More on NIGMS's call for "shared responsibility"

Jan 07 2015 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

The post from NIGMS Director Lorsch on "shared responsibility" (my blog post) has been racking up the comments, which you should go read.

As a spoiler, it is mostly a lot of the usual, i.e., Do it to Julia!

But two of the comments are fantastic. This one from anonymous really nails it down to the floor.

More efficient? My NOA for my R01 came in a few weeks ago for this year, and as usual, it has been cut. I will get ~$181,000 this year. Let’s break down the costs of running a typical (my) lab to illustrate that which is not being considered. I have a fairly normal sized animal colony for my field, because in immunology, nothing gets published well without knockouts and such. That’s $75,000 a year in cage per diem costs. Let’s cover 20% of my salary (with fringe, at 28.5%), one student, and one postdoc (2.20 FTE total). Total salary costs are then $119,800. See, I haven’t done a single experiment and my R01 is gone. How MORE efficient could I possibly be? Even if we cut the animals in half, I have only about $20,000 for the entire year for my reagents. Oh no, you need a single ELISA kit? That’s $800. That doesn’t include plates? Hell, that’s another $300. You need magnetic beads to sort cells, that’s $800 for ONE vial of beads. Wait, that doesn’t include the separation tubes? Another $700 for a pack. You need FACS sort time? That’s $100 an hour. Oh no, it takes 4 hours to sort cells for a single experiment? Another $400. It’s easy to spend $1500 on a single experiment given the extreme costs of technology and reagents, especially when using mice. Then, after 4 years of work, you submit your study (packed into a single manuscript) for publication and the reviewers complain that you didn’t ALSO use these 4 other knockout mice, and that the study just isn’t complete enough for their beloved journal. And you (the NIH) want me to be MORE efficient? I can’t do much of anything as it is.

Anyone running an academic research laboratory should laugh (or vomit) at the mere suggestion that most are not already stretching every penny to its breaking point and beyond.

This is what is so phenomenally out of touch with Lorsch's concentration on the number of grants a PI holds. Most of us play in the full-modular space. Even for people with multiple grants that have one that managed to get funded with a substantial upgrade from full-mod, they are going to have other ones at the modular limit. And even the above-modular grants often get cut extra compared with the reductions that are put on the modular-limit awards.

The full-modular has not been adjusted with inflation. And the purchasing power is substantially eroded compared with a mere 15 years ago when they started the new budgeting approach.


[this graph depicts the erosion of purchasing power of the $250K/yr full-modular award in red and the amount necessary to maintain purchasing power in black. Inflation adjustment used was the BRDPI one]

Commenter Pinko Punko also has a great observation for Director Lorsch.

The greatest and most massive inefficiency in the system is the high probability of a funding gap for NIGMS (and all other Institute) PIs. Given that gaps in funding almost always necessitate laying off staff, and prevent long-term retention of expertise, the great inefficiency here is that expertise cannot possibly be “on demand”. I know that you are also aware that given inflation, the NIH budget never actually doubled. There has likely been a PI bubble, but it is massively deflating with a huge cost.

The lowest quantum for funding units in labs is 1. Paylines are so low, it seems the only way to attempt to prevent a gap in funding is to have an overlap at some point, because going to zero is a massive hit when research needs to grind to a halt. It is difficult to imagine that there is a large number of excessively funded labs.

While I try to put a positive spin on the Datahound analysis showing the probability of a PI becoming re-funded after losing her last NIH award, the fact is that 60% of PIs do not return to funding. A prior DataHound post showed that something between 14-30% of PIs are approximately continuously-funded (extrapolating generously here from only 8 years of data). Within these two charts there is a HUGE story of the inefficiency of trying to maintain that funding for the people who will, in the career-long run, fall into that "continuously funded" category.

This brings me to the Discussion point of the day. Lorsch's blog post is obsessed with efficiency. which he asserts comes with modestly sized research operations, indexed approximately by the number of grant awards. Three R01s being his stated threshold for excessive grants even though he cites data showing that $700K per year in direct costs is the most productive* amount of funding- i.e., three grants at a minimum.

I have a tale for you, Dear Reader. The greatly abridged version, anyway.

Once upon a time the Program Staff of ICx decided that they were interested in studies on Topic Y and so they funded some grants. Two were R01s obtained without revision. They sailed on for their full duration of funding. To my eye, there was not one single paper that resulted that was specific to the goals of Topic Y and damn little published at all. Interestingly there were other projects also funded on Topic Y. One of them required a total of 5 grant applications and was awarded a starter grant, followed by R01 level funding. This latter project actually produced papers directly relevant to Topic Y.

Which was efficient, Director Lorsch?
How could this process have been made more efficient?

Could we predict PI #3 was the one that was going to come through with the goods? Maybe we should have loaded her up with the cash and screw the other two? Could we really argue that funding all three on a shoestring was more efficient? What if the reason that the first two failed is that they just didn't have enough cash at the start to make a good effort on what was, obviously, a far from easy problem to attack.

Would it be efficient to take this scenario and give PI #3 a bunch of "people-not-projects" largesse at this point in time because she's proved able to move the scientific ball on this? Do we look at the overall picture and say "in for a penny, in for a pound"? Or do we fail to learn a damn thing and let the productive PI keep fighting against the funding cycles, the triage line and what not to keep the program going under our current approaches?

