NCI announces the R50 Research Specialist career award

Nov 02 2015 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism

PAR-16-025 invites applications for the R50 Research Specialist award.

The Research Specialist Award is designed to encourage the development of stable research career opportunities for exceptional scientists who want to pursue research within the context of an existing cancer research program, but not serve as independent investigators. These scientists, such as researchers within a research program, core facility managers, and data scientists, are vital to sustaining the biomedical research enterprise. The Research Specialist Award is intended to provide desirable salaries and sufficient autonomy so that individuals are not solely dependent on grants held by Principal Investigators for career continuity.

This mechanism is for salary support up to 100% and for travel up to $5,000 per year. Maximum duration is 5 years. It is interesting that they chose to make this an R mech instead of a K mech. I like that. A lot.

This idea was discussed by NCI a little bit ago, as discussed in this blog post, in the wake of a hint from Varmus when he left the NCI Director office. The devil will be in the detail but this new mechanism appears to leave some wiggle room for the Research Specialist to avoid some deficits I identified in the original discussion (start at 2:20).

I was most concerned about all the discussion focusing on the original PI and how this proposed new mechanism was to his or her benefit more than the Research Specialist themselves.

2:29 -the research proposal is to be written jointly by the applicant and the sponsoring PI, describing the research.

[DM- I think this is workable even though my eye started to twitch. There is going to be some slippage here with respect to the goals of making this award portable and not tied to the fate of one lab's research grant]

2:29:55 -Initially the Research Specialist to apply while supported on an existing research grant. Once the K05 is awarded, it would be expected to be 50/50 support with the grant and then continuing on the K05 100% once the grant ended.

2:30:30 - Review criteria. Accomplishment of applicant individually and within the nominating lab's program. Accomplishment of the PI and Uni. Importance of the applicant to the research program of the PI.

[DM- Welp. This is certainly going down a road of contributing to the rich getting richer which is not something I support. Unless "importance to the research program of the PI" means helping to stabilize the science of a have-not type of PI who struggles to maintain consistent funding.]

and

2:32: slide on portability of the award - possible but requires PO approval if PI and K05 move together, if the PI leaves and K05 stays, if the grant is lost, etc.

if K05 Specialist chooses on her/his own hook to leave old lab, it will require a new PI, approval, etc. The old PI is eligible for 2 year administrative supplement because they are "suddenly missing a critical support component".

[DM- ugh, this last part. Why should the original grant be compensated for the K05 person deciding to leave? It will already have benefited from that 50% free effort. Rich get richer, one. and a reward for that scenario where the PI is such a jerkface that the K05 leaves him/her? no. and regarding "critical support component", dude, what about when any postdoc chooses to leave? happens all the time. can I get some free money for suddenly missing an awesome postdoc?]

2:36 on assessment of the pilot. "critical to get input from the PI about how well their needs have been served"

[DM- well sure. but...... grrrr. this should be about the K05 awardee's perspective. The whole point is that the existing system puts these people's careers into the hands of the big cheese PI. That is what the focus should be on here. The K05 Research Specialist. Not on whether the PI's loss of control has allowed him or her to continue to exploit or whether this is just a way to shield the haves of the world from the grant game a little bit more.]

Two interesting parts of note in the section on Award Administration from this new PAR:

5) Funds freed up through the R50 will be restricted from any other personnel use, but may be rebudgeted for other research costs with NCI prior approval.

6) Research Specialists would have the option, with prior NCI approval, to move to other research programs or institutions (e.g. if the Unit Director's laboratory is closed, if the institution closes a core, etc.).

Number 5 is a bit weird. Why not be able to hire another person to work on the project? And re-budgeting is allowed only with prior approval? For a salary? This is unusual.

But everything about this rests on what Number 6 turns out to be in practice. It echos another part in the FOA scope part that reads:

The proposed new research support is intended to provide desirable salaries and sufficient autonomy so that individuals are not solely dependent on grants held by Principal Investigators for career continuity. Research Specialists would have the option, with prior NCI approval, to move to other research programs or institutions while maintaining funding from this award (e.g., if the Principal Investigator's laboratory is closed, if the institution closes a core, etc.).

This is the part that gives the Research Specialist the true "sufficient autonomy" and "not solely dependent" business that is written all throughout the PAR. It is essential how broadly this "e.g." is interpreted, particularly with respect to who makes the decisions about permitting a change. Obviously, the one major thing missing from these examples is the autonomous choice of the Research Specialist. What if she or he simply wants to join a different lab or university? How easily can it be moved to another city when the person's spouse gets a new job? How easily can they detach themselves from a toxic PI? etc.

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h/t: @superkash

29 responses so far

  • dsks says:

    Errr... isn't,
    "The Research Specialist Award is designed to encourage the development of stable research career opportunities for exceptional scientists who want to pursue research within the context of an existing cancer research program, but not serve as independent investigators"

    Slightly contradicted by,
    "Maximum duration is 5 years. "???

    What do they do next?

