Poll: Fixing the NIH Action Items

Mar 06 2015 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH

Long time commenter Neuro-conservative offered up some specific action items for fixing the NIH. Which of these is of highest priority to you?

70 responses so far

  • Duke of Neural says:

    I feel like I don't understand #5 enough. Is there a primer on why F and T awards are bad? I'm writing my second F32 application having had to turn down the first F32 because I was changing labs, and was on a T32. Maybe I should ask once I'm done with this one so I can stay somewhat motivated...

  • Duke of Neural says:

    Actually, hold on, let me finish reading the comments first. Where's the delete option...

  • DJMH says:

    WTF, where is the DJMH-bomb option of shifting more money to Fs?

  • drugmonkey says:

    This was N-c's dealio

  • drugmonkey says:

    I'm curious how many voting for 50% salary on grants also think there should only be 50% effort? Or are you meaning effort to the project that is supported by some other source of funding. If the latter, feel free to describe that source of funding.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    Don't make it an option if there are strings attached, dm.

    I will say that I think that 6 pagers do no one any good on proposals. I sort of feel like one advantage of little person is to get at nuts and bolts of actual science and can get at real experiments instead of just vague outline.

  • E-Rook says:

    I think that PIs (if they are the TT breed of professorship), also serve on hiring committees, P&T committees, curriculum committees, they write grants (up to how much time?), they lecture, they mentor, they advise.

    None of these activities are on the Aims page of an R-type grant.

    If they get an Independent Scientist K award, sure bring the NIH support up to 100% (hypothetically -- 25 on the R and 75 on the K). Great. Get a Mentoring-type K award -- sure bring that up to 100%, but extract her from the departmental business. The P&T requirements for such individuals should be adjusted accordingly too. If someone is getting 100% of their support from the NIH (supposedly) to work on research projects, they shouldn't be pressured into uni service & teaching for advancement.

    If someone is serving on a search committee, spending all their time writing grants, or leading the graduate journal club, the NIH has no business paying all of their salaries.

  • yikes says:

    I like the idea of having more reviewers per R01, and tossing the outliers. It might make the scores more accurate. But, at the end of the day, I don't think any review mechanism can accurately pick the best 15% of a pool. So there will be a lot of noise around the success rate, (false positive and negatives).

  • E-Rook says:

    I think a lottery is a non-starter. I really can't even take that seriously. I'm on-board with the five reviewers & dropping high/low. But 6 pages is ridiculously short (it was 25 pages not long ago). I would add to the proposals is to phase out the two-year mechs. They don't work as intended. The NIH specifically advises Noobs to NOT use the R21 as a "starter" grant leading to an R01, while SS behaves JUST THAT WAY ... and an R21 is supposed to be more innovative and risky than an R01 -- so why on Gods green earth would a rational person create a high risk project for their startup? There's such a disconnect between the needs of a new PI, the intent of NIH, and the behavior of SS's on the two-year mechs, I say trash them and don't look back.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    DM - Thanks for putting this up! I appreciate your responsiveness, and I am very excited in general about the quality & intensity of the discussion on this blog over the last week or so. I wonder if it was the intensity of your boomer rant, or some other trigger? It is striking, given that there is no major external event or policy change.

    To the point, it appears that the 50% PI salary phase-in is clearly in the lead (for the record, I voted for the tuition option, but I would support and and all of the choices). I would next be curious how many people would oppose this measure. If a large number oppose, then it is simply another "do it to Julia" option. But perhaps it would gain overall acceptance?

    I take it that you, DM, might oppose this on the grounds that soft-money folks would be the Julia in this scenario. Am I correct? Realistically (and specifically), what do you think would happen if this requirement were phased in over a 10-year period? I assume institutions would consolidate support around their (perceived) most sustainable investigators, and the cull would be accelerated to some extent. But would it be catastrophic, or lead to irrational distortions? I'm not so sure - but I'm open to persuasion.

  • drugmonkey says:

    My main problem, realistically and specifically, is that I've watched State governments abandon their University profs. More teaching hours by adjuncts, more research dollars demanded. There is no will whatsoever to come up with this extra hard money cash. So where is it to come from? Philanthropy? Like the Us aren't squeezing that stone as hard as they can already?

    This means that NIH research will be concentrated in those few Us that choose to pay up. So the wealthiest private ones- that diminishes diversity and opportunity, therefore science quality. It might survive in some forward thinking States which support their public Professors....maybe. But then this also diminishes diversity of participation. It also translates the burden of the Federal request for a service onto a subset of the Nation's taxpayers. That's bogus.

    It also means that the Universities pick their winners to support. I don't trust local political fights and heavy handed Deanlet decision making to take over the task of selecting what science is done, thank you very much.

  • DJMH says:

    Universities already pick their winners, DM--it's called faculty hiring season.

    N-c, still wondering why you support dissolution of Ts and Fs. That ends up concentrating power in the hands of the PIs, which leads to some of the worst abuses.