It may sound like I am leaning in one direction on this but really, I'm not. I don't know what the answer is. The distribution of success/failure across these three PIs could have been entirely different. As it happens, all three are pretty dang decent scientists. The degree to which they looked like they could kick butt on Topic Y at the point of funding their respective projects definitely didn't support the supremacy of PI#3 in the end analysis. But noobs can fail too. Sometimes spectacularly. Sometimes, as may have been the case in this little tale, people can fail because they simply haven't grown their lab operations large enough, fast enough to sustain a real program, particularly when one of the projects is difficult.

I assume, as usual, that this narrow little anecdote is worth relating because these are typical scenarios. Maybe not hugely common but not all that rare either. Common enough that a Director of an IC should be well aware.

When you have an unhealthy interest in the grant game, as do I, you notice this stuff. You can see it play out in RePORTER and PubMed. You can see it play out as you try to review competing-continuation proposals on study section. You see it play out in your sub-fields of interest and with your closer colleagues.

It makes you shake your head in dismay when someone makes assertions that they know how to make the NIH-funded research enterprise more efficient.

UPDATE: I realized that I should really should say that the third project required at least five applications since I'm going by the amended status of the *funded* awards. It is unknown if there were unfunded apps submitted. It is also unknown if either of the first two PIs tried to renew the awards and couldn't get a fundable score. I think I should also note that the third project was awarded funding in a context that triggers on at least three of the major "this is the real problem" complaints being bandied in Lorsch's comments section. The project that produced nothing at all, relevant or not, was awarded in a context that I think would align with these complainants "good" prescription. FWIW.

__
*there are huge problems even with this assessment of productivity but we'll let that slide for now.

66 responses so far

  • becca says:

    What's probably *efficient* is to put all 3 PIs in the same place and make them share animals, equipment and reagents. Thus, cluster hiring. Or intramural (maybe). Or some crazy scheme involving the people who have absolute geographic flexibility demanded of them also being the one to write the grants. AHAHAHAHA. I crack myself up.

  • drugmonkey says:

    "not independent".

    ahaahahah I crack myself up.

  • drugmonkey says:

    but to be serious for a moment. That, becca, is calling for U and P mechs, in essence. Which of course are one of the favorite targets of the proponents of the small-is-better "efficiency" claims similar to what Lorsch is making here.

    "Everyone knows" that Centers, Program Projects and Us are just hugely wasteful boondoggles, right?

  • AcademicLurker says:

    "Everyone knows" that Centers, Program Projects and Us are just hugely wasteful boondoggles, right?

    Except for the ones I'm part of. Naturally.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Me too. Naturally.

  • Dave says:

    I guess holding the modular budget steady at $250K is an example of the whole shared responsibility thing playing out (i.e. I will take less money if more grants get funded). God knows what paylines would be like if the modular was $350K, but those that got them would probably (definitely??) be more productive and efficient.

  • Joe says:

    In your story, could it be that #3 ended up publishing on topic Y because she had to generate data on topic Y during the 5 application attempts (for starter grant + R01), and #1 and #2 never had to put the effort in to make topic Y experiments work, since they got the money right away?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Well, I suppose so Joe. Like the first two never had any intent to do the project as described in the first place? Could be, can't know someone's heart on the cool evidence of Reporter and PubMed.

  • drugmonkey says:

    It strikes me that I should say "at least five" applications since I'm going by the amended status of the *funded* awards. Unknown of there were *unfunded* apps. Also, unknown if the first two PIs tried to renew the awards and couldn't get a good score.

  • Greg says:

    I raised (here and elsewhere) a couple of times the subject of overheads that became exorbitant and that transfer a significant portion of the NIH extramural budget directly to the departments' pockets, outside the peer-reviewed system. Few people see any problem with this.

  • drugmonkey says:

    It's not that I don't see a problem with

    transfer a significant portion of the NIH extramural budget directly to the departments' pockets, outside the peer-reviewed system

    so much as I think this type of analysis is naive and flawed. Research costs a lot more than the direct costs. A LOT. And if you can't grasp this, I for one get impatient.

    Somehow that extra cost has to be paid for. And if it is not paid for by IDC assigned to the grant, it is paid for by some other source. Now, if you want to argue that you understand this and STILL think that you have the threshold for what is "exorbitant" IDC and what is acceptable, by all means explain how you come to your accounting. Justify who else should be paying for the NIH's desired good/service, why them and how this squares with all other government requests for goods or services.

  • jmz4 says:

    I think we're also missing a real key piece of data in terms of what level of support is required to run a productive lab, and that is the fellowships. If all your people are on fellowships, then 1-2 R01s is plenty of money, right?
    I think this makes the case for expanding training grants for postdocs and grad students. Seems like it would be more efficient to give everyone 1-2 R01s, and then let them attract as much free labor as their ingenuity and training prowess allows. You're not getting a ton of postdocs/students because you're a BSD with a ton of support, you get a ton of postdocs/students because you have the coolest science as judged by the boots on the ground.
    It also frees up money to hire the staff scientists everyone and their mother has said we need, provided we could find some way to fund the training grants outside of the usual budget.

