Perspectives from senior scientists on the Emeritus award discussion

Feb 09 2015 Published by under #FWDAOTI, NIH, NIH Careerism

Tthe comments just keep coming over at RockTalking.

8581+ year old guy:

In 2012-13 my NIH renewal proposal with 4 specific aims was turned down 2X by the GM, NCSD Panel, with 35%+ priority scores. ...I appealed the grant reviews to the GM Council and they awarded the grant to me for 3 years at somewhat reduced funding. This funding will finance my lab until Sept 2016, after which I will close down. I am NOT closing down because I have lost my energy for, or interest in, research: [blah, blah we published and showed them!] I am closing down my lab because I can no longer put up with the aggravation of having my grants turned down

Cry me a river.

another senior investigator is on fire:

So far, all the comments fully support age discrimination. How sad! -

Age limits are silly and discriminatory. Merit worked well UNTIL there was no more money in the NIH bank.


There should be COMPETITIVE opportunities for scientists at all stages of their careers (notice I said competitive) . So it’s not a handout at all and it would be merit-based….just like those for newly trained scientists.

There are wonderful examples of some amazing senior scientists. ONE special initiative is not unreasonable for this group!

Finally, I don’t believe I said that I “deserve” anything… except not to be discriminated against for age, gender or whatever characteristic you wish to select.

emphasis added.

updated: omg, the old guy again!

At the last American Society for Cell Biology meeting in Philadelphia (December, 2014) I stood up at the membership meeting ( only ca. 30 people) attended by some of the senior wheels in cell biology. I asked that the society appoint a new standing committee that did
nothing but try to re-design the NIH extramural grant system in its entirety, eg. the grant applications, who can apply, how review panels are chosen, requirements for NIH supported investigators to serve on panels, and how key personnel of the NIH bureaucracy are chosen, and what type of grants should be awarded. My suggestion was not greeted with great enthusiasm and, in fact, elicited some negative comments.

Bashir points out something that is also important about this proposal.

After all that determination to do something after Ginther Report, with mentoring groups and other round-a-bout approaches aimed at eventually addressing racial disparities in grant awards, suddenly we may have a very direct new mechanism that, regardless of the underlying logic, is essentially un-diversity.

56 responses so far

  • qaz says:

    Has anyone ever heard someone at study section say about an old scientist "It's a good project, but ze's too old." or "They've had their run. Give someone else a shot." In 20 years of grant review, I've never heard either one. And I can only imagine the uproar if someone said the second one.

    Compare this to the many times we've heard "It's a good idea, but ze doesn't have the track record to pull this off." or (something I heard recently) "This young faculty has too many grants. Are we sure this person has proved ze can mange this many grants simultaneously?"

    They built the thunderdome for us. It's not our fault they're not able to keep up.

    PS. Merit wasn't about age. It was about stability. In fact, most of the Merit awardees that I knew of were mid-career faculty in their prime. Not supersenior faculty. I love the assumption that Merit grants (if they had been continued) would have gone to the supersenior baby boomers, and not the most deserving faculty (who might well be a lot younger than 65)!

    PPS. Also notice that this person with 35th percentile scores was able to wrangle three years of funding....

  • pinus says:

    wow. I am going to try to appeal my 35%tile grants and see what happens. I hope all of my colleagues and friends who have near perfect scores and are still waiting for funding with absurdly tight paylines don't mind. because, you see, I am a special butterfly. but it is all on merit mind you.

  • drugmonkey says:

    "this grant application is jam packed full of stuff that doesn't fit together coherently. It's not clear what hypotheses are being tested or how it will be interpreted. there is no way all this will get accomplished in 5 years so we don't know what the priority will be or what they will work on. but by gum, Professor Rosenbaum created the field and we know some incredible science will result. postdiscussion score, 1".

    How many times have we all heard that one, qaz? once per meeting on average? 1.5 times maybe?

  • drugmonkey says:

    PPS. Also notice that this person with 35th percentile scores was able to wrangle three years of funding....

    as Berg noted on Twitter, the poor chap had his award cut from almost $420K direct to a paltry $250K direct.....

    http://projectreporter.nih.gov/project_info_history.cfm?aid=8743210&icde=23430601

  • Philapodia says:

    Yes, but let's assume that after being at Yale since it was established and are still active faculty, one would have hit the salary cap ($183,300). If Rosenbaum is on a 9-month appointment (no idea if he is), that means that he has to cover ~$45,000 salary + 13,7500 in fringe (30% fringe rate), meaning that his salary alone would take ~$58,750 from the grant DC. Add in a couple of senior research associates and that $250K DC wouldn't last long if you're used to $450K. My god, you may have to pour your own gels!