  • E rook says:

    I think the state should get what they pay for. Shrink the uni, hire fewer faculty, raise tuition, reduce student services & amenities. Explain to the students why this is happening and encourage them to vote as a lifelong habit. Wait 8 years (4 legislative election cycles). I don't think NIH should subsidize non research related activities (unless it's specifically through k, f, t mechs). The expectation for faculty to raise their entire salary (or >50%) creates a cognitive dissonance between their monetary incentive (write grant applications), and their supposed academic mission. It leads to bad outcomes.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Yes and at present there are a lot of Universities picking a lot of candidates. This will be sharply reduced if NIH insists on at least 50% hard money for all applicants.

    Remember, even those currently in hard money jobs are being underwritten, in part, by their 95% softmoney peers.

  • qaz says:

    "Remember, even those currently in hard money jobs are being underwritten, in part, by their 95% softmoney peers."

    That's not correct. Those currently in hard money jobs without federal grants are being underwritten, in part (in large part) by their peers who have federal grants. In most of those hard-money positions, faculty are encouraged/required/rewarded for bringing in federal $$$. Most universities make a bet that some proportion of the "hard-money" will be covered by federal dollars, so they can hire more hard-money positions than they actually have money for. On the one hand, this means that faculty have a safety net if they fail and provides more room for quality faculty to explore new directions. On the other hand, this becomes a major problem when those hard-money faculty don't bring in as much money as expected.

    DM says "It might survive in some forward thinking States which support their public Professors....maybe". We are already seeing major differences in economic situations between states that are investing and those that aren't. At some level, isn't this what we want? When some states fail and others succeed, maybe we can start to see that transition back to investment in infrastructure and community that we've lost. (It's going to have to be a long-haul journey. They took 30 years to destroy it, it'll probably take 30 years to get it back.)

    Also, I definitely agree with E-Rook on principle, but my experience is that universities are particularly poor at this. (When my BigStateResearchUniversity was forced to do a three-day furlough, they decided to do it on December 26,27,29 so that it would interfere with the school as little as possible - which, of course, only told the state legislature that we didn't really need that money.) On the other hand, it does work when done right. When Walker first tried to sink UWisconsin by cutting it by 25% they threatened to not accept any incoming students, all the parents with graduating high school senior complained and they put the money back. We'll have to see if UWisconsin is going to continue to hold off Walker's attacks.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I'm one of those who voted for the 50% cap as the top priority. My reasons are based on having been in a soft money position at an R1 medical school until a few years ago and now being in a hard money position (that's still fairly research intensive despite the increased teaching).

    What I've seen is that soft money departments are much more elastic in terms of faculty. They're happy to expand rapidly when times are flush and happy to toss people overboard when things get tight. In contrast, at my current department creating a new TT line is a big deal and a lot of consideration and negotiation with other departments and administration is involved.

    I'm not opposed to soft money positions in principle, but IME, soft money departments are the ones that will undermine every effort to stabilize the funding climate by expanding in response to every increase in the NIH budget and thus making sure that the system remains overburdened to the point of collapse. If I thought that the heads of individual institutions would realize that limiting growth was in the collective interest, I would be in favor of leaving it up to them. But this is a classic tragedy of the commons situation. The only way to change the behavior is to reduce the incentive. And that means reducing the $$.

  • anonymous postdoc (shrew) says:

    My experience aligns with Academic Lurker's, though I have been watching these interactions play out above my head, obviously - but my observation has been that medical schools at private institutions want as many revenue generators as possible for minimum investment. Soft money faculty are commodities, just like postdocs and pork bellies - one is just as good as another, and if this one isn't getting grants and CNS glory, boot her and get 2 more.

    I also voted for 50% coverage maximums, to combat this trend. However, I know that this option, while it might force the desired outcome at the fancy private institutions, may also leave state-funded public institutions in the lurch. But the fancy private institutions (hell, just the ones in Boston alone) take quite a bit of the pie already. Forcing them to follow an economic reality closer to more pedestrian institutions might help to increase the geographic diversity of science, by reducing the concentration of faculty at fancy private coastal institutions who are forced to support 96% of their salary on grants. I can dream, anyway.

  • rxnm says:

    "Remember, even those currently in hard money jobs are being underwritten, in part, by their 95% softmoney peers."

    Not true here. There are soft money (though not over 50% that I know of) positions in the faculty of medicine, none in the faculty of science. That money does *not* move between one faculty and the other. Hard money science faculty are paid for by lecturing to pre-meds.

  • Grumble says:

    How come "reduce the maximum indirect cost rate to 20%" is not one of the options?

  • zb says:

    Given a constant pie, if career stability is a goal, we have to talk about mechanisms to limit the pool of applicants for the federal dollars (career stability doesn't have to be a goal -- we can just continue on the tournament model/chewing up people on the way as long as we continue to have new entrants, and we probably will, as long as we can attract people anywhere in the world).