    But, in the vein of what the blog post originally suggested, I wonder if they take into account training grant availability when they're deciding who gets the second R01 or not. Seems like that would make a much bigger difference than whether they already have one R01 (three years at 28.8%fringe is about 180k).

  • jmz4 says:

    Sorry, I left the point dangling. The point is that if a university has a training grant in the area the R01 is being awarded, then it should be less likely to get the money, and receive fewer funds than an equivalent application from a university with no training grants in place.

  • Grumble says:

    @DM: "Somehow that extra cost has to be paid for. And if it is not paid for by IDC assigned to the grant, it is paid for by some other source. Now, if you want to argue that you understand this and STILL think that you have the threshold for what is "exorbitant" IDC and what is acceptable, by all means explain how you come to your accounting. Justify who else should be paying for the NIH's desired good/service, why them and how this squares with all other government requests for goods or services."

    Sure, it all has to be paid for. The problem with the NIH paying high overhead rates is that it incentivizes universities to hire more soft-money faculty, so that the ratio of applicants to available dollars becomes very large (leading to an enormous amount of anxiety among just about *everyone* who practices biomedical science). If NIH limited indirect cost rates, universities would have to pay for those costs from other sources, which means they would hire fewer faculty and grants would be easier for everyone to get.

    Everyone who manages to get a faculty job, anyway.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Or the NIH could just directly control how many PIs they fund. Lorsch's call actually encourages the *growth* of applicant numbers....

  • rxnm says:

    For my own amusement, I did a mini-analysis in my subfield once in which I found that productivity (papers/trainee) is not that different across lab size/seniority/prestige. Because I am certain BSD labs have much, much more $/person, it does argue that concentrating wealth is inefficient. I don't think this relates directly to R01 number, but from all the covariates of R01 number: likelihood of your trainees receiving F awards or prestige fellowships, likelihood of having larger R01s, likelihood of having other major sources of support.

    All analyses I've seen of "efficiency" in terms of papers/$ are limited to NIH RPG money, so don't include the huge benefit of having you trainees paid for, being hard money at an ILAF, etc, etc.

    Of course papers/person does not include anything about the papers in terms of "importance" or scope or whatever. The BSD/senior labs publish more glammy papers and maybe that is inherently more expensive, especially if it's a lab that burns through postdocs who either get a Cell paper or quit.

    I agree that the solution was (it's too late) for the NIH to take responsibility for how *many* people it funds and how many trainees are being paid with RPG funds. But why have a solution when no one who influences policy at the top has a problem?

  • Pinko Punko says:

    I wonder if Dr. Lorsch's post is essentially a coded message implying that NIGMS is going to put even more teeth into spreading the lack of wealth. I wonder if it really is a message towards the more well-funded that things are going to change there, especially since we are now cutting into bone.

  • Dave says:

    If NIH limited indirect cost rates, universities would have to pay for those costs from other sources, which means they would hire fewer faculty and grants would be easier for everyone to get.

    It's fairly obvious to me that soft-money places (i.e. med schools) will eventually have to support more salary (especially if the NIH mandates it, which is not impossible to imagine soonish), but that will mean FAR fewer faculty being kept around. Where will this money come from? Savings from firing other faculty and closing related facilities, perhaps?

  • jmz4 says:

    "Or the NIH could just directly control how many PIs they fund."
    -It is weird how everything about the NIH's language through its various mouthpieces implies that they're simply utilizing the existing university research community as they find it, powerless against the forces we're all suffering under. We're not "all in this together", they're in charge, and though I'm sympathetic to enormity of the problems they have to deal with, they're ultimately the ones that caused the problem and need to solve it.

    I guess that's the institution vs individual effect, but this sort of odd attempt at camaraderie strikes me as a little offensive and annoying. We shouldn't be in charge of doing all the research, writing the grants, AND figuring out a sustainable research funding system. That's their job, isn't it? And as DM points out originally, this isn't a call for feedback on a policy proposal, so it pretty much amounts to "fix it yourselves, you wasteful jerks".

  • jmz4 says:

    "Where will this money come from?"
    -Well, hospitals have a diverse revenue stream, so I'd be interested to know whether the research end of things ends up costing or making them money under the current system. If it's the former, then I imagine they'll be pretty happy to just stop hiring so many faculty. If the latter, then they just recoup those earnings from wherever they're going. Other options include downsizing administrative support staff. If the option was getting 50% salary support, but having to file my own grants and planning the holiday party, well, I guess I'd be okay with that.

