The NIH options for dealing with the budget stagnation are missing one...

May 18 2012 Published by under NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics, NIH Careerism

The AAAS has a summary up which deals with NIH's head of the Office of Extramural Research Sally Rockey's comments on the FY13 budget for the NIH.

Sally J. Rockey, deputy director for extramural research at NIH, said that some changes in grants management already have been proposed as part of the president’s budget submission for the 2013 fiscal year.

and those solutions will be familiar to those following along at the RockTalk blog. It boils down to "kill the rich!!!". If you already have it, or have too much of it, they are gunning for you.

These include an across-the-board funding cut of 1% for continuing grants; negotiating the budgets for new competitive grants to avoid growth in the average size of award; eliminating increases for inflation in multi-year grants; giving additional scrutiny to researchers who already receive in excess of $1.5 million a year; and continuing to fund early-stage investigators at the same rate as established investigators for new grant applications.

The alternative posed by Rockey is "Darwinian".

“Many people thought we should keep the current system,” Rockey said. “Just keep the Darwinian approach. Don’t try to go in there and socially engineer anything.” Others weighed in on the merits of the various options for change, including some approaches beyond those discussed by Rockey. These could include limiting payment for indirect costs associated with grants, limiting large project grants, and providing more support to small labs and individuals by limiting grants to large labs.

Well it sure looks like this depiction to me.
Just about the only person who is not under potential attack under this scenario is the small town grocer. Otherwise known as Noonan. I have been reluctant*, I will admit, to even think very much about something that has been raised (identified?) by PhysioProf on numerous blog posts. It boils down to the suggestion that it is the Small Town Grocer scientists that are precisely who the NIH should be dropping from the system. Actually, PP tends to phrase this as a suspicion that this is just what the NIH is up to, rather than a suggestion that they should do so.

Since he's been making this comment I've gradually noticed that this option is never raised. Rockey maybe touched on it a teensy bit in the AAAS piece.

Institutions also could help manage the demand for grant money by reducing the number of applications submitted by their faculty, Rockey said. And NIH can examine its research priorities, seeking to reduce support for less innovative ideas and eliminating some of the duplication of effort.

Oh yeah. You do it for us, University of State. Right. Like that is in their interest. Sorry but we're in tragedy of the commons territory Dr. Rockey and you are going to have to do this yourself if you want it to happen. Take a hard run at the smaller, lesser and slower producing laboratories. Stop saving them with bridge funding, stop taking pity on your "long term funded investigators" and the like.

It is indubitably the case that we have too many investigators seeking too few grant dollars. All of the main solutions on the table are going to squeeze the most productive, best funded laboratories (not to mention the noobs who finally managed to land their first grant to find a cut that oblates a warm body). Just so that more awards can be made. To, presumably, the small timers.

And those more productive labs are going to fight back as best they can. Submit even MORE grant to make up for the cut funds. Work deals with their friends and junior colleagues to be collaborating investigators so to hide the amount of direct funds going into the laboratory. Pursue training grants, beg for supplements....whatever it takes. They are not going to go "hum, well, I'm just going to be happy with less".

And, sad but true, these are likely going to be the people on study section stepping down hard on, guess who? Investigators who are not like them.

You want Darwinian, Deputy Director Rockey?

If a better-funded, more-active reviewer is really thinking, s/he is best off bashing the crap out of one-trick-pony PI's grants. Why? Because you might just put them out of the game permanently! If you can do that, you've reduced the competition in a real way. Conversely if you stamp on a reasonably well funded and reasonably active PI, you haven't put them out of business at all. Just ensured they will put in yet more grants.

Look, I'm still not sure I know the best path. I love the democratic nature of the ideal of the NIH pure Investigator Initiated system. Anyone with a good idea should be able to get funding.

But I also believe that little gets done on one full modular, cut to $200/yr, maybe reduced to 4 yr grant anymore**. Research programs may not be efficient after 5 grants but they sure as heck aren't in the sweet spot with one either.

And I know for damn sure the insecurity and grant churning of the past 5-8 years has been hugely detrimental to the conduct of science.

