On the difference between PIs and administrators involved in NIH grant issues

Feb 11 2011 Published by under Day in the life of DrugMonkey, NIH Careerism

I love writedit but sometimes she cracks me the heck up. In responding to a nervous (newb, as it happens) PI on one of her epic threads she says:

I can’t imagine you not being funded as ESI at the 9th percentile at NIDDK, especially given the news that the NIH would only lose $1B on the Republican proposal. You’ll still be waiting a while for an award, but I would certainly hope you can rest easy at night with that score/percentile.[ Emphasis added. ]

HAHAHAAHAHAHAHAAAA! PIs “rest easy” after the NGA has been issued. Or more like it, when their institution has issued them a charge number *after* the NGA has been awarded. I don't care if they get a 2%ile score and are totes best buddies* with the Institute/Center Director. They sweat it.

The reason is that there can always be skips. Decisions on the part of the IC that they just don't need your science, no matter what the percentile rank. Sure the skips are vanishingly rare, but they happen.

And this stuff matters to PIs. Matters intensely. I don't think anyone really understands this.

Certainly not administrative or institutional staff who draw their salary from various institutional structures whether grants are awarded to a particular PI or not. Not even the PI's own lab staff who operate in a sort of denial about lab funding, even if the PI is open about grant matters. Heck, probably not the PI's spouse, either.

Because as far as they are concerned, your past success (if you are a previous awardee) is all the evidence they need to assume "well of course you are going to get your grant". If you are a newbie, then the past success of people similar to you means the same thing. Of course you will eventually receive your grant.

Nobody really believes, in their heart of hearts, that you could fail** in quite the same way that you do, my PI friends.

I pretty much believe*** my latest competitive grant award was my last one ever.

__
*well, maybe not those PIs

**and no, I'm not talking about imposter syndrome. This is objective analysis of the odds of NIH grant success talking here.

***not kidding.

20 responses so far

  • Namnezia says:

    Feeling a bit grim today?

  • drugmonkey says:

    There is nothing special about today, no.

  • whimple says:

    Figure out what color your parachute is and go follow your bliss.

  • Arlenna says:

    Yup, one of my grants was scored within the 3rd or 4th percentile by DOD for a 4th percentile payline, and yet not funded. DOD makes a lot of 'portfolio-based' programmatic decisions and our central topic musta been too popular or something.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Don't worry whimple, I've felt this way for each one. ok, maybe not the first one.

  • becca says:

    Technically, do we have the data on NIDDK? Do we know how many 'skips' they like to make?
    You never count your chickens and all that, but you have to do some tentative planning as though you will succeed at some point or another. 9% is enough for that, as long as you don't sign your firstborn away on a loan or something.

  • drugmonkey says:

    See what I mean becca? You have no idea....

  • whimple says:

    I pretty much believe my latest competitive grant award was my last one ever.
    It's a well-justified fear. Someday it will be true.

  • physioprof says:

    Dude, don't be such a fucken whiner. No one want to hear itte.

  • I plan to continue sacrificing chickens until the next council meeting. And hopefully getting some sleep.

  • Malone says:

    my take on her comment is that who the fuck knows, but everyone knows how nerve wrecking waiting around for a decision is for a not-so-established pi. given that, she was saying something nice to calm him down instead of saying who the fuck knows.

    i'm certain she didn't suggest to plan spending already by resting easy; just that the pi is in the next phase of funding consideration. the pi must already know this in his heart, but hearing from someone else that the shop is not closed means there is a fighting chance. i see a difference in 'there is a fighting chance' vs. 'plan your spending already'.

  • antipodean says:

    You get grants, you don't get grants. You don't know what you did right, you don't know what you did wrong.

    I can't beleive another newbie PI isn't sweating this stuff...