  • E-rook says:

    NIH published a graph showing that in 1999 adjusted dollars, the average R01 equivalent award has remained steady over the past decade, hovering around 260K. Perhaps trending downward from a high in 2003 at 297K, but at 259K in 2014 doesn't seem much different than the past 5 years (269K) or the 1999's 262K. Perhaps the 297K of 2003 was an anomaly and 259K is the norm. I really don't know. http://report.nih.gov/NIHDatabook/Charts/Default.aspx?sid=0&index=1&catId=2&chartId=158

    I think the big cheeses are considering this efficiency (say ... the average loss of 10K over the past 5 years of the average R01 equiv) should be gained from Big Mech's and Cores picking up peoples' salaries some and providing infrastructure, shared clinical facilities/data, biorepositories, shared equipment. This is important, I think for clinical research, where your R01 can pay 10% of a phlebtomist for your local P-type mech to draw blood instead of hiring a full-time tech whose also a licensed phlebotomist.... just an example, and when your R01 is done, this person stays employed and is doing work on 10 other projects. The problem I run into is many of these cores have user charges, so you can say you'll use the Core microscope instead of buying one, but it still costs a shit ton.

    I was looking at a colleague's grant description on NIH RePORTER. She is up for competitive renewal soon, and I read the description of the type-1 award, four years ago, proposing transgenic mice, 5 years, and stayed within modular. I was kinda shocked.

  • Grumble says:

    "Where will this money come from?"

    From an even bigger Cull than is underway now.

  • Jonathan says:

    "they're in charge"

    No. There's a reason that every MRU has large lobbying offices in DC.

  • rxnm says:

    STOP PARTICIPATING IN OUR FUNDING SYSTEM IN A WAY THAT MAKES OUR FUNDING SYSTEM LOOK BAD. THANK YOU FRIENDO.

  • Juan Lopez says:

    I hope this turns into med schools being forced to cover more faculty salary. That would be awesome.

    Grumble, I agree with your point of indirects incentivizing hiring soft-money people. Though, it still takes a lot money in startups to hire some faculty. But I do see more faculty of the kind that does not get a startup.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I hope this turns into med schools being forced to cover more faculty salary. That would be awesome.

    It would be awesome for some people, but pretty lousy for others. As DM has pointed out in the past, most medical schools don't have the finances to support more faculty salary. If they switch from soft money to "real" salaries, that will mean substantially reducing the size of the basic research faculty. Maybe that's not such a bad thing overall, but it will definitely suck for some.

    I guess how awesome it would be depends on which group you think you would be in.

  • Greg says:

    "Research costs a lot more than the direct costs. A LOT. And if you can't grasp this, I for one get impatient. "

    A fixed threshold is not the only possible solution. The other one is charging F&A as direct costs and properly justifying every single element.

    "Somehow that extra cost has to be paid for. "

    And who is being naive here? Some of these extra costs indeed cover the cost of heating, plumbing etc., but an increasing portion is charged simply because it CAN be charged. There is a direct, full analogy to the causative connection between student loans and skyrocketying tuitions. When money is made available, it is merrily taken. In the case of student loans, it happens at the expense of the students, who later toll as debt slaves.

    In the case of overheads, it happens at the expense of underfunded researchers and the taxpayers, who think they fund, for example, HIV research, while actually half of the money is distributed outside the peer reviewed system and fund activities that are simply parasiting on legit research. Back when this parasiting was moderate and limited to 40%, we could live with that. Now, when it reaches (and often exceeds) 100%, it is simply waste, fraud, and a major source of the budgetary woes of underfunded prospective grantees.

  • Greg says:

    On top of the above reasoning: who says NIH should cover 100% of the research? In spite of the "noble temple of knowledge" narrative peddled by their lobbyists, universities are commercial enterprises. I haven't heard of any that doesn't have a technology transfer office. So, it wouldn't be unreasonable for federal funding agencies to fund ONLY things directly related to specific research projects, without ANY overheads. Asking universities to pay themselves at least for heating and plumbing would be a rational cost sharing policy.

    Presently, every federal grant provides a generous opportunity to triple dip:
    - direct costs of research are covered,
    - overheads cover F&A, and a significant portion simply constitutes academic welfare, spent on unrelated personnel/projects,
    - afterwards, the university says "it's ours", commercializes the produced knowledge and benefits from it.

    Something is definitely wrong here.

  • Grumble says:

    "but an increasing portion is charged simply because it CAN be charged."

    So, you're suggesting that my dean is wrong when he says that grants don't cover the full cost of research: if you include IDCs, grants cover the full cost of research and more. Right?

    I haven't seen budget numbers, so I don't know who is right, you or my dean. And the numbers don't tell the whole story anyway. Who knows how much is wasted, which wouldn't have been wasted if the IDC rate were limited. Or if IDCs were subject to detailed expenditure reporting to the NIH, as you suggest.

  • Grumble says:

    "every federal grant provides a generous opportunity to triple dip:"

    Not every grant (by far) results in the ability to commercialize something. Unlike the other two you mention (F&A and direct costs).

    Here's a fourth category - a subcategory of direct costs. I sometimes wonder whether fringe benefits really cost the university 34% of salary. Yes, health insurance is expensive, but come on. Health insurance costs the same whether you make $50k or $250k. So why is fringe 34% across the board? And if the majority of personnel costs are paid by outside sources (grants), what motivation does the college have to reduce the actual costs of fringe benefits? I'm suspicious that these exorbitant fringe rates are just another way that colleges are milking the NIH and diverting money away from research.

  • Greg says:

    Your dean, Grumble, is doing a commendable job, you just need to remember what his job is: he is a manager and his objective is to secure money for the enerprise he is running. The more, the better from his point of view.

