Question of the Day

Sep 29 2014 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

The NIH funds grants at "foreign applicant institutions", meaning a University in another country.

In these times should we be continuing this practice or is scientific grant protectionism a good idea?

30 responses so far

  • odyssey says:

    I'm okay with giving a grant to a foreign institution if it's for tackling an important problem in a way that cannot be done here. The onus should be on the applicant to demonstrate the unique nature of the proposal.

  • drugmonkey says:

    How many research projects really cannot be done in the US? Special study populations....and?

  • dsks says:

    Jings, there's enough of us dirty foreigners scrambling for NIH funds on the homefront. I say screw my brethren back oversease, if they want some of this action they can buy a goddamn plane ticket and get in line with the rest of us.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:


  • And things that right-wing politicians can drum up anger against, which happens from time to time here (embryonic stem cells, etc.) . Of course other places have their own hangups, like Europe and its fear of GMOs.

  • eeke says:

    I agree with Odyssey. Example: ebola virus - human studies, etc.

    How much of the NIH budget goes toward foreign institutions anyway?

  • Micoscientist says:

    I can come up with some different scenarios here and I'm not sure which you mean. The first is a study that involves a foreign location, study group etc. Ebola, AIDS vaccine trials, etc. come to mind here. These are often headed by a US based PI, but certainly involve paying scientists in the country in question.
    The second scenario would be a non-US citizen scientist, employed at a US university, studying bunny hopping, or anything else.
    I guess a third would be a co-PI situation where one is a US based PI and another is in another country.
    So which are we asking about? Or one I haven't covered?

  • potnia theron says:

    I have mixed feelings about this. One of the reasons foreigners come here is that there home gov'ts support science even less than the US. Should not those people be working for higher funding at home?

    But (because we can't let a dead horse lie) if we say that we don't only use the criterion of the best science (ie youngers who can't compete with olders), why should be fund "the best" if it happens to be elsewhere?

    On the other hand, to fund only Americans is a head-in-the-sand kind of attitude.

    Finally, what about foreigners on study section? Mine has multiple Canadians.

  • Joe says:

    I've only seen these as small amount of salary for foreign co-investigator or paying post-doc salary for foreign co-investigator on an application where the PI is in the US and performing most of the work in the US. You have to justify why that foreign collaborator is the best. Canadian institutions pop up frequently, as do German and Australian.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Remember folks, the University or research Institute is the applicant. This is not about PI nationality within US institutions.

  • drugmonkey says:


    "Cannot"? Or "would not"?

  • Philapodia says:

    If you have a good collaborator outside your country that has all of the skilz needed and you work well with, why not? It also depends on expertise. The US, while the awesomest and bestest country that planet has ever been blessed to be saddled with, doesn't have all of the sciencz known to man/woman kind. Sometimes people in other countries are actually better at certain small sub-sub-specialties than scientists in the states (shocking, I know!). Lord knows that I don't have time to learn how to appropriately monitor bunny-hopping behavior when the cute little fuzzballs are tripping on acid (nor do I want to give up my stash to do the experiment), so I'm all for giving some of the cash to investigators outside the US to get shitte done right.

  • Noncoding Arenay says:

    Yes, if the foreign institution or workers in foreign institutions are being paid for doing work that is really only doable there, or is best doable there (like the biomedical equivalent of CERN related work, if any, or Ebola or whatever else). For anything else I do not feel that NIH monies need to leave the U.S.

  • Established PI says:

    If it is to fund a collaborative effort between foreign and US scientists then I am all for it. (full disclosure: a foreign PI has a subcontract on one of my grants). If it drives US science and has a direct impact, the NIH and the US taxpayer are getting their money's worth. If all the research is at a foreign institution with no funds to a US investigator, then I don't see the point in spending taxpayer funds on it. In the past the NIH did fund some grants in the latter category - not sure this is even still allowed today. If it is ,they would be wise to stop it - red meat for any congressman trying to further ax the research budget...

  • Joe says:

    It should be noted that there are European grants that can fund US work. We didn't get the award, but I was on an application with three Europeans that would have funded work in all four labs.
    Collaborative proposals are the only kind I've seen at NIH. The PI is in the US, and a subcontract goes to another country. Do the other kind exist, i.e., where the PI works in another country?

  • Philapodia says:



    "Cannot"? Or "would not"?

    There are certain experiments that we cannot ethically do in the US, like what Japan's Unit 731 did in WWII. Nasty stuff. However, the guvment took both the scientists and their data on afterwards (quitely of course) to help build their own bio programs. They didn't directly give them money but did support the scientists in the end.

  • bacillus says:

    I'm a foreigner who was treated lavishly as a PI by NIH when they turned on the Biodefense spiggot, because we were the only lab around at the time working on one of the CDC category A pathogens. The US has since built up its own infrastructure and expertise in this area, so no more largesse from Uncle Sam. I have no issues with this state of affairs. That said, I was co-applicant on two RFAs in the past two years that were fronted by PIs from US academia and US industry. Both applications scored in the Outstanding range, but no Benjamins in either case. This was work to translate our prior work into a vaccine. It seems a shame that after endowing us with many millions of dollars (I won't give the actual number for fear of being banned from this site forever), it will now languish as an interesting piece of science, since the next developmental steps are simply beyond the reach of anyone other than NIH or DoD. This seems to be the case across a broad swath of the NIH biodefense era. Billions spent, little to show for it in terms of product for the strategic national stockpile except for some antibiotics, and vaccines against smallpox and anthrax that were developed 50 years ago.

