How many NIH grants are too many?

I've been reading a little chatter from a few newish looking PI types today on the perennial topic of lab size. It provides a nice counter to a recent post at the Sb DM and a note today from Mike the Mad Biologist.

The most defined statement was to the effect that "we can all agree" that 4 R01 awards (concurrently) is excessive. The corollary is that science would be so much more efficient and productive if individual PIs were capped somewhere south of 4 R01s.

I'll let the comments run for a bit but I have some woodshed time for the n00b PIs saved up for later.

51 responses so far

  • DM do you support capping the number of awards or make a minimum amount of mandated percent effort for particular awards in lieu of a hard cap on awards (15-20% for an R01, 10-15% for a P01 subproject, etc)?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Not in favor of hard and fast. Appreciate NIGMS policy of triggering a special review...maaaybe. Hard to see how to keep bias out, and unless NIGMS tells us who was denied and why it is hard to know if it has any effect.

    I might like to see a process of deferred award, put it off for a year or two but Federal appropriations process doesn't work that way...

  • juniorprof says:

    I'm not in support of capping awards based purely on number. I am in support of getting serious about percent efforts. 5% effort as a single PI on a grant is not enough, if you ask me.

  • I agree with juniorprof, maybe setting a minimum % effort for different grant mechanisms would be a good start.

  • drugmonkey says:

    How is percent effort going to do anything? if the BigCheez has enough senior postdocs / nonTTscientists running the show on each grant, what's the difference? The science gets done, etc.

    A junior person with 50% can, conversely, flail because despite the salary support, s/he has no other postdocs, a teaching load, service requirements and is trying to do bench work which kills the *thinking* time...

    Or because s/he has kids and BigCheez, conversely, has sent the kiddos off to college years ago and the parents aren't on death watch yet.

  • juniorprof says:

    The difference is that it may force institutions to pony up and support young people they believe in through TT jobs with institutional salary support. My view is that if institutions want to play the NIH game then they need to provide some investment of their own in the people they decide to bring on board.

    And, btw, I'm perfectly fine with having departments with focused research themes where the BigCheez is providing some overall guidance in research direction and bringing the young profs along to advance the research theme, so long as it means adding young profs that will be PIs on their grants.

  • Joseph says:

    I would say that, when a person is putting less than 10% of their time on a project, it is hard to be leading the project as a sole PI. Now, before I get taken to the woodshed, there may be times and places where less than a half a day per week is enough to supervise a $250K/year project. But one suspects that most such cases involve a responsible person who is actually running the project day to day (and might be a good candidate for co-PI).

    This doesn't make 4 a hard and fast rule (by any means, I could imagine nine under this rubrick) but it does suggest that too many at one time suggests that the role of the PI isn't altogether clear.

    Now, it could be that there are fields where the design of the experimental pathway and the supervision/interpretation can be effectively in less time. I am far from an expert on all areas of science covered by the NIH. But I would like to be educated as to how this might work in a specific area (as I find it hard to get much done at a 1/2 day per week when I am a functionary).

  • drugmonkey says:

    But one suspects that most such cases involve a responsible person who is actually running the project day to day (and might be a good candidate for co-PI).

    ah, yes. And generally this is the case, I would agree. You have to have a good doctoral level scientists putting in a lot of time. But, again generally speaking, these BigCheez types *do* have these types.

    So if there is 100% of a postdoc on a $250K award...do you care that the PI is only on for 5%? 10%?

    The difference is that it may force institutions to pony up and support young people they believe in through TT jobs with institutional salary support.

    Huh? how is requiring a minimum %effort or capping the total number of awards going to do *that*? This isn't making the least bit of sense. If anything you are arguing for the *maximum* percent effort that can be charged on federal grants to be less than 100%. Either way, ain't going to do what you think.

  • bacillus says:

    I'd hazard that many multi-award PIs are putting in 10+h days /7 day a week to stay on top of their responsibilities. If this is the case, then 10% effort could equal one regular 8h work day per week, which might well be sufficient for the project at hand.