    Conflicting interests are facts of life, but even though I understand your dean's point of view, I am more sympathetic to the points of view of those who have their "excellent" proposals unfunded, because administrators go around peer review and drain the available pool of money via overheads.

  • Greg says:

    Grumble,
    With this health insurance issue, you provided an excellent example of "we charge, because we can". And this is not limited to health insurance.

    Not every project produces commercializable results. Indeed. But some produce, and knowledge is valuable.

    Finally, I definitely can show an undisputable example of waste: I work with in silico models. My facilities and administration costs are equivalent to placing these computers in a spare bedroom and working in the institutional framework of a small business. Say - $10,000/year, flat, not even as a percentage. Anything above this, charged by any university under similar circumstances, constitutes appropriating funds that should rather be spend on peer reviewed projects that had to compete for this money.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I guess how awesome it would be depends on which group you think you would be in.

    Exactly. And it isn't just the existing faculty you disdain that will take the hit, young disgruntledoc types. Fewer faculty jobs mean reduced prospects for *you*. Especially when the mid-career soft-money types start taking all the hard money jobs that are on offer because hiring committees see that they can get a tried-and-true productive grant-getter instead of taking a chance on Newbster McWetEars

    who says NIH should cover 100% of the research?

    I do. What other area of Federal procurement of a desired good or service works this way? How many (and at what % of the federal budget) areas work not just with full remuneration of costs but a profit margin as well????

    as someone once said, something is definitely wrong here.

    I definitely can show an undisputable example of waste: I work with in silico models. My facilities and administration costs are equivalent to placing these computers in a spare bedroom and working in the institutional framework of a small business.

    This is because you continue to imagine that *you* are the grant holder. You are not. Your University is. And your University negotiates their IDC as some sort of average across all the research activities that they conduct. Yes, the chemist and computer jockey IDC probably pays for the animal colonies and the fMRI operations to some extent. But if "your" excess IDC was deleted it would just go into increased IDC for the lab in the building next door. And it would not be available to you as further direct costs in the new-grant pool. Geddit?

  • Greg says:

    "if "your" excess IDC was deleted it would just go into increased IDC for the lab in the building next door. "

    What you are describing is precisely the current practice I am objecting to. "My" indirects are pocketed by the university and given to a lab in the building next door. Not because that lab earned it via a competitive process, but precisely because it is lucky enough to be located next door, within the same organization that negotiated itself the right to "tax" proposals submitted by researchers working there. It's academic welfare, and I resent this not because I don't benefit from this money, but because it is distributed outside the competitive system, at the expense of meritorious proposals.

    Need that animal facility? Charge as direct and justify.

  • Dave says:

    As DM has pointed out in the past, most medical schools don't have the finances to support more faculty salary.

    I think this is simplistic way of looking at it. On the surface, sure, money is hard to come by for salaries. But when you look more closely, there is plenty of money floating around, it's just a matter of what that money is earmarked for, and what category it has been put in. In short, it comes down to priorities, and research-track scientists are not on the top of the list.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    But when you look more closely, there is plenty of money floating around

    Depends on the institution, yes? I mean sure, Harvard could pay all of its basic research faculty hard money salaries from loose change scrounged up from between the couch cushions, but most med schools aren't Harvard.

  • Greg says:

    A bit of relevant information from another blog (ChemBark):

    "It was interesting to learn that after World War II, when the U.S. government started funding university research in earnest, the rate for overhead was 8%. It rose to 20% by 1965, when the government started allowing individual institutions to negotiate their own rates. Some schools’ rates rose past 90% before coming back down when government audits revealed inappropriate spending (like on sports tickets)."

    C.N. Parkinson is laughing in his grave.

  • Grumble says:

    "And it isn't just the existing faculty you disdain that will take the hit, young disgruntledoc types."

    Sure. But if the quality of life of an academic scientist who gets beyond the disgruntledoc stage is miserable because the sword is always at our necks -- get more grants or we fire you! -- then that means EVERYONE is taking a hit.

    "I do. What other area of Federal procurement of a desired good or service works this way? How many (and at what % of the federal budget) areas work not just with full remuneration of costs but a profit margin as well????"

    Oh great. And what would be the consequence of increasing IDC rates even more? Even more applicants for a limited pool of money. There needs to be a way to balance supply and demand if we are going to maintain anything close to the ideal of academic scientists who are free to do the research that inspires them without fear that they will lose their jobs. Maybe lowering IDCs isn't the only way, but in my view, if they are maintained or increased, then some other change needs to occur to restore this feature of academia.

  • Juan Lopez says:

    "It was interesting to learn that after World War II, when the U.S. government started funding university research in earnest, the rate for overhead was 8%. It rose to 20% by 1965, when the government started allowing individual institutions to negotiate their own rates."

    Ahh, the good old trick: My cousin adopted a cat, and a week later he won the lottery. Magic cat.

    Universities do A LOT more than they did back during World War II, and I am sure this has increased their expenses. IDC and fringe are way too high, and there's waste, but there are also much more expenses that indirects have to cover. Let's not forget that state governments have cut a lot of funding to universities.

