The Germain nonsense on fixing the NIH

Jun 19 2015 Published by under Fixing the NIH

I know you guys want to talk about this ridiculous commentary because the blog ephone has been ringing off the hook. Unfortunately I really don't have the time for a proper post.

Discuss 

UPDATE: One thing I noticed about the proposal that merits a little more....specific discussion.

I believe the NIH should transition to a system that links getting a first job (faculty appointment) with sufficient funding to support a reasonably sized laboratory (three to five people, including the PI) in terms of staff salaries and supplies

Obviously there is a big range in terms of types of staff and the amounts that they are paid. However, I think we can start with the salaries of a 0 experience postdoc on NRSA scale ($42,840) and a 4 year postdoc (50,112). I am going to use $100,000 as the PI salary.

Benefits can range from 25% to 50% (again, as a rough approximation based on my limited experience with such numbers) which brings us to $241,190 or $289,428 per year for a three person laboratory. That is salary cost only. Obviously types of research vary tremendously but I have heard numbers in the range of 60% to 80% of research grant costs going to support staff salaries. Before we get into that, let's raise the estimates to Germain's upper bound of a lab of 5 individuals, the PI as above and two of each experience level postdocs ($357,380 and $428,856, depending on benefit rate).

With this estimate, if the staff cost is 80%, this brings us to the $357,380-$428,856 per year range. If staff cost is 60% of the research grant expenditure, then $595,633 - $714,760 range.

I invite you to compare these numbers, which Germain is recommending for 5-7 years starting presumably from Day 1, with the funding trajectories of yourself and your peers. At the upper bound, three modular R01s worth of funding for the entire duration of the pre-tenure interval.

This call is for a LOT fewer noob Assistant Professors being allowed to get in the game, by my calculation. Either that, a huge Congressional increase in the NIH budget or a massive retirement of those who are already in the game.

Note that I too would love to see that be possible. It would be fantastic if everyone could get three grants worth of funding to do whatever the heck they wanted, right from the start.

But in the real actual non-fantasy world, that would come with some serious constraints on who can be a scientist.

And I do not like people like Germain's ideas on who those people should be.

59 responses so far

  • Jim Woodgett says:

    Where to start? When funding is tight, everyone has an opinion of how to fix it. There should be room for new ideas but it's a horrible idea to base funding evaluation on a CV for many reasons. For one, it's too fraught with metrification. Count the pubs. Set a new standard. This will change behaviours by reducing co-authorship and collaboration. The fact is that when decisions are based on CVs, there is inherent and disproportionate advantage to those that hath - those with golden pedigrees, with luck, with connections. In the same vein, this disadvantages those with unusual training and, of course, those who have been at it the longest. Yet we know the most inventive period in science is the first 5-10 years after independence. Some thrive, others wither. We are judged on merits of ideas and they can dry up.

    The Cell commentary might have saved some time by taking a look at what the Canadian Institutes of Health Research have been up to in their person-centric Foundation scheme. Its first (of three) stage was strictly CV based and the outcome was entirely predictable. Early career investigators were cannon fodder. They were compared with their older peers and found to be wanting because they couldn't list their leadership experience or where their trainees had ended up. Doh.

    Seriously, there is room for improvement in any funding system and perhaps diversification of evaluation methods might help, but DON'T TAKE THE SCIENCE OUT OF THE APPLICATION!

  • drugmonkey says:

    People should also ask people who fail under similar sinecure systems of research funding how they feel about it. I recommend talking to French postdocs and graduate students.

  • MoBio says:

    @JW: I agree with the overall tone of what you said but the Cell commentary is more about young/starting investigators and a proposal for how this might be initiated, funded and continued. Basically an HHMI-esque approach that chooses initial faculty hires with funded labs for 5-7 years based on their research during their postdoctoral training. Also the institutions hiring the individuals would dole out the $$ to those they hired (or something like that).

    This would appear different from the CIHR scheme where all applicants were evaluated together (starting and established as you state above).

    For myself, I never would have been hired nor have received funding based on my track record as a postdoc --some would suggest this would have been good for science...

  • So lemme see if I've got this straight: His son is an MD/PhD student at WashU, so therefore the bestest possible solution to the NIH funding situation is to earmark vast quantities of NIH money for new tenure-track faculty with traditional appointments, and to slaughter all the non-tenure-track faculty current and future.

