# Scientists: Delusional or selfish?

In email chatting with PP, as is our wont, I had the following query.

Do you think these "do it to Julia" muppethuggers really think they have the best objective solution? Or do they really know they are just looking out for número uno?

What do you think, Dear Reader?

• becca says:

Selfishness breeds delusions, often undetectably so from the inside. It's a probably scientists *ought* to be better able to dismantle, but generally aren't.
So... they will concede they're motivated to look out for numero uno. And then they will tell you, completely convinced, why their plan is still, objectively, the best.

• Here is what I told DoucheMonkey:

I think they genuinely believe that they are objectively uniquely creative talented magical wagical snowflakes, and thus anything that shifts resources away from other scientists and to them is objectively the best solution.

I think a large part of what wacks these people out is the delusion that science is some kind of morally purer and pragmatically bettter human enterprise than any of the others that society spends its resources on: commerce, war, politics, education, law, medicine, journalism, etc.

• DJMH says:

I like how you refer to "those people", DM, as though you yourself never attack any existing policies or structures.

Selfishness breeds delusions

In the current climate I think it's more a matter of fear and desperation breeding delusions.

Nevertheless, my plan to have the NIH establish a new Institute for Exactly the Sort of Research I Happen to be Doing is objectively the best way forward for Science.

• Consider this 'artisanal data' (n = 1). When I lived in the R01 world, I hated center grants (STEALIN ALL TEH MONIES!!). Now that I'm at a center, um, not so much. Admittedly, my views did change having been in the public health biz for a few years and getting frustrated with yet another small study that hinted at something important, but didn't really move the ball down the field.

Maybe this ultimately stems from what you see as the lynchpin of the scientific enterprise? Dunno.

[/ramble]

• antistokes (allison l. stelling) says:

This is what happens when you turn science into a popularity contest. Sigh.

Also, I think a lot of the Baby Boomer scientists still think that one single person or lab or school or city is going to "cure cancer" or "solve the renewable energy problem" since they recall the Good Old Days when there were way fewer scientists in the world.

And, you have Boomer CEOs who think that they "win" if they horde all the money, and dam up the flow of the economic cycle by only investing in short term applied science with its promise of huge returns with minimal capital. I'm not saying Kill the Rich-- I'm saying, think of the 20 to 40 year returns on the investment- please? O wait they'll be dead by then since they didn't invest in basic discovery work investigating the aging process.

• proflikesubstance says:

Anyone who thinks they have a single solution to everything that ails the research world is announcing their ignorance about the variation in the system.

• odyssey says:

Is it a matter of people coming up with solutions that benefit themselves, or coming up with solutions that don't hurt themselves? I can imagine the latter leading to more delusion. Still, either is a "do it to Julia" approach.

• qaz says:

I'm not sure that it's so much a "do it to Julia" as a "don't do it to me!" I think a lot of the problem is that the system is not distributing pain equally among the players. Do I notice the unfairnesses to myself more than to others? Yes. Does that mean that I don't notice unfairness to others? No. Does it mean that I argue for other's destruction? No. Does it mean that I argue for my own survival? Damn straight. If I don't, who will?

• drugmonkey says:

I'm not sure that it's so much a "do it to Julia" as a "don't do it to me!"

here are a few of the top "Do it to Julia" points

-Kill those with too much total direct costs
-Kill those with too many grant awards
-Kill those without (enough) hard money salary support
-Kill those in too high overhead institutions
-Kill Intramural
-Kill Big Mechs

These sentiments are almost always expressed by blaming the other guy, not by "arguing for their own survival". I don't see how you can possibly miss this when engaging in these category arguments about NIH priorities. People advance these claims with great confidence and apparently zero self-reflection.

DJMH- my priorities and suggestions are solely in the vein of enhancing science and have no self-interest whatever.

MtM- you forgot "inefficient".

• miko says:

- Kill no one
- Hurt everyone
- Limit trainee intake by separately regulating research and personnel spending

The expectation that individuals should be purely non-self-interested in their proposed solutions is fucking moronic, and Comrade Snowflake is completely full of shit thinking that people aren't aware that their opinions are a mix of both self-interest and genuine concern for the common good (whatever each person thinks that is). That's why organizations include people with different priorities and perspectives in decision-making processes -- so no one perspective always prevails.

Also stupid: comparing this to that scene in 1984. We all give voice to our priorities and concerns with the understanding that their are other voices, and our interests are not (and do not need to be) the same as everyone else's. As long as you accept that everyone else has a say, there is nothing wrong with having yours, and that is nowhere near "do it to Julia."

my priorities and suggestions are solely in the vein of enhancing science and have no self-interest whatever.

As was my suggestion above. If only everyone could be as impartial as we are...

• bacillus says:

"Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto"

• Spiny Norman says:

Miko understands human nature a whole lot better than CPP does. And there are excellent arguments against big mechs (mainly that once initiated they are hard to kill because they tend to become self-preserving political and bureaucratic machines; they often lack agility (cf. Venter cleaning the HGP's clock); and shutting them down generally has a pretty major human/career toll).

That is not to say that big mechs should not exist, but that they should be deployed only when the problem being addressed is important, the goals and means are precisely defined, there is a high probability of success, and there are not small-science alternatives that would provide the same or better results.

There are clearly situations where these criteria are met. There are also situations like HBP or the currently-proposed "10K genomes for each different cancer" project(s), that make a mockery of these criteria.

In general I'm philosophically opposed to massive hierarchies in science, because they tend emplace intellectual monocultures where a more anarchic diversity of inquiry is better for creativity and novelty.