  • rxnm says:

    "I do. What other area of Federal procurement of a desired good or service works this way? How many (and at what % of the federal budget) areas work not just with full remuneration of costs but a profit margin as well????"

    If I didn't know better, I'd think DM was working toward a manifesto on the de-academization of biomedical research.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Greg-

    Since both peer reviewers and Program Officers are full aware of the overhead rates and have been known to comment explicitly on said rates during grant review and consideration for exception funding (respectively), I don't see how you assert this is outside of competitive review.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    rxnm-

    You know full well that what I am in favor of is for scientists to stop being so myopic, unscientific and completely illogical about the conduct of science. It would also be nice if people expressed some understanding of basic arithmetic and accounting.

    Do you notice how nobody actually answers the question about why this should be the single unique aspect of federal procurement? Or justifies it?

    Curious, that.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    The comment above about average grant size doesn't reflect the reality of the numbers, at least in NIGMS. There are a fraction of grants that are 450K+, and are for continually funded grants lasting 20+ years. A modular grant will generally not be more than 188K/year, and given that this is where many or most new grants start, the reality of what 188K/year is current dollars versus the idea of a 250K modular budget in 2003 is pretty start.

  • Grumble says:

    "Do you notice how nobody actually answers the question about why this should be the single unique aspect of federal procurement? Or justifies it?"

    Colleges/universities are perfectly willing to pay for some of the costs of research. That is not the case with, say, a shipbuilder or some other government contractor. So it's simple supply and demand. Why should the government pay for the entire cost of services that others are willing to partially fund?

    Now, you could say that colleges shouldn't be willing to pay for any of the research that the NIH wants done. But then you'd be saying that the people who pick up the college's tab - wealthy donors, state taxpayers - should keep their money in their pockets. Or that if they want to fund a particular research project, they should never fund just part of it and they should always fund every last cent of its cost (which is what you are asking the NIH to do). Neither demand makes a lot of sense.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    So when the local U becomes "unwilling" to pay then this is okay by you?

  • jmz4 says:

    "Harvard could pay all of its basic research faculty hard money salaries from loose change scrounged up from between the couch cushions, but most med schools aren't Harvard."
    -Harvard is the stingiest university I've ever seen. No way they're handing out a cent when they can trade on their name instead.

    "Do you notice how nobody actually answers the question about why this should be the single unique aspect of federal procurement? Or justifies it?"
    -Actually, allowing the universities to legitimately make money off of federal grants via the IDCs would probably cause the IDC rate and fringe to plummet drastically and end up saving the NIH money. But to attempt to justify it, research is not a service in which the contracting party is receiving a direct benefit from the requisitioned activity, while the contracted entity derives great benefit even without collecting a profit. Universities, on the other hand, already receive massive benefits from federal funding of research. They get buildings, can retain professors, who attract and teach talented students that enhance their reputation and endowment dollars.

    DM, are study sections allowed to consider IDC costs when evaluating the budget? If that's a legitimate reason for dinging a grant, then we could solve the issue of high IDCs in a couple grant cycles.

    I agree that the easiest way to increase the pool of money available is to phase out the notion that NIH should pay the PI's salary. You'd increase the number of R01's available by what, about 25%?
    If Universities are going to then require more of their employees, that's fine. If you don't like interacting with students, you shouldn't really be at a university. If they cull their ranks, we can only assume that they'll do a better job of it than the haphazard way its happening now.

    Universities in the US have a collective endowment of 400 billion dollars. Assuming a 10% annual return, they have a budget on par with the NIH. Obviously they have a wide array of other things to spend that money on, but I bring up the comparison to show that it would not be unreasonable for the NIH to slowly offload some of their costs to universities and see how they react.

  • Dave says:

    Endowments LOL. Only a rookie would mention endowments in the context of faculty salaries. Myopic.

  • Juan Lopez says:

    Jmz4, some bad arguments, wow. Let's cut funding to universities and see what happens. We can only assume that it will be better. They get as much money from somewhere else.

    By the same reasoning, if my wife makes as much money as I do, then we don't need my salary. We can only assume that the way we will not pay the bills will be better than the haphazard way it is happening now. If we don't like serving burgers, then we shouldn't have a job in science anyway.

    I agree with universities supporting more faculty salary, but we have to have good reasoning and not make it look so silly and poorly thought.

  • DJMH says:

    Still don't understand the problem with having NIH switch to NSF-style: the grant should be for total costs, not direct. You're at a high-IDC institution, that must be because those IDCs are going for great services, and you won't mind a corresponding decrease in your direct funds.

    This should serve to pressure universities to keep IDCs competitive with each other, rather than IDC rates existing outside of all normal competitive evaluations.

  • jmz4 says:

    "Endowments LOL. Only a rookie would mention endowments in the context of faculty salaries. Myopic."
    -Well, I am a rookie, so I can't take offense. Enlighten me, why am I being myopic?