  • 3-years into tenure track says:

    His description of the problem seemed more genuine and more in touch with reality than any of the previous commentaries that have been published.

    I generally like his idea because my CV would probably pass the test. In certain ways I've had a privileged upbringing, but on the other hand, I'm not the average straight male scientist, and I don't have a golden pedigree. I did not attend an elite college or grad school. I worked my way into a famous institution for my postdoc, but it was a fledgling lab. I nailed it at every step of the way in terms of fellowships and publications, and now my own lab is doing awesome work. Why wouldn't the NIH want to invest in me instead of having me sit at my desk all day spinning on the R01 rejection hamster wheel?

  • Jim Woodgett says:

    @MoBio, yes, I know it's different from CIHR in that it's targeted at initial appointees but the problem that afflicts the CIHR Foundation scheme also dooms this approach in that the CIHR early career people were slaughtered by comparison to more experienced PIs, whereas in this case, those with golden CVs due to immaculate pedigrees are conventional training in big labs will slaughter those who have diverse training in off-hot topic fields that have chosen that unconventional route because they genuinely think it is an area of important research. Hiring isn't currently all about CVs, but with such as scheme, it will be because that is how future adjudication would occur. I also read this an effective de-risk for institutions who will have to cough up less start-up. I also don't see any solid data on feasibility within the current budget, nor the projected knock-on effects.

  • Dave says:

    Yeh this is a thinly veiled attack on non-tenure/TT faculty. Linking funding to getting a traditional TT appointment, which are more and more restricted to Ivy/large traditional teaching institutes and East/West coast locations, is the same as just outright banning certain faculty from applying altogether. I can have a discussion about 'people not projects', but this dudes 'plan' is a little elitist.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Exactly, PP.

  • Selerax says:

    Quoth DM: "People should also ask people who fail under similar sinecure systems of research funding feel about it. I recommend talking to French postdocs and graduate students."

    They would tell you that it would be nice if there were some kind of intermediate between the "sinecure"/civil-servant system and the "never knowing whether you'll have a job next year" system.

    Admittedly, some kind of moderate productivity requirement for PIs would probably not hurt French research too much.

  • MoBio says:

    @PP: you nailed it once again.
    @JW: yes agree

    Did anyone notice this?

    "... I am not such a purist that I don’t see some value in insuring minimal base funding for major (state) institutions even if their historical record wouldn’t support making a large block award (though I note that many state universities are strong research centers)... "

  • drugmonkey says:

    For myself, I never would have been hired nor have received funding based on my track record as a postdoc --some would suggest this would have been good for science...

    Neither would I....although I have to admit that unlike you, I will never be on the discussion list of potential Nobel awardees. I look forward to you telling this anecdote in Stockholm someday.

    Yeh this is a thinly veiled attack on non-tenure/TT faculty.
    Not veiled at all, imo. Still, one can *perhaps* credit the not-uncommon fantastical belief that magical leprechaun money will spill out of Universities eager to convert back to hard money salary support if only the NIH were to firmly suggest they do so. Naive for sure. But possibly not malicious.

    Did anyone notice this?

    "... I am not such a purist that I don’t see some value in insuring minimal base funding for major (state) institutions even if their historical record wouldn’t support making a large block award (though I note that many state universities are strong research centers)... "

    the reflexive and unthinking snobbery positively oozes from the cracks all across this piece. The privilege....it blinds.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    It is just riff raft versus special snowflakes by another name. There is no healing of the NIH funding issues. This is preservation of resources for some by asking that decisions align with the metrics most likely in favor of the preferred class. This is the thumb on the scale that asks for a system to have very high bar for entry and reentry and is likely to exclude diversity in many ways.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    The idea that purism would mean that funding of some institutions could never be seen as deserved. Why not argue that labs should be hereditary? I am sure that there are lots of people that are super smart and work hard, so why question whether they ever had a leg up. A long as they meet the first two things why ask questions if opportunity to succeed was based on birth or other circumstance? This is what these modest proposals always end up sounding like. I think this guy probably is well meaning but the tone deafness is just so demeaning.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    No of course it is likely illegal for Germain to advocate for more funding, but I sort of wish we could dispense with the magic formulae for screwing over Julia. I'd love to just see high profile platforms stating that reduced funding is destroying research. That's it.