I also think that on balance we're going to attract more talented people to the field if they have some sense that they will be able to pursue their own intellectual agendas, rather than serving as governed cogs in a vast, purpose-built machine not of their making.

• DJMH says:

Miko for director of NIH!

Claiming that because an argument is self-interested, it's necessarily *bad*, is just silly. It's like claiming that because all possible outcomes of a decision hurt someone, they are all equally bad. It's just not true. (The outcomes that hurt me are the bad ones, so that makes them easier to spot.)

• drugmonkey says:

While you are right in theory DJMH, I find it deeply silly to brandish solutions that are nakedly self-interested, act like there is some essentially painless solution involving those other folks and in all of this fail to acknowledge seriously detrimental consequences. And that is what I see on the face of it or when talking to people about this.

When I bash away at Glamour Labs, I know what I'm talking about. Especially for my subfields of interest. I think about who would be lost, who affected, what kinds of science would go away.

Same thing when I suggest (albeit not entirely seriously) that we need to get the one-grant, small potatoes operators in the University of Southeastern Northwest Kansas with high teaching loads out of the NIH game. I think very specifically about who is being nailed by this line of attack (which is one of the reasons I am not at all serious about it).

I don't see any of this consideration when people are on about overhead rates, soft money, multi-grant labs, translational, basic, fMRI, etc. Sure, maybe they are making those calculations in their heads... but they sure as hell dry up in a hurry when pressed.

I asked on the blog a bit ago how people felt about Intramural labs in their areas and I think there was grudging admission that they were actually some okay programs. The subtext being that it would be a a bad impact if Intramural were to face the rat cage bolted to the face.

If people do respond to being pressed it is always some sort of temporizing refusal to take responsibility. "oh, not those guys". "well...only *some* medical school soft money faculty, not that lab", "yeah I'm good with that entire research institute going down in flames (but I'm assuring myself that the *GOOD* investigators would just move to a hard money Uni)". etc.

That kind of fecklessness irritates me.

Naturally that irritation is why I am at least partially not-in-jest about small potatoes operations being the real problem.

• miko says:

"Serving as governed cogs in a vast, purpose-built machine not of their making."

Hey, that's the superdoc recruiting slogan of the Allen Brain Institute.

• Dave says:

So, what you are saying is that when YOU make suggestions you are doing so altruistically but, when the rest of us do the same, we are being selfish? Is that right?

• drugmonkey says:

exactly Dave. I'm 100% selfless in all of this.

• "MtM- you forgot "inefficient"."

Actually, it had nothing to with efficiency, but the need for a particular end product. If the research is structured to be at a scale that doesn't offer compelling results that can affect public policy, then, at that point in my career, it wasn't very useful to me. Doesn't mean it was 'inefficient', just not what I needed.

• Dave says:

And what makes you unique in your selflessness DM?

• Grumble says:

You forgot:

-Kill the whole damn soft money system, which has resulted in something resembling a bubble economy (med schools investing in a seemingly endlessly lucrative commodity, NIH overhead $) that is in the process of collapsing. I'm not proposing this out of self-interest because I have a soft money position myself. • Jonathan says: As with the US healthcare system (illustrated rather well the other week by Stephen Brill in Time http://healthland.time.com/2013/02/20/bitter-pill-why-medical-bills-are-killing-us/), the problems facing the US biomedical research enterprise are multifaceted. If the solution to what ails us were down to a single fix, I think it would have been done by now. But it isn't, and each of the small fixes that seem necessary face such inertia that we'll probably just keep bumbling along like just about every other sector of this sclerotic Republic, until some strange new zoonotic emerges out of the southeastern wetlands* and before you know it, it's the Omega Man. *presumably before they drown under the rising, acidic, hypoxic, oil-ridden waters. • Dave says: Except that med schools really don't invest in soft money faculty. It's a win win for them. No NIH money, they just let them go. • Dave says: ....but, yes, they will lose the indirects but that's the admins problem. They will have to cut themselves eventually. • dr_mho says: to say that med schools don't invest in soft money positions is absurd. with 65% indirects, I need to get two 5-year modular R01s before the school recoups the$1.8 million in set up funds they provided. if that's not investment, i don't know what you expect.

• Dave says:

Lol I don't know any soft money faculty who received a penny in setup funds

• Spiny Norman says:

NIH intramural labs are some of the very best in my field. Absolutely top-notch. (I am not now, nor have I ever been, an NIH intramural scientist.)

• Bashir says:

If I don't look out for No. 1 who will?

I say cut everything except the K awards.

• dr_mho & Dave: At many BSD Med schools EVERYONE is soft money. Tenure in these places means a title, your salary is your responsibility. Junior people whether promised/ guaranteed a salary for N years (where N is a very small number) are investments with the hope of a big return. And the advice that they give you for retirement? Mix your assets? Applies here - hire a bunch of young turks, get 'em set up, and weed 'em out in five-7 years when we see what their return on the buck is.

dr_mho & Dave: At many BSD Med schools EVERYONE is soft money. Tenure in these places means a title, your salary is your responsibility. Junior people whether promised/ guaranteed a salary for N years (where N is a very small number) are investments with the hope of a big return. And the advice that they give you for retirement? Mix your assets? Applies here - hire a bunch of young turks, get 'em set up, and weed 'em out in five-7 years when we see what their return on the buck is.

I worked in just such a Med. School, got tenure, and jumped to a hard money but still research intensive position at a different university (saw the iceberg ahead and decided to grab a lifeboat while there were still some available).

I think putting a stake through the heart of the system and culture you describe (and that I lived in for 7 years) is essential if we don't want NIH funded research to simply be in permanent crisis from now on.

