NIGMS will now consider PIs' "substantial unrestricted research support"

According to the policy on this webpage, the NIGMS will now restrict award of its grants when the applicant PI has substantial other research support. It is effective as of new grants submitted on or after 2 Jan, 2015.

The clear statement of purpose:

Investigators with substantial, long-term, unrestricted research support may generally hold no more than one NIGMS research grant.

The detail:

For the purposes of these guidelines, investigators with substantial, long-term, unrestricted support (“unrestricted investigators”) would have at least $400,000 in unrestricted support (direct costs excluding the principal investigator’s salary and direct support of widely shared institutional resources, such as NMR facilities) extending at least 2 years from the time of funding the NIGMS grant. As in all cases, if NIGMS funding of a grant to an investigator with substantial, long-term, unrestricted support would result in total direct costs from all sources exceeding $750,000, National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council approval would be required

This $400,000 limit, extending for two years would appear to mean $200,000 per year in direct costs? So basically the equivalent of a single additional R01-worth of direct cost funding?

I guess they are serious about the notion that two grants is fine but three-R01-level funding means you are a greedy commons-spoiling so-and-so.

51 responses so far

  • SaG says:

    The $400k (per year) limit extending for 2 years is to cover for HHMI investigators who lose their HHMI funding. HHMI gives phase out funds for these labs to cover them while they apply for other money. So, if HHMI is kicking you to the curb you can get another GM grant while you still technically have HHMI support.

  • Mikka says:

    By "unrestricted" don't they mean things like HHMI?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    "Like HHMI". Yes.

  • Greg says:

    We need to think really hard what the purpose of the extramular research budget should be. Funding the best available science, or rather distributing academic welfare to the needy.

  • Philapodia says:

    Question: What constitutes "the best available science"?

  • Established PI says:

    I am not sure what problem this solves. If NIGMS is sticking fast to its $750K rule, who cares of someone has one or two grants if the total doesn't exceed this? And the HHMI folks will just make sure to get a second grant from another institute.

    The bigger problem with unrestricted sources of funding comes at the renewal stage: investigators report spectacular progress on their NIH grants because they plow a bunch of that unrestricted money into those projects but report the results as being due to NIH funding alone. This results in unfair comparisons with renewals from investigators who had no additional money to throw at the project. It's not a problem restricted to HHMI etc. - there is double-reporting of pubs for some people who have multiple NIH grants (I have stumbled upon some egregious cases).

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Greg- What is a Congressional District?

  • commenter# says:

    I know it's not easy for new investigators to even get 1 R01 (not that it's easy for anyone), but could unrestricted mean start up funds as well?

  • commenter# says:

    Not that many new investigators get 2 R01s but could "unrestricted support" mean start up funds?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Sure!

  • Pinko Punko says:

    It likely means HHMI and other slush fund type support.

  • Established PI says:

    The announcement is written as if it only refers to a type of funding that has a (substantial) annual renewable budget. The NIH has never asked anyone to document startup funds and, if they start now, it will be an unholy reporting mess.

  • Juan Lopez says:

    Commenter, that's an interesting point. I know of a senior investigator who recently moved to the US and got a huge startup in the multiple hundreds of thousands a year. Probably closer to $500k/year unrestricted, no indirects. He now also has a large R01. Not funded by NIGMS.

  • SaG says:

    Start up funds don't count. Considered short term money. This is focused on HHMI, Stowers, well endowed Chairs ( 😉 )

  • lurker says:

    Let's have some NIH Reporter fun to see who comes up with the most HHMI'ers who could be under this new NIGMS scrutiny (or you could switch it up to your favorite IC's or other grant mech)

    Perrimon, HHMI, 5 current R01 equivalents and an R21 and R24 (2 from NIGMS).
    Nogales, HHMI, 2 R01's and 1 Po1, (all from NIGMS)
    Lee, HHMI, 3 current R01 equivalent's (2 from NIGMS).
    Nudler, HHMI, 3 current R01's (2 from NIGMS)
    Vale, HHMI, 3 Ro1's (2 from NIGMS)
    Bellen, HHMI, 1 R01 at $991K? (from NIGMS)
    Gouaux, HHMI, 3 R01's (1 from NIGMS)

    As Lorsch's second post notes: "5 percent of the PIs had 25 percent of this group’s total NIH direct costs and 20 percent of the PIs had half of it. A similar pattern was recapitulated NIH-wide."