  • profduder says:

    The whole premise that NIHs budget is to be distributed somehow that will optimize the best science is flawed.

    From the viewpoint of Congress and the people whose money we are spending, the NIH budget should be devoted to reducing the cost and burdens of disease.

  • qaz says:

    I also notice again the tone-deafness of agreeing with the anti-science meme that more money wouldn't solve the problem. I say again that we are leaving talent by the wayside. In the old days, we had exactly that middle-stage between sinecure (security) and application (have to work for funding). That's because we spent enough money to fund the available scientific talent.

    And why is it always the assholes who get to write commentaries like this? "even if their historical record wouldn’t support making a large block award" - f*ck him too. I'll put my BigStateResearchUniversity's 150 year track record of research and contribution to world health against the intramural NIAID program any day of the week.

    And the thinly-veiled conflict of interest? Daaaaaaaaaaaamn.

    It's too bad because there are good ideas here. A system of hard entry and easy renewal would provide stability that might actually make smaller labs more viable. But it needs to be done in such a way as to NOT tie it to privilege (for example, stick to the current system of university start up and applying for R01s - make it hard to get a new grant but easier to renew one - raising the difficulty of entry bar with each additional grant). Funding based on retrospection rather than prospection is a good idea, but making it people not projects leads to dangers of dynasties and class.

  • drugmonkey says:

    He can advocate for more funding, sure. Just not on the NIH dime.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Funding based on retrospection rather than prospection is a good idea,

    No, it really isn't. And you go right on to say why this is so.

    but making it people not projects leads to dangers of dynasties and class.

    and this is why the existing balance/bias for people over projects is already more than sufficiently leaned toward the dynasties and elite-class of science.

  • musclestumbler says:

    Isn't it funny how this wasn't a problem until the High and Mighty Jedi Council members, and their privileged, snowflake offspring were caught in the same gonadal vise that the rest of us are? Now they're putting out so many different "Let them eat cake" proposals.

    "... I am not such a purist that I don’t see some value in insuring minimal base funding for major (state) institutions even if their historical record wouldn’t support making a large block award (though I note that many state universities are strong research centers)... "

    I was simply amusedly insulted until I hit the above line. Then I became angry. As in, where is my pitchfork-angry.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Yes, funny, that.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    The lack of self-awareness is simply astonishing. Dude has been *intramural* for 33 years -- longer than many postdocs have been alive! And he credits this idea to his son, who is a postdoc. So you have two people who have essentially never written an R01 telling us how it should be reformed. What an embarrassment for all involved.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Regarding the total costs of his proposal, I am guessing that he is just so out of touch with extramural reality that he hasn't even thought it through. Again , just ridiculous.

  • DJMH says:

    Re your calculations, he explicitly says that the university should be kicking in the money for some part of the PI salary. And, as a new PI I sure don't expect experienced postdocs to be knocking on my door. So if you reframe it as 25% of PI salary, plus enough money for 3 grad students plus fringe, that's looking more like $170K, and if that's 70% of the total costs, then the total costs are...$243 K. [I am using 35K as the cost of a grad student, ymmv.]

    Simultaneously, the home institution would be expected to contribute 75% of PI salary and equipment/start-up needs. I think that many places would be ok with that opportunity, if they knew that they had an otherwise fully funded investigator for 6 years.

    There are other reasons to take issue with his proposal, just saying that the financials don't necessarily seem like one of them.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I think it is the usual nonsense sleight of hand for you to try to dissociate these costs, DJMH. As with Germain, you do so to illegitimately bias the entire discussion in favor of your conclusions.

    Put total costs on the table first. Of his *proposal*, not whether you can or cannot recruit or whether you might or might not choose to have a 3 or 5 person lab or whatnot. The *proposal* is under discussion and it should be the full limits of what he is suggesting. A 5 person lab for 7 years is the outside limit. A 3 person lab is the lower bound. And in context, we have to assume starting from Day 1 on the ground.