• DrLizzyMoore says:

I disagree with cutbacks to Intramural SCIENCE...Intramural Administration is another beast entirely. There's some fat to shed there. The whole point (okay one of the points) of IntramuralWorld is to do the very risky science. To train new minds on how to think outside of the box, etc. etc....if Intramural Science gets the hammer (disproportionately to other areas), no one wins.

FWIW, my post-doc was in IntramuralWorld, and now I'm a junior faculty at a Med school eastish of University of Southeastern Northwest Kansas, without the teaching load of USNK....

I live in fear of serious cuts to the R15 grant mechs and large equipment grants of similar ilk. But I don't think that other grant mechs should be overly compromised to ensure their survival. If we're not careful it's going to get all Hunger Games up in here.....

• Dave says:

I'm in the exact situation that PT describes but I don't easily see the connection between soft-money faculty and the NIH crisis. The argument that they represent more mouths to feed may be true, but it only applies if these people are good enough to get grants in the first place. Good for them if they are.

but I don't easily see the connection between soft-money faculty and the NIH crisis.

The anti-soft money argument is not about the worth of any individual soft money researcher. It's about the fact that the practice encourages reckless expansion. The folks in charge of deciding whether or not to open up new TT lines don't have any "skin in the game", as they would if they were committing themselves to covering a significant portion of the new TT hire's salary (potentially for 20+years if she gets tenure).

With soft money, why not just keep putting more pressure on the system until it collapses? If you're an administrator, what's the disincentive?

• DJMH says:

I don't see any of this consideration when people are on about overhead rates, soft money, multi-grant labs, translational, basic, fMRI, etc.

How is "Do it to the Glamour Labs" NOT "Do it to Julia!"??

My reasons for thinking overheads have gotten out of whack stem directly from having been at a 95% overhead, soft-money institute, and seeing what that money goes to (expanding VPs!), and doesn't go to.

Obviously as a postdoc I don't know as much about budgets as you and other faculty do, and I can't pretend otherwise. But you've never actually given a reason to oppose trimming overheads (or using other mechanisms to achieve the same ends), you've just railed about people's self-interestedness.

• dsks says:

Who gets killed should not be a top down decision made by bureaucrats. Any "killing" that goes on should be left to the peer-review process of what is supposed to be a meritocratic winners-and-losers system (and hence any "share the pain" solution simply isn't appropriate).

The system should continue to strive to fund the best proposals from the best candidates, while removing inequities unrelated to merit wherever they arise and are identified.

Besides that, I think an immediate objective should be to remove the current distortion in the scientific labour force caused by incentives to bloat grad programs (i.e. shift the funding of grad programs to proper training grants with better oversight and more realistic indirects). "Julia" in this case, is simply the grad applicant who no longer measures up to the raised bar. Turning the tap down on the oversupply will not only reduce the pressure on the system but also attenuate the increasing incentive for the best and brightest among college graduates to stay out of academic research (which won't do the academic enterprise much good in the future).

As it is, it's worth asking who was yammering for a total overhaul of the NIH funding system 10-15 yrs ago during the good times. We're going through the second shittiest recession in a century, and it's debatable whether this is an appropriate filter through which to view and make objective judgments about the efficacy of the model as it is.

• Spiny Norman says:

"Any "killing" that goes on should be left to the peer-review process of what is supposed to be a meritocratic winners-and-losers system (and hence any "share the pain" solution simply isn't appropriate)."

That is a programmatic job that the peer review system is not designed (by accident or intent) to handle.

• antistokes (allison l. stelling) says:

@Spiny Norman

Depends on which peer review system you're talking about. ACS and APS do a pretty good job of independently assessing PIs and their students. The departments then bump them on up the ranks, depending on their performance in the society.

• Dave says:

It's about the fact that the practice encourages reckless expansion

Right, I get that. But this "reckless expansion" wouldn't be possible if the soft money folk were not successfully competing for major R grants (no grants = no indirects = no more expansion with soft money faculty). If they were sitting around doing nothing and not bringing in any money, then it wouldn't make any sense. As dsks rightly states above, the NIH is a meritocracy so who gives a shit whether the applicant is soft/hard money? Let peer review sort it all out, right?

Let's just lay it out here: this snobbish, anti-soft money gibberish comes from tenured/TT faculty who want to preserve what's left for themselves and themselves only, and they use popular anti-administration arguments to make their case when really it comes down to good old selfishness. This kind of attitude is exactly what DM is talking about.

But this "reckless expansion" wouldn't be possible if the soft money folk were not successfully competing for major R grants

Those that don't bring in enough  get booted and replaced by new eager not-so-young assistant professors, and the cycle continues.

• DrugMonkey says:

1) cost out the entire outlay for you research. All costs*.

2) who is paying for that?

3) state and fed taxpayers are the same people.

4) by what justification does this particular good/service the fed contracts for come at cut rate?

*yes, including market value for that primo real estate provided by the land grant many years ago

• DrugMonkey says:

Glamour Labs are clearly inefficient and a waste of taxpayer dollars. Clearly, no argument.

• DrugMonkey says:

Also, my criticism of GL is easily solved by them publishing more data, more quickly. Nobody will be *categorically* pushed out. Up to them, in their current digs.

• DrugMonkey says:

dsks- there are always unsuccessful supplicants to the NIH who demand change. Question is, who gets the ear of the system. Only those who have been demonstrably successful so any solutions tend to work for *them*.

• miko says:

So is there any inherent good for Science or Scientists or Humanity in soft money positions?

It seems analogous to the trainee problem... need to limit the practice in the future but try to protect people currently in the system. That doesn't seem impossible to me, though it would take a long time... if you currently pay your own salary from NIH research funds you can continue to do so, but starting in 2016 (17? 20?) new investigators will not be able to do so. So institutions have to plan to convert to hard money or fold... the math is easy.

