The latest thread over at OER head Sally Rockey's blog is a treasure trove of disgruntleprofness. I'd like to draw your attention to this comment from "seasoned reviewer".
As a reviewer, I see grants all of the time with 400K budgets that are essentially paying a PI 180K, a postdoc 50K and a senior tech 75K that produce 1-2 papers per year. Yes, that is reasonable for the amount of staff, but it is WAY over priced in relationship to grants with 250K per year budgets that have a PI paid 25% of salary, a tech and some grad students that publish 2-3 papers per year. Further, the grad students end up paying back the US economy greatly since they then go to high paying jobs in industry, increase the tax base, and provide skilled workers for the biotech industry. Thus, the grant’s impact is greatly multiplied, great science is done and skilled workers are produced.
Easy fix, no? Well...no.
I'm not going to argue with the soft money versus hard money PI issue except to point out that in my grant reviewing experience, and general knowledge of how many grants a lot of hard- and soft-money colleagues maintain, it is rare that a PI who is at cap is devoting 100% effort to one R01.
One essential point is that this person seems to be objecting to the sort of living wage, career stability and anti-exploitation issues that often pop up on the other side of the equation. How can this person suggest prioritizing grad student labor over postdoc labor? Where are all those grad students supposed to go after they defend if we shrink back the postdoctoral support on funded grants? They are all going to just shuffle off into "high paying" jobs in industry and biotech, eh? This betrays fantastical thinking. Those jobs are drying up too! There is no guarantee that a steady stream of graduate student labor (and there is an argument that you are going to need even more warm bodies if you dispense with the expertise that is represented by the postdoc cadre of labor) is going to find a home in industry the minute they defend their PhD.
The comment objects to "senior techs" and presumably refers to more junior ones in the second sentence. Again, where are these junior techs supposed to go? Is this person recommending age discrimination as an industry (NIH funded science, that is) wide practice to save money? Really? This is morally reprehensible.
Then we come to this prediction that the single* grant lab is more productive on a per dollar basis. I used to share this bias but it needs to be placed in a bit of context. One of the things I have ranted on about in the past is the assessment of productivity of a PI. I've commented that it is unfair during grant review that the Gestalt impression of a lab's productivity usually fails to account for the denominator. This can be because a reviewer has an impression based on reviewing manuscripts, seeing TOC feeds and PubMed alerts that this lab is really pumping out the papers. When it gets more objective, say on a competing renewal application, there can be a lot of papers listed which serve double duty. That is, a smart PI will list every plausible grant award as having contributed to each paper. That way each paper counts 2 or 3 times. The reviewer who looks at the Progress Report is not typically motivated to assign fractional publication credit by delving into the PIs other Awards, the Acknowledgement sections of each paper, etc. It is just too much work, there is no good, objective way to do the fractional crediting and it is unclear that such an analysis would do anything but irritate the rest of the panel anyway!
So far I'm sounding on the side of "seasoned reviewer" on the productivity front, no? But here's the thing....the appearance of higher productivity is also the reality of higher productivity...over the long haul. Sometimes projects go into a rut. Sometimes the grant renewal cycle is painful and long....and can introduce funding gaps. You can't always hire 1.5 staff members on one grant but you can hire 3 on two grants. Major equipment or other resources...ditto.
I am reluctant to admit this. I still believe that all else equal the starting out, n00b young lab with one grant is likely to be the best productivity bet. But this requires that things go well. That the person has startup to buy the equipment. That staff can be found when needed (i.e., day 1 of the award). That the scope of the science that is necessary (in a post-hoc sort of way) to good productivity has been proposed and funded by the award. That unforeseen holes are not stepped into.
The trouble is, things don't always go perfectly in science. And the single-award, $250K direct costs laboratory is at greater risk for major productivity disturbance from hindrances that a multi-award lab can surmount.
*I'm assuming from context the person doesn't really mean only $400K single-R01s but is probably referring to overall level of support...