    DM said, "Welp. This is certainly going down a road of contributing to the rich getting richer which is not something I support. Unless "importance to the research program of the PI" means helping to stabilize the science of a have-not type of PI who struggles to maintain consistent funding"

    This is the fear. Without a nuanced review process, the most competitive applicants for this award could well be those who need it the least (and you can bet your a$$ the big labs will be having their postdocs slam this opportunity for all their worth; one less mouth to fully feed etc).

    I guess my question would be who is going to be more competitive for this: a 6 yr postdoc with a coupla middle authorships in CNS mags from a top well-funded lab, but whom the PI swears is a vital team member based on this or that expertise... or a 6 yr postdoc from a 1-2 R01 lab in flyover country with a cluster of solid first author pubs in society journals?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Almost everything about NIH is on a 5 yr maximum. This is renewable though, just like R01s.

    I was pretty sure the K05s were renewable although maybe not (and people just got another new one) and this is explicitly why they made it a R mech rather than a K mech?

  • drugmonkey says:

    ah, as recently as the 2009 announcement for K05 it says only renewable once. So again, this may be the reason for making this salary-only award an R instead of a K which it is more obviously similar to.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    " guess my question would be who is going to be more competitive for this: a 6 yr postdoc with a coupla middle authorships in CNS mags from a top well-funded lab, but whom the PI swears is a vital team member based on this or that expertise... or a 6 yr postdoc from a 1-2 R01 lab in flyover country with a cluster of solid first author pubs in society journals?"

    -I really, really hope this isn't only going to go to permadocs. I'd like to see 1-2 year PDs and Masters holders well represented in this mechanism. Slogging through a 6 year postdoc just to be eligible for one of these kind of defeats the purpose, in my mind.

    " Does the Unit Director document that they have sufficient NCI-funded research or resource support to cover the costs of the Research Specialist's research or resource provision activities?"
    -This is also somewhat worrying vis a vis the snowballing of money. I doubt this will be going to the mono and di-RO1 crowd.

  • dr24 says:

    Why does it matter R/K if it's 5+yrs and renewable?

  • DJMH says:

    I don't get the point of foisting grant-writing on the specific population of people who have their current jobs because they don't want to / can't write grants.

    Seems like of course it ends up with the PI writing it... and the PI benefiting from it. Nothing in these statements makes me think otherwise. "Ooh goody here's two years of funding to change labs, but we're still going to give your old PI money too because sometimes we can't think of enough ways to give away money!?"

  • drugmonkey says:

    Note that many of those discussion points did not end up in the FOA, DJMH.

    Dr24- The K05 was only renewable once. I suspect this might have been an issue- careers anticipated to last > 10 years.

  • potnia theron says:

    As is true of DM's concerns, my strongest issue is that this is just the rich getting richer. Given that the award sounds like it will be given to work on an existing project, its going to be tied to an existing PI. Portability in language can be different from portability in fact.

    Is NCI (more than other IC's??? I don't know) more big-lab/big-science/big-PI? If so, it would make "independent operators" harder to do. How much research can be done "small budget" i.e., if there is little or no support for doing research?

  • dr24hours says:

    I am happy the NIH is interested in supporting non-PI career scientists. I worry that this will only further shift the burden of support from universities to the fed. There needs to be some kind of pressure to get universities and hospitals to invest in people and not just more megalithic infrastructure. For the price of a $100M building, a research lab could be sustained for a generation.

  • potnia theron says:

    djmh: there are people who want to do research, who are capable of writing *this* kind of grant. There are people who are stuck in a city for personal reasons, and want to be more than a postdoc and less than a PI. I perceive this mechanism as a way to help them (even if its for five years). There is a potential (for which as DM says over and over, we don't know yet how implementation will impact) for this to make a difference, and to give such folks a boost.

  • MoBio says:

    With the KO5 's at one point some institutes allowed these to be renewed past 10 years (that may still be the case at NIDA).

    I remember a former head of NIMH stating that 'if you can't have a successful career with 15 + years support....' (he was including KO2 x 5 years with that number).

  • drugmonkey says:

    The K05 was for professorial appointed PIs. So this is different. I only referenced the K05 as the most-similar existing mech in the past.

  • drugmonkey says:

    ....but yes, the actual need for the K05 vs it being just another way for the insiders to get richer......

  • DJMH says:

    Read the PAR, it sounds as though apps will be most competitive if the people are more typically core facility directors and stuff like that, rather than tied to a single lab. So from that standpoint I approve.

    Of course the next Q is where is the money coming from. REmembering Datahound's analysis of R01 success rates by institute, and how that correlated with the fraction of funds each IC devotes to R01s:
    http://datahound.scientopia.org/2014/11/20/r01-success-rates-by-institute-and-center/
    pretty clear that NCI is at the low end of success rates for R01s because it doesn't mind pilfering that money for other mechs. Since I generally think it would be better if more institutes operate like NEI and NIDCD by that graph, creation of new mechs is always a concern.

  • drugmonkey says:

    This is really all of a piece with concern about whether the focus is on the host "Unit Director" (ugh) or the Research Specialist. If the R50 can be viewed as making that person as productive and autonomous as possible, I think some of these other concerns fade.