    I also feel like I wasn't clear. My only point was that universities, collectively, and the NIH have similar budgets in terms of orders of magnitude. They're similarly sized operations in a partnership to conduct research. I guess the point I thought was implied, but maybe wasn't, is that this means that its reasonable to debate shifting the costs from one to the other. Not all the costs, and not that the NIH should cut funding (I don't think anyone on this blog has ever said that), just that they should buy more research with their funds and less salary.
    Bringing up the endowments was just meant to show that universities DO have the resources to pick this up. They also have many alternate revenue streams, of which their endowments are simply an easily quantified reflection. Any of these streams could be tapped to cover the salary.
    I'm a little surprised Dave is disagreeing with me, since he said hospitals have money just "floating around" that could be used to cover salaries. My point was agreeing with this, pointing out the size of US institutes' endowments as proof.

    I mean, are soft money positions even a thing outside of biomedical research?

    A related point is that, of the two entities in the research partnership, only the universities have the ability to raise additional money. The NIH's budget is fixed and likely to remain so for a while. Universities can solicit donors, increase tuition, or sell services and property to increase their revenue. Therefore, any fix with a big effect on making more R01s available will REQUIRE that they take a hit, since they're the only ones that can do so (we've already agreed in the comments above that stretching research budgets is practically impossible).

    "We can only assume that the way we will not pay the bills will be better than the haphazard way it is happening now."
    -Again, I think my point wasn't clear. The universities, in their multitudes, are going to be much better at deciding who to lay off, or better yet, how to get by without laying anyone off. This is because they'll be doing it on a case by case basis, with people they know and in consideration of their unique funding constraints. Applying top down fixes that apply to all universities is a much less viable strategy.

    "If we don't like serving burgers, then we shouldn't have a job in science anyway."
    -What? My point was that, in response to financing your full salary, your university may make you teach (more) students. And, if you don't like teaching students, you shouldn't be a professor at a university. I didn't realize that was an objectionable statement, and have no idea how it relates to burgers.

    "This should serve to pressure universities to keep IDCs competitive with each other, rather than IDC rates existing outside of all normal competitive evaluations."
    -Well DM seemed to indicate that IDC rates are apparently considerable in grant applications. But I agree, since, at least in some cases, it would create some previously lacking downward pressure on the IDC rates.
    Unless, of course, the IDC rates are already too low, as many university administrators have said. Either way, if I was an NIH officer, I'd be all for it, since it would have PI's yelling at their department heads instead of at me.

  • qaz says:

    IDCs are definitely NOT considerable in grant applications at NIH or NSF or anywhere else. Study section (or their equivalents) are not permitted to discuss funding at all until AFTER scoring. (To remind everyone - the process is that study section decides the quality/importance [the magic word this week is "impact"] of the science, and then makes money *suggestions* to program who makes the funding decisions.)

    More importantly, NIH doesn't negotiate IDCs. IDCs are negotiated between universities (or whatever institute is getting the grant *) and the federal government as a whole. That is - the IDC your institute gets from NIH is the same one it gets from DOE and DOD and NASA and any other federal agency.

    * It is important to remember that lots of science is happening outside of universities, at institutes where there are no students, no teaching, and no other sources of money. Whether this is good or bad is a subject of many long comment threads. My take on it is generally that diversity is good - we need all types (and all Julias).

    Universities are tasked with doing a lot more than just research. In fact, one of the big changes that has caused a lot of the problems in the system is that college education has been declared a private good ("you'll get a larger salary as a college graduate, so you should pay for it") rather than a public good ("our society is better if our populace is better educated, so we should use tax dollars to support our universities"), and state and other incomes into university budgets have been slashed. This has made universities turn to federal grants as sources of income. [I would have started by asking "Why should universities be stealing from students to pay for research?" but it is not clear which way the money is flowing. As was pointed out earlier in this thread, academic budgeting is very messy and it is not clear at all whether universities make or lose money on grants - I suspect they make on some like Greg's computer lab and lose on others.]

    How much the science costs is unclear for two reasons.

    First, because the projects change and morph over the timeline of the grant. That makes costs hard to directly measure. Many commenters on this thread seem to be working under the incorrect illusion that we are being paid to do something specific - like building a fighter jet - these are grants not contracts.

    Second, because science rarely comes back to pay for itself at the individual level. Instead, it pays for itself at the societal level. Science is really all about the public good, not a private good. If science was worth spending on individually, companies would have large R&D departments making scientific breakthroughs. But of course, they don't. Because the return on science is too long and too far to monetize easily. (Best example is, of course, Xerox Parc, which transformed society completely and lost Xerox a billion dollars in 1970.) This is because the science generally is a 30 year process from first steps to monetizable breakthroughs. Nowadays, companies step in in the last 5 years of that 30-year timeline to try to gain the patent on the final step in that process. But no company is going to pay for the first 25 years of that cycle. Yet we need that first 25 years as a society.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    qaz-

    Whether supposed to be a formal part of study section consideration or not, IDC sneaks into the occasional reviewer comment. I therefore conclude it contaminates the review orientation of more than are dumb enough to actually say something,

    The modular budgeting system was put in place to keep reviewers from ticky-tacking the line item budgets based on their individual ideas of what things "should" cost. This is a good thing.

  • qaz says:

    DM -

    Yes. I agree. It often influences reviews.

    BTW, I kind of think it should, but I do my best to ignore it now. Because it's officially not supposed to contaminate either reviews or budget. [I know because I've personally been scolded by an SRO for mentioning it, even during the post-scoring budget.] Also, BTW, salary is not supposed to contaminate reviews or budget, which is interesting. [Again, I know because I've been scolded for mentioning it, even during the post-scoring budget.]