    In the words of Mr-T: "I pity the fool".

  • drugmonkey says:

    that dude has to be on hard money right?

  • Dave says:

    Surely not 12 months worth.

    He's at Yale, so he must be awesome. Leave him alone.

  • I-75 scientist says:

    Being "in the field" I can only comment, that once Joel patted me on the back and said "nice talk"....

  • GAATTC says:

    I have had my current NIH grant from GM for 48 years. - See more at: http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2015/02/03/emeritus-rfi/#comment-22689

    48 years of funding! Wow. Ride off into the sunset.

  • Philapodia says:

    Who has a 12-month hard money appointment and where can I get that job?

  • qaz says:

    @ Philapodia: I do. It's called being a professor in a real department at a real university. (And, yes, I do teach and do university administrative service as well as running my research lab.)

  • Philapodia says:

    @Qaz

    Interesting. I'm curious what you consider is a real department and a real university? I'm in what I would consider a real department (or so my chair tells me at faculty meetings) at a real university (it's even in our schools name!). TT faculty get 9-month appointments at my Uni, whereas I know a number of other faculty at "real" universities who have about the same or 6 month appointment TT positions. Perhaps you're one of the lucky few...

  • Pinko Punko says:

    The guy has had an amazing run. I wonder if he realizes that under the current system, the probabilities of even mid career scientists of lasting as long are likely much smaller than when he came up. His feelings of being forced out are contrasted with the massive number of careers being terminated or even aborted before they really can begin. I have a kind of empathy for him because a system that could support him walking away on his terms maybe is one that has much more funding than we have currently, and a system that has resources to support contributions of a wide range of PIs would be nice.

    I'm not otherwise going to pile on because I recognize that if I am unable to support my research group I would likely feel my self worth being completely shaken. The guy feels like he's being laid off. Considering where he is in his career he's being self centered but I suspect he's pretty depressed. Aren't we all pretty depressed? I think this is why Dr. Rockey seems to be widely loathed. Her posts always reek of fake cheer and bs thinking. I talk to a lot of scientists that are not plugged into the drug monkey Hoi polloi and they still have negative opinions of initiatives that Rockey is the mouthpiece for.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    There was a good comment in the thread about smaller grants being something reasonable to have, without specifically being targeted to senior investigators they could still be useful for projects of reduced scope from an R01.

  • qaz says:

    @Philapodia - your issue is between 9 mo and 12 mo? That's always seemed a silly accounting term to me. The real question is annual salary. Does it really matter if it comes in 9 months out of the year or spread out over 12 months?

    The real question is how much is hard money and how much is soft. For all my snark about it, what I've seen is that most jobs contain a mix of the two. It doesn't makes sense to matter whether you call the job soft money and say that they only provide some small percentage of some big number in hard money or whether you call the job hard money and say that you can augment that with additional grants. In practice, there's a chunk that's provided by the university no matter what and a chunk that you can add to with outside grants.

    In my view, the question is whether the hard money portion is large enough to live on or whether you need the grants to put food on your table and a roof over your head.

  • I-75 scientist says:

    I agree with qaz. As I'm looking at positions right now, is there much of a difference in one that offers 9-mo hard salary + 3mo research support (off grants) vs one that says offers 12mo salary but wants 33% salary support from grant? In the end both total amounts are pretty much the same.

  • Philapodia says:

    @Qaz
    I meant 12-month all hard money positions with no requirement for salary coverage in my original post. That's what I assume DM was talking about with 81+ guy. I do agree with your last point, that it really does come down to if you can live with the hard money salary or require soft money salary to get by. I guess it depends on your own particular situation. A childless couple at my Uni with little debt may be able to scrape along with the 75% hard money salary and no soft money, whereas someone with kids and child care expenses would not.

  • Grumble says:

    @Pinko: " I think this is why Dr. Rockey seems to be widely loathed. Her posts always reek of fake cheer and bs thinking. "

    That's exactly why I never read her blog. What she posts is either absolutely irrelevant to me (new regulations for grants managers! Must now chant "ommmm" while submitting fiscal report form ZB-95!) or it is such utter bullshit that I cannot stomach it.

