The NIGMS continues its ongoing argument for funding more labs with ever decreasing amounts of grant funding in a new Feedback Loop post.
This one focuses, yet again, on "productivity" as assessed by publication counts and (this time) citations of those publications. It is, as always, significantly flawed by ignoring the effects of Glamour publications. I've done that before and it is starting to bore me. In short, you cannot compare apples to oranges because of the immense difference in the cost of generating your average Nature paper versus a Brain Research paper. And citations don't help because getting into a Glam journal does not mean your paper will get any particular number of citations. Furthermore, there is very little chance that papers that cost 10 or 20 times more will generate ten or twenty times the citations, on average, given the skew in citation distributions and the fact that Glam journals are only hitting means in the 30-40 range. Finally, their "efficiency" measures completely ignore the tremendous inefficiencies of interrupted funding, which is a reality under the current system and also not necessarily fixed with their spread-the-wealth schemes.
The real issue of the day is the opinion of the fans of NIGMS's "conclusion*", which reads:
Overall, however, the data suggest that supporting a greater number of investigators at moderate funding levels is a better investment strategy than concentrating high amounts of funding in a smaller number of researchers.
The Sally Rockey blog entry on "mythbusting" is relevant here. As of FY2009 about 72% of NIH funded investigators had one RPG. Another 20% had two and maybe 5% had three.
The NIGMS data analyses are big on fitting productivity lines to about the single R01 level of direct costs (~$200K per year) and showing how the productivity/cost drops off as the grant funding increases. Take a good look at the most recent analysis. Linear productivity up to $300K direct costs with the 75%ile sustained all the way to $500K. The famous original 2010 analysis by Jeremy Berg at NIGMS is pretty similar in the sense that you don't get much change in the line fit to mean publications until you get to the $600-$700K direct costs range.
There is a critical point in lining up these two bits of information which is that the NIGMS policy intent is not supported by their analysis and it can't be. One or two RPG level from Rockey's post should be interpreted in full modular R01 terms ($250K direct, usually cut to $200K, $225K direct and in NIGMS' case to 4 years by default) with a little bit of float upwards for the rare cases. Consequently, it is obvious that most NIH awardees operate in the ~$200-250K part of NIGMS' dataset. Another 20% operate in the $400-$500K direct range. In other words, well within the linear part of the productivity/cost curve.
Mean publications as represented by the 2010 Berg analysis are increasing linearly well up to the three to four grant level of $750K direct costs.
In either case, the "inefficient" grant levels are being obtained by a vanishingly small number of investigators.
Fine, screw them, right?
Sure....but this does nothing to address either the stated goal of NIGMS in hedging their bets across many labs or the goal of the unfunded, i.e., to increase their chances substantially.
A recent Mike Lauer Blog post showed that about a third of those PI's who seek RPG funding over a rolling 5 year interval achieve funding. Obviously if you take all the multi-grant PIs and cut them down to one tomorrow, you'd be able to bump funded investigators up by 15-20%, assuming the FY2009 numbers are relatively good still**. It isn't precise because if you limit the big guys to one award then these are going to drift up to $499K direct at a minimum and a lot more will have special permission to crest the $500K threshold.
There will be a temporary sigh of relief and some folks will get funded at 26%ile. Sure. And then there will be even more PIs in the game seeking funding and it will continue to be a dogfight to retain that single grant award. And the next round of newbies will face the same steep odds of entry. Maybe even steeper.
So the ONLY way for NIGMS' plan to work is to cut per-PI awards way, way down into the front part of their productivity curves. Well below the point of inflection($300-500K or even $750K depending on measure) where papers-per-grant dollar drops off the linear trend. Even the lowest estimate of $300K direct is more than one full-modular grant. It will take a limit substantially below this level*** to improve perceptions of funding ease or to significantly increase the number of funded labs.
Which makes their argument based on those trends a lie, if they truly intend it to support their "better investment strategy". Changing the number of investigators they support in any fundamental way means limiting per-PI awards to the current full modular limit (with typical reductions) at the least, and very likely substantially below this level to produce anything like a phase change.
That's fine if they want to just assert "we think everyone should only have X amount of direct costs" but it is not so fine if they argue that they have some objective, productivity-based data analysis to support their plans. Because it does not.
*This is actually their long standing assertion that all of these seemingly objective analyses are designed to support.
**should be ballpark, given the way Program has been preserving unfunded labs at the expense of extra awards to funded labs these days.
***I think many people arguing in favor of the NIGMS type of "small grants for all" strategy operate from the position that they personally deserve funding. Furthermore that some grant award of full modular level or slightly below is sufficient for them. Any dishonest throwaway nod to other types of research that are more expensive (as NIGMS did "We recognize that some science is inherently more expensive, for example because of the costs associated with human and animal subjects.") is not really meant or considered. This is somewhat narrow and self-involved. Try assuming that all of the two-granters in Rockey's distribution really need that amount of funding (remember the erosion of purchasing power?) and that puts it at more like 92% of awardees that enjoy basic funding at present. Therefore the squeeze should be proportional. Maybe the bench jockeys should be limited to $100K or even $50K in this scenario? Doesn't seem so attractive if you consider taking the same proportional hit, does it?