    Definitely agree re the modular system.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Right. So you've just confessed to being a reviewer who cannot prevent opinions on IDC, salary, etc from contaminating review.

  • Evelyn says:

    Having worked at several different research entities, I can certainly say that all the other sources of funding are stretched thin. The clinical income is being fudged all over the place to pay for research. Patent license income is not considerable (or maybe our places just haven't had good patents, I don't know), so much so that one of the places now refuses to even file patents (short-sighted, I agree). Endowments have been ravaged, and even with the uptick in state and federal funding, the times are tight. BUT - man can I tell you a number of ways you could save the money, and it has nothing to do with smaller labs. I know the salaries of a number of our administrators and they are not worth that much. Many make more than our associate professors. My old department had 3 (THREE) administrative research directors when I started. By the time I left, they only had 1 (2 quit and were never replaced) and guess what - the research kept chugging along and no one missed a beat. Hell, you can even say that what I do can (and maybe should be) cut - shouldn't they know how to write grants by the time they are professors?

  • AScientist says:

    sooooo, if I asked for more than the modular R01 (say, $275 instead of $250), and justified it (I want to hire experienced person to do X!), would it be a problem in grant review, assuming ideas a great, productivity is high? Why don't PIs all ask for what one needs to actually run a lab? If everyone did, what would happen?

  • AcademicLurker says:

    AScientist: At least in my experience, study section discusses the science, full stop. The only times I've heard references to budget requests was when it seemed like the person was proposing to do 10 R01's worth of work on a single R01 budget.

    I believe it is for the PO to say "Ha! Dream on!" to your more than modular requests.

  • qaz says:

    DM - "So you've just confessed to being a reviewer who cannot prevent opinions on IDC, salary, etc from contaminating review."

    I do my best not to now. As with other biases, the best way to overcome it is to be aware that it exists and make cognitive effort to overcome them. I never look at IDC anymore. I don't go through budget until I have read the grant and formed my opinion on the science. And then I check budget for science validity, keeping my personal prejudices about overblown salaries and IDC in check.

    PS - @AScientist - each study section is different in how they respond to costs over modular, but none of the ones that I've seen will balk at reasonable costs. Again, we have this mismatch - a grant is not what you need to "run a lab" (maybe it should be, but it's not) - a grant is what you need for your lab to do the work in the grant. You should ask for what you need to do the work.

  • Dave says:

    Endowments have been ravaged

    I highly, highly doubt that applies to most. It is true that endowments fluctuated in value during the economic downturn but, at least at my place, they are back to where they were and are growing fast again.

  • Dave says:

    I don't go through budget until I have read the grant and formed my opinion on the science

    What about PI salary %? If the PI is asking for a large chunk from one R01, say, does that affect your thinking/review? You know from such a request that the PI is soft money, not tenured etc. How does that play into things?

  • qaz says:

    So a grant can get a great score but then be told that the budget is not sufficient (so program should increase the budget) or that the budget is bloated (so program should cut it) or that the PI already has two grants on the same topic (so program needs to check for overlap) or that the PI (or some other person on the personnel list) has not put enough time to do this project (so program should make sure that more time commitment is coming). Whether a PI is hard or soft money is irrelevant. But all of those assessments are supposed to happen after scoring, so I have taught myself to do all of that AFTER making the "impact" judgement.

  • You should ask for what you need to do the work.

    No. You should ask for the amount you need to do the work plus the amount that you know that the IC your grant is assigned to is going to administratively cut. For example, NINDS cuts modular budgets to 87.5% of the request and non-modular budgets to 82.5%. So if you are awarded a $275,000 requested budget by NINDS, you actually get less money than if you are awarded a $250,000 requested budget.

  • Grumble says:

    "Why don't PIs all ask for what one needs to actually run a lab? If everyone did, what would happen?"

    Good questions. I get the feeling that PIs are slowly realizing that it's fruitless to keep sticking to the modular limit. As more and more of us abandon it as a matter of course, it stands to reason that grants will get larger and consequently success rates will decline. (Although, of course, if I have 1 $500k R01 I would not apply for as many additional grants as if I had 1 $250k R01, so it might even out in the end.)

  • E rook says:

    My favorite recent critique was that an aim was over ambitious (without giving any reason why), and then recommending reducing the budget by an entire year. From the same reviewer. Another reviewer of the same grant recommended that some people on the team have reduced effort during particular years. Reviewers seem to pay close attention to personnel. I've seen such comments from this particular study section on others' grants as well for the past several years. I have been dynamic with effort in grant budgets, but my admin always complain that it makes it more complicated for them.

  • Jonathan says:

    "Patent license income is not considerable (or maybe our places just haven't had good patents, I don't know), so much so that one of the places now refuses to even file patents (short-sighted, I agree)."

    Tech transfer offices are like sports departments; almost all of them cost their universities money.

  • rxnm says:

    Success rates have to decline before they can increase, that's how the Cull works. No hint that this is not NIH's intention. Prediction: average age of R01 holder is about to go up substantially.

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