Trophy collaborations

Jul 05 2018 Published by under Conduct of Science, NIH, NIH Careerism

Jason Rasgon noted a phenomenon where one is asked to collaborate on a grant proposal but is jettisoned after funding of the award:

I'm sure there are cases where both parties amicably terminate the collaboration but the interesting case is where the PI or PD sheds another investigator without their assent.

Is this common? I can't remember hearing many cases of this. It has happened to me in a fairly minor way once but then again I have not done a whole lot of subs on other people's grants.

17 responses so far

  • Draino says:

    My last R01 received this comment about environment:

    "The absence of support letters or collaboration letters may suggest that the applicant is somewhat isolated in his environment."

    This mealy-mouthed concern is easily addressed with a couple of trophy collaborators. I would say this is very common. I'm surprised that you think it might not be.

  • Ola says:

    On the other end, it can sometimes be tough to get rid of a collaborator when one is a junior PI and that big dog's 5% salary at the NIH cap is eating a big chunk of your modular budget! How many people who are jettisoned just don't realize they've outstayed their welcome? I'd say after the first paper is out (with the collab' in the middle somewhere) then it's time to reevaluate and ask if they're still useful. Before that point might be a bit early.

  • xykademiqz says:

    This happened to me a few times, when I was younger and didn't know better. I would get asked to be on the proposal because I am a woman and a theorist, both of which are nice to have on paper (diversity -- woman co-PI! complete story with both theory and experiment!). But these PIs didn't actually want a collaboration, they wanted to get the grant to do what they wanted to do, and once they did, especially if the budget was reduced, they saw no reason not to keep all the money. It was always easy to say "But my supplies and user fees cost so much! Sorry. It's for the good of the science."

    These days, I am extremely conservative when it comes to striking up new collaborations. I collaborate only with the people I know very well, but work by myself most of the time and usually seek my own funds even for collaborative work these days.

    It's enough that I keep being the double token (woman/theorist) on grant review panels. I don't actually have to help sleazebags get funded by being their token co-PI.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I'm a bit confused here. Are people collaborating without having a formal subcontract routed through their own institution during submission? Because if there's a subcontract with a budget, I don't see how the PI could just decide not to release the funds. If they did I think they would hear about it in a big way from the institution with the sub-award.

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    Exactly -- as a former soft money guy my institution would not take kindly to the idea of an external PI not paying the described subcontract (as they would have already budgeted the planned overhead) and would *certainly* take it up with the funding agency.

  • drugmonkey says:

    "The absence of support letters or collaboration letters may suggest that the applicant is somewhat isolated in his environment."

    I've had some comments about this as well, along the lines of "the PI seems to work in isolation". About 45% of my publications include collaborating laboratories. In several cases more than one collaborating laboratory. Whether this is high or low and how one evaluates that... I don't know. But it is curious that this sort of comment is issued without a specific comment on why it is a weakness in the proposal. If the scientific scope is too limited, say that. If there key additional experiments outside the domain of this siloed PI that are needed, say that. right?

    ...and this is before we get into the evidence that, for example, women PIs are less likely to be involved in collaborations with the clear implications that there is a bias against them.

    If the comment is "you selfish bastard why are you not extending your obvious grant getting skills to bring along others" well...yeah.

    How many people who are jettisoned just don't realize they've outstayed their welcome? I'd say after the first paper is out (with the collab' in the middle somewhere) then it's time to reevaluate and ask if they're still useful.

    When it is me that is the PI and a collaborator isn't really contributing much and the percentage is fairly low, I just chalk it up to 1) keeping the expectation of help cooking along in case I have a sudden rush idea and 2) their presence won the award so they should get to enjoy the spoils, it isn't necessarily my money in that sense.

    Because if there's a subcontract with a budget, I don't see how the PI could just decide not to release the funds. If they did I think they would hear about it in a big way from the institution with the sub-award.

    In my experience, the PI is the deciderer. The PI can cut sub-contracts at will, change their allocation of resources to their home institution collaborators, etc. Changes in Key Personnel require backing of the PO but that is barely a formality in my experience. Yes, yes, I'm sure there have been fights over this sort of thing, particularly when the amount is large. But, since a University is large and is as often on the side of the PI as of the subcontract, I can't see where it would behoove them to threaten to sue a primary institution. as far as I know the subcontracts are arranged year by year, there is not necessarily a longer term commitment to be violated if the prime institution says "sorry not this year".