  • K99er says:

    This makes no sense unless all institutes are following the same rule. How hard is it for a BSD to re-package an R01 for a different institute?

  • Anonymous says:

    I wonder if PIs at places like Rockefeller that get a secret annual "allowance" will finally have to report this money too.

  • Established PI says:

    Lurker, the list is longer, but that is besides the point. As noted by Anonymous, there are other well-endowed institutions that provide annual unrestricted funds. To my knowledge, there are no reporting requirements. I don't have a problem with scrutinizing investigators with enormous support but don't get why HHMI is being singled out whereas many other types of institutional support are off the table.

  • I fear this is NIH scrabbling over the remnants of a feast, and forcing scientists to scratch each other's eyes out in their desperate need for scraps. Rather than cutting worthwhile projects, they should be trying to identify other sources of federal waste that absolutely dwarf NIH.

    I don't know about you guys, but when we've spent over $400 billion on a *single* airplane that won't fly for another 4 years at least, and that is estimated to cost another $850 billion once it starts flying, while the entire NIH budget is just $31 billion, we're arguing about the wrong thing if we're trying to limit our best scientists to no more than 1 grant. Sheesh.

    Or how about the Air Force's request to end one of its drone programs, saving $2.5 billion? Congress wouldn't allow it and instead added $443 million to the program.

    The entire NIH budget is just a tiny fraction of the US budget. We should be arguing to increase it, not fighting over who gets the scraps.

    For a few details, see my blog article at Forbes on this from a year ago, http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevensalzberg/2013/12/29/which-is-more-important-military-drones-or-a-cure-for-cancer/.

  • jmz4 says:

    So, HHMI is a competitive renewal every 5 years. Does that mean that at year 3-5 of that cycle they're allowed to hold more than one Ro1? Since " investigators with substantial, long-term, unrestricted support ... extending at least 2 years from the time of funding the NIGMS grant". I mean, they won't know if they'll be on HHMI two years down the road, so they're in the clear, right?

  • Dave says:

    The entire NIH budget is just a tiny fraction of the US budget. We should be arguing to increase it, not fighting over who gets the scraps

    Increasing the NIH budget right now (beyond inflation, of course) I think might be the worst thing that could happen. Many of us believe that the structural problems that exist in the biomedical workforce cannot be fixed by simply throwing money at the NIH; in fact, there are those who would argue that the NIH doubling is the direct cause of our current predicament. Until the workforce issues are addressed, an increase in the NIH budget is just a band-aid I'm afraid, and might make things worse long-term.

    And as much as I agree about outrageous military spending, you're wasting your time by complaining about it in the context of the NIH budget. In the same way that talking up a 'cure for cancer' these days just leads to a collective eye-roll from the general public and the GOP (who are in charge!!). Collins and his cronies have tried the same shit for years, and look where that got us.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I'm afraid that Dave is right. If there were a sudden increase in the NIH budget, institutions (mainly medical schools) would behave exactly the same way they behaved during the doubling and we would be back to where we are now within ~5 years.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Me, I'm willing to risk another double-bubble. Bring on the DOD budget's rounding error!

  • Dave says:

    Me, I'm willing to risk another double-bubble

    A vote for Jeb Bush is a vote for double-or-quits!!!

  • Juan Lopez says:

    "Increasing the NIH budget right now (beyond inflation, of course) I think might be the worst thing that could happen."

    Sure Dave, worse than further cuts, worse than Republicans forcing legislation that prohibits research on reproduction, or sexually transmitted diseases, or some drugs, or with foreign countries, or on diabetes, obesity or any other " lifestyle" disease, or global warming, or pollution, or food-additives, or on many of the things that Republicans want to leave for markets to decide. Sadly, any of these is more likely than your "nightmare" scenario.