  • bacillus says:

    I have an application being held up by NIH council for political reasons. Namely, I'm a foreign investigator, and the optics of funding me over a domestic scientist during this period of severe austerity are not good (This is the feedback I received from the PO). I realize that this is something of a special case, but it does illustrate the point that a fundable score from study section should not send anyone off on a spending spree.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Um, "political reasons"? Are you at a Foreign Applicant Institution or do you simply mean that you are a foreign PI at a domestic US Institution? I would find it a little hard to credit that an Advisory Council is doing the latter, especially in a naked way. (Also, Advisory Councils don't "hold up" specific grants, they advise the IC in question. It is ultimately the IC Director who could be charged with blocking a grant...)

  • bacillus says:

    Hi Drug Monkey. Foreign investigator and foreign institution, both of which were permitted by the original RFA that was released prior to the current budget impasse. I have known the PO for more than 10 years, and the feedback I got from him was that it was being held up for the reason I stated, maybe not by council, but certainly not by him. I think it is a legitimate "political" reason to withhold funding. It will be interesting to see whether this change is overtly or covertly applied to all foreign applications. The former is preferable, as it saves us wasting time putting them together.

  • drugmonkey says:

    The review criteria for a Foreign Applicant Institution generally require "unique expertise or resources not available in the U.S. ". This cuts both ways.

    First, one can argue just about any laboratory / PI in the entire world is "unique" in some way, no matter how small, and especially given that a given person does cannot recall each and every laboratory in a subfield to mind. Thus, if a reviewer is amped about the proposal s/he can easily find something to hang her/his hat on with regard to these criteria.

    Second, many labs do tackle similar general areas of interest, the number of health related concerns is reasonably defined (if not strictly speaking finite), and labs could deploy their resources to another topic/area/attack. Plus the US has a *lot* of laboratories. Not to mention that the Applicant is technically the *University*, a brand new lab could be started up in a heartbeat by offering an eager postdoc a startup package. So from another way of looking at it, it is hard to see where a Foreign Applicant Institution *ever* could qualify.

    It is all in the view of the beholder, don't you see? So yeah, I can see that in changing economic times the relative preference/willingness to fund FAIs may decline. Is this "political"? I suppose. Seems a bit pejorative under the circumstances though. Might as well call every skip in funding "political" since it is being done for reasons other than the strict order of review...

  • bacillus says:

    DM: I agree with your analysis up to a point. However, the work we are engaged in does require some specialized facilities that are only available at a small fraction of US universities. We helped several US institutions set up these labs. Additionally, this was a product development RFA, and the product is proprietary to us. However, it was developed with previous NIH funding, so they did have first dibs on it. I don't know of any competing product from any US group that is as far down the development pipeline. The decision to withhold funding was not based on the science, so "political" seemed an appropriate term. As I said, I have no problems with this decision. I've always thought it was extremely generous of the NIH to fund our work, and it was nice while it lasted. I'd have no problem if we opened up our own federal funding to international competition, but it ain't ever going to happen.

  • Malone says:

    i don't think it is political rather the right term ought to be priority. if more than 50% of grants being delayed and a stricter paylines are enforced for the reasons of anticipated nih budget cuts, it is only natural to see changing priorities of certain RFAs.

  • "So from another way of looking at it, it is hard to see where a Foreign Applicant Institution *ever* could qualify".

    No, it's easy-peasy, at least for translational and clinical research: think different patient populations. Single-payer healthcare systems where all patients in a given jurisdiction are treated at the same centre with no selection based on income or other demographics are a wonderful thing - we don't bother applying for US federal grants unless this is a factor (usually, for the NIH, in response to a specific RFA rather than a totally open competition), and as a result we've been pretty damn successful at the NIH and DOD.

  • becca says:

    Yeah Cath has a good point. I seem to remember some good NIH funded stuff from Finland (their databases for cancer patient genome wide analysis stuff makes all the mol epi folks drool).
    Although really, how hard is it to get a USian co-PI to get on board with Awesome Patient Population study X?

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