    Limiting entrants to the lottery (decreasing funding for faculty/graduate students from federal dollars) might decrease diversity (though are soft money faculty more diverse, as a population? I'd be tempted to guess not, on the grounds that under-represented minorities are less able to take the career risks, because of a lower likelihood of family financial support). And, it limits new entrants who might be better than those who have already been designated a piece of the pie. But, that's a necessary effect of any system that limits churn. Churn is what allows new people to enter, to fail and re-enter, . . . . I don't see a way to have a system that offers constant opportunity for those outside the system and also protects the long term stability of the people inside the system.

    So, how to limit entrants? Right now, the incentives for universities are to hire faculty (with the goal of obtaining federal dollars) and expand graduate programs (again, federal dollars). Limits of federal funds for both of those revenue incentives seem like a good start. The next step? to redistribute some of those dollars with federal decision making, potentially with training grants/core support at institutions. In my mind, this is like creating NIH intramural programs at other institutions, if NIH is paying all the bills, NIH can make the decisions, too.

  • drugmonkey says:

    What does "fungible" mean, rxnm ?

  • drugmonkey says:

    qaz- no, we do not want the Fed interests being paid by volunteer states. Absolutely not. Do we ask a subset of states that are really keen on warfare pay for the DoD? Or is everyone expected to cough up their share?

  • Greg says:

    Grumble: "How come "reduce the maximum indirect cost rate to 20%" is not one of the options?"

    I second that. Added a write-in.

  • qaz says:

    DM - even now, different states pay different portions of the federal budget. (See http://talkingpointsmemo.com/images/give-take-small-final.png.) In large part this is due to differences in states creating internal economic opportunities and thus depending in different aspects on the federal safety net. (NB: I'm a strong proponent of the federal safety net!) But in practicality, yes, different states are paying differently for the DoD war budget.

    Everyone is expected to pay their fair share. The question is whether some states are not paying their fair share because they refuse to invest in their universities and research institutions. (Like the fact that a full time job at Walmart often leaves workers on food stamps, which means the US tax payers are paying part of Walmart's workers' salaries instead of Walmart paying those salaries.) Some of what makes a research job useful is the local job opportunities it creates. Would forcing institutions to put up part of the faculty salary create better universities/research institutions in those institutions willing to invest in their own research budgets?

  • Dave says:

    In fairness, the issue of salary from the NIH is already in play and is leading to quite significant faculty cuts. There are very few faculty in my whole department who can meet the 95% salary coverage for any meaningful length of time, so the university is already making decisions to let people go and not cover their salaries. However, they will not fire someone who has a single R01, at least they haven't yet, even if that only pays 30% salary. So in my experience, if one has federal funding that doesn't cover 95%, the admin will not complain too loudly. The key is to have some federal funding and some chance of getting more. It is absolutely not true that schools will not cover any salary, at least right now. But they need to see some evidence of the PI bringing in major dollars. If you have zero funding, you will be out immediately, and that is certainly happening.

    By the time the NIH acts on this, it might not have much effect.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    By the time the NIH acts on this, it might not have much effect.

    As per my comment above, I think the most important effect is on future behavior. No doubt places are cutting now because times are lean, but what will discourage them from expanding like crazy all over again if the budget starts to improve?

  • drugmonkey says:

    qaz- paying a different share of the entire Federal budget is called taxation. Duh. This is entirely different from picking and choosing what parts a given taxpayer will pay for. The latter is to be discouraged. It dismantles the entire idea of collective taxation for mutual benefit.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Churn is what allows new people to enter, to fail and re-enter, . . . . I don't see a way to have a system that offers constant opportunity for those outside the system and also protects the long term stability of the people inside the system.

    This. All we are talking about should be the relative balance of stability and opportunity. We recently experienced a long run of relative stability *for some* that came at the expense of opportunity for others. I.e. GenX got screwed. Perhaps this will help you see why I am not keen on more ladder pulling policy from those currently on the inside of the system. Yeah, even though it would benefit me.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    We recently experienced a long run of relative stability *for some* that came at the expense of opportunity for others.

    But DM, are soft money positions with pay lines hovering around 8% at many institutes really "opportunity" in any meaningful sense?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Success rates are much higher but yes. Do you imagine that I have been complaining, and inviting my Readers to complain, about the NIH system for so many years because I think this is all hunky dory?

  • newbie PI says:

    I like the 6 page idea (even though the lotto part would never fly). Why do we need any more details than what can be covered in 6 pages? I've honestly never worked in a lab that actually did what they wrote in their grants anyway. This is now true in my lab as well. Sure, we work on the same general topic and have goals similar to what was written in the grant. But, we write grants based on what we think reviewers want to see and what is most likely to avoid criticism, rather than writing what we actually plan to do.

  • drugmonkey says:

    How do the comments on competitive continuations generally shake out in your experience?

  • qaz says:

    DM, I never suggested that we should "pick and choose what parts of the federal government a given taxpayer will pay for. " That's a complete mischaracterization of my statements.

