How many grants should one PI hold?

Apr 08 2011 Published by under NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics, Uncategorized

One of the favorite "light the torches" solutions to the perceived problems with the NIH system at present is to limit the number of awards or the total amount of funding that one PI may hold.

Sally Rockey has a post up in which she rebuts the notion that this would solve anything.

I suspect that her data will stimulate a nice discussion!

32 responses so far

  • Katharine says:

    What's the deal with non-med school higher education getting the shaft?

  • BikeMonkey says:

    Hard salary = less demand. also less %time available for research. So lower per-investigator numbers aren't evidence of screwing. In fact, one might wonder why the differential is not even greater- *med school* faculty are getting screwed in this analysis.

  • Grumble says:

    The best thing about that blog post is the comment by Bill Halford. (And no, I'm not he.)

  • K says:

    I was about to post this there; I decided against doing so because I do actually have a relative who works at NIH (in an agency I will never have any dealings with because it's in a different field) and I don't want them to get in hot water:

    Nobody appears to be saying anything much about this:

    The people who largely determine what money we get once NIH and other agencies stick a preliminary budget on their desk - Congress - are for the most part scientifically illiterate. I should not have to remind you that - was it last week, or the week before? - one of the Republicans in Congress claimed that his physics class in high school was useless, and a number of them think global warming is a fable and probably even more of them think the Earth is 6000 years old.

    The government is about to shut down, both my parents are about to lose their paychecks for an indeterminate amount of time, and Republicans want to make cuts to education and research - they want to eliminate the EPA - and you don't see that this is a part - and an ADDRESSABLE part - of the issue around securing more funding for the NIH?

    If you don't know this already, you haven't been reading the news much.

    Why is there NO talk at all of outreach to those members of Congress who have a background in science?

  • What's the deal with non-med school higher education getting the shaft?

    They're not "getting the shaft". They don't try as hard to get more grants, because they only have to put a maximum of three months of their own salaries on their grants.

  • K says:

    Okay. Thanks for the perspective, PhysioProf.

  • anon says:

    I agree with Grumble. Bill Halford has some good points. drdrA also pointed out that the doubling period is not proportionately reflected among grant holders (at least within the top 20%). The number who held one grant in 2009 vs 1986 actually DECREASED, while those who hold 6+ grants or more increased 6-9 fold! Whatsup with that? That particular blog post has more sugar-coating than it deserves.

  • It's not a "perspective"; it's a fact.

  • anonymous says:

    Except it's not "a maximum of three months salary" but more like a minimum. Depts. of Biology at major RO1 U's require that their profs pay for a goodly chunk of their academic salary from grants. Here, it's between 25% (so the figure you cite) and 75%.

  • becca says:

    There may also be a tendency for med-school faculty to end up doing more expensive research- more pressure to do clinical/translational collaborative stuff, and more opportunity to do e.g. primate work.

  • I have no idea what a "major RO1 U" is, but all state and private universities I am aware of pay faculty in their schools of arts & sciences (where biology departments are) nine months salary from institutional funds.

  • BikeMonkey says:

    If the numbers are limited to the top 20%, it is a surprise that there would be fewer single-grant PIs in that population? Not to me or anyone who thinks for more than a microsecond about it.

    I didn't read Rockey's post as claiming that there was no change *at all*. Her point seemed to be rather to point out that the number of multiple-grant labs was not as high as people seem to assume.

    I wonder if she would have been better off putting up the whole distribution by decile to show just what fraction of the PI population was single-grant. Would have been nice to compare the direct costs as well because the correlation is imperfect.

  • anon says:

    "If the numbers are limited to the top 20%, it is a surprise that there would be fewer single-grant PIs in that population?"

    It's an illustration of the rich getting richer; that wasn't so much the case in 1986. I would like to see how the NIH extramural budget (in dollar amounts, not by number of grants) is distributed among investigators. I hope I'm wrong, but my hunch is that a small number of PI's are getting a large chunk of the pie, while the rest of us (especially new PIs) are quibbling over what's left.

  • drugmonkey says:

    that wasn't so much the case in 1986.

    The rich have gotten richer since forever. "so much the case" sounds to me like such a personally arbitrary standard that it would be impossible to gain much clarity this way. I will note, that this personally arbitrary standard is exactly what makes the "discussion" of this topic so hilarious. Because everyone's standard seems to be what is good for them and their science and their ability to gain awards.

    Rockey's data make it clear that we're talking about a minority- less than 20% or how else would there be any single-grant awardees in the top 20%?
    (Well, I suppose there are a few R01s in the half-million plus range but I suspect this is not what people have in mind when they say everyone needs only one grant, amirite?)

    So then where do you draw the line? 5% 1%? or 0%? really? this is where we start getting into the personal standard issue to the extent that the critics move from having a small point to being so completely myopic that it is not worth taking them seriously.