So institutions have to plan to convert to hard money or fold... the math is easy.

I occasionally run into my former colleagues from RMS Titanic Medical School at meetings. From what I hear, the school is desperately looking for any excuse to push out tenured faculty who are no longer getting funded like the used to. As DM has pointed out in the past, for these big operations "convert to hard money" isn't a viable option. They can't afford it.

if you currently pay your own salary from NIH research funds you can continue to do so, but starting in 2016 (17? 20?) new investigators will not be able to do so.

Not a perfect solution, but I'd be in favor of it or something like it.

• So all you "kill the soft-money positions" people would be happy to tell all the senior post-docs who aren't competitive for tenure-track positions that they aren't allowed to compete for R grants to try to support themselves at their current institutions and that they must be fired?

• dr_mho says:

@DM "Glamour Labs are clearly inefficient and a waste of taxpayer dollars. Clearly, no argument."

again, as a lone counterexample... while in my postdoc lab (3 years), there were six postdocs and three grad students. Every one of them, in that course of 3 years, published at least one paper in J. Neurosci, Nat. Neurosci., Neuron, or Nature (about 15 papers, total). This work was funded in large part by a combination of 3 R01s to the PI. Every postdoc (out of 6) now has a tenure track position at mid- to upper-level R1 institutions.

Where is the inefficiency?

• Dave says:

So is there any inherent good for Science or Scientists or Humanity in soft money positions?

To be honest there are a number of points about soft-money positions that a lot of tenure-types don't really appreciate, especially when it comes to the world of medical schools. For example (in med schools):

1) Often soft-money faculty do NOT pay 100% of their salary from grants. And there is usually quite a lot of hard money support, but this can vary from school to school and department to department. On my floor I cannot think of anyone who pays 100% of their salary from their own grants, junior or senior. I'm sure my med school would like to change that, but it is just not true that they sit by passively watching people drop left, right and center as the NIH collapses.
2) A lot of salary money comes form non-NIH sources. In my department we get by on investigator-initiated pharma money mostly, with a few Rs thrown in to the pot. We are much less reliant on NIH money in general and we are literally raking in cash from pharma as they become less and less interested in doing their own in-house research.
3) No tenure clock. Believe me a lot of TT folk are going to wish they didn't have a TT-clock when they can't get their R grant in the next few years.
4) No or very little teaching, which means 100% research, which means more time in the lab and more time to write grants. That's a bonus all round for me and, let's not forget, this is the "reason" that tenure is rarely granted in med schools.

It's not all bad and the idea that getting rid of soft-money positions will solve the NIH problem is laughable to me.

• DrugMonkey says:

That is a rare exception

• miko says:

Right CPP.... we should be paying to keep training people who "aren't competitive" for PI positions after long postdocs? The situation you describe is a perfect embodiment of everything that's fucked up about the pipeline.

• miko says:

Sorry, I meant "training" in the most sarcastic air quotes imaginable.

• Dave says:

we should be paying to keep training people who "aren't competitive" for PI positions after long postdocs?

Why the fuck not? If they can get a grant, who cares? And who is the "we" that you speak of?

• Dave says:

DM - my point is that is not as simple as most people think. Do you pay 100% of your salary from NIH grants alone? That would mean you would have 5 R01s with 20% on each, or some mix thereof.

• antistokes (allison l. stelling) says:

My FB comment on below link to new NIH "strategy" for the biomedical workforce: look, industry cannot "cure cancer". this is why you pay taxes-- to support huge, long term research endeavors that benefit the entire population. you put money in, and the return on your investment is a longer, healthier life-- not MORE money!! we need multiple large gov. centers to employ an army of lab techs and staff scientists in permanent positions in order to get this work done. this should not come out of the NIH budget- the NIH should focus on training the next gen. at PUBLIC unis. this should come out of the defense budget, and the budget should be FULLY transparent and results made FREELY available to the public that paid for it.

http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2013/03/08/diversifying-the-training-experiences-of-the-biomedical-research-workforce/

You guys think this "BEST" thing will help or just cause more problems?

• miko says:

Dave, as you probably know I've argued strongly for career-long professional scientist positions that aren't TT/PI. What these positions should not be are postdocs.

I am against soft money positions on principle, but I am not for cutting these positions now, but curtailing them in the future. I think institutions having little or no commitment to their people is poisonous, bad for science, and having your livelihood dependent on your next grant incentivizes all the worst shit in research.

• Dave says:

Dave, as you probably know I've argued strongly for career-long professional scientist positions that aren't TT/PI. What these positions should not be are postdocs.

100% agree, but the distinction is really a discussion about independence. I know from personal experience how tricky this is in grant review, but reviewers also need to adjust to the new reality of soft-money junior scientists.

I think institutions having little or no commitment to their people is poisonous, bad for science, and having your livelihood dependent on your next grant incentivizes all the worst shit in research.

I agree again that more formal commitment would not be a bad thing, but that's an unrealistic prospect. Like I said though, my personal experience is just not consistent with schools having no commitment at all. Perhaps I am an exception but it is certainly not as cut and dry as some make out. There are lots of investigators here who could easily get tenured or TT positions somewhere else, but they choose the soft-money route. It is not all that bad.

• Grumble says:

@Dave:
"Right, I get that. But this "reckless expansion" wouldn't be possible if the soft money folk were not successfully competing for major R grants (no grants = no indirects = no more expansion with soft money faculty). If they were sitting around doing nothing and not bringing in any money, then it wouldn't make any sense. As dsks rightly states above, the NIH is a meritocracy so who gives a shit whether the applicant is soft/hard money? Let peer review sort it all out, right?"