    What I did say, however, is that in the current scenarios, everyone is NOT paying their fare share of taxes. If my state pays for half my salary and needs federal money for half, while your state pays for none of your salary and needs federal money to pay for all of it, then your state is not paying its fair share of taxes. Instead, your state is freeloading off of mine. We would all be better off if your state paid its fare share too.

    To turn this conversation to a less abstract point, however, I think it worth coming back to something that BenK said in one of his several very insightful comments - that historically, science was done by people who had other tasks (and thus other income streams). If we are going to demand that NIH only pay for half of someone's salary, then that person will have to have another income stream. This means either a non-NIH source of research-related dollars (state? how many states are going to really pay for pure research? private? with private, we need to be very careful of conflict-of-interest issues), or we have someone working only part-time as a research scientist. Historically, people did this by doing things that were at least related to their science - teaching related classes, for example.

  • drugmonkey says:

    You continue with this utterly false reasoning. Whatever the NIH pays for is a Federal request. It is not a State request.

    *any* part by which a State funded University contributes to that Federal product is unequal taxation for a *Federal* purpose.

    BenK's suggestion that NIH funded researchers need to put up with a system designed for amateur science, like the NSF, is arguable* but don't try to pretend it is not something that it clearly is- the Fed asking for cut rate service of its needs.

    *sort of

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    I think the State vs Fed thing is a bit of a sidetrack, because State Unis are just one component of the ecosystem.

    I think the issue of stabilization and skin-in-the-game is essential to the suggestion of salary coverage by institutions. Different types of institutions will have greater or lesser ability or desire to do so, and will have greater or lesser ability to find other functions (clinical, teaching) for investigators to do. Note that I am not fully down with BenK's suggestion that PI's should be expected to do other things -- I would prefer that the institutional support be viewed as an investment in the PI, rather than a fee for service.

    DM -- How would you feel if it were only 25% or 30% rather than 50%? Perhaps that would be enough to stabilize the workforce and relieve a bit of pressure off R01 budgets, without requiring as disruptive a shift?

  • drugmonkey says:

    I still want know where this money is supposed to be coming from. I see very little collective will of extramural institutions to come up with any additional funds. Are you suggesting the NIH put in a 5-10 yr plan to shrink the number of PIs to that pool commensurate with this 50% dictum? This will take is down to what, 30% of our current PI force? 20%? Maybe less. And it will for sure mean we're back to mostly small-town grocer operations.

    Is that what you mean to be the result? If so, fine, I just seek clarity.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    DM - I'm not sure why you think the results would be so radical, both quantitatively and qualitatively (totally didn't get why it would --> small-town grocer; I would guess the opposite -- institutions would be more willing to invest in multi-R01 multi-million-IDC PI's).

    Of course there is not much will towards putting up extra funds - that's why NIH would have to require it. But as you have repeatedly noted, most of these institutions are large with many sources of fungible funds that can be directed in any number of ways. And these institutions are going to invest in PIs if that is ante required in order to play the game.

    Let's dial it back to 25%, phased in over 5 years (plus a one-year warning period). Would this be so radical? Would it not help stabilize the workforce and bring a better alignment of incentives? There would of course be investigators and institutions that find themselves on the losing end of the stick - I'm not pollyana-ish. I assume this would accelerate the cull at the margins. But probably not in a way that disproportionately affected the young, old, minorities, women, etc etc.

  • ProfDuder says:

    The R01 lottery is an intriguing idea. Instead of the 67% triage, you should just have a weighted lottery. The top score gets 100 tickets in the lottery, the bottom score gets 1 ticket. Something like that.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Not sure whether you can see the 'Other' responses, here are the ones so far.

    Reduce allowable overheads. Force PIs to charge legitimate costs as direct.

    Eliminate paying students & postdocs on R01, move all to F and T

    Putting DJMH in charge

    Reduce the NIH intramural budget, currently about $3 billion for 1200 PIs

    funding the sprogs

    Fix overhead for all institutions to 30%

    return of mandatory 65 yr retirement

  • MorganPhD says:

    What would stop a university from hiring a bunch of faculty at $50K/year at 50% hard money to comply with any NIH mandate? Because I bet that's what would happen...

    For the record, I voted for the elimination of student tuition from R01's, but I'd take it further. Phase trainee support completely from R01 applications, including post-doc support.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    What would stop a university from hiring a bunch of faculty at $50K/year at 50% hard money to comply with any NIH mandate?

    Nothing. But if those are TT positions and the universities plan on promoting anyone, then they are potentially on the hook for $50K a year for 20 or more years. That's different from being on the hook for $5K or $0K.

  • drugmonkey says:

    that's why NIH would have to require it. But as you have repeatedly noted, most of these institutions are large with many sources of fungible funds that can be directed in any number of ways. And these institutions are going to invest in PIs if that is ante required in order to play the game.