    As far as Germain's division of costs, he's really not that specific. he refers to block grants to accomplish this task and handwavingly refers to institutions providing "some support for faculty salaries and large equipment". this is theoretically the current state of affairs so without specifically addressing it, this is nonsense. the system already fails at this and it is, according to many such as yourself, a lynch pin of THE PROBLEM. Ignoring this makes for a non-serious proposal.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Even at the lower bound and with generous university support, the idea makes no sense insofar as it proposes that ALL new faculty receive awards. Currently, large numbers of ESI faculty fail to ever get an R01. Where is all of the extra money going to come from?

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    This proposal is nothing but a massive subsidy for R1 institutions to hire into tenure-track positions even more of the same glamorous post-docs they're already hiring. People exactly like--wow, what a fucken surprise--what the proposer's son will likely be in five years.

  • qaz says:

    DM - you and I and Germain see the problem very differently. As I understand them, Germain (and McKnight and the other INRR [I'm not riff-raff] crowd) think that the problem is that its too hard for them (or their kids!) to get money. Germain's proposal solves his problem beautifully. By allocating the money in block grants to his cronies to hand out to their friends and their friends' children and proteges.

    I think the problem is that there's not enough money in the pool. And therefore all scientists are wasting too much time wrestling for grants. Part of the answer is that NIH needs to be fully funded. But also part of that answer is that state governments need to step up and support their universities. We should remember that a large part of the current academic problem is that academia used to get a LOT more government money from other places than NIH, much of which is now gone.

    For example, there's been this big con-job/lie that state universities have gotten more expensive than they used to be. But actually, the cost per student has remained pretty constant, but the costs have been transferred to the students rather than being borne by the community. A lot of that state support (which kept individual costs down) also covered research.

    We've starved the beast so they can try to drown it in the bathtub.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Why do you think you and I see things differently?

  • qaz says:

    Well, not wanting to speak for you....

    But what I meant was (you and I) see things differently from (Germain).

  • drugmonkey says:

    ah, yes. indeed.

  • LincolnX says:

    I tried reading Germain's suggestions with an open mind, but it kept slamming shut when I read his lip service to basic science.

    I used to be in favor of an HHMI-style mechanism of funding. Hell, I may have posted on it somewhere. But my thinking has evolved. It's my opinion that any system that is not centered on the research idea, embodied by a proposal and supported by the ability of the PI to implement it, will be rife with corruption and elitism.

    NIH intramural folks don't get it - I hated, hated, hated putting together my new NIH biosketch. Not because it was bad, but because I couldn't help wondering how a new assistant professor could compete with it.

    Germain claims that under his proposed system the rich won't get richer, but you can bet that the proportions he proposes will be favorable to elite institutions. At best, it'll be like insects in amber.

    Scientists are problem solvers. We like to use what we find at hand to fix stuff. But if you are trapped in a box there's a tendency to see all problems as arising from within the box. In this case, it's outside. Any solution to the crisis of NIH funding (I think it's okay to call it a crisis, but that's just me) that does not include increased funding levels is no solution at all. It's masturbation.

    It's only a way for those already at the top of the heap to keep getting theirs.

  • MoBio says:

    @LinconX

    You said:
    "NIH intramural folks don't get it - I hated, hated, hated putting together my new NIH biosketch. Not because it was bad, but because I couldn't help wondering how a new assistant professor could compete with it."

    The BiosketchNew first: One thing I'm seeing is that some 'olders' are highlighting their contributions to science based on findings 10-20 yrs ago. Linking to their recent papers frequently (though not always) shows a precipitious decline in productivity. With no recent SNC papers...hard to convince anyone that their best days are not in the distant past. My guess is that this might lead to a new stock criticism: "Dr X made major contributions 20 years ago but recently...." Cannot see how this will engender any degree of favoritism.

    Second:
    My sense of the intramural folks who trained with me is that they fell into that particular bin. They had some truly amazing contributions many, many years ago but for the past 10+ yrs have not had such earth-shattering findings. I've watched from the sidelines as their labs have shrunk with each cycle of laboratory reviews.

    Third:
    In the extramural environment, lack of productivity leads to a precipitous drop in funding, while in the intramural environment there are (typically) incremental cuts in funding. It is rare indeed that an intramural lab is closed based on 5 or even 10 years of mediocre output. Not so if you are reviewed by a regular NIH review group.