That's all good and fine, until the number of soft money faculty vying for grants far outstrips the available funds. Then what? Then the soft money faculty start getting thrown out on their asses because they can't get enough grants. It's already starting to happen, and it's only going to get worse. That would be fine if it restored balance to the system, but the problem is that the number of soft-money faculty will only continue to increase, despite some of them losing their jobs. This is because administrators realize that the only way to increase their budgets is to set up more lab space, hire more soft-money faculty, and gobble up the overhead. There is no countervailing force that reduces this behavior.

Ultimately, the constant increase in soft money faculty just means that fewer and fewer grants get funded, which means that any last vestige of your idea that the NIH is a meritocracy will become even more laughable than it already is. The psychological toll on PIs will be harsh, and the system might finally begin to normalize when enough give up (or don't enter the system) because dealing with getting funding is viewed as an utter nightmare that no one in her right mind would put up with. Is that situation a good one for science?

"Let's just lay it out here: this snobbish, anti-soft money gibberish comes from tenured/TT faculty who want to preserve what's left for themselves and themselves only, and they use popular anti-administration arguments to make their case when really it comes down to good old selfishness. This kind of attitude is exactly what DM is talking about."

Umm, no. Like I said, if soft money were suddenly abolished, I'd be out of a job. But I still think the system is unsustainable. I don't know what the solution is, but there must be some way to disincentivize growth in soft-money positions that too far outpaces growth (ha! now it's shrinkage) of the NIH budget.

• Grumble says:

"It is not all that bad."

It's not now, nor was it 6 years ago when I got my faculty position. But it has gotten worse, and there is every reason to believe it will continue to get worse. That's the problem.

• DJMH says:

1) cost out the entire outlay for you research. All costs*.

There's no way I can do this. Can you? If yes, then give a post about it, for say, some fictionalized 95% indirects mostly soft-money institution. Then let's find someone who can do the same thing for, say, a private university with 50% indirects, and similar in prestige/etc to the soft-money spot.

If the data really indicate that the high-overhead place is not using any more tax dollars, overall, then I'll change my tune.

But I should emphasize, I haven't just been saying "reduce overhead", I'm in agreement with Miko that we should reduce the number of grad students, in part by the NIH increasing F and K mechs and reducing the funding of trainees by R mechs. This has the happy effect of reducing the grad programs (something you bang on about all the time anyhow) AND not frittering as much money away on overheads, as CPP pointed out some time ago. I'm not sure I've heard any cogent argument *against* this route.

• zb says:

Reducing the grad student supply won't really reduce the pipeline unless the post-doc pipeline is also cut off (and it's import from other countries). Though, potentially, foreign post-docs without grad degrees from the US don't get positions in the US anyway, in which case, we're just importing and chewing up labor from other countries.

• DJMH says:

zb, shifting funds towards F and K mechs, and perhaps limiting the funding of trainees by R mechs, would affect postdocs in just the same way, since they are funded through the same routes.

• Jonathan says:

Except foreign postdocs are not eligible to apply for NIH training grants.

• drugmonkey says:

There's no way I can do this. Can you? If yes, then give a post about it, for say, some fictionalized 95% indirects mostly soft-money institution.

I have done so for my laboratory, yes. This totally and radically changed my whinging about "where's all my overhead going?".

Honestly, you don't even have to get down to the nitty gritty to see what I mean. Just move the biggest pieces into place.

The point is, one way or another someone is paying the bills and they are in considerable excess of your Direct Costs.

Yes, there are going to be economies of scale but if you start with one lab, you can start to get a feel for how that actually scales. You also have to recognize that in a big institution the cheaper labs (say, chemistry) are going to be paying more than their fair share for, say, the mouse colonies. But then, the mouse labs have to carry more grant *direct* costs per PI office so...

Even though it gets complex quickly, the back of the envelope exercise should make the point. Overhead is not just going to marbled floors in dean-land. Lower overhead institutions are subsidizing the cost of research in one way or another. For most state Universities, that comes down to a taxpayer subsidy of ...taxpayer funded research. On that scale, maybe the private research institutes that have an endowment built by philanthropy are a *better* bargain for the taxpayer, even if their IDC rate is eyepopping.

Maybe I'd rather stop wasting my tax dollars subsidizing Professors at University of MyState educating the ungrateful children of the elite and much prefer it go directly into the research itself.

Maybe I'd rather the IDC part of my contribution to the NIH grants go to administrators/structures that are at least all focused on science instead of supporting humanities education for, again, the aforementioned children of the wealthy.

on the flip side, maybe, just maybe, I'm happy that University of East Jesus keeps their tuition and fees down just a little bit more because their science professors have managed to secure some federal IDC which goes into keeping the administration and infrastructure running.

• miko says:

"Except foreign postdocs are not eligible to apply for NIH training grants."

Yes, my proposal is to take the NIH out of the process of selecting trainees, which is totally absurd. PIs should have full control over who works in their lab. That means either PIs apply for Ks/Fs and then hire who they want with it (it's effectively to the PI/inst now anyway), or support for a defined # of trainees is earmarked to R awards.

• drugmonkey says:

If the data really indicate that the high-overhead place is not using any more tax dollars, overall, then I'll change my tune.