    My point is that there are only going to be a very small subset of Universities that can or will do so. This will severely diminish the intellectual diversity of the NIH research process. It will concentrate funds into the hands of a very, very tiny few (your multi-R01 rainmakers) which is bad and those who are left will be small town grocers who also have substantial energy devoted to non-research activities. This is also bad. As you are aware, I believe all the kvetching about preparing lectures, all the skimping on teaching to focus on research even for those on partial hard money and knowledge of how hard it is even when you are 100% focused on the research testifies to why this 50/50 business is going to hamstring research progress.

    One can bleat on all they like about how being a "real" professor greatly improves your research but I have only to survey PubMed in my fields of interest to falsify that claim. We have some strong contributors that look like traditional split-effort professors, no doubt. and there are probably some real outliers that defy the trend and apparently do it all at a superlative level. But the trend is most certainly that the most productive labs and scientists over the past 40 years in substance abuse have been people with the vast majority of their time commitment to grant funded research.

    Would it not help stabilize the workforce and bring a better alignment of incentives?

    Maybe. or maybe it would make Universities churn through their professors who are not producing grant dollars even faster because they are burning their own dollars on them. I don't even know what 'alignment of incentives' means. Do you mean this Federal entity doubles down on getting its business done by demanding someone else pay more of the cost? Sure, I guess that "aligns" the NIH's incentives to get as much research done for as little money as they possibly can. I happen to think this is short-sighted and will actually be counterproductive in the end.

    I assume this would accelerate the cull at the margins. But probably not in a way that disproportionately affected the young, old, minorities, women, etc etc.

    I don't see how you can possibly think this when local University hiring and promoting has such a long history and currently unresolved present of disproportionally affecting selected subgroups.

    N-c, I have a question. What percentage reduction in the current number of PIs winning NIH research grants do you propose as a good target? And let's not take the easy route by looking over there, at those guys. Assume it applies equally across all NIH activities (it won't but that's another discussion) to any possible subgrouping you look at. It is most helpful if you start your considerations with your fields of closest interest and your peeps of greatest affection.

  • thorazine says:

    Grumble, Greg -

    There's always a clamor for reduced IDC rates. It's never clear to me whether those who ask for this have thought it through. The two consequences I see are (1) more institutions restricting applications for non-federal funding (the overheads from NIH grants are what allow research funded by ACS or March of Dimes to get done) and (2) research institutes shutting down (a lot of those places that charge 95% overheads really do have no other way to survive). This could all translate into more net funding for the survivors in the long run, but in the short run it looks like a pretty haphazard and vicious way to thin the herd.

    Do you see this differently? Why? ("My lab only does bioinformatics so IDC is a waste" is not really an acceptable answer, IMO.)

  • Dave says:

    @DM: I think we need to distinguish NIH policy that is sustainable long-term versus what is good for science. No doubt we would all prefer lots of labs doing cool science competing for grants with a reasonable success rate. But that's not what we have, and we are not going to get there without a reduction in force. That's definitely bad for science, but that's not really what we are talking about. That's a whole new thread.

  • drugmonkey says:

    research institutes shutting down (a lot of those places that charge 95% overheads really do have no other way to survive).

    I think this has to be on the table. Absolutely. There is no way you can call for the end of high IDC rates and not mean "kill off all of the small research institutes, like, tomorrow". There is no way you can call for radical revamping of the soft-money system and not mean "kill off 90% of the small research institutes, like, tomorrow".

    This is the kind of real talk I'd like to hear when we discuss these options. Are you okay with this? All of them gone?

    Personally I'd think this would be fine. Painful for their people of course but many if not most would eventually land at a University somewhere. In no small part because their "demonstrated track record of extracting grant money from the NIH", not to mention whatever existing grants they were PI on, would be very attractive to search committees facing the overall NIH suckage and trying to maximize their IDC picture for the medium-term future.

    Painful. Disruptive. Personally abhorrent for the poor suckers caught in the crossfire but.... it would end up okay for science.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I also am OK with freestanding research institutes shutting down. I think that if you're a gazillionaire and you want to immortalize yourself with a research institute then you should fund the thing properly, not put up a building and then expect the NIH to support it in perpetuity.

    That said and despite my comments in recent threads, I'm not in any hurry to do away with soft money positions. I think that certain types of research are probably best done in a medical school environment and there's just not a big enough demand for teaching in med. schools to keep all the basic researchers funded. I'm sure DM is right when he describes the center of the action in his field. Although I would add that in my field it's the "amateur" scientists that have made the fundamental advances (and they've got the Nobel prizes to prove it). I'm in favor of a diverse research ecosystem.

    Heck, I'd even be fine with 95% soft money positions if the number of such positions could be limited. But the NIH has no authority to do that and the institutional leaders have no will. My concern is restoring stability, and at least as I see it (maybe Datahound has some numbers) it's soft money places that are determined to simply expand until the system collapses under their weight and then begin the cycle all over again. I favored the 50% salary cap because it seems like something along those lines is the only lever available to influence institutional behavior.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    DM - Believe me, I am not thrilled about the cull. I sit on study section and see lots of great scientists proposing cool and important ideas that will not get funded. I don't have a "target number" for the cull, and I prefer that the emphasis be on training *far* fewer new PhD's. I think that Dave said it well just above, in terms of sustainability. Any proposed changes need to have that at the forefront.