Sadly, I don't see that any of the proposals of the NIH do anything to decrease churning.

UPDATE: see NOT-OD-12-110, just published today:

This Notice announces NIH’s intent to pilot procedures for investigator-initiated grants and cooperative agreements in consideration of managing resources during austere times. During May 2012 NIH Institute and Center (IC) Advisory Council meetings, Councils will discuss and pilot-test procedures for the additional review of grant and cooperative agreement applications from Program Director(s)/Principal Investigator(s) [PD(s)/PI(s)] who already receive in excess of $1.5 million per year in total costs to determine if additional funds should be provided to already well-supported investigators. The feedback from this pilot will help NIH further refine policies for managing limited grant resources.

__
The cartoon, btw, is stolen with apologies from Dent. I, uh, altered it.

*anyone who thinks their relative position in the NIH world is predictable or static needs their head examined. I could be calling for an option that will end my lab's viability here.

**Read this. It is short.

26 responses so far

  • Pinko Punko says:

    Needs more "The Trees" by Rush, don't you think? SARCASM

  • AcademicLurker says:

    But I also believe that little gets done on one full modular, cut to $200/yr, maybe reduced to 4 yr grant anymore**. Research programs may not be efficient after 5 grants but they sure as heck aren't in the sweet spot with one either.

    I thought that the data, in as much as we have any, indicated that productivity (measured in pubs/dollar) maxed out at 2 RO1's and then started declining.

  • J. Swift says:

    as AcademicLurker says, productivity data supports cutting off the rich labs, they aren't producing more. drugmonkeyblog, when was the last time you saw how 'big labs' are run? let me give you a hint, they are run very poorly.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    If we wanted to play this trolly game instead of eating our BBQ Corn Nuts, we'd say that since these factory labs don't really do training, they will no longer have their people subsidized by training grants, so their personnel costs can match the losers that actually pay for people on their grants. Also maybe gigantor post-doc factory labs can account for the ones that go out the door in body bags without productivity.

    I don't really think this. I would prefer to have some diversity in my portfolio, but I know, I know, CPP will just say that that is for succkkers.

  • MudraFinger says:

    I don't see that NIH is serious about changing the incentive structures in place, and until they are and do, I'm not holding my breath for positive change.

    In the concluding chapter of Paula Stephan's recent book _How Economics Shapes Science_, she makes a series of seven recommendations aimed at improving the efficiency of resource allocation for conducting research. She's not speaking just to NIH, but she is in part. Some of this is consistent with suggestions NIH received on the workforce RFI and I don't think all of these are "kill the rich" propositions. They are, however, strong calls for changing the incentives confronting the Universities.

    “First, require universities to report placement data [of PhD recipients] as part of all research grant applications. Do not merely require that they report the information -- use the outcome data in scoring proposals.

    “Second, place limits on the amount of faculty time that can be charged off grants, thereby dulling the incentive for universities to hire faculty on soft money….

    “Third, lessen the coupling between research and training….

    “Fourth, try to determine once and for all the most effective way to support graduate students and rebalance funds toward means that are more effective….

    “Fifth, monitor existing science policies and develop new policies with the understanding that policies can affect the practice of science and, by extension, research outcomes….

    “Sixth, if collaborative research really produces better research… , change the reward system. Encourage the creation of prizes to be awarded to groups of scientists….

    “Finally, convince advocacy groups and the Congress to drop the doubling rubric. Instead of asking for a doubling of research funds, set goals: for example, spend 0.5 percent of the GDP on federally supported university research.” (pp. 233-235)

  • drugmonkey says:

    AL and JS are wrong. Check this https://loop.nigms.nih.gov/index.php/2010/09/27/measuring-the-scientific-output-and-impact-of-nigms-grants/ and you'll see that papers keep going up until $800K...that's median. Now look at the 75th percentile for an even better look. It isn't perfect dollar to papers relationship but then you have to take some minimum threshold under which you get zero papers (assuming that was the sole award, not counting partial contributions from startup or small awards) into account.

    the scatter plot provides another look at your ability to predict outcome based on grant $$s https://loop.nigms.nih.gov/index.php/2010/11/22/another-look-at-measuring-the-scientific-output-and-impact-of-nigms-grants/ (i.e., poor).