  • juniorprof says:

    It makes sense in my head but I don't have time to write it out completely... I acknowledge that what I wrote above doesn't add up without other ideas about institutional commitments... too busy churning out grant apps and a deadline fast approaches.

  • Dr. O says:

    In the case that BigCheez has senior scientists with those kind of leadership/project management skills on board, why aren't they declared as a co-PI on the project(s) they manage? I've seen this happen before, where the senior scientist actually running the project is not designated as such. Yet the senior scientist is absolutely indispensable to the project, whereas BigCheez is the PI [mostly] in name only. I'm not arguing this is how it should/shouldn't be. In fact I can see an upside for the senior scientist if they don't have 20 other responsibilities from teaching and service requirements. But it is a curious scenario.

  • Candid Engineer says:

    Capping awards is ridiculous. "Oh, excuse me sir, but you're too good at science, and you have too many fundable ideas. Even though you are totes awesome, we would rather give the monies to this guy over here with not so many good ideas." As long as new investigators don't get too crunched, then I say let scientific capitalism (as opposed to socialism) flourish.

  • bikemonkey says:

    You people realize that "Co-PI" has no formal role in NIH grants and is at best grantspersonship and at worst a sop to the poor fool postdoc who was snookered into writing the grant proposal, right?

  • bikemonkey says:

    Ooooh, Candid. Got your meat pants out, did you?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Well looky here: http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2011/01/31/future-biomedical-workforce/

    Sally Rockey of OER will be taking a look at the current state and the future of the Extramural work force.

  • Joseph says:

    "You people realize that “Co-PI” has no formal role in NIH grants and is at best grantspersonship and at worst a sop to the poor fool postdoc who was snookered into writing the grant proposal, right?"

    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/multi_pi

    Perhaps I was using the term wrong when I talked about co-PI as being on a grant with multiple principal investigators. But this is the mecahnism that I was talking about (and one that I have seen used to great success in pairing junior/senior researchers).

    "So if there is 100% of a postdoc on a $250K award…do you care that the PI is only on for 5%? 10%?"

    I worry about 5% as a half day a week seems like a good minimum committment (with some provisos about special cases). After aall, at least some time goes into things like administrivia). But a 10% minimum for the PI on a single PI grant seems like a good way to solve the problem. The cases where this is abused seem to be corner cases (and thus not well solved with policy).

    In terms of this type of requirement being socialist, I am not sure that it is unreasonable to ask the person requesting the grant to put aside enough time for proper oversight of the project. Again, I am open to the corner case where a researcher can run more than 10 R01 grants as a sole PI but I think that this would require some careful questions (i.e. is there a lot of duplication in the science?, is one or more of the projects really a multi-PI project?).

  • saban_lab says:

    So many good points. The underlying theme is "how do we provide checks and balances on bigcheez?" Capping grant number, policies on percent effort, dept support to build Jrs can perhaps be combined in some way? For example, pi w greater than 4 r01 can only hav less than 10% with co pi inclusion. Would hav to thnk more on this...but perhaps u can c where I'm headd w this

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Actually I'm still waiting to see where we have any *need* for checks and balances. Particularly when the 4 R01 cutoff would mean 25% effort, not the 5-10% being bandied about in the comments so far.

  • WhizBANG! says:

    I have reviewed CVs in which the PI with multiple grants has 100 papers in press. How the hell can anyone accept responsibility for that many simultaneous studies? Same with projects. It seems to me that the move to "factory labs" has led to more misconduct and retractions , often because of poorly supervised underlings.

  • Joseph says:

    "Actually I’m still waiting to see where we have any *need* for checks and balances. Particularly when the 4 R01 cutoff would mean 25% effort, not the 5-10% being bandied about in the comments so far."

    'tis true. I wonder if there are any researchers with more than 10 R01 grants or not?

