Archive for the 'Ask DrugMonkey' category

More data on historical success rates for NIH grants

Jul 11 2012 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

Thanks to a query from a reader off the blog and a resulting request from me, our blog-friend microfool pointed us to some data. Since I don't like Tables, and the figure on the excel file stinks, here is a different graphical depiction:

The red trace depicts success rates from 1962 to 2008 for R01 equivalents (R01, R23, R29, R37). Note that they are not broken down by experienced/new investigators status, nor are new applications distinguished from competing continuation applications. The blue line shows total number of applications reviewed...which may or may not be of interest to you. [update 7/12/12: I forgot to mention that the data in the 60s are listed as "estimated" success rates.]

The bottom line here is that looking at the actual numbers can be handy when playing the latest round of "We had it tougher than you did" at the w(h)ine and cheese hour after departmental seminar. Success rates end at an unusually low point...and these numbers stop in 2008. We're seeing 15% for R01s (only) in FY2011.

Things are worse than they've ever been and these dismal patterns have bee sustained for much longer. If we look at the ~30% success rates that ruled the day from 1980-2003, the divergence from the trend from about 1989 to 1996 was interrupted in the middle and, of course, saw steady improvement in the latter half. The badness that started in FY2004 has been 8 unrelieved Fiscal Years and shows no sign of abatement. Plus, the nadir (to date) is much lower.

Anyone who tries to tell you they had it as hard or harder at any time in the past versus now is high as a kite. Period.

Now, of course, it IS true that someone may have had it more difficult in the past than they do now, simply because it has always been harder for the inexperienced PIs to win their funding.

As we know from prior posts, career-stage differences matter a LOT. In the 80s when the overall success rate was 30%, you can see that newcomers were at about 20% and established investigators were enjoying at least a 17%age point advantage (I think these data also conflate competing continuation with new applications so there's another important factor buried in the "Experienced" trace.) Nevertheless, since the Experienced/New gap was similar from 1980 to 2006, we can probably assume it held true prior to that interval as well.

12 responses so far

NIDA and NIAAA Kill the K05 Senior Scientist Research Award

Jun 26 2012 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

Per NOT-DA-12-016,

NIDA and NIAAA will not accept any K05 applications beyond the November 2012/ January 2013 receipt dates.

For those unfamiliar, the latest PA-12-148 FOA for the K05 is here and the purpose is listed as:

The purpose of the Senior Scientist Research (K05) is intended to provide protected time for outstanding senior scientists who have demonstrated a sustained high level of productivity conducting biomedical research relevant to the scientific mission of the appropriate institute to focus on their research and to provide mentoring of new investigators.

The DM Executive Summary is, "Salary support for BigSchwangingTypes to relieve the burden on their research awards, covered by a faked-up need for buyout from local Institutional responsibilities with regard to teaching and service".

The junior faculty summary is, "What another total scam by which the GoodOldBoyes/Girlz extract yet MORE money out of the NIH grant system!"

Note: If it were ever possible, you are damn right I would have applied for one of these in a heartbeat and I'm bitter that it was never possible for me to get one of these schweeeeet deals :-).

So when I first saw this notice I just thought "Good!" and moved on.


A reader of the blog wrote to ask for my take on this and further observed:

I am curious how this will impact these senior "NIDA" investigators and their current/future grant applications? If these K05 scientist now have to put more of their effort on their NIDA grants, what impact will that have on their grants, their trainees who are funded off their grants, etc.

I guess I am a little shocked, and happy, that they are finally sticking it to the senior scientists a little. This may indirectly help out us younger scientists?

First of all, I should make clear I have no insight into why NIDA and NIAAA have chosen to dismantle this program at this time. Haven't heard any rumours about it at all.

Charging on over to RePORTER I find that there are only 33 K05s funded between the two institutes (13 NIAAA) at present. This is not a tremendously large number. The total costs seem to run from about $120K per year up to about $250K...over a R03 equivalent on the low end and we're talking R21 territory for the bigger ones. I guess 30-50 more of the smaller R grants funded every year would be a good improvement.

Alternately, they could use these to offset one-module reductions for a larger number of R01 apps, or get perhaps 15 more R01s funded entirely. NIDA has about 90 new R01s funded in FY2012 (to date) and they funded about 122 new R01s in FY2011. Therefore, adding 10-15 more is a significant improvement. This could very well be the only reason. They are searching under the couch cushions for a way, any way, to keep the R-mech success rates up.