The one tricky thing is what to do with the profit line for real estate and the financing of a laboratory building with bonds versus philanthropy versus State General Funds. But if you start with an apparent $0 for what you think of as existing laboratory buildings on a State University campus and put the market square-foot rate for laboratory space in the adjacent area you at least have a spectrum for discussion and figgerin. (It can help if you happen to know someone in commercial real estate who can ballpark you a 10 yr lease cost on an entire (private) lab building.) • drugmonkey says: the NIH increasing F and K mechs and reducing the funding of trainees by R mechs. I'm totally in favor of this for reasons other than the IDC implications. • Dave says: the NIH increasing F and K mechs and reducing the funding of trainees by R mechs Absolute fantasy. This is the exact opposite of what the NIH is doing RIGHT NOW. K paylines at some ICs have tanked much faster than Rs. • Dave says: Except foreign postdocs are not eligible to apply for NIH training grants. Only the K99 allows non-permanent residents to apply, but that is a major glam award that is out of reach for the large majority of post-docs. • Jonathan says: I'm sorry, I'm confused. "Yes, my proposal is to take the NIH out of the process of selecting trainees, which is totally absurd. PIs should have full control over who works in their lab. That means either PIs apply for Ks/Fs and then hire who they want with it (it's effectively to the PI/inst now anyway), or support for a defined # of trainees is earmarked to R awards." Is your idea to limit the number of postdocs, or increase them? PIs applying for Ks/Fs and then handing them out to their preferred workers would still cut all the foreign postdocs out of the system unless you changed the law. As for R awards, do you mean at an IC level (so, say, NHLBI says 'we'll only support a maximum of XXXX postdocs in FY15 on Rxxs)? Or is this an individual grant level thing, in which case how is that any different to what happens now? • Jonathan says: Yes, I am aware that the kangaroo is a a glam award, they only hand out 200 a year and there are ~100k postdocs out there. Still, better than the 10 EIA awards they came up with as a solution to the lengthening postdoc pipeline... • in re: overhead. I'm with DM on this one. If you ever have a chance to see the numbers, you can understand that there is a lot of unseen stuff for which most of us have no appreciation. Not just lights and heat and phones and guards and badges but the Elsevier blackmail bakshesh, snow shoveling, air con, the idiots in the grants administration office, the idiots in the HR office, etc etc. If you are at a university with a significant number of soft money people, all of those things need to be supported. Hell, think about the annual license for Coeus software. Lots of stuff that can't be in direct costs anymore. • miko says: Jonathan, The whole point is to force PIs to spend less on trainees and reduce their numbers. I'm essentially arguing to do away with fellowships. Ks should not exist anyway, and were only implemented to try and protect pedigree labradoodles by creating a 2-tiered job market: glam lab spawn and everyone else. Separate funding for trainees can either be sought by a PI, or can be apportioned with R awards. In any case the nationality of the trainee doesn't matter, because the award isn't to them. I think it's clear that the postdoc glut is because PIs can hire as many as they want with R-money. How could limiting this be bad? • DJMH says: DJMH: the NIH increasing F and K mechs and reducing the funding of trainees by R mechs. DM: I'm totally in favor of this for reasons other than the IDC implications. Well ok then. Re the tax there is also an argument to be made that NIH should be leveraging off the states more, rather than having to shoulder these infrastructure burdens alone. If California, or Massachusetts, or wherever, wants to create a big biotech corridor, shouldn't it pony up a bit? I could also argue that since NIH's goals include training a scientifically literate population, those university rich kids are going to benefit from the presence of robust research on campus. But, fine, I'll take it on faith that your numbers come out roughly even for the two types of places. • DJMH says: Huh, my dollar signs came out as backslash-parentheses. Cute. • DJMH says: Miko, I think we want the same ends, but have different means. Wouldn't shifting the focus to F and K mechs also help winnow the ranks of grad students and postdocs? One could fiddle with citizenship requirements to deal with those issues. Also, it would mean trainees would actually get practice grantwriting, which many currently don't. • miko says: DJMH, Yes, I think we agree. The problem I see is PIs now have autonomy over who they hire with research award funds. F/Ks take that away and are a huge delay. How to fund someone initially? How do trainees apply for funds without a position? • DJMH says: Yeah, that's where I see the R01 et al coming in useful: it could be the two year bridge funding, while trainees are applying. So, you could set it up where there's, say, a 3 year max time that any trainee can be funded on an R (including a renewal) in a given lab. If a grad student reaches the end of their fourth year without other funding (I'm assuming first year was paid for by the program), then the pressure is on to either graduate or get out. I don't know, maybe there's a better way to achieve the same ends. This one has the merit of not requiring a huge reorganization of administration. • drugmonkey says: there is also an argument to be made that NIH should be leveraging off the states more, rather than having to shoulder these infrastructure burdens alone. I'd like to hear the argument, actually. I disagree that a federal need/desire should be waiting around for whatever state happens to want to contribute. I also don't think that we should be trying to place the burden of the work of the NIH disproportionally on the taxpayers of the more enlightened states like MA or CA. Think of the border fence analogy. Should the Fed be looking to force the border states to pony up for the BIG ASS FENCE that keeps out the migrant workers? Or should the right wingers in Ohio complaining about illegal immigration pay their share of that particular federal project? Of course we should all pay equally and it is of no nevermind that the focus of the action is tx, az, ca. If I am not mistaken those states whine up a storm about how their social services and law enforcement are overburdened and they need higher overhead rates...I mean help from the fed. • Jonathan says: "The whole point is to force PIs to spend less on trainees and reduce their numbers. I'm essentially arguing to do away with fellowships. Ks should not exist anyway, and were only implemented to try and protect pedigree labradoodles by creating a 2-tiered job market: glam lab spawn and everyone else. Separate funding for trainees can either be sought by a PI, or can be apportioned with R awards. In any case the nationality of the trainee doesn't matter, because the award isn't to them." My initial reaction was "who's going to do the actual research bit of the grant then?" which I guess just shows how inured I am to the current system. • zb says: My bottom line is that if the federal government is going to invest, the individuals making decisions have to also have skin in the game. That means that the programs accepting the graduate students, hiring the faculty, promoting the faculty, building the facility also have to be financially committed in making the decision. So it should be by design, and not by underestimation that the universities and institutions who make the hiring decisions and the building decisions know they will have to bear some of the ongoing cost. If the federal government is going to fund the full cost of the research, it should also have control of the decision making (i.e. the intramural program/government labs). • DJMH says: I'd like to hear the argument, actually. I disagree that a federal need/desire should be waiting around for whatever state happens to want to contribute. I didn't say it was a strong argument...in any case it has nothing to do with federal desires, and everything to do with federal budgets. From the perspective of the NIH budget, a 95% IDC place costs more, per grant, than a university type place does. Money from the states to boost these universities is not some sort of fungible fund that redirects to NIH's coffers if the state hasn't actually had to invest in the soft-money place. That, in sum, is the argument: NIH gets more done per dollar at a university....assuming the soft money place and the university are equally productive, ahem. But this thread is already long enough 😉 • Ola says: So I have a simple proposal which, at first sight, might seem crazy, but might solve some of these issues... increase the modular budget cap to 350. Under the current system ($250k modular, usually cut lower), I cannot run my lab' on a single Ro1. In between retarded reviewer comments stating that 40% is too much PI effort on a grant, and senior-associate-vice-deanlets telling me I have to cover 60% of my salary, I'm essentially FORCED to have 2 grants.