  • DJMH says:

    But your point was that the proposal was necessarily so ridiculous from a numbers point of view that it was fundamentally illegitimate/misleading. My point is, you can come up with numbers that make his plan functional. That doesn't make it a GOOD plan, sure, but I would disagree with it based on other things than the bean-counting.

    Basically the reality is that, for all its faults, the US system has produced the best science. (There's a reason all the foreign postdocs want to train here...) So the problem of not-enough-money isn't going to be well addressed by solving a different (non-)problem of grant distribution.

  • SidVic says:

    I wonder how many of the truly groundbreaking findings have materialized from unexpected non-elite labs or institutions. HPylori/ulcers and NO/EDRF are two that I can think of... Maybe the early work on apoptosis would qualify. Of course, it is difficult to make the comparison given that the bulk of the money goes to the big programs. I always come back to Mendel farting around with his chick peas.

  • A Salty Scientist says:

    Sigh. There really is a tone deafness to those newly affected (even indirectly, apparently) by the low funding rates. As if nobody had put any thought into the solutions to dismal funding rates (and realized that every solution is reshuffling the deck chairs). Along with the problems that many others have mentioned, I don't see how this proposal would meaningfully lead to "population control" at the level of PhDs and postdocs. The funding level is the same, just redistributed. There would just be more PhDs and postdocs at the "chosen" places, and less in the flyover states, but I doubt there would be any net change. If you want to decrease the number of PhDs, you have to switch to a model where permanent technicians and scientists do the majority of the lab work. Germain mentions that these changes should happen, but I don't think there is any way for this to happen organically. PIs are not going to voluntarily give up cheaper graduate students for technicians.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    But your point was that the proposal was necessarily so ridiculous from a numbers point of view that it was fundamentally illegitimate/misleading. My point is, you can come up with numbers that make his plan functional.

    Misleading. Certainly. Nonsensical for any "plans" to push a huge set of assumptions off onto the land of fantasy OR to avoid taking responsibility for the straight up consequences of their intent.

    Intentional bullshittio, IMO, to go along with this and redefine what he said ("oh, i can't recruit anyone so I'll have a 2 person lab for the first year" is more or less your point?) and play along with his fantasy of university coverage of hard salaries *when this is current reality and there is no sign of it changing*. Germain didn't say this, he said 3-5 people for 5-7 years. This is three R01s worth of funding. It needs to be contextualized accurately for comparison to what people's early career trajectories are and have been, as well as to align it with calls from NIGMS to limit grant #s or total Direct Cost dollars. And to place it along with Rockey's and NIGMS' data on how many grants/$$ the plurality of funded investigators enjoy at present.

    It is irresponsible and craven to intentionally deflect attention away from reality. I can't believe actual scientists are so loathe to fully consider the impact of their grand plans. And so keen to conveniently shovel huge aspects of the problem under the rug because it advances their own personal agenda. But then I don't get claims to a single paper being "a complete story" either. Probably these are connected to each other.

    Moving along you didn't "come up with numbers that made his plan functional", rather what you did is say "this works for a small subset of the current people for whom things are better than average already". This makes your plan 100% what PhysioProf described as the fundamental intent of Germain. This is fine for one to advance and all but take responsibility for it (and yes, you are probably the only commenter around the usual sites who takes *any* responsibility for saying what you mean, i.e., "fuck all those other guys who aren't in a situation like mine". which I respect, to an extent, for the honesty. I think you are wrong, morally and practically, but whatever.) and admit that it is really only a version of my conclusion, i.e. we need fewer mouths at the trough.

    Once we admit that, we can inspect Germain's caveats to see what sort of mouths he wants to exclude and what sort of mouths he wants to keep. the lip service to various aspects of diversity is not what one would call very convincing.

  • And so keen to conveniently shovel huge aspects of the problem under the rug because it advances their own personal agenda. But then I don't get claims to a single paper being "a complete story" either. Probably these are connected to each other.

    LOON ALERT!!111!!!!11!!!!ELVEN^YTY@!!11!!!BAJIOIN!111!!!

