Enforcing collaboration via grant review

Mar 16 2014 Published by under Grantsmanship, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

I am wondering whether anyone else is noticing any trends for prioritizing multiple-lab NIH grant proposals.

I recently got busted on, somewhat randomly given the proposal, for not including enough other faculty level investigators. At the time I shrugged it off as an annoying hobby-horse issue of one reviewer.

But Multi-PI proposals have been going over well for some time now, from appearances. So perhaps it is a trend and study sections will start punishing single-lab grants?

I am not sure what to make of this, should it become a trend.

The comment I received smelled to me like "why are you not bringing your junior faculty along for the ride?"...bu perhaps I am over interpreting.

17 responses so far

  • Dr Becca says:

    So do you think this criticism is mostly lobbed at more senior investigators? I was talking about the pros and cons of the co-PI grant with some folks at a conference yesterday, and amongst the junior TT folks, it came down to "I want my own damn grant." Not just for financial reasons, but for issues of proving independence, etc.

    Another thought that occurs to me is that if single-lab grants are going to be punished, that means the single-grant lab will be punished as well. A small lab could probably get by on one R01, but on half of one? Not likely.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    It is the tail wagging the dog. Tight paylines forces more collabs but also reduces money per lab so is another form of funding cut. Since these grants look more stacked I think reviewers start to expect beefed up expertise instead of regular stuff. It is a form of expertise inflation and review creep. I'm not discounting collabs as useful, I just think this could turn into something a little insidious.

  • Do you think that they are prioritizing just junior faculty in your department, or are they looking for "interdisciplinary science" with collaboration with chemists, statisticians, etc.?

    Sean Eddy had a great opinion piece a while back about that trend.

  • rxnm says:

    kinda surprised this would come from a reviwer... agencies, yes. another way to keep up success rates while giving out less $/PI.

    in some "team grant" scenarios I'm familiar with, everyone is in on it. you make some bs justification why you're a team, everyone adds the shit they want to this list, the reviewers all know it and don't care (because that's how they get their toys too), and once the kitty is split everyone goes their separate ways.

    if colluding is a form of collaboration, mission accomplished.

  • The only context in which I have seen this kind of thing is if the reviewer is concerned that the PI doesn't have sufficient in-lab expertise.

  • drugmonkey says:

    That was why it was so seemingly random, PP. In this particular scenario, it wasn't being directed at any particular deficit. although I suppose they might have meant "not enough expertise but we don't particularly care *which* sort of extra expertise you bring to the table"

  • The Other Dave says:

    I was thinking kind of along the same lines as Pinko.

    I assumed the trend started among investigators. If you and your buddies are all on each others' proposals, you have more shots on goal. If one gets funded, you can all claim to 'be funded'. If more than one gets funded, then suddenly each of you has a couple simultaneous R01s, and therefore ain't you sumthin!

    But like Pinko says, after a while the reviewers start to measure everything by this multi-PI stick, and having a single PI on a proposal doesn't seem like enough expertise any more.

  • iGrrrl says:

    I started seeing this back in 2010, where reviewers were looking for PIs to step out of their comfort zone to look at their question in different ways. From talking with reviewers (not just looking at reviews) it seemed something like the following: If the applicant was a yeast geneticist, and always did yeast genetics, they wanted to see some biochemistry. They didn't expect the applicant to suddenly become a biochemist, but rather to have a strong collaborator who would do that part of the work. Physiologist? Can someone do the cell biology? That sort of thing.

    It wasn't so much described as collaboration for the sake of colluding to get resources, but rather ways to make a more vertical step in the work. YMMV w/r/t interpretation.

  • boehninglab says:

    In my observational experience, MPI proposals are now being given priority irrespective of career stage. Especially if highly technical approaches are brought together to answer an interesting question. I am starting to write all of my grants as MPI (or at the very least I bring along a co-investigator with 10% effort and a module or more). If there is a positive bias towards MPI proposals, then it is a starting point for the "is the R01 mechanism dying?" discussion.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    Most of my proposals are multi-PI these days. On the one hand, it can be a problem if it leads to inflated expectations from study sections, where they start wanting to see everything from crystallography to animal models in every proposal.