    MF: my problem with this line of attack is most of it is "we can get the same research done by leaning on [insert magic fairy money from local sources] and constraining our awards to those with magic fairies". It depends on a pretty big IF. even assuming you only award grants to PIs on hard money salaries....this would necessarily make even biggerer research groups. same work, the PI only has so many hours. So people who are now on soft money would be on soft money under some big cheez instead of appointed faculty in their own right. they would still be writing the grants and need just about the same number of them to generate the same work product. the notion that State governments or battered private U investment portfolios are going to pick up hard money salaries just because the NIH wants them to is a fantasy. Something has to give.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    And it reality, the bubble that should give would be the exploded soft money positions that blew up with the NIH doubling. I say this every time these "lets fight" posts come up, but unless you want to especially cripple hard money positions, positions that did not double with the NIH budget, there does have to be pressure brought to bear on the soft money situation. Equal contraction across the board would be crippling traditionally hard money situations because they were not expanded at the same rate as the Institute for Ye Fucckkkeing Awesommme Sciences.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    To which I respond it is more reasonable for the NIH to stop wasting money on Profs who are all distracted with teaching and service and nonsense and just pay straight up for services rendered. If they want to leverage, put more research into the hands of soft money faculty since their salary doesn't scale with projects. Full time attention on NIH's biz is more verifiable and efficient.

  • Put the money into the hands of the medical school tenured faculty! DO ITTE!!

  • Ass(isstant) Prof says:

    "To which I respond it is more reasonable for the NIH to stop wasting money on Profs who are all distracted with teaching and service and nonsense and just pay straight up for services rendered. If they want to leverage, put more research into the hands of soft money faculty since their salary doesn't scale with projects. Full time attention on NIH's biz is more verifiable and efficient."

    I'm not sure about that. Many of those folks, including yours truly, do research 12 months of the year with a 9-month hard money salary. The institution allocates 50-60% of time to research (or less for some). So NIH pays 3 months salary for the PI, and the institution picks up 4.5% for the PI to work on those very projects. It sounds like a good deal for NIH. Yes, those of us in this position are distracted by teaching /service. Or NIH could pick up 100% of the PI salary and benefits.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    It isn't a good deal if you aren't able to actually focus with intensity, no. Listening to all the online teaching folks complain about grading and lectures and hand holding and tear wiping...not to mention fencing with deadwood fucks in department meeting....whew. Those peeps make me exhausted just reading about their hellish existences.

  • qaz says:

    DM - This simply does not fit either the data or my personal observation. A LOT gets done in those small labs. The problem with a one R01 lab isn't that it's too little money, it's that there is a strong chance that the renewal will be difficult (*) and the lab will run out of money (**).

    * From my experience on study section, I do not think that the one R01 lab is any more difficult to get a renewal than a five R01 lab. I think the five R01 lab can afford the possibility of losing that R01. Which is a very different statement.

    ** So the correct answer is not to destroy the lab. The correct answer is to find a way to make it more likely that the lab won't hit the starvation-wall. (It's called a "safety-net", people. And the data is pretty damn clear. Going all Ayn Rand and Social Darwin leads to income inequality and internal destruction of the society and a severe drop in productivity. The most successful systems are capitalism with a strong safety net.)

    Looking at the data linked to above, the productivity trend is remarkably flat. (Is this even significant? The interquartile range of every condition overlaps.) Under the assumption that each lab has a "research program", the big labs are publishing 10X papers (at X papers/R01$) on one topic, while 10 one-R01 labs would publish X papers on each topic, so 10X on 10 topics. The math suggests that it's BETTER to have 10 labs doing 10 things than one lab doing one thing.

    To say we should get rid of the one R01 lab is crazy.

    And, DM, if you've never actually taught then don't go mouthing off until you have. People complain on the internets. That's what they do. (Isn't that the purpose of this blog?) Teaching can be a great thing. You never understand something as well as when you have taught it. I know that my teaching has helped my science immensely. How many people say "I'll never go into research. It's hell. I've read drug-monkey's blog." ? But the fact is, research is a damn good gig. Teaching's the same way. Sure we complain, but that doesn't mean teaching doesn't help the research. Besides, if we want to have any hope of our students actually doing something more than just following in the same well-worn path of the same research question, then we'd better teach them what else is out there.