  • Ola says:

    DM, we all know you're partial to a bit of admin love, but the reality is there's only one part of the U.S. higher education sector that has grown since the recession, and it's the administrative classes. It has been accomplished at many R1 schools on the back of indirect costs bought in by faculty.

    Yes, there is a need for buildings, yes we all need AC and heat and light and IACUC and IRBs and hazardous waste disposal. Nobody would argue with those things.

    What we don't need are brand new vehicles for the parking lot attendants every couple of years. We don't need a constantly rotating gallery of deans and teaching award winners, framed in rare hardwoods with engraved plaques in the lobby. We don't need a new provost for online learning and another for overseas outreach. We don't need to change our internal website for safety training for the 3rd time in as many years. We don't need a new center for (insert strategery management speak term here) learning. We don't need a team of protected, highly unionized facilities workers that charge $80/hr for menial jobs and throw a conniption when you do much as try to change a light bulb. We don't need a new sport stadium. We don't need a new bronze sculpture out front. We don't need a fucking historic walking tour of the campus with ornate place markers. We don't need 2web-connected photocopiers, on contract/rent for thousands of dollars, when a $200 thing from office max would suffice. We don't need 6 people to sign off on a fucking P.O. number if it's even one penny over $1000 (3 weeks I waited for the most recent order from a regular supplier).

    All of this bullshit is hinged on the viability of the clinical and research enterprises, and all the decisions to adopt the arcane systems are made by administrators who could not give a single ratfuck about the faculty who have to deal with the consequences.

    There is a need for admin, but the admin structure has grown too big. Yes, cutting indirects and max percent effort is a dangerous game (because these leechy fuckers will hold on for dear life), but how else can we bleed them out of the system? If they fire all the faculty, who's gonna actually do the teaching? Who's gonna get the grants they rely on? Without administrators, work at a university would be a bit tougher. Without faculty, there is no university. Never forget the fuckers work for you, much as they try to make out like its the other way round.

  • DJMH says:

    Actually, I kinda like the web-connected copiers.

  • Dave says:

    I like bronze sculptures

  • Rare hardwood plaques give me a rare hard woody.

  • dsks says:

    I'm pretty much in favor of all the items directed towards reducing the inflow of new grad students into the sciences.

    Not so hot about the % support limit, because I feel that the nature of the game these days demands that we have some full time research PIs. Should that career track be strictly intramural? Maybe, but the classical liberal in me is wary that there are distinct advantages to the extramural support model over the alternative of expanding yet another bureacratic gummint agency with existing cost control issues.

    I'd like to see an option for mandating a higher fraction (is it still 50%?) of total NIH dollars going to investigator-initiated research instead of rudderless red-hot-sexy-boondoggle-of-the-minute research. Program already has strong influence on what sort of investigator-initiated proposals get funded, there's no reason ti further centralize The Scientific Effort beyond that.

    Reducing RO1 apps to 6 pages is just crazy talk. You might as well just reduce the application to a name and throw them all in a hat. (Actually, that's a great idea, I'd vote for that one.)

  • Grumble says:

    "The two consequences I see are (1) more institutions restricting applications for non-federal funding (the overheads from NIH grants are what allow research funded by ACS or March of Dimes to get done) and (2) research institutes shutting down "

    Those are actually the reasons why I think cutting IDC rates is a good idea. The ratio of grant-seekers to grant dollars is too high, and one reason is simply that med schools and research institutes keep increasing the number of soft money positions. They do that because their investment is relatively small. If you reduce IDC rates, then the number of soft money faculty positions these schools/institutes would be willing to host would decline. That could happen by them hiring less, culling more and/or shutting down if they can't attract enough non-federal support to survive.

    And no, this doesn't come from a do-it-to-Julia attitude, because I'm Julia in this case. Reducing IDCs would have painful consequences for some and honestly I might not be one of the survivors. But supply and demand would be more in balance for those who remain.

  • Grumble says:

    Ugh, I misread "non-federal" as "federal" in #1 above.

    Actually I don't think colleges would restrict applications to non-federal sources. I'm not convinced that high IDC rates are what allows them to indulge PIs who apply to low-IDC foundations. My college, for instance, never refuses a dollar from any source.

  • Skeptic says:

    I agree with N.C. that we need to award far less Ph.D.s. We should raise bar for the entrance to graduate schools. Med schools are limited how many students they can accept each year and they have to go through accreditation process. This limits the supply of M.D.s
    If it is hard to get into graduate schools, there won't be many students applying for graduate schools. This will lead to the survival of only elite schools. I am fine with that. Institutions without graduate schools will have to hire staffs instead of students and post-docs if they want to do research. Med school's accreditation requires research activities (like publications). So even without graduate program they have to support research.

  • Joe says:

    If we were to somehow limit the number of US grad students, PIs would just hire post-docs from overseas. It seems the only way to diminish the pipeline of new PhD entrants to the system is to limit the ways they can be supported on federal grants.