    On the other hand, as a mech. for collaborative science, I think it's much better than the old program project model. The requirement for having cores* always struck me as a waste of $$ except in a few special cases.

    * Was that a requirement for all PPs or just the ones I'm familiar with?

  • drugmonkey says:

    I think Cores were seen as more of a *benefit* of doing the P01, not necessarily a requirement. I think the Admin Core is probably the only general actual requirement but I haven't checked in awhile

  • rs says:

    Another trend I have noticed is that your collaborators do not bother to read your proposals or manuscripts anymore (on which they are co-PI/co-I or coauthors), they are happy to have their name on it, provide a paragraph or two if needed, and then leave at it. Everybody is busy churning with maximum speed so it doesn't matter what is written as long as it goes out the door by someone.

  • Beaker says:

    This whole "team science good" trend has gotten way out of hand. The Sean Eddy essay linked in the comments does an eloquent job of explaining why. While it is obvious that some questions require big teams to solve -omes, the argument is increasingly proffered for the wrong reasons.

    One abuse is that waggling the "team science" argument usually favors the big, established scientists. They become the figureheads on the big program projects, and they are the last authors on the 20-author papers--the ones with diluted triple-asterisked first authors. Even if a younger investigator is included on the project, most of the credit goes to the greybeards.

    Another abuse is that the push for more "team science" raises the money bar to get into the glamor journals. Just making a great discovery is not enough. If you need both the crystallography and the mouse behavior experiments in the same paper to get it accepted in Cell, then most of the little guys are excluded.

    When molecular biology got founded, there was no molecular biology. The founders invented it by learning some physics, some genetics, and some biochemistry. Biomedical research would be better served by having fewer multidisciplinary teams, and more multidisciplinary individuals. If the question is important, your skill set can expand to answer it. Indeed, sometimes a bit of ignorance when moving into a new area allows for better thinking-outside- the-box.

  • anonymous postdoc says:

    I wonder a lot about appeals to the way "science used to be done". On one hand, I like them because they let me cry into my beer about how Nobel Laureates say they wouldn't have been successful in this climate, or about how the people who made breakthroughs were not specialists in their area because, by definition, the area didn't exist yet, and that therefore little old me would probably also be Nobel material, if only...

    On the other hand, Watson and Crick didn't actually learn how to do x-ray crystallography themselves. They just conveniently forgot to extend authorship to Rosalind Franklin. So another way of looking at "how science used to be done" is that multidisciplinary work still happened, but the cult of the Great Scientist brushed that under the table.

    Obviously multi-PI grants have the strong likelihood of being dominated by a Great Scientist. However, I think it is becoming more acceptable to say "I had this Idea, and so the first thing I did is find someone who knows even more about this aspect of Idea than me, and so we are gonna put our heads together on this one." One of my pretty-well-funded mentors likes to remind me that, at least at the level both she and I will be playing at for some time (female youngish investigator), no one is invested in "your laboratory" or funding you on the strength of your name. They demand to see evidence that you can put your data where your mouth is and whoever you can get as a Co-I to make that happen, you should make it happen.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    It's salami slicing. Eli has seen this trend on NASA grants with PIs not being able to put enough money in one proposal to support themselves, you get thirty proposals with ten people, each taking 5% FTE. Uuuuuch.

  • Beaker says:

    Anon postdoc: Sure, If I propose to do electrical recordings but my background is behavior, no study section should fund me to set up a my own rig and learn patch-clamp. I need somebody on board who is already doing it. However, that could be a postdoc in my lab who trained previously in ephys. It doesn't need to be Roger Nicoll.

    The tricky part is distinguishing between the synergistic collaborations and the bloated ones. When "team science" becomes the goal rather than a means to answer an important question, the power of collaboration is diminished.

    To use a musical analogy, we hope the collaboration is analogous to Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards, Crosby/Stills/Nash, Queen, etc.

    Far to often, however, the supergroup is less than its parts. The group Asia comes to mind. If the Grateful Dead had collaborated the ELO, the result would have sucked.

  • Mark says:

    Yup - this is the trend. That's how NIH covers up lack of funds:
    http://grantome.com/blog/research-dollars-divided

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