  • DJMH says:

    You seem to think I'm pro-Germain, or at least not anti-Germain, and that's plain wrong. I just think there are stronger arguments against than the specific dollar plan. Let's say he took your criticism under advisement (that'll be the day!) and came out with numbers that make his plan functional, more or less. You would then be in the uncomfortable position of saying "No I didn't mean that it could be solved that way."

    Whereas I think, the problem is mostly not *how* grants are distributed, because by any metric the US has done well with science. So his idea, which is to change how grants are distributed, seems like a bad approach from fundamental principles. I oppose it for those reasons, not the specific numbers.

  • MHC says:

    Lincoln X: "It's my opinion that any system that is not centered on the research idea, embodied by a proposal and supported by the ability of the PI to implement it, will be rife with corruption and elitism. "

    how will you assess the ability of the PI "to implement it"? A clever person with no actual expertise in the area of his/her proposal can write a proposal that makes perfect sense ("actually, i don't have access to cryo-EM, but why should i tell the review panel?" "I've never done tail vein injections in mice, but I can copy the details from some web site and make it look convincing". " I can mouth the details of how to set up a 800 MHz NMR experiment but damned if I know how to actually do it") How will you check? What standard would you apply?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Did I mistakenly say the fact the numbers can't add up was the only thing wrong? If so, my bad.

  • LincolnX says:

    @MHC: I'm not entirely sure what you think I'm arguing.

    I don't want to get too tangential to this thread, but I'm simply saying that this is the latest of what I consider to be a series of bad dispatches from inside the Dome. I think the old NIH biosketch was adequate to evaluate productivity, innovation and impact.

    Regarding your other point, I'd respectfully say that aping text that "makes perfect sense" would probably not pass muster any more than drawing a horse would capture Picasso's Guernica. If a study section member couldn't see through that I'd be very surprised...or maybe not.

    More to the point of this thread, I'd endorse the idea of a working group (not led by the intramural NIH folks!) made up of scientists (PIs, postdocs, graduate students) and labor economists to devise and model different scenarios.

    There are several questions I'd raise about our beloved system that I think need to be assessed with real data. A few off the top of my head:

    1) Are indirect costs corrupt? Massive indirect costs that have near zero transparency and are too often laundered by universities (and particularly medical centers) - and are not directed back to the projects that generate them. There's little justification for the use of indirects at many universities and the rules should be changed to curtail them or change their use to support human capital as well as infrastructure for the grants that generate them. Think about how we justify every friggin' nickel used in execution of projects, but consider that you've probably never seen a university justify what can be upwards of 50-80% of the cost of a grant to its faculty. I mean, let's get real - it smacks of corruption.

    2) Should R01s subsidize salaries at academic medical centers? Salary offset for PIs basically allow academic medical centers to develop a pyramid scheme where they pay very little to do science. Let salaries be maintained for other key personnel but limit it for the PI. Make universities either invest in their research faculty, or not hire them to begin with.

    3) The NIH intramural program: has it outlived its usefulness? Is it really the repository of our best scientists? Would that money be better spent out in the extramural wild? Is there some specific centralized scientific endeavor that would actually benefit from an intramural emphasis?

    4) Can we develop good effectiveness measures of how well a given institute trains its students and postdocs, and mandate them? Unis are terrible at tracking their trainees. This is where NIH could actually be of some help, since they could require some sort of tracking as a condition of support (and one would hope we collect the tons of data for T32 tables for a reason). Unis won't spend the money to do it unless forced. But if you had this kind of data you could begin to see which universities actually utilize training funds well.

  • DJMH says:

    Ok but the entirety of your commentary on the piece was about the dollars. Understand that was truncated because you have some hypothetical other "job" or responsibilities, but I wanted to make clear that the money is far from the most insurmountable problem with Germain.

  • physioprof says:

    Massive indirect costs that have near zero transparency and are too often laundered by universities (and particularly medical centers) - and are not directed back to the projects that generate them. There's little justification for the use of indirects at many universities and the rules should be changed to curtail them or change their use to support human capital as well as infrastructure for the grants that generate them. Think about how we justify every friggin' nickel used in execution of projects, but consider that you've probably never seen a university justify what can be upwards of 50-80% of the cost of a grant to its faculty. I mean, let's get real - it smacks of corruption.

    Evidence for any of these very strong factual claims?