    But I would agree that 4 R01 grants does seem to be too low of a threshold for concern.

  • I’d hazard that many multi-award PIs are putting in 10+h days /7 day a week to stay on top of their responsibilities.

    AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    BTW, do you people realize that the actual number of PIs with 4+ grants is so small as to be insignificant in terms of grant dollars, and that worrying about these extreme outliers doesn't mean jacke fucken dicke to the poor schmuck trying to score her first fucken R01. If you really give a shitte about the idea that *everyone* deserves an R01, then the much more significant issue is the huge number of PIs with two or three R01s. Parsing the difference between four, five, six, or whatthefuckever is 100% meaningless.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    And finally, we arrive.

  • saban_lab says:

    4 R01 does not always equal 25% effort, particularly if u also eg have corporate sponsored research or clinical duties, etc

    Re: CP's point, would it b worthwhile having a discussion of capping R01 to 2 or 3?

  • drugmonkey says:

    No, because of course the n00b PI can at least imagine having 2 R01s. So it will be obvious to them that 2 is not the problem. 4 seems out of reach to the R01-less n00b which is why it was brought up as being "we all can agree" excessive.

    How does your cap work if a PI does *not* have any nonNIH support? You gonna adjust for that?

  • Odyssey says:

    Parsing the difference between four, five, six, or whatthefuckever is 100% meaningless.

    This.

    Of course convincing a particular colleague of mine of this is something else...

  • "How does your cap work if a PI does *not* have any nonNIH support? You gonna adjust for that?"

    So should we bring this back around and say its not the # of awards that is the issue, but maybe its too many soft money positions that need to rack up the grants to pay the light bill?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Or too many hard money positions where scientists are distracted by teaching duties, University committee work and other timesinkery that reduces the brain time spent on the NIH mission. Teaching is hard, I want my taxdollars going to people who can focus on the job at hand 24/7.

  • Comrade PhysioProf says:

    The statutorily mandated goal of NIH is to support the most meritorious biomedical research. It's not a full-employment jobs program for biosciences PhDs.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Hahahahhaha! Good one PP. What's the statutorily mandated mission of the Dept of Defense?

  • becca says:

    Nobody as an individual is owed a job. Even if they are the brillant big cheeze with 7 R01s.
    That has no bearing whatsoever on discussions on whether it is wise to create an eat-the-young culture that does not produce professional science positions with enough breathing room and stability for people to pursue risky research and to ensure that a steady stream of talent can stay in the game such that the NIH can continue to fund the most meritorious biomedical research for years to come.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    So would you favor age based funding targets, becca? Cause GenX has some catching up to do...

  • Dr. O says:

    Teaching is hard, I want my taxdollars going to people who can focus on the job at hand 24/7.

    Ah, so are we now only funding k3rned scientists? 😉

    The statutorily mandated goal of NIH is to support the most meritorious biomedical research. It’s not a full-employment jobs program for biosciences PhDs.

    To support the most meritorious biomedical research or promote it - the latter implying a need to help younger (and promising) investigators along.

  • Yeah I don't think we want NIH funding process to morph into a Logan's Run type of situation.

  • drugmonkey says:

    are you so sure about that GR?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Ah, so are we now only funding k3rned scientists?

    Nope. Just wondering how lecturing ungrateful undergraduates, graduate students or medical/pharmacy/vet students assists with the "statutorily mandated goals of the NIH".

  • There are old competent graybeards that are still doing good science, are we to force them out of science b/c they hit an arbitrary age? I mean as much as one day Becca would like to push CPP's wheel-chair bound carcass off a cliff and snatch up his funding, there might be some pang of guilt and worry that in the not-too-distant future, the same may happen to her.

  • saban_lab says:

    Is 75 an arbitrary age? I think not

  • drugmonkey says:

    Is 75 an arbitrary age? I think not

    Sure it is. 62, 65 and 67 are or have been the ages used by Federal, state and/or local business policies on retirement. I don't see 75 being used in any sort of broad based policy in the US. Therefore it is highly arbitrary for you to select it.