    DM does us a true service by wading through her sewage and blogging about it when it's anything of importance.

  • Grumble says:

    @DM: "'this grant application is jam packed full of stuff that doesn't fit together coherently. It's not clear what hypotheses are being tested or how it will be interpreted. there is no way all this will get accomplished in 5 years so we don't know what the priority will be or what they will work on. but by gum, Professor Rosenbaum created the field and we know some incredible science will result. postdiscussion score, 1'.

    How many times have we all heard that one, qaz?:

    Yeah, but what if the statement is true? You know, there are some excellent scientists out there who can't write grants worth beans. It might seem unfair for their hot mess applications to win grants while the rest of us have to submit polished gems, but the bottom line is that reviewing grants is not about what's fair - it's about using the information we have to decide who is going to produce the best science.

  • dsks says:

    "I have had my current NIH grant from GM for 48 years"

    Hang on a minute. Is Reporter telling it right that this dude has been running on one grant from the NIH for 48 years and no other?

    And he's throwing his dummy out of the pram and yelling discrimination because he has now had the grand total of TWO grants rejected from the NIH?

    Seriously?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Seriously.

  • drugmonkey says:

    And yet, Grumble, there are soooo many aspects of review that are designed with fair, unbiased review in mind. Funny. Maybe you are out of step?

  • Pinko Punko says:

    I think that the days of biggies getting a pass are likely gone. At 35% payline it is much easier to make case that poor grant from stellar track record person will still result in significant impact to the field. Now, funding such grants have a super obvious negative impact on science by squeezing out really well conceived and proposed studies.

  • Ola says:

    Reading the comments over at RockTalk has been my favorite pop-corn guzzling pass-time for the past couple of days.

    Qaz is right on the money regarding MERIT awards. In my late 30s I received an R01 renewal score better than 5th %ile, which would have qualified for just such an award if the institute hadn't abandoned the mechanism a couple of months before the council meeting. Most of the people I know who are on the tail end of their merit awards are in their mid-to-late 50s now. I'm not aware that a majority of merit holders are graybearded emeriti, but stand to be corrected (perhaps by DataHound numbers?)

  • MoBio says:

    @Ola

    If you consider a 'gray beard' someone over 60 yes I know of someone who received one well into that decade (though he/she doesn't have gray hair). I'm sure there are precise numbers out there but expect there to be few of these.

    In that case I believe there was little doubt about the MERIT of this particular award to that person.

    As someone who has received a handful of grants in the <3% it would certainly have been nice to have gotten a MERIT award but have alway been deemed 'non-MERIT-orious'

  • Grumble says:

    @DM: NIH grant review is as Fair and Unbiased as Fox News is Fair and Balanced.

    I'm not out of step. I just see the difference between the patina and the subsurface.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Has to be a renewal with an eye popping percentile, right? And even so, they don't hand out that many. I think this program is a potentially huge fix for the "stability of funding" issue and could seriously affect churn. But it has to be used broadly and democratically to work.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I disagree Grumble. Fox set that out as an intentional lie. The NIH actually aspires to fairness and achieves gains toward fairness with many of its policies. Imperfection of outcome doesn't equate to Fox's intentional slanting of everything.

  • qaz says:

    Re: MERIT. Datahound could speak to this better than I, but I have this memory that someone looked at renewal after getting a MERIT and it was actually lower than expected. (That is, renewal of a MERIT award was less than first or second renewal of equivalently scored R01s.) [Datahound - do you know these stats?]

    Re: Grumble. NIH desperately tries to be fair. NIH's structure of grant review is in fact directly targeted at increasing fairness by either removing biasing factors (for example, by having explicit statements about ensuring diversity on grant review, or by ensuring appropriate expertise on study sections) or by providing anti-biasing procedures (NI/ESI). The fact that they are imperfect does not mean that they are not improving, nor does it mean that they do not want to improve.

    To compare NIH's fairness attempts with FauxNews shows either a remarkable lack of understanding or deliberate trolling. Neither of which helps the conversation.

    PS. The idea that DrugMonkey (DrugMonkey!?!) doesn't see under the patina is so ludicrous as to imply trolling.