    When I survey my fields of greatest interest, the drug abuse sciences, we would not be anywhere near as advanced without numerous multi-grant labs /groups having sustained empirical programs for *decades*. With not just R01s but with Centers, Program Projects, U-mechs and a whole bunch of NIH contracts that don't really appear in the public discussion. Human subjects work is really expensive. So is animal work, compared to bench jockery. Interestingly, I also think that my fields of interest have a lot of room for single-grant, small-grant, PIplusundergrad labs to make really significant contributions *as well*. We just can't do it all with the latter.

    These people who claim that we can do everything as single-grant, single PI plus one trainee labs are just not thinking straight. or are being completely disingenuous.

  • These people who claim that we can do everything as single-grant, single PI plus one trainee labs are just not thinking straight. or are being completely disingenuous.

    Both. They are blinded by their own cravings.

  • anon says:

    DM - I understand what you're saying. It's just that there has been a TREND since 1986 (as illustrated in Fig. 2 on the Rockey blog) that a disproportionate number of PIs are holding a greater number of awards and presumably a huge amount of money. The trend being a very steep increase.

    You have even posted in the past (as has Jeremy Berg) that award amounts do not necessarily translate into productivity as measured by numbers of publications (they peak at about $700k):

    Given the rate at which people are entering the biomedical field vs the rate that stay in academia and expect to gain federal support for their research, what would be the optimal scenario in this current economic climate? I think you were referring to multiple-PI awards for large expensive projects, which is something that I am in favor of. I am also in favor of funding as many deserving labs as possible, which is what the current academic infrastructure seems to produce.

  • The institution that I am at (an R1, an R01 is a grant mechanism of the NIH), requires at least 30% of annual base salary to come from extramural support.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Can anyone offer an opinion on how the" requirement" works for tenured faculty in non medical-school departments?

    Nine month contracts with the opportunity to make the same base rate in summer, I get. But how does 30-75% work in a University with presumably general employment policies that need to extend to humanities Profs for whom it may not be easy to find such extramural support?

  • qaz says:

    I think the people who complain about multi-grant labs/empires are not so much disingenuous as mis-identifying the problem. They are thinking "if only those multi-grant empires didn't exist, there would be more for me, and, just maybe, I could survive."

    The real issue is that (as has been said on the various DM and CPP blogs for many years) one-grant labs are no longer stable. This means that labs that try to run at a small, but steady pace can't survive. Either you are a multi-grant lab to bridge gaps in funding or you sputter and stall when you hit that missing year between your one grant and renewal. The problem is that there is no safety net for that missing year.

    I don't think any of those one-grant labs would mind the existence of empires if there was a way for a one-grant lab to exist. IMHO, we need both the one-grant labs and the multi-grant empires, each of which contribute differently to the system. The problem right now is that there is no way to run a one-grant lab. You are simply delaying the inevitable day when you miss one catch on that trapeze and fall to your death.

  • whimple says:

    qaz is exactly correct. With a one grant lab the only question is when you will be eliminated, not whether you will be eliminated. Back in the day there was institutional bridge funding, and the NIH's R56 program which has helped prop up at least one person I know (successfully as it turns out, at least for now -- the R01 resubmission was funded). Today even if that funding were in place, it tends not to work. The uncertainty and downtime associated with funding instability causes an unrespondable "lack of productivity" critique generally sufficient to kill subsequent applications essentially regardless of merit.

    The systemic problem is that funding follows a distribution, and having the meatiest part of the distribution be unstable threatens the distribution as a whole. I don't have a solution, and neither does Rockey, who is pretty clearly a cheerleader for the existing situation. This is understandable: the NIH has "the best peer-reviewed science evaluation system in the world", in which case everything is just fine by definition. The alternative, that peer-review at the NIH is flawed, is unthinkable because in that case the NIH is handing out $33B per year in a defective manner which then gives NIH critics ammunition for budget cutting.

  • anonymous says:

    It's not letting me reply directly to DM's question for some reason, sorry.

    "But how does 30-75% work in a University with presumably general employment policies that need to extend to humanities Profs for whom it may not be easy to find such extramural support?"

    The department justifies to the dean and other administrators having "excess" Biology faculty members when compared to departments of humanities, etc, by showing that a large chunk of the funding to support those excess faculty is paid for by extramural funds. We'd be allowed about half as many faculty if 75%-100% of faculty salaries were paid by the department. Another mechanism that is used is to have a joint appointment in Biology and a med-school associated center or department. The Biology dept might then pay for 50% of your salary for teaching, but you'll be responsible for paying for the 50% soft money position with Microbiology (etc) through your grants.

    There are some faculty in the department that do only pay summer salary from their grants - usually these are faculty whose research is outside the scope of NIH funded research and they are a minority of the department.