    Of course a doubling would not be a long term solution, but it would make things a lot better for many scientists, and it would improve scientific output. It would be way better than the money spent on weapons, which, by the way, are also not a long term solution. I would take a band aid over an infection any day.

    If every night people saw on TV news of all those dying of cancer, instead of the terrorist-group-du-jour, they will support medical science over bombs.

  • qaz says:

    Salzberg is right - The answer isn't to cut our best scientists out, it's to switch our priorities and start putting defense-department waste money into science.

    I fail to see the problem with having a budget on the scale that would allow anyone qualified to have a lab and do good science. Taking Salzberg's idea of that one wasted plane would mean increasing the NIH budget by a factor of 12 ($400b/$31b) . Which would mean that there would be (effectively) 12 new faculty jobs available for every one now. If we continue that funding scale (since we're going to use that plane to fund our science), that should provide each of those jobs with enough for 2 R01s ($850b/$31b). The only reason that a doubling of the NIH budget isn't sustainable is because we assume we'll get cut back down to these DOD-rounding-error scrap scales.

    Can you imagine what we could do if we really could fund the top 50+ percent of grant applications? If every qualified person could land a faculty job? If faculty could be sure enough of their funding to guarantee people who didn't want to be faculty but wanted to do science a long-term job as a staff scientist? What kind of an amazing world that would be? Yeah, and then me and my hundred friends would go have fun ...

    (sigh) .... as long as I'm dreaming, I'd like a pony.

  • Dave says:

    The only reason that a doubling of the NIH budget isn't sustainable is because we assume we'll get cut back down to these DOD-rounding-error scrap scales.

    No, it's because it's not sustainable politically.

    Sadly, any of these is more likely than your "nightmare" scenario.

    Actually, if you were paying attention, a lot of this type of stuff has already happened (GOP banning NSF from funding political science, Bush banning stem cell research etc).

    If every night people saw on TV news of all those dying of cancer, instead of the terrorist-group-du-jour, they will support medical science over bombs.

    Sure, because talking up curing cancer and Ebola vaccines has worked wonders for the NIH in recent times, hasn't it?

  • Ola says:

    Did you catch this gem at the end of Lorsch's Follow up post on shared responsibility?

    ...NIH Director Francis Collins recently formed two NIH-wide working groups to develop possible new policies and programs related to some of the issues that I highlighted in my blog post [...] Once these committees have made their recommendations, Sally plans to set up a group to consider the question of NIH support for faculty salaries.

    Now that's a fight worth bringing popcorn to!

  • Dave says:

    I think the NIH will do something about salaries. Surely they have to. The most obvious is to restrict a PIs salary coming from a federal grant to some percentage, effectively wiping out soft-money positions. Would certainly be worth seeing the admin meltdown that would ensue.

  • Philapodia says:

    Yeah, all those so-called soft-money "faculty" can go fucke themselves. Fukken free-loaders, taking money from us what deserve it. You know, us real faculty.

  • Juan Lopez says:

    Dave,
    . Ebola did bring NIH to the discussion. So much that Republicans had to hurry to find projects to attack. The science community was not ready for the publicity. It doesn't work like that in science. Ebola is barely in the news now. The scientific work continues, but nobody notices.

    The military, on the other hand, was ready to capitalize, getting money to setup and strengthen bases in west Africa, and Americans softer on the idea of isolating and quarantining them forecefully.

    . The difference is that the military wins if people get scared. Science wins if people live better. It's a lot easier to get people scared.

    Qaz, you are mixing up total costs for the airplane program with yearly costs.

  • Meiopic says:

    The policy specifically excludes reporting Start up funds - see definition of unreported funds at the bottom.

  • Kevin says:

    I'm coming around to the idea of the NIH supporting direct research like the fee for service contract model. DOD, etc. Salaries and profit, too. But that will mean corporate competition for basic science funding, and I'm not sure the scientific enterprise is ready for or open to that.