  • MorganPhD says:

    Core director is exactly the wrong type of position we should be funding off of this type of mechanism! Core facilities should be supported by the university (through operating funds, endowments, or indirect costs) or fee-for-service. Most cores are run like businesses at this point, such that every damn sample I run is 3-4X actual cost to account for salary and future equipment purchases. What the hell is the university paying for?

  • MorganPhD says:

    What about some phase-out or ramp-down period to actually support long-term careers. After a 5 year award period that is not renewed, the university is required to pay a ramped down salary for some minimum # of years after the award is terminated. This would stop people from losing their jobs immediately if the grant isn't renewed. That's my biggest fear. One unintended consequence of the award is making positions less stable...

  • Dusanbe says:

    So now core facility specialist positions will be soft money jobs? Whoop dee doo.

  • The Other Dave says:

    Research Specialists are great, and this sort of position should definitely be a viable career option, as it is in several European countries with much higher scientific productivity (per dollar or capita) than the U.S.

    But the support should be provided by THE INSTITUTION, not NIH. This is the way that it works in those other countries. And institutional support is what makes sense, since it's the institution that specifically benefits. As is, this looks like just another scam to support soft-money hiring and cost-shifting. Seriously, sometimes I wonder whether there's any stupid ploy cooked up by certain medical school deans that NIH has *not* fallen for.

  • The Other Dave says:

    I am re-reading some of the comments here. Seriously?! Why are some people giving this a thumbs up? It's the most terrible NIH initiative I've seen in a long time.

    As others have mentioned... 5 year grants is NOT a "stable ... career opportunity" and does NOT provide "career continuity." It's a complete suckers position, where the financial responsibility previously shouldered by a PI is now abdicated. I shudder to think about the poor people who will fall for this 'opportunity'.

    Aren't institutional research specialists a facilities expense? So now institutions can still collect overhead money and openly admit that they don't need to use it for research support services?

    As a reviewer, how am I supposed to judge the quality of a research specialist support application independent of anything that person will be working on? They might be brilliant, but not if they are just going to hang out in a basement somewhere. Or how should I judge an R01 that relies on an associated but independently funded research specialist?

    I keep picturing some med school dean looking at his ICR income versus expenses, and thinking... Holy crap I can't afford to pay all these people. Hmmmm... Switching all the PIs to soft money worked well 15 years ago. I wonder if these facilities guys will fall for the same scam. I should call my pal at NIH...

  • Ass(isstant) Prof says:

    For some reason, this just doesn't seem like the right approach to me. I believe that there should be career options for those who don't want to have the PI designation/pressure. Or those whose life situations simply preclude the amount of work required. However, I don't see how and NIH mechanism is an appropriate path to the goal.

    Since initial awards and moves will be tied to the project, not much is functionally different from being a postdoc. The likely outcome is that NIH throws additional support to the BSD class. How can the outcome be anything else?

    As a small town grocer-type PI, I find I have a lot in common with my friends who run small businesses. Following this logic, as the business grows, one hires more employees (postdocs, techs, graduate students). In the construction business, this would be like getting a federal contract to for a $1 million building, then having the feds say, "wait, we'll directly pay your foreman's salary, retirement, and health insurance." You can pocket the savings."

    "savings" would be something like IDC.

    I wonder if the route to non-PI but PhD careers is to have universities and institutes create the job descriptions and negotiate with NIH to actually support them. I still can't see how the positions won't be tied to a specific PI or project.

  • Most cores are run like businesses at this point, such that every damn sample I run is 3-4X actual cost to account for salary and future equipment purchases.

    In what bizarroworld do you live in that salaries and equipment depreciation are not "actual costs" of providing you with core services?

  • drugmonkey says:

    In academia land where IDC rates are just there for the deanlets to install walnut paneling and rugs handwoven by orphans.

  • MorganPhD says:

    The bizarroworld where I'm charged $100/hr for hands-on time for sample prep when they pay $15/hr to the person doing it. I'm fine with "cost recovery"; things like this seem egregious and like a good way for the uni to get more of my grant $$$.

    I expect if one of our core leaders gets an R50, they'll make everything cheaper to account for the reduced salary costs...or not.

  • MorganPhD says:

    Everyone always makes the claim that research is a loss leader, but never open up the books to show us. "Trust us, we're losing money"

  • dsks says:

    "Almost everything about NIH is on a 5 yr maximum. This is renewable though, just like R01s."

    Yeah, I went off on one without reading that carefully, I thought it was just a one of dealio. But I still share the concerns of others in re who is likely to be competitive for this funding, and who really stands to benefit from the mechanism.

  • Adriana says:

    I interpret this as to be for people who are either core managers or lab managers. Awarding to core managers/ directors will not make the rich richer but will actually help the Institution as well as multiple investigators. If this turns into a way to keep post docs around for more than 5 years then I agree, it is stupid.

  • Dusanbe says:

    Helping the institution = making the rich richer

  • DJMH says:

    Helping the institution = making the rich richer

    It depends, doesn't it? If having one of these means a core facility can charge less for what it does, that makes it more accessible for labs that have less money. But if (as I think is more likely), it means that the core can buy New Fancy Sequencer and keeping charging plenty of money, then it only helps the rich labs.

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