If they increased the size of a single grant, more people could actually get by with just one grant, and would not even bother applying for a second one. Think about it... $350k is less than$500k. 2 grants is actually MORE than I need to run my lab, but the money only comes in 250k chunks, so I end up biting off two chunks when all I really need is a slightly bigger sized single chunk. It's like those stupid 100 calorie cookies - one's not enough, so you eat two, which ends up being more than just eating one regular-sized cookie.

If reviewers and councils would get their heads out of their collective behinds regarding non-modular budgets (which NEVER get funded these days), or if they'd simply up the modular to $350k, I and a bunch of other people would go back to being single RO1 labs, comfortable enough to survive and pay our people, and this would remove a TON of applicants from the pool. I would be more than happy to accept a cap on the number of total RO1s, or even enhanced scrutiny for anything above 1 grant, in return for a single grant size that's actually useful! • DrugMonkey says: Fascinatingly enough,$350K approximates the inflation adjusted equivalent of the value of $250K when they started the modular budgeting process. • Dave says: I think they should be reducing the salary portion of each grant and reducing the number of post-docs/techs/co-PIs etc being paid from a single grant. It is not right and probably not sustainable that 90% of a typical grant goes to salary. The % effort of the PI on an R01, for example, should be higher and PIs should be encouraged to get their arses back to the bench to actually do some science (god forbid!). This may help to alleviate the NIH ponzi-scheme that is currently in full swing - i.e. that you need more, more, more and more grants to keep a lab going and keep people paid. • DrugMonkey says: Why is it "not right"? • Dave says: Because the "system" cannot afford it. The role of the NIH is to fund science, not prop up the entire community by providing them with salaries. I see way to many R01s with multiple, multiple techs, co-PIs and post-docs that do zero work on the grant in question. The grant is used purely for salaries and bennies. I think that is wrong, personally. • DrugMonkey says: So the main cost of science is not the people doing it, in your estimation? Or are you one if those people fantasizing about magic rainbow unicorn fairy money to pay the people? • Dave says: You need people to do the work, but you don't need AS MANY. No fucking way. Not in a million years. Give me a break DM. You know this shit as well as I do. You also know full well that I don't believe any of the shit we say here makes any bloody difference, so no I don't believe anything will change and I don't believe in unicorns. Nope. The NIH will continue to drop paylines to accommodate everyone. Because. That's. All. They. Have. And they don't have the nuts to make big sweeping changes. End of story. I wonder when they will though? When paylines are at 1%, 2% or 6%? Oh....wait.... • qaz says: Unfortunately, Ola, the real reason people have two R01s is to keep the lab going because there is no safety net. So even if you raised the modular budget to$350k, it wouldn't help. There are many successful labs that can run at $250k and many labs that can't run at$500k. (It depends on the cost of the science being done.) The problem is that going from 1 to 0 to 1 as you get your grant renewed means that critical lab-knowledge is lost as technicians and postdocs are removed from the lab (fired, let go, terminated!). Going from 2 to 1 to 2 means that you have a slow down, but can keep critical infrastructure through the famine. So even labs that could run at less money have to run at more because they have to keep the lights on through a potential famine.

I notice that this thread started with the issue of trying to save one's own job at the expense of others and devolved back into an argument of who is hurting science most. But the discussion never really started on the real issue - which is what do we want the science funding system to look like? Not who is it for, but what are the goals of the science funding system? And, even more importantly, what are the incentives that the system creates? Every system has incentives, many of them perverse.

Right now, the system has some perverse incentives which motivate universities to encourage soft-money positions over hard-money positions. And motivates PIs to run large empire-like labs. In my experience, great science is done in small labs as well, and in intramural labs, and in hard-money labs. (Yes, this changes by field, but let's accept that there are good scientists doing good work in all of these places, and that different people work best under different conditions. I, personally, do my absolute best work when I do not have a sword of Damocles hanging over my head, when I can take the time to think about new stuff, when I can let my mind wander into strange places. I have friends who work best when it's do or die. I work best in a hard-money, stable funding situation, my friend needs a soft-money external motivation to do their best work.)