  • Skeptic says:

    Post-docs belong to graduate school. They have to compete for the limited spots too

  • Greg says:


    Example. UU (no ties) was open enough to post the breakdown of how overheads are distributed. http://osp.utah.edu/resources/quick-reference/fa-rates.php and scroll down to the pie chart. Relatively little is spent on things that constitute legitimate facilities and administration. Things like hiring, startups and student welfare should NOT be funded from the NIH extramural research pool that is peddled to the taxpayers as spent on "scientific progress" and "distributed via a competitive, peer-reviewed process".

  • dsks says:

    From Greg's link:

    "Sr. VPs, Deans, Centers & Institutes (Recruiting, Start Up, Retention, Renovation)" = 39% of F&A expenses.

    W T F ? ? ?

    Grumble's 20% cap plan sound fantastic, let's run with that.

  • Grumble says:

    Wow, that chart is an eye opener. The only legitimate F&A expenses, in my view, are the ones on the left hand of the chart, making up about 50% of the total. Their IDC rate is 49% - so it sure as hell seems like it could be cut to 25% without much impact on ongoing research operations.

    As for the stuff on the right half: a full 39% of the IDCs (i.e., 39% x 49% = 19% of the dollar value of a grant's direct costs) goes to"Recruiting, Start-up, Retention, Renovation." This is EXACTLY what I'm talking about: UU doesn't even have to find donors (or beg for state funds) to support new faculty slots. They just wait for enough IDC funds to build up, then build some new lab space and recruit some more. It's a self-perpetuating machine that builds more and more faculty positions in perpetuity. It's a chain reaction, a nuclear explosion. At the same time, the quality of life for those faculty goes ever downward (endless grantwriting) as their number increases and the amount of grant funds available to the entire growing pool remains fixed.

    THIS is why IDC rates should be cut!

  • dsks says:

    And guess what happens when funding gets tight? Or, rather, guess what doesn't happen. What doesn't likely happen is that this tax-subsidized and invariably bloated admin steps up first to trim itself down and alter its activities to accommodate the situation. Nah, put the squeeze on the faculty bringing in "insufficient" funds instead. And by "insufficient" what is really meant according to this graphic is "insufficient for supporting the true direct and indirect cost of your research IN ADDITION TOO keeping the army of deans, deanlets and VPs current on their BMW payments and golf memberships etc

    Indeed, it would be interesting to see what sort of accounting shenaniganry unfolds in the event an IDC cap is brought in, because you can bet your a$$ those 39%ers are not going to give up a crumb of their slice without a fight.

  • jmz4 says:

    Preach on, Ola.

    So is the idea behind dropping the salary support to free up money or encourage a cull? Cause I'm not sure if a cull is the answer. I went looking to see how many PI's you'd need to drop (in terms of R01s) to get back to a "decent" funding level. Instead I found this:

    http://report.nih.gov/NIHDatabook/Charts/Default.aspx?showm=Y&chartId=126&catId=13 .

    Does anyone know why according to this NIH data the number of R01 applications in 2004 and 2014 was essentially the same, but the success rate was much lower in 2014? I thought number of R01s awarded has remained relatively consistent?

    Do the funds for each year of an R01 come entirely from a single year's budget, or are they drawn from the corresponding year of the grant (e.g. grant in 2012 draws fund 2013, 2014, 2015)? Cause that might explain some of the cyclical trends in the graph. Maybe I should use a 3 year average to correlate application numbers with success rates?

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Francis Collins says number one is getting rid of the stupid travel regs. Also making administrative burden on investigators not take 42% of time (ok the thing on biosketches was stupid)

    Write your senator and feast on donuts at panel sessions.

  • anonymous postdoc (shrew) says:

    My long term plan to fix the NIH is instituting a national One Child policy. Clearly, imbalances in the size of the boomer generation relative to subsequent generations led us to this current precipice. I mean, limiting graduate student admissions and trainee support on R01s is a nice start, but let's fix this problem where it REALLY starts. As we all know, there were absolutely no negative consequences from China's one child policy, and just think of the stability we could create by artificially limiting birth rates so that all generations are of equal size!

    We should also for suuuure limit trainee funding on R01 to try to institute a One Child policy with the poor fucks who were already born (unfortunate mishap). This will definitely work to ensure workforce diversity, as people decide in a fair and unbiased manner to throw their support behind their most truly promising trainee, not simply the trainee who seems arbitrarily superior because of demographic characteristics which are more valued culturally, like being male. The latter scenario would never happen, and indeed does not already happen in cases of limited resources in NIH funded labs, I can assure you!

  • DJMH says:

    DSKS is right, no matter how you limit IDCs, the people who oversee budgets at your institution will distribute the dollars. No way they're going to renounce their jobs or those of their buddies. Besides, IDC rate isn't the jurisdiction of NIH, so you aren't going to have much influence.