    A non arbitrary age would the ones used by the US Social Security Administration, local State policies, major State University systems, etc

  • pinus says:

    To a 76 year old who still kicks ass, 75 is pretty arbitrary.

  • Dr. O says:

    Just wondering how lecturing ungrateful undergraduates, graduate students or medical/pharmacy/vet students assists with the “statutorily mandated goals of the NIH”.

    If they're all ungrateful, maybe you have a point. But again, how do you promote the best biomedical research if you're not looking out for the future of biomedical research. This requires more than just research.

  • Juniper Shoemaker says:

    Perhaps this is because I'm one of those dreaded non-traditional students Acadamnit castigated a year ago, but I've never understood the broad support for forcing PI's to retire by a certain age. I think Deadwood Tenured Professors ought to retire to make room for vibrant, productive faculty, sure. But productivity isn't necessarily contingent on age. Do I actually have to point this out? I wouldn't want to force a 76-year-old professor who still kicks ass to retire just to make room for a lazy-ass 40-year-old professor who spends more time at political rallies than she does writing grants, leading experiments or teaching students. You think lazy-ass thirty-something and forty-something profs don't exist? Try again. Retirement mandated by age is just as senseless as capping the number of R01's a PI can win.

    Because that cap is senseless, by the way. 4 R01's are only "excessive" if the PI procured them with fraudulent work. The quality of the work should matter above all else. Do people make these weird suggestions because there's genuinely no way of determining an "appropriate" amount of grants per PI on a case-by-case basis? In effect, aren't you already doing that when you score a grant application in study section? Yeah, I asked in spite of n00bness and the woodshed.

  • becca says:

    DM- if it were the only way to ensure a future for NIH, I could be persuaded to advocate for the poor hapless GenXers.
    GR- those babes can try to yoink my pilfered funding from my cold dead hands, if they can escape my beatings with my flame-stripped cane from my gold-plated wheelchair.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Go look at the other graph in the linked post, becca. Gen X is small compared to Boomers and GenY. GenX also suffered the most from the career extension of unending postdocs. ESI came in too late for that generation, mostly.

    We face a crisis of too few people of the right age and career status who are ready to take up the larger grant mechanisms, society administrative jobs, Uni administrative jobs, etc.

    GenX is barely starting to hit scientific stride in their own labs at an age when the Boomers were already at asymptote and looking around for bigger/better ways to do science.

  • Comrade PhysioProf says:

    I'm GenJ!

  • becca says:

    I fail to see why a lack of 'qualified' leaders for things like uni admin is a problem for science. The way I see it, there were so blasted many boomers that they credential inflated *everything*- if you've got a million people to select from, you can be very stringent about what career stage is necessary for taking on leadership roles. From what little I've seen, just as there is a quantum leap from postdoc-responsibilities to PI-responsibilities, there is a similar one for PI-responsibilities to uber-PI society head honcho/deanship/P01 grandmaster level. *Among* successful PIs, can you really predict who will succeed at such tasks with accuracy, just by requiring more experience?
    I'll grant you that Gen X got screwed. However, I don't think there will be problems filling leadership positions- boomers'll hold on longer than anyone thought possible, and a few luckyducky Gen Xers or Yers will actually get to be in charge of something before they are eleventy million years old. Yes, they'll have fewer creds. But they won't screw up any worse than boomers.

  • Lorax says:

    I am in the camp that multi-R01ed labs actually do less science than would be expected. In other words one lab with 4 R01 (that seems to be the magic number), does not generate the same amount of new information as 4 labs with 1 R01. I am not saying any old PI should be funded for the sake of sharing the wealth. However, I will say that lab X with 5 Science/Nature/Cell papers is not necessarily doing the research that will improve human health any more than another lab publishing 5 papers in not media sexy journals.