I would point out that right now, we are spending a huge portion of our scientific effort making decisions about how to disburse money in ways that we agree has less and less impact on the actual quality of the science that is done. (As we've noted dozens of times, the top 50%+ of submitted grants would probably produce great science.) Every grant I write is at least one paper that I don't. Note that this is every grant I write, not every grant I get. Writing grants interferes with scientific productivity. As I see it, this is the big problem with the system.

• Grumble says:

"You need people to do the work, but you don't need AS MANY. No fucking way. "

Really? Tell me more about how this magic works. I just tell my grad student, who has her hands completely full with her own project, to the extent that she sometimes feels it's so much work that she'll never ever finish and get her degree - I just tell her to take over the post-doc's project, too, because I have no more money to pay the post-doc?

Wow! Who knew it was so easy! Hey, I have an idea! I'll get rid of the other post-docs, and the grad students too! And the technicians! Then it will just be me. And I'll work really really really hard (36 hours/day) and publish as much as ALL 8 OF US COMBINED!!!!! I'll save so much money, I'll have to return my remaining funds back over to the NIH every year.

Great. Fucking. Idea.

• drugmonkey says:

You need people to do the work, but you don't need AS MANY.

I do. In fact I need more. It is my considered and by now relatively experienced view that for may types of research (read: the ones I am most familiar with) the \$250K full modular grant does not pay for itself. In the sense that there is a certain expectation of productivity, progress, etc on the part of study sections and Program that requires more contribution than can be afforded (especially when you put it in terms of 40 hr work weeks) within the budget. Trainees on individual fellowships or training grants, undergrads working for free or work study discount, cross pollination with other grants in the lab (which often leads to whinging like your comment), pilot awards for small bits, faculty hard money time...all of these sources of extra effort are frequently poured into a one-R01 project. I think they are, in essence, necessary.

I, personally, do my absolute best work when I do not have a sword of Damocles hanging over my head, when I can take the time to think about new stuff, when I can let my mind wander into strange places. I have friends who work best when it's do or die. I work best in a hard-money, stable funding situation, my friend needs a soft-money external motivation to do their best work.

I would argue that there is a third way...the way that my more senior soft-money colleagues experienced life. There was a time (so I hear) when the decently productive soft money laboratory could be assured of a reasonable outcome. Some of the better ones put it as only having to write a grant when they needed more money, to continue the gravy train. Even if you look at the more pedestrian labs, they still enjoyed maybe a 30% hit rate. Even 25% would look good right about now, eh? The "third" way of this, qaz, is that you still had the motivating factor of having to run for your life (instead of your supper) but you had a pretty good bet that just doing your damn job was enough. Staying up with reasonable, field-relative type of production was enough. Sure they complained about grants but looking at the real numbers....it wasn't too bad.

It wasn't even a Noonan type sinecure, way I hear it. People could still fail. Be brought low by a period of laziness or even a run of bad experimental luck/outcomes. But just so long as you were what I think of as decently productive, you could make it. And you might even have a couple of years worth of breathing room in between grant pressures to think....in this I agree with you qaz.

Every grant I write is at least one paper that I don't. Note that this is every grant I write, not every grant I get. Writing grants interferes with scientific productivity.

Of course. And the NIH is completely blind to this loss of productivity. As we know, it is technically illegal to write a new grant while you are working on the Federal dime for the last one. But....hahahhaahaha. Even if you have 5%, 10%, 50% of your time paid for by the University, who is to put a clock on your brain to determine when you are worrying about the phrasing of your Aims, rehearsing arguments or basically phoning in your other brain work while the real effort is on the new grant? Right? It's absurd for most scientists to pretend that X% effort on a given grant is even remotely meaningful.

Then there is the issue of the direct conduct of the research itself. Of course, NIH could never in million years prove what experimental decisions you made that were motivated purely by the present project (broadly writ; after all a grant is not a contract) versus trying to get some preliminary data for the next project's proposal. Never prove what next direction was a spontaneous spin-off of the results of the prior plan....and what was a strategic decision to set up for the next proposal at the outset. Impossible.

Given all of this, it is very easy for the NIH to turn a blind eye to the effect of the grant churning. Let's just remember that they are professionally obligated to believe the process works. I.e., that the revision cycle and multiple application churning improves the ultimate selection and conduct of the science

• Dave says:

Grumble - you're taking my point to the extreme.

I never said anything about clearing out your whole fucking lab, but I do think there are too many people for too few dollars. Too many PIs, too many post-docs, too many grad students etc etc. So eventually perhaps you will have to get by with less, or find other funding sources. It's not complicated.

• Jonathan says:

Dave makes a point that Miko was stressing earlier, which is that part of the pipeline reform is necessarily going to result in fewer scientists, so the Grumbles of the world are going to *have* to learn how to do more with fewer people, because we need fewer scientists (who should probably be paid more).

• drugmonkey says:

Not necessarily Jonathan. Fewer labs reduces the total number of NIH supported scientists without changing the size of the remaining laboratories.

• Grumble says:

Yes, Dave, I was being extreme. I guess a magical thinker like you doesn't understand sarcasm either.

• Dave says:

I guess a magical thinker like you doesn't understand sarcasm either.

Sarcasm? Noooooooooo, what's that?

• dsks says:

100!!!!!

Carry on.

• GAATTC says:

101!

So if y'all had a chance to work at a PUI and continue your research efforts at about 40% the current capacity, would you take it? Or should one just keep at it and hope to ride out the funding storm? Good results are intoxicating, but stomach lining has an upside as well. Decisions decisions...

• […] a spoiler, it is mostly a lot of the usual, i.e., Do it to […]

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