  • Evelyn says:

    Wow - I still can't get over 35th %ile getting funded. My experience with the 60+ scientists is that they are not necessarily bad writers, it is that they don't want to do all the extra leg-work necessary (finding the right study section, speaking with the PO, finding the right call, tracking paylines, etc.)

  • drugmonkey says:

    How do we know that chap didn't get all of his string of renewals at the top of the fundable range all along? Back in the 80s a 35% was actually *comfortably* under the payline for experience investigators renewing their grants.

  • anonymous PI says:

    I'm confused as to why people are so angry about the old guy with the grant that got funded at the 35th percentile. He is still producing really cool science that's getting published in top journals, so it seems like whoever made that decision to fund him, made the right one. My guess would be that he came of age at a time when grantsmanship mattered less and when you actually proposed what you really intended to do in your grants, not the crap that you think the reviewers want to see. This is the elephant in the room with all the people griping about how this guy is preventing really great ideas from being funded. In my experience, it's quite rare that people actually do exactly what they propose in their grants anyway.

  • Grumble says:

    My comments about bias were not meant to troll. I actually agree that NIH tries pretty hard to set up grant review so that it's as unbiased as possible (for instance, by having 3 reviewers for each application, which increases the diversity of reviewers). But for all of that, each reviewer brings his/her own biases to the table, and quite often they align. Just one example is the current rage for everything opto. I've seen proposals for inane experiments that almost everyone on study section loves just because the experiments involve optogenetics (never mind that the same question could be answered with an easier experiment that doesn't involve opto). And I've seen study sections shoot down proposals because they DIDN'T have opto even though everything else about the proposal was top notch. That's the sense in which I mean that NIH grant review is biased (OK, not intentionally like Fox News, but it's the way the system works).

    And, by the way, my willingness to give a good overall score to grants from scientists who I think are top notch even if their proposal shows poor grantsmanship is my own bias. Sometimes it works in the applicant's favor if the other reviewers and the rest of the study section agree. I don't think that this form of bias is any more out of place in the NIH review system than the form of bias that is currently promoting silly opto experiments.

  • pinus says:

    the real kick in the ass is that if you sit on a study section, you will see that senior investigators get immense latitude. 'well, this grant is chock full of problems, but I know Dr. X, and she always gets it done, score is a 2' while a junior investigator gets hung out to dry for same issues.

  • drugmonkey says:

    And that tends to add up.

  • drugmonkey says:

    "I know junior Mint did all that great work in Prof Whosit's lab and I just know she'll kick butt on this project"

    ....I never hear that one

  • Stencil says:

    He was actually funded at the 42nd percentile.

  • datahound says:

    qaz: I do not recall or know anything about renewals after MERIT awards.

    On the subject of MERIT awards, I noticed that Prof. Rosenbaum had a MERIT award from 1999 to 2008. Interestingly, his budget in the first year of the MERIT was $482 annual total costs in the first year of the MERIT and $688K in the last year. When I first saw this, I thought maybe another grant had been folded in, but this does not appear to be the case.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I wondered about that too. Could be loss of nonNIH funds?

  • poke says:

    I don't think that this form of bias is any more out of place in the NIH review system than the form of bias that is currently promoting silly opto experiments.

    Completely agree. Both are equally wrong. Which one can you control, again? "Be the change you want to see..." and all that, you know?

  • datahound says:

    I suppose, but looking at a few publications over this period does not reveal any funding to him other than the R01. The budget went from $536K in 2003 to $812K in 2004, and then to $688K in 2005. This seems most likely to be due to the purchase of a major piece of equipment. Perhaps his research went in a new direction and he renegotiated his budget during his MERIT extension.

  • CD0 says:

    It is clear that these whiners did not bother serving in a study section for the last 2 years.
    That or they were not trusted by SROs.

    With >45% of grants not discussed and only one in ten funded, the odds are really slim. Many outstanding grants (likely better than theirs) go unfunded.

    Unless they truly believe that the rest of their colleagues are inferior.

    I hope that I will never become of these delusional complainers that bypass peer-review with privileged funding and still cry.

  • drugmonkey says:

    They truly believe that they are deserving and that all the people who have been less successful over the years are inferior. Yes.

    This is what fuels the outrage of people who are finally feeling the true stress upon the system.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Something here does not compute. There is no need for an 80 year old at Yale to take ANY salary out of their grants. First of all they are probably pulling about 5K/month out of social security. Second they have to take distributions from their 401K or whatever (a substantial amount) and then they have their retirement from the university.