  • "Evidence for any of these very strong factual claims?" Total overheads/indirects are typically 30-35% of total awards–and some of that money is for legit expenses. Still, it's hard for any university to give up tens of millions of dollars of funding they are currently receiving.

    It's worth considering that if overheads were dramatically cut, at many state universities total undergrad fees would rise 10-15%. It would also make the sciences less valuable to administrators.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    "The consequences [of the current system] are clear: much less efficient research and a tendency to be conservative and do experiments that can lead to ‘‘preliminary data’’ required for grant applications, most often next steps from postdoctoral research rather
    than novel, creative studies, all at a slower pace than should be the case."

    -This sentiment gets thrown around a lot, but do we actually have any data to back it up? Or is it really so much the consensus of the PIs around here that we can accept it as fact?

    Even as someone who would probably benefit from this sort of system, I think it would be extremely unwieldy to implement through block grants.
    If the goal is to give a newish PI time to devote to his lab and science, why not just extend the R01's lifespan by non-competing renewal? Or just have a new mech, for people that have already won at least one NIH RPG, which has a 7 year lifespan, but has only a vague project description?

    I'm kind of against the people v projects crowd because I think the utility of having very specific project proposals is that it is very, very easy to overhype research once you allow people to start being vague. It also seems intellectually lazy to forgo an analysis of someone's scientific reasoning as evidenced in a grant proposal.

    Regarding the question of more funding vs. reforms, I think we can ask for both. For instance, the old guys lobbied congress for that Gravestone award, which ostensibly was a reform measure. I don't see why we can't try to get the NIH budget back up while at the same time earmarking it for reform projects (like transitioning postdocs into super-technician posts, putting more grad schools on training grants, reducing compliance overhead, etc). The argument should be "look we know just throwing more money into the system won't help in the long run, but the money for these new mechanisms and programs has to come from somewhere, and so implementing them without a boost in funding will result in fewer R01s, which may do more harm than not implementing them at all."

  • drugmonkey says:

    Desperation is the mother of ingenuity?

  • LincolnX says:

    @Mike MB "It's worth considering that if overheads were dramatically cut, at many state universities total undergrad fees would rise 10-15%. It would also make the sciences less valuable to administrators"

    But that touches my point - I don't think it's correct/proper that a NIH grant subsidize either undergrad fees or medical school costs, except to the extent that it supports the project.

    @physioprof Tell me how to prove a negative. Maybe only my institution abuses the system and has zero transparency. I do understand that some unis return indirects to faculty. My percentages were rough and expressed as a percent of DC, but there's a lot of variation in IC depending on numerous factors.

  • Lincoln X,

    If NIH were contracting to a private company, a profit would be expected (I'm not saying non-profit orgs/state institutions should do that).

    The political reality is that if a state university loses tens of millions of dollars, then they have to do something (and it won't be raising the states' contribution to education)–and that results in significant political pressure not to turn off the NIH indirects spigot.

    Also, many federal programs aren't solely about the programmatic activities, but also the Keynesian stimulus to particular congressional districts (there's a reason why NIH grant cover pages require congressional district info) along with the maintenance of intellectual 'infrastructure'.

    Not realizing that won't get us very far.

  • […] about NIH funding because I am usually humbled by how much more thoughtful folks like Datahound and Drugmonkey are when they speak to these issues. But, I’ve been mulling over a recent commentary in Cell from NIH scientist Ronald Germain […]

  • LincolnX says:

    @Mike,

    Here's an NIH definition of indirects:

    "An indirect cost is any cost that cannot be easily identified (or it would not be cost effective to identify) to a specific project, but identified with two or more final cost objectives. There are three types of indirect costs: Fringe Benefits: services or benefits provided to employees, e.g., Health Insurance, Payroll Taxes, Pension Contribution, Paid Absences, etc

    Overhead: indirect costs associated with the performance of a project, e.g., Facility Costs (rent, heat, electricity, etc.), General Laboratory Supplies, etc.

    G&A: indirect costs associated with the overall management of an organization, e.g., President’s Office, Human Resources Office, Accounting Office, office supplies, etc."

    https://oalm.od.nih.gov/IndirectCostsFAQ#difference

    At my institution, I may get light and heat, but no general lab supplies and there is no return of indirect costs to faculty. I therefore believe almost all indirects go into the 3rd category, but there's no way to know where that goes because the admins won't publish or share the information.