    PS. Given the other good advice and reasonable ideas on this blog over the years, my first reaction on reading this was that you had been taken over by an internet-troll. What happened? You forget your metamucil today?

  • taken over by an internet-troll

    AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Drugmonkey says:

    - yes, I have taught

    -why is raising a perfectly valid position on this whole thing "trolling"? Why are all the solutions attacking "those other guys over there" just fine but when something gets closer to your home all of a sudden it is an outrage?

    -answer that and you'll know why I wrote this

  • AcademicLurker says:

    To which I respond it is more reasonable for the NIH to stop wasting money on Profs who are all distracted with teaching and service and nonsense and just pay straight up for services rendered. If they want to leverage, put more research into the hands of soft money faculty since their salary doesn't scale with projects. Full time attention on NIH's biz is more verifiable and efficient.

    Maybe this is subfield specific. In my own protein biophysics-ish area, when I look at the Big Names who have really defined the field, they are mostly based in Chemistry and Biochemistry departments at Schools of Arts and Sciences.

    Perhaps it's more the physiology and neuroscience areas that are dominated by Medical Schools.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    It is definitely trolling when CPP does it.

    Anyhow, there is no issue on getting productive work done on a modular NIH budget, except that the basic modular (as CPP has noted) has been in place for a long time, so a single NIH 250K a la 2003 has a massive amount of purchasing power relative to a 188K 2012 R01.

    I would say the same or lesser amount of work gets done on a grant where Mr. Free Time has no money for reagents or personnel because the PI is covering 60-70% of their salary on the one grant.

    The problem is not really solvable anyway once resources drop below a certain amount. It seems that NIH recognizes that research faculty who also teach undergrads do have an important role in training the sausage meat that the med school faculty will ending up grinding out.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    A PI at 70%? That's worth 1.5-2 postdocs, easy.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    If by "the NIH recognizes" you mean "the way things are at present" then this is a defense of the status quo with Rockey's do-nothing "Darwinian" approach.

    Look, the fewer people/grants you target for attack, the more limited your gains. Stats at the Rock Talk blog have shown the vast majority of PIs are in the 3 grants and fewer zone. So going after the $1.5M PI is going to do very little, even if they made it a blanket, default no-fund policy.

    I'd be very interested to see the return on each proposed soft money attack. Ditto the astronomical overhead places. I will be particularly entertained by seeing what happens to traditional campus folks when the med school soft money disappears with their IDC.

  • MediumPriority4Life says:

    "I'd be very interested to see the return on each proposed soft money attack. Ditto the astronomical overhead places. I will be particularly entertained by seeing what happens to traditional campus folks when the med school soft money disappears with their IDC."

  • MediumPriority4Life says:

    "I'd be very interested to see the return on each proposed soft money attack. Ditto the astronomical overhead places. I will be particularly entertained by seeing what happens to traditional campus folks when the med school soft money disappears with their IDC."

    Does this mean soft money folks going after campus folks in panel review?

  • There are essentially no "soft money folk" on study section who have any power to move the needle of peer review.

  • [...] the "significance" and "likely impact" is obvious to all. Demand more Preliminary Data. Save the Small Town Grocer and the Noonans. Just keep plodding along with your models, the same as half a dozen others, and [...]

  • drugmonkey says:

    The latest analysis at Rock Talk proves that PIs with teaching responsibilities are less competitive than those at medical schools, hospitals and research institutions.

  • [...] like I was sayin' it is more reasonable for the NIH to stop wasting money on Profs who are all distracted with [...]

  • [...] that more concerns me is the drive at the NIH to kill the rich. We've been discussing this set of proposals that are targeted at making sure those who are successful at present don't become too successful. or something. One [...]

  • [...] I've proposed that we need a prospective approach for the medium to long term future. I here renew my assertion that we need to get specific about which type of PI is to be put in the gunsights for [...]

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