  • Grumble says:

    "No way they're going to renounce their jobs or those of their buddies."

    True. Just like you can't have capitalism without a class of rapacious fucks skimming as much as they can off the top and living high on the hog (otherwise known as Wall Street).

    "Besides, IDC rate isn't the jurisdiction of NIH, so you aren't going to have much influence."

    NIH doesn't listen to us, so what's your point? Congress, however, is supposed to listen to us (when they are not too busy giving blowjobs to foreign leaders and those rapacious fucks I mentioned above). Something tells me that this Congress would be quite receptive to the idea that IDC rates going to support leftist elite universities are way too high. I'm frankly amazed that they haven't figured it out already.

  • DJMH says:

    Again, I've long been a proponent that the grant size for a (standard) R01 should be $400K, but it should *include* IDC. So a PI at a 90% IDC location nets $210K, but a PI at a 50% IDC location nets $266K.

    That way, PIs see how much their institute is taking, and can decide for themselves if what they get in services is sufficient to make up for the lost moolah. (And if not, pick up and move to a place with lower IDCs.)

    NSF operates like this, I believe, so why not the NIH? That's the only way, IMO, to put the pressure to bring down IDCs and/or use them for research purposes.

  • LincolnX says:

    I like the idea of this poll, but I think the options are too limited. I also appreciate the concerns about indirects, and the posted link - which reflect my rant on this here: http://drugmonkey.scientopia.org/2015/06/19/the-germain-nonsense-on-fixing-the-nih/#comment-166580

    The problem all of you have (and I include me) is that we are inside a box arguing about the color of the wrapper. All of us have ideas about fixes, but those fixes are likely to play out differently depending on the type of institution (private/public), student base (traditional undergrad A&S/academic med center/privateinstitute) and IDC rate. The Uber fix is beyond our individual limited perspectives - that's the Germain mistake.

    I don't agree about T32s and individual fellowships. The climate is not the weather - the larger issue of too many PhD per position is less acute for fellows, who tend to do pretty well. At my institution, the placement rate of trainees on these mechanisms is much higher than rank and file PhDs on institution support. These training mechanisms are often the excuse we need to implement needed training reforms. In the case of F series proposals, it is a useful introduction for students to the grants process. I don't feel that killing them is a solution. Maybe placing limits on the support based on overproduction could work?

    I like the percentage cap on PI support, because it forces academic med centers to have skin in the game. Also, the pressure to meet salary offset often drive the multiple R01. Reduce the number of R01s, then the available support for students from R01s is reduced, and two objectives are achieved: more grant funding is available, and fewer students are in the pipeline.

    Reform on the allowable use and cap on allowable percentage of IDCs would also increase the amount of funding available for more research grants. Instead of funding admins fund techs and collaborative research infrastructure.

    I like the idea of more failures of grants at a preproposal stage. Reviewers could review preproposals and full proposals at study section. Goal would be to triage a higher percentage of full proposals at an earlier stage. The benefit would be to reduce the waste of time writing something that has no traction, and improve the quality of proposals that make it to final review.

    But I feel this stuff needs to be modeled out to see what the impact might be. A comments section is a great place to throw out ideas, but someone with real experience in the labor market needs to weigh in, as well as someone who negotiates these IDC rates to know what we're missing.

    What do we need to know?

    1) What would a cap of 20% in IDC mean to increased number of proposals?
    2) What would change in the rules of allowable IDC costs mean to the behavior of Us and academic medical centers?
    3) What would 50% cap on PI effort mean to PI behavior (would they go for fewer R01s, making more funds available for new investigators?) On Us behavior (hire fewer faculty?).
    4) What would the overall impact of changes like these be to the overall scientific labor force?
    5) How would these changes affect those already in the pipeline?
    6) Could NIH place restrictions on T32 funding at Us based on PhD output? In other words, penalize overproduction?

  • namaste_ish says:

    I agree with the 50% of salary idea. The longer I've been at my university, and have seen paylines dwindle I realize, I'm not working on my current projects as much as I feel I should be. I find myself doing far more administrative work, writing new grants, keeping up with my protocols for environmental safety, radiation safety as well as going to tons of committee meetings and studios from other PIs as they work out ideas for their grants. I'm managing lab finances, hiring and hands on training and its sadly 20% of my time. Granted, I run two programs at my Uni in addition to my lab, but these don't pay the bills. Hopefully they will one day, but we need a track record to make that happen.
    The realities of science these days is that I spend a heck of a lot more time sharing ideas with folks in house because it clearly 'takes a village' to fund an Ro1. And if you want to stay on top of new technologies, you can't just leave it to trainees to know what they are doing. You need to get trained in information management, get and stay on top of a new body of literature and all this takes work technically not covered by NIH.
    Picking up more of your salary is less of a problem for those who hold appointments in clinical departments where there are alternate streams of revenue. But for full basic science folks, if NIH salary support drops to 50% of PIs current salary, will people who use to use 5% salary support suddenly expect from you as well? Will salaries drop? Big questions....

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