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I know cutting a subcontract isn't impossible, but it tends to be a pretty f-ing big deal unless the amounts are trivial. The original post makes it sound like there are people out there who do this casually, which would surprise me.

  • SidVic says:

    I've gotten to the point where i spell out the dealio up front. "If i'm on the grant, then you keep my salary for at least two years" , or whatever. Human nature that ppl quickly resort to what have you done for me lately. Spell it out upfront and it avoids problems. We have a generous incentive program where i work and % salary on grants can impact money in your pocket alot. It also can effect departmental budgets alot.

  • SidVic says:

    OTOH, if it a junior investigator and a smaller grant i have often let them know that it is OK to cut my effort after a short time.

  • xykademiqz says:

    I know most people here are NIH, so I don't know how it is, but with collaborations funded by the NSF, you can do the subaward mechanism or you can do the so-called collaborative grant, where each institution submits individually and they get merged in Fastlane: lead institution uploads technical narrative, each institution uploads boilerplate including budget. With the collaborative grant mechanism, if the project is recommended for funding, each institution is issued its own separate grant (also separate project reports etc. later), so no subaward bullshit. These days, the collaborative grants mechanism is the only way I will do collaborations between institutions.

    A couple of the sleaziest "sorry, your services are not actually needed now that we've received the money" cutoffs have come from within the institution, so there is nothing to be done in terms of one institution making a fuss, as all the money is already here. I leave when I'm not wanted and I remain civil, but yes, bad aftertaste and never getting involved with those people again.

  • Almost tenured PI says:

    I had two co-investigators on my NIH grant. The powers that be at the NIH chose not to list either one of them as key personnel on my notice of award. Therefore, it is entirely up to me whether or not I actually give them the salary support that was written into the grant. One co-inv was listed on the grant in order to give the mouse work some credibility. However, we now do in vivo work routinely in my own lab, and so this collaborator is not needed. The other co-I moved to a different university and is thus not realistically able to provide expertise or reagents in any useful way. When I suggested cutting them, they both individually told me this is not how things are done, basically called me an unethical sleaze, and pressured me into paying their salary support simply as recognition of their help in getting the grant funded. I'm sure the NIH would say that paying them is completely inappropriate, but the more people I've asked, the more this courtesy salary support does seem to be the norm.

  • JL says:

    Budget cuts play a huge role here. Sometimes the PI has few options but to cut things and people out. My first R01 got cut ~40% to way under modular. I had to cut some people out. I felt terrible, but they were gracious about it. They knew it was my only option. We continued working together and they got their name in multiple publications, and eventually support in later grants. I have also been in grants where I know I will not get a dime. It is good to help people get their grants. In the vast majority of these cases it is not a lot of work, and eventually we all benefit.

  • Grumpy says:

    This is why I can't stand it when I get the comment " proposal would be strengthened if they added experts in X, Y, and Z", where xyz are areas way outside my field that would only be relevant for follow up studies if every aim is successful. Only happens to me with NIH, and always annoying...if I had to find 3 new collaborators for every single proposal I would never spend time doing anything other than talking on the phone and massaging egos.

    I had a PO tell me recently that I should always aquiesce to such requests and add these people as 0.01 FTE or whatever. Who has the time to mess around with the paperwork, laying ground rules, etc. for the privilege of a few hours of conversation if it should become relevant? I'd like to think that when the roles are reversed I am more than happy to offer advice without charging by the hour.

    But FWIW, when I do add co-PIs, subcontracts, co-Is, and senior personnel (which is still at least half the time) I've never considered cutting them by more than the fraction the overall proposal was cut. I hope things are never so bad I have to nickel/dime ppl like that.

  • bob says:

    Anne Carpenter describes her experience here and it's not good:
    https://twitter.com/DrAnneCarpenter/status/1014871739375943681

  • drugmonkey says:

    The implication that women are more likely to get cut out needs some NIH attention ASAP, if you ask me.

  • xykademiqz says:

    Women are the canary in the coalmine. If there are ethical shenanigans, they will affect women first and/or will be much more pronounced with women than men.

  • bacillus says:

    I've had the opposite experience whereby I co-opt an industrial partner because it is a prerequisite for the RFA. Finding a willing and appropriate partner is usually not a problem save the salaries and overhead they put in their budgets. However, on two occasions where such applications were not funded, the industrial collaborator outright stopped communicating with me asap. Part of the problem is that the RFAs in question are one offs, offer big money and cannot readily be turned around into an investigator-initiated R01 without losing the money needed to e.g. make GMP material or test its efficacy in NHP.

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