  • Juan Lopez says:

    Kevin, could you expand on what you mean? It doesn't look to me like there is a lack of competition in science. On the contrary. I also doubt that DOD gets more bang for the buck...err, well maybe.

  • rxnm says:

    I don't get the big fuckin deal. So some HHMIers with 15 postdocs will have to get by with 10 or 11. Who cares? The idea that there is some magical unicorn noble class of "best scientists" who are having their success "punished" by *maybe* having their massive operating budgets reduced to being merely huge is laughable.

    There are a lot of talented scientists, and some, through a combination of luck, skill, and maybe even (always) double- and triple-reporting research progress across multiple awards enter a virtuous cycle where money begets money (with diminishing scientific returns and harm done through concentration of funds and loss of intellectual diversity). What is wrong with trying to put the breaks on that a little bit?

    Also, I feel bad for accusing NIH of doing nothing but rearranging deck chairs. They are also moving a few tables. Bold leadership.

  • Kevin. says:

    @Juan

    How different is a 10-head startup from a 100% soft-money position, really? Many startups, or even companies with a $1billion dollar market cap, are still waiting to turn a profit.

    Only 1% of NIH dollars seem to go to private, for-profit companies. I guess they get a better return, with fewer restrictions, selling stock investors. Why shouldn't we pay private companies to do the work (like the DOD does) rather than some upstart punk in an new academic lab? New ideas? I guess.. but that kind of suggests that the primary mission of NIH is to support basic research, rather than a specific fee-for-service contract at the DOD. My worry is that if we keep encouraging the NIH to support soft-money researchers, private enterprise might want to start cutting into the pie as well, and expect a profit. Hence, even more competition from outside academic science.

  • rxnm says:

    Capping PI salary percent (let's say...40%) is not going to eliminate soft money positions, despite the fact that it will cause much rending of garments and bleeding from the eyeballs of your favorite dean. It will moderately slow their growth. They have money. How do you think they are building all those buildings to put the 100% self-supported people in? You have to have faculty to justify deanlets, and deanlets are things that everyone needs.

  • Juan Lopez says:

    Kevin, "How different is a 10-head startup from a 100% soft-money position, really?". You have no idea how labs work. You also have no idea how competitive academic research is. Those punks you describe are amazingly productive and cost effective. Industry can't outsource that so they can't compete.
    . Keeping my lab funded is difficult and I worry about a lot of things. Competition from industry producing results cheaper than me?. Ha ha ha. If there was money to be made on this, private companies will be on it already. They know it is not the case. Companies are not willing to do so much work for so little money.
    . Companies get the billions much more easily through defence contracts. The oversight on NIH pennies is something they don't want.
    . One billion dollars startup compared to a lab, ha ha ha. Yo crack me up.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    but that kind of suggests that the primary mission of NIH is to support basic research, rather than a specific fee-for-service contract at the DOD.

    Umm...the NIH mission in large measure is to support basic research. A grant is not a contract precisely because you cannot specify the outcome ahead of time. You can order a battleship with X many guns and a maximum cruising speed of X knots. You can't just order up an advance in our understanding of biology in the same way because you don't know where those advances will come from or what they will be. So you invest in a diverse portfolio.

    And as Juan Lopez wrote above, it's absolutely laughable to think that companies could work as cost effectively as academic labs do.

  • jmz4 says:

    "And as Juan Lopez wrote above, it's absolutely laughable to think that companies could work as cost effectively as academic labs do."
    -I'd actually like to see if anyone's taken a stab at that analysis. First, there's the economies of scale that large companies get. Second, there's redundancy and secrecy built into the academic system that is very inefficient monetarily whereas companies benefit from a more open and collaborative environment (in some ways).
    In academia's favor you have low wage employees and ground level management with huge incentives to keep the budget tight.
    I guess any attempt to figure this out would need to settle on an acceptable metric for scientific productivity, which seems like it would be difficult to define.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    Companies have their place, but basic research does not necessarily have the short term payoff that really would be required for industry success in that area. Unless what Kevin means is merely shifting dollars to a new military industrial complex? Basic research is for the public good and the infrastructure that drives basic research and education is what is already indirectly subsidizing industry through training and knowledge. What more do you want, Kevin?

