't see it. Any apps that I've seen that have a chance of getting into the 25-29%ile type of range have the bones (decent ideas, decent productivity, good investigator / environment, etc, etc) to support the idea that 10-15%ile applications are achievable by that PI.
    Of the small subset of applications that I've seen that make me really doubt the PI could *ever* prepare a high quality NIH-relevant proposal I have never seen them get much higher than (estimated) 40%ile or or so. Mostly they are just triaged.

  • Odyssey says:

    GMP:
    You can findNSF funding rates at http://dellweb.bfa.nsf.gov/awdfr3/default.asp.
    so there is no reason to assume he/she does not know what needs to be done...
    I also beg to differ. He's made it clear over at his forum that he is pretty clueless when it comes to the workings of the NSF.

  • TrekJukie says:

    NSF funding rate in ecology is around 8%. But when you account for repeat awards it drops to less than 5%. In the last panel that I served (spring 2007) over 90% of recommended proposals were second or third time submission.
    The bulk of researchers are in medium sized institutions where they are teaching two courses a semester, have to do significant amounts of service, and if where I work is typical, a constantly increasing role in student recruitment and retention activities. Over the last couple of years I have submitted two NSF, one EPA (none funded), one National Geographic, and about half dozen smaller ones.

  • Pascale says:

    What I would like to see are cluster data.
    As funding has tightened, it seems to me that most goes now to huge labs with lots and lots of students and postdocs that can crank out 50-100 papers per year. Smaller labs, that simply cannot generate and submit data that quickly, appear relatively unproductive.
    The result is less diversity of thought as more and more funding gets "clustered" in fewer work-groups. Limiting the number of R01s a PI has could help with this phenomenon. "Independence of the PI" is no longer a criteria for review at NIH at least. So "superlabs" can now get even more grants as everyone with a degree can submit a project, overcoming any potential limit on number of grants that might be imposed.
    I have been funded; I am not right now. Either I have completely unlearned how to do research and write a proposal, or the environment has changed drastically in the last 5 years.
    Take your choice.

  • whimple says:

    The NIH realizes that limiting the support of highly productive PIs so that every fucking mope can have an R01 is counterproductive to the statutory goals of the NIH.
    This would make more sense if the NIH had a manner in which they could and did assess productivity to determine if "highly productive" (read: well-funded) PIs really are highly productive on a per dollar basis.

  • Anonymous says:

    This would make more sense if the NIH had a manner in which they could and did assess productivity to determine if "highly productive" (read: well-funded) PIs really are highly productive on a per dollar basis.
    Maybe they could look at the NIH intramural program for guidance and comparison. There is about $3 billion for around 3,000 projects and it's not all clinical research. Use %zia% to search "Project Number" on RePORTER to see who gets what.

  • Lorax says:

    The NIH realizes that limiting the support of highly productive PIs so that every fucking mope can have an R01 is counterproductive to the statutory goals of the NIH.
    The bullshit is falling fast and furious. Define highly productive in a way that meets NIH's statutory goals. I do not think there is a statutory requirement for publications, so some arbitrary number is out for that. If it is guaranteed outcomes, then all the money should go to big pharma and drug development.
    If all the money goes to those few labs that meet CPPs super-secret highly productive criteria (which I will bet completely helps s/he) then you can kiss innovation and intellectual strides forward good-bye. I am not saying that every lab should be funded, but that's a far cry from every fucking mope.

  • Gummibears says:

    GMP: "NSF is difficult; ~15% or so funding rate across NSF (number is from the mouth of my program officer a few months ago), means you have 1 in ~7 new proposals chance to get funded."
    Only assuming that funding decisions are based on pure chance. They are not. The NSF indeed has lower success rates than NIH, but the NSF review precess, IMO, is more merit-based. So if you have a meritorious application, your chances at NSF are fair. NIH panels, conversely, tend to make funding recommendations on the basis of a variety of biases, preferences (let's call them by their proper name: cronyism) combined with ignorance, so if you are not in the loop, the statistical success rate is meaningless anyway.
    My personal statistics:
    NIH: around 20 submissions/resubmissions, no funding, critiques (except one; ONLY one) of generally low quality, about 30% of them based on total, wild, pseudo-scientific bullshit. Between the lines: "you do not belong here, boy".
    NSF: 2 (TWO) submissions. The same stuff that used to be trashed at NIH (translational research, method development, drug discovery) submitted for 2 different funding mechanisms (with different specific objectives). Received two sets of meritorious critiques, only one critique negative, but still fairly meritorious (scientific differences, apparently overruled during the panel discussion). One proposal funded on the first try, another denied (interestingly, the one with even better critiques) because the reviewers felt that another funding mechanism would be more appropriate.
    Assuming that I haven't suddenly experienced a divine revelation that transformed a crappy idea into a decent one, this suggests that funding recommendations at NIH are not based on scientific merits of applications (as they should be), but rather on other factors, while "reviews" (more or less nonsensical, depending on the level of ignorance of the reviewers) are just theatrical decorations.

  • Eric Lund says:

    Being a physics type I have no comments on NIH's proposal review process, but I can back up Gummibears #16 on the NSF process being fair. I have both written proposals for NSF (one of which got funded) and done mail-in reviews. The Fastlane form that mail-in reviewers fill out includes a space to list other potential reviewers for the proposal, so there is a pretty good chance that your proposal will be reviewed by people who actually know something about your subspecialty. NSF also lets you see the actual (anonymized) reviewer comments (some other agencies only show you a summary), so if your proposal was declined you get useful feedback on why it was declined and what you can do to improve it (my successful NSF proposal was a second attempt). As Gummibears says, this won't help you if you had a lousy idea to begin with, but if you have a good idea you have a decent shot at getting it funded.
    One issue that comes up is programmatic fit. Some NSF programs will entertain any proposal in the field, but other NSF programs, and most programs at other agencies, have specific goals in mind, and you have to demonstrate that your proposal is compatible with those goals. I have been on a panel for NASA (like NSF, they convene separate panels for each program rather than have panels with fixed membership; they do this to avoid having panelists with proposals submitted to that program), and for that panel programmatic relevance was explicitly among the rating criteria. NIH's study sections might be how they handle programmatic issues, but I don't know if that's the case.

  • GMP says:

    GMP: "NSF is difficult; ~15% or so funding rate across NSF (number is from the mouth of my program officer a few months ago), means you have 1 in ~7 new proposals chance to get funded."
    Gummibear: Only assuming that funding decisions are based on pure chance.

    I sat on a number of panels at NSF (ECCS and DMR) where out of 25-30 proposals 20 are very good, 10-15 are REALLY good and are worthy of support, but only 2 or 3 can get funded. I am not assuming pure chance -- I think it's a bit offensive to assume that any of us would not know to correlate merit with fundability -- but there are nuances of merit that get you from 10-15 really good ones into the 2 or 3 that are actually funded. Often some revision based on feedback will do, but sometimes it doesn't... Some people are simply very good at writing compelling proposals, while others lack the edge.
    Overall I think the NSF system isn't perfect but isn't "evil" either. It is essentially a good system, and if there were more money around, much more good science would go through. With so little money, we have issues with signal being comparable to noise, so things may appear nearly stochastic to some even though decisions are essentially merit based.

  • Physician Scientst says:

    I'm surprised that there are any unfunded people at all on any blog site. Perhaps they should be writing grants rather than writing blogs/comments?

  • Karenina says:

    Physician Scientist,
    I am unfunded and I do both: write grants and when I get exhausted I write comments on blogs.

  • Lorax says:

    Im just surprised Phy Scient(-i)st had time to stop fellating him/herself to actually post a comment here.

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