    What happened at many government labs is that people took emeritus standing and kept on working. Since their money now came out of the retirement pool, that left room to hire/support the newbies. Eli knows of many similar cases at universities.

  • Philapodia says:

    Ah, the old dude is imparting wisdom. Cliff notes:

    1) I never missed the payline for my renewal for for 48 years, so I must be doing important work.

    2) I keep funded because I publish innovative, important work in an active field (algae movement). I even have a Wikipedia page.

    3) I teach a undergrad cell bio class that has high attendance because I'm an awesome teacher, not because it's a requirement for graduation.

    4) If you have a complaint, just talk to the people you know on the GM council or on the study section. I'm sure they'll help you!

    5) I can't tell you why age discrimination was at play because [reasons], but "I know".

    http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2015/02/03/emeritus-rfi/#comment-23121
    http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2015/02/03/emeritus-rfi/#comment-23126

    I'm sure he's a nice fellow and he's done some good work, but it's kind of sad to see such cluelessness...

  • drugmonkey says:

    What is "sad" is that he has so much company in this flawed understanding of the world.

  • Ageing PI says:

    I would like to comment on the idea that experienced investigators get a break at study section quote "well, this grant is chock full of problems, but I know Dr. X, and she always gets it done, score is a 2' while a junior investigator gets hung out to dry for same issues". I just returned from regular study section duties, and the few times this is brought up it, it is quickly shot down by either the chair/SRO or others. WE judge a grant only on what is written on the proposal in front of us. If the grant has problems, it gets scored appropriately. There are no breaks. The comment that goes unchallenged is the reviewer comment that "this is a new investigator, so we should give them some leeway/break on issues A and B", and I believe is entirely appropriate to give new investigators some leeway in scoring.
    Plus I may be getting old, but my ideas are as good as those of you youngsters!

  • drugmonkey says:

    If the person had to be smacked down at study section, the die is already cast.

  • Philapodia says:

    @aging PI "WE judge a grant only on what is written on the proposal in front of us. If the grant has problems, it gets scored appropriately."

    This doesn't acknowledge subconscious bias and assumes that all decisions made of the validity of proposed experiments are completely conscious.

  • MoBio says:

    @Philopodia

    "This doesn't acknowledge subconscious bias and assumes that all decisions made of the validity of proposed experiments are completely conscious."

    Ahhh...if only there were a way to eliminate subconscious bias...or even illuminate it....

    The biggest thing I dread is not subconscious bias (f0r or against me as a scientist) but the possibility that whoever is reviewing my grant just had a bad day--and takes it out on the first grant on the pile (which happens to be mine).

  • Philapodia says:

    Obviously there is no way to completely remove bias from review, as it's a human endeavor and we all have biases (whether we are willing to admit it or not). As long as we try to minimize their impact and accept that they will happen, I think that's the best we can do.

    @MoBio Perhaps put a funny cat meme or dirty limerick in your SA page to make the reviewer laugh if they're having a bad day? Goodness knows, each SA page talks about gloom and doom (we're all going to get cancer / we're all going become obease/ recreational pot is going to cause widespread reefer madness), so I know I would appreciate some levity in my current batch of proposals I'm reviewing.

  • drugmonkey says:

    It is easy to be comfortable with the idea of subconscious biases when the best explicated systemic ones tend to be in favor of oneself.

  • Philapodia says:

    Being comfortable with your bias isn't the point, it's simply being aware of it and trying to mitigate its negative impacts on the system. People are always going to think their shitte is the coolest (otherwise why would they be working on it?), but recognizing that other stuff is just as important and needs to get done too is critical for the whole thing to work.

    It's like the old saying goes "Do unto others before they do unto you"... Wait, that's not right...

  • drugmonkey says:

    I was referring to what bothers MoBio.

  • MoBio says:

    @DM:

    Hmmm...I guess the point was to realize that we all carry subconscious/unconscious biases. By definition these are going to be hidden.

    So it was 'we' rather than 'they'.

  • Philapodia says:

    Looks like Sally has been playing with Excel again over at RockTalk. There's a pretty chart about the aging of the PI pool. Looks like the 60+ crowd are the big winners over the last 17 years (which is no surprise...).

    http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2015/03/25/age-of-investigator/

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