    The more good labs doing diverse research in numerous fields will more likely (IMO) lead to human health benefits than a concentration of resources in fewer labs doing what is considered sexy.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I am in the camp that while Lorax may be correct on 4 R01 labs < 4 X 1 R01 labs, over the longer haul and considering sustained funding, the seeking thereof, the ability to commit to support trainees for 3 year stints, etc, the 2-3 R01 laboratory is way more productive even on a per DC$$ basis than the single R01 laboratory.

    Not to mention in the camp with PhysioProf that says that 4 R01+ laboratories are not common so it may be the case that there are special circumstances having to do with expensive models (where 'productivity' is justified on means other than numbers of pubs) or Glamor Mag pursuit (Science/Nature pubs are *hugely* more expensive than society journal pubs) . I happen to agree with Lorax that pursuit of the sexxah is not a good idea but we have a conventional wisdom that claims that it is. So correspondingly one needs to be clear when one is asserting that 4 single R01 labs are more productive than a single lab with 4 R01s that this is *conditioned* on a rejection of the SexxahawtGlamorMag meme that governs academic science evaluation at present.

  • drugmonkey says:

    becca, let me be a little more specific. Take a program project or center grant mechanism. Now we can kvetch about whether or not they are boondoggles and in some cases they are. But they have their place and for at least one IC that I can think of there have been a number of multidecade BigMechs that have supported a lot of good science in the field. These grants succeed because they have excellent scientific leadership that is/was at the right point of their personal career arc to take them over when the time came. Several of them have *failed* after a good long, multicompetitive review interval because they lack strong leadership to take up the reins when the old guard gets, well, old.

    *can* younger, early 40ish folks take up such mechanisms? Sure, in theory. But these days such folks are just barely getting rolling on their own laboratory. They don't have the chops to pull together the collaborators and bend them to the PD's will. They aren't *interested* in bigger things. It will go poorly at review.

    it is all very well and good to sneer at administrative talents as many in science do. The expanding numbers of Vice Deans of whatnot are very frustrating to the geese laying the golden eggs. sure. But within actual active science, there is a need for good managing from the laboratory to the collaborative level and, yes, to the society level. At the very least you should appreciate that the Training Grants and Pilot Components and Cores provide salary lines for a lot of scientists-in-training. Those require people who are ready, willing and able to catherd the applications into successful funding.

    If a Department is full of Greybeards and Bluehairs, even if they decide tomorrow to hire 5 new assistant profs, their BigMechs and Training Grants and whatnot are done. finito. It is only a matter of time.

  • becca says:

    I want to be clear- it's not that I sneer at admin. I am just dubious that having more experience at X means you will be better at the X*eleventy next-paygrade role. Truth is, a *lot* of small empires (anything from an innovative charter school to a business) will succeed for only as long as they have a particular leader at the helm. It happens all the time- is there any objective evidence it is happening more in NIH funded mechanisms at this time in generational history than at other times?

    That's not even to mention the even the argument that you were not actually a good program project or center director if there is no one to step up into the role when you leave. Legacy and all that.

    I think the real problem is that, to my ear, 'eeek where will the next generation of leaders come from?' doesn't sound that different from 'oh noes1!! how will we fill all the science jorbs when the babyboomers retire' . And we all know how long people have been selling the later pile of poop.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I don't know if anything is different now, that's true. I am going by the clear demographics on the one hand and the personal knowledge of several BigMech situations on the other.

    As you say, the excellent BigMech leaders perhaps pay a little more attention to grooming succession. But that leaves out the universe of potential new BigMechs that should get started and are not, for the lack of appropriate leadership. The potential payoff for mid career faculty taking a run at a Program Project or Center is not all that attractive, given the risks.

    Of course, the one-R01-for-all crowd probably thinks this is a GoodThing...

  • […] (soft money positions in particular). I know DrugMonkey has gotten into this before (for example, here). 3. Full-time reviewers. Seriously?!?!??! Who would take this job? No doubt they would never make […]

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