  • qaz says:

    Companies are extremely inefficient. The only reason anyone thinks companies are more efficient than government is that no one audits company books the way they audit government books.

    In the few cases where we do see company books (health care, for example), the differences between efficiencies of for-profit systems and government-based systems are very stark. Generally, this is due to the fact that the company's mission is to make money for its owners (and happens to make widgets on the side), while the government agency mission is to provide the widget (and happen to make enough money to continue making widgets).

    The idea that a profit-driven R&D company (of which there are a lot over on the military-industrial-intelligence side of the complex [see DARPA, IARPA]) would be more efficient than academic research labs is ludicrous.

    The only real advantage companies have over government is that since each company makes its own decisions about what widgets to build, the market of available widgets tends to be more complete than centralized decisions. This filling of the market space is accomplished in the research world by the investigator-initiated R01.

  • rxnm says:

    I like the defense contractor model: NIH pays for our research, then we sell it back to them for 10x the funding they gave us.

  • Davis Sharp says:

    Adding to what AcademicLurker, et al. have written about contract vs grant-funded research, government contracts are a bigger administrative headache with pre-award negotiations, quarterly or semi-annual reports, greater accounting for expenditures, etc.

    There's nothing wrong with running fee-for-service labs, but if the NIH converted to this format, there will be no basic scientists to request the core services, it will be frowned upon as competition with the private sector (e.g. LabCorp), and it will cost less than $30B per year.

  • jmz4 says:

    "Companies are extremely inefficient. The only reason anyone thinks companies are more efficient than government is that no one audits company books the way they audit government books. "
    -I don't know about that. Businesses get external audits all the time. Most accounting firms, for instance, require one, as do many law firms and other contracted entities. I do think your example is germane when a lack of adversarial negotiation on individual fees for services is happening (e.g. healthcare, where procedures are knocked off by a flat rate, rather than individually, leading to fees ballooning) or when sunk cost considerations kick in (eg. a lot of defense spending). Even then, the Pentagon reviews and kills contracts all the time (its just most times the home state senator won't let them). How much a theoretical contract-based NIH would resemble either of these models is up for debate, I suppose. If nothing else, it might make it easier on them to review several large contracts for efficiency versus thousands of small ones.
    At this point you'd basically be talking about a bunch of non-profit institutes, similar to European and Japanese models, right?

    I like the individuality of the US system, but it would be nice to see more pooling and cooperation amongst academic labs to take advantage of scale, though. Like a shared antibody bank where you could pay for small aliquots to test before ordering a whole vial, or bulk serum where the university could buy (and test) whole lots to reduce batch variability (and probably cost).

    Also, its a little ridiculous to laud academic labs as cost efficient when they underpay their employees so much that its becoming a problem for the system.

  • bad wolf says:

    I always enjoy complaints about defense funding as if that's the only 'fat' in the government. Food stamps managed to more than double in the last few years, growing more than the entire NIH budget, yet somehow i seem to see more starving labs than starving children.

    "The government spent a record $74.6 billion on SNAP benefits last year, roughly equivalent to the combined budgets of the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department and the Department of the Interior. .... In 2007, the government spent $30.4 billion on the program."

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887323699704578328601204933288

  • Dave says:

    Capping PI salary percent (let's say...40%) is not going to eliminate soft money positions,

    It wont eliminate, but it will severely restrict them. It will come down to decisions about who to support and who not to support. They will essentially become T/TT positions overnight.

    You have to have faculty to justify deanlets...

    Faculty? Maybe. Research faculty? Absolutely not. Clinical Faculty, aka revenue generators? Hell yes.

  • jmz4 says:

    @bad wolf:
    It's because military spending is far far and way the largest part of the discretionary budget, clocking in at between 400 and 600 billion.

    https://www.nationalpriorities.org/analysis/2013/president-obamas-fiscal-year-2014-budget/

  • bad wolf says:

    Way to miss a point, jmz4.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Way to miss a point bad wolf

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