    AFAIK, Canada and Israel are the two biggest foreign recipients of NIH money. The former is mainly for clinical trials work, but I'm not familiar with the latter's situation.

  • fgtr says:

    Well, how about U.S. PIs that "outsource" their projects to an unnamed large asian country for the research to be conducted for "free" by collaborators, then obtain NIH dollars as a result?

    PI didn't even need to actually run experiments. And surprise! The results ended up being non-reproducible. Seen it first-hand.

  • Odyssey says:


    "Cannot"? Or "would not"?

    Assuming the work in question would be legally and ethically acceptable within the US, either. Although under those restrictions I'm hard-pressed to think of something that falls under "would not" that would be of interest to the NIH.

  • chemstructbio says:

    I heard that NIH grants awarded to "foreign applicant institutions" actually funnel into an off-shore bank account that funds covert agents to infiltrate and take down the "WE BUY ENTIRE LABS" spammer regime. On average, the funds spent via this FOA is much less than funding an NIH-sanctioned war plane for 5 hours to go get 'em.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I'm just about to put in an R01 with a foreign subcontract. They developed new theoretical/computational methods that are integral to the proposal. I was warned that there is a prejudice against foreign subcontracts these days. Hopefully that's not true, since there's no one else we can do this work with.

  • qaz says:

    I think a lot of these are US citizens at foreign institutions.

    So, wait, if the institution is the applicant, then why can US citizens apply for NIH R01 grants from foreign institutions? (I've been on study section where they have, so I know that they can.)

  • drugmonkey says:

    Although under those restrictions I'm hard-pressed to think of something that falls under "would not" that would be of interest to the NIH.

    What I mean here is that we are under a mostly investigator-initiated funding plan, with scientists motivated to do something unique because, duh.

    So if a foreign lab is working on the function of gertzin in the neuromuscular junction of bunnies, well, sure there are domestic labs that could do the work proposed, they just don't. Because they work on something else.

    This may or may not be important when you are trying to follow this instruction from CSR.

    Applications from Foreign Organizations. Reviewers will assess whether the project presents special opportunities for furthering research programs through the use of unusual talent, resources, populations, or environmental conditions that exist in other countries and either are not readily available in the United States or augment existing U.S. resources.

    If a foreign lab happens to work on a unique topic or has an unusual take or just plain old happens to be the world's expert by some distance and all the staff are "unusual talent".....

    It is a very slippery judgment call, no?

  • Davis Sharp says:

    I find that most reviewers just say "justified" for foreign applications. In my field, many people have foreign collaborations and are loathe to recommend against a good idea just because it's from a foreign PI.

    It's a realtively trivial percent of money (<1%) that is directly awarded to foreign institutions, $159M out of $20B in this table. Disclaimer: I googled "NIH funding by country," so I didn't look up the award details.

    If anything, "outsourcing" the project saves money because the NIH only pays 8% indirects to foreign institution.

  • Juan Lopez says:

    So, if not funding abroad, do you also mean that the U.S. should not get any samples, data or help from people outside? Should foreign labs also ban importing lab equipment from the U.S.? How about blocking american pharmaceuticals from testing drugs there? Or agribusiness from taking crops?
    protectionism keeps popping up in U.S. politics, but ultimately the country will lose very much as well. Just look at what protected market evolve into. Those of us who have seen that in our home countries know that it is counterproductive.

    Getting the NIH to support a project to a foreign institution is very difficult. I have tried. It didn't work. On the other side, I have been able to get research money from abroad to the U.S.

  • drugmonkey says:

    No, just the NIH grant awards proper, JL.

  • Davis Sharp says:

    You're getting a bit off track Juan. No-one said that NIH is not funding studies outside of the US. Patient recruitment and sample and data collection are compensated through suibcontracts. The justification for grants directly to foreign universities started showing up in summary statements 10-15 years ago; probably someone in Congress got wind of taxpayer dollars going abroad (but not through the CIA).

  • bacillus says:

    @ Davis Sharp. When I was funded by NIH as a foreign PI the Canadian dollar was worth $0.65 US. This, combined with the 8% overhead limit, and the fact that our staff didn't have to cover their salaries from grants, meant that that money went a lot further than it otherwise would have done in the USA. In return, I shared all of my ABSL3 SOPs with all of the US groups trying to play catch-up, I even visited a few of them to lend first hand experience, I sat on a few of their SABs, and sat on many of the innumerable SEPs that the biodefense gravy train spawned. The grants for the "Regional Centers of Excellence" were particularly overwhelming (think 3-4 PO1 s packaged as a single application). So whilst I will always remain eternally grateful for the generous support of the US taxpayer, I like to think they got something back in return, apart from the 20 or so papers we published on Uncle Sam's dime.

  • babyattachmode says:

    As someone who recently submitted a foreign R01 (multi-PI proposal with another foreign PI who already had 2 R01s awarded previously), I can say that in our case the reviewers interpreted this rule in different ways too. One said:"Sure, this specific combination of skills and expertise is unique", whereas the other two said:"These techniques are widely available in the US so anyone here COULD do these things too". The PO frankly told us that if we were a US institution ze would advise xyx but now there was really no point in resubmitting. Which leaves me wondering to what extend foreign institutions are funded directly in the current funding climate.

  • Jack Gallow says:

    Stupid question, but what do reviewers typically think of American PIs at foreign institutions?

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