    I don't dispute that there is a perceived stimulus aspect of grant funding. My beef is who is being stimulated. I know how my institution's budget works and they would still post a positive margin if the indirects were used differently - but using indirects to offset central debt and to pay a ballooning administration seems at odds with what we need to accomplish. My point is simply that there's too much flexibility in indirects and that if they were used properly - or at least consistently - there'd be better science and more of it. It just strikes me as too slushy.

  • anon says:

    In the article he states "then the effective population doubling rate is every 4–8 years. I doubt any of us think that, however much of the GDP we feel should be devoted to biomedical research, the compound budget increases approaching the 12%–25% per year above "

    A bit worrying that he has no idea how exponential growth works...

  • Philapodia says:

    All of this commentary is nice and useful for us riff-raff, but will make no difference if it doesn't get out of these types of small-ball forums and into the real scientific literature, which is what people respect and believe. The Alberts/McKnight/Germain/Kern types all published their thoughts (without much real data/analysis to back it up) in CNS type journals, so people read them and think that this is what should happen, which drives policy. There is no consideration of alternative approaches to solving the problem because a big chunk of the community doesn't even know that discussions like this exist except for the occasional reference in Science Today.

    Can this community publish an analysis of the situation and present suggestions as a counterpoint to the tone-deaf BSD perspective, or are these commentaries just mental masturbation? There has been a lot of data analysis by Datahound on what's really going on with funding, and there has been a lot of good comments from DM, neuroconservitive, CPP, etc on reforms that could take place. We're relatively intelligent people here, why not try to affect policy ourselves?

  • qaz says:

    DM and DH - I want to echo Philapodia. We need a counterpoint that is going to be in Science/Nature/Cell/JAMA/Lancet/NEJM or some other equivalent journal with high impact, and it needs to get into the news media for discussion.

    I don't know if any of the other commentators are sufficiently not-riff-raff to lead this (I know that I'm not), but if DM and/or DH would be willing to lead this, I would happily contribute. (I suspect this would require revealing our names behind our pseudonyms - DH is already known. If this is necessary, I would be willing to use my real name to contribute to this important work.) Perhaps DM or DH or both could lead a joint document which some subset of us could help co-author.

  • Bic Mitchum says:

    Germain tends to be quite arrogant, and most of the NIH Senior Investigators live in a bubble... I think these proposals would lead to Elites-only science....

  • jmz4gtu says:

    If any youngins reading this conversation feel galvanized to get involved, there is a trainee (postdoc, grad and a few early faculty) organization that is trying to put together a unified front on these issues:
    http://futureofresearch.org/
    They organized a symposium last fall and put out a piece in F1000. I know Datahound has been involved in some of the same conversations as the organizers.

  • I've only begun to read this and don't have a full reaction yet, but the first thing I have trouble with is:

    ‘‘If I gave you $5 million to distribute for research and said you could either have
    the CV or a grant proposal, but not both, from the applicants, which would you
    choose to help guide distribution of the funds?’’ The results are nearly 100% votes for the CV—in contrast to financial investments for which it is said ‘‘past performance is no indication of future returns,’’ in science, it is widely accepted that past performance, not a detailed research plan, is the best predictor of future success."

    Is it "widely accepted"? Are we supposed to pick CV over science? And when I say CV, we're talking publications as a metric I assume, all of which in itself is problematic. Also, as I understand it, the correlation between past performance and "success" is actually pretty weak:

    http://www.leydesdorff.net/magw/magw.pdf

    As I say, I haven't formed coherent thoughts or read fully yet but wanted to see if I'm along the right lines or not.

  • drugmonkey says:

    It is widely accepted by the "haves" of science who conveniently forget that the means to do the science is much more highly predictive.

  • By the way, in case you haven't seen, Ron Germaine has also just done a talk about this for iBiology as part of their series on "The Future of the Biomedical Workforce":

    http://www.ibiology.org/ibiomagazine/ronald-germain-nih-funding-should-support-people-not-projects.html

  • […] as is usually the case, Drugmonkey’s joint has some pretty good discussion about the Cell proposal, I also came across this post from Dr. Isis […]

Leave a Reply