    If your question is how is the policy enforced, it's basically pressure from the chair, rank and tenure, salary increases, access to space, etc. I assumed this was how 100% soft money positions were enforced also - or is it easier to terminate unfunded tenured profs in med school departments? Or do these professors literally not get paid anything if they do not have grants?

    Also yes sorry I meant R1 not R01.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    very interesting. I'm not sure this trickery really opposes PP's point though. It does, however, point to how impossible it would be to draw too firm a distinction between med-school-appointed PIs and arts/sciences appointed PIs give that local definitional practices are very likely to be all over the map.

    as far as soft money goes, in my experience the process by which senior, tenured folks get kicked to the curb on losing funding in a soft-money job category varies widely. very widely. if they have friends high up, they stay and are maybe even extended institutional resources for awhile. No friends? out on the keister.

  • becca says:

    "These people who claim that we can do everything as single-grant, single PI plus one trainee labs are just not thinking straight. or are being completely disingenuous."

    *gets out poking stick*
    Or they simply would rather have 200 yeast, c. elegans and drosophila geneticists studying every facet of chromatin biology, cellular fate, and development, compared to 20 drug abuse scientists who can only muster a 'science proves drugs are bad, mmmkay' output, despite lovely talk of 'translational' research that will address the (very real) problems of addiction.
    (i.e. even people who agree addiction is important, and people who agree basic research is important, can still think your research is an unfortunate combination of extremely expensive and too limited in its real world applications)

  • drugmonkey says:

    and why should the US be funding investigation into pathogens or disease conditions that barely even affect our population because they are limited to different geographical locations or other populations?

    Look, you've come right back full circle to the fact that the system as we know it strikes a balance of what is most "important" to fund. A balance across the large and small labs, the distribution across health/disease categories and between relatively basic and relatively applied research, IME.

    To counter that reality, you have only the personal opinion of whomever happens to be talking at a given moment. and as I keep pointing out, I hear a whole heck of a lot of poking at the other folks and not much serious thinking about the mission as a whole. To me the evidence is whether people only start complaining when their own toes are pinched and whether their solutions all happen to work for them personally.

    against this, feel free to contrast my blog message* in support of opportunity for younger, transitioning scientists against your perception of what is good, right now, for my lab's success in the NIH grant game.

    *and you will have to decide for yourself whether or not that message is consistent with my likely behavior at those times when I review grant proposals.

  • becca says:

    Oh, because we're bound to get into idiotic utmost essential wars to protect our national oil access interests in regions of the world that do have such pathogens, and you wouldn't want to not SUPPORT THE TROOPS, right????????? Or do you just want our brave men and women in uniform to SUFFER?! /sarcasm

    I understand the NIH is trying to strike a balance, but to the untrained yet cynical eye I'd say they are trying to strike a balance based on *what has been funded before*, rather than *where the most scientific progress can be made*, in much the same way our government as a whole, in making decisions about revenue and expenditures typically bases them mostly on *what they have funded before* rather than *what society needs*.

  • qaz says:

    Whether or not "NIH has the best peer-reviewed science evaluation in the world" is irrelevant. Even perfect peer-review has noise. With a death-wall (your score + noise < funding threshold), you're still just waiting for the axe to fall.

    Trying to improve NIH's peer-review system is a good goal, but it's not going to solve the problem.

  • ScienceGeek says:

    The Program Project grants may not be such a good thing. The one PP Study section I sat on included mediocre projects riding to funding on the coattails of solid projects. These mediocre projects were MUCH worse than the 15 percentile R01s that went unfunded in the R01 study sections I sat on. If only reviewers could excise, when needed, one of the proposals from a PP. But they can't.

  • drugmonkey says:

    If there are "mediocre" projects in a PP than the whole thing should sink, right?


  • If only reviewers could excise, when needed, one of the proposals from a PP. But they can't.

    Untrue. Some ICs have explicit paylines for projects within PPGs, and when the PPG as a whole meets the PPG payline, any projects that don't meet the project payline get shitcanned. And I have seen cores administratively excised, too, if the study section thinks it sucks.

  • anon says:

    So tenured professors can be fired for failing to raise money even if they are associate profs and/or early full profs (such that "early retirement" isn't an option)? That's interesting and good to know.

    I do know that among the half-appointed folks, if funding isn't forthcoming, one option is to switch to 100% Biology and take on additional teaching duties.

  • ScienceGeek says:

    DM - A single mediocre part of a PPG "should" sink the whole thing, perhaps, but doesn't necessarily. It depends on how much enthusiasm there is for the other parts.

    PP - We were told (in March 2010) that we could not subtract any part of a PPG. But what you say is good news - perhaps "some ICs" has or will become "all ICs".

  • We were told (in March 2010) that we could not subtract any part of a PPG.

    Who the fucke is "we"? Who the fucke told you this? What the fucke does "subtract any part" mean?

Leave a Reply