Getting back to the emailer's suggestion that this is a way to stick it to the senior investigators....well, that isn't quite clear. The senior investigator salaries have to come from somewhere. And as I alluded to, I think the whole idea of buying out local institutional service time was a bit of a sham. The K05 serves, in part, to relieve the burden on the PIs' R grants. If they didn't have the K05 buyout, they'd be looking to land another R grant to get the same percentage of their salary covered.

They will return to doing so (and here we have a nebulous, fluid population "they" which is made up of the current awardees and the next set of potential future K05 awardees). Putting in more R or P mechanism proposals that will compete with, you guessed it, everyone else. Including the junior investigators.

So it isn't the case that this magically frees up money for the younger set to obtain. It throws the money, yes, but also the Greybearded and Bluehaired Professors back into the R-mech pool.

10 responses so far

Protected Pockets of Time

In yesterday's discussion, I finally got a partial glimpse of the issue when NatC observed:

Discussions about how to manage and plan protected pockets of time OUTSIDE work to do whatever - walk the bulldog, play music, train for a triathlon, watch baseball, play with your kids or nieces/nephews ir travel - would be extremely valuable work/life balance discussions to have early in this sometimes crazy career.

In full disclosure this has rarely been a problem for me. I've managed to get to where I am today (such as it is) with what I think is a healthy balance of work-to-life. Obviously some, including my spouse, might disagree but the important thing is that I think this is the case. We're talking personal, subjective "balance" here and nobody can define it for you. If you have reached it, you are going to be relatively happier and if you feel imbalanced you are going to feel sad* about it.

Yes, I for damn sure wish for more hours in the day. Yes. Of course. And at each and every major stage there were things being neglected so that I could pursue some other thing. Either in the proximal, days to weeks, or in the long-haul, years to decades(!), perspective. But I have never been an obsessive and any fair read would fail to find any major imbalance.

How did I do it?

I think the most useful and general approach is that you have to be willing to fail.

Let me say it again: YOU HAVE TO BE WILLING TO FAIL!!!!!

I was not, I think, willing to fail at getting the PhD. This was a defined, obtainable target for which the steps were mostly clear to me. Do the research, write that shit up into a dissertation and bob's your uncle.

After that? Well, yes, of course I wanted to succeed career-wise. In one of the professorial paths preferably. But I was willing to...not. To fail.

There have been several defined choice points at which I did the considerably sub-optimal career move for the sake of issues that we shall encompass under "life". (Also career moves which might have in the long run been suboptimal but looked great** at the time. Some of this initial appearance was influenced by "life".) Sometimes I did this out of unthinking ignorance, I will admit. I didn't perhaps realize the magnitude of the risk I was running. But I for damn sure knew there was risk. Risk of not making it in some way. Of not getting on the independent research track. Of not getting funding...or not keeping it. Of letting the lab and research program crash down to nonviability.

This hasn't stopped and it continues to this day.

Is my virtue untested? Some might observe that. From the perspective of some it looks like I have a pretty schweet gig***. From above the waterline it looks okay. Something a disgruntled postdoc or Year 3 faculty member might think is pretty much IT. As in "career accomplished"...all it takes now is running it out like you always wanted to. No risk.

I don't see it that way. I still risk failures of various sorts. Mostly the big axe is the grant funding....and it is a big one, hanging over my head more often than it is not.

So much like the disgruntled postdoc and the terrified junior faculty member...I could always work harder. More. Put in more grants. Squeeze out more papers. Refine my lab efficiency to maximize the data. Chase small project funds. Woo more trainees. Hit the seminar circuit harder. Go to more meetings.

All of this would probably benefit my career. It would make things go better professionally. We'd be more productive, no doubt.

I choose not to. That's it. There's no secret. There's no special case of insulation from the risks of choosing not to work harder than the next person. You risk paying a price.

Balance implies tradeoffs. I've certainly found it to be so. There are costs to go with every benefit. Costs that may be "just" stress, may be health issues (mental or otherwise), may be definable career failures. Having "life" balance makes this inevitable. There will be tradeoffs****, people.

This is my answer to NatC's question. Choose. Choose to take the time. Make room for what is important to you. Realize that by doing so you might fail. You might.

But you know what? These St Kern and Poo types?

I know for damn sure they've failed at life.

And that I was never willing to risk.

*don't get a puppy to cheer yourself up.
**so we won't count these, at the time they seemed really pro-career.
***and I do, I do.
****of course it goes both ways. you may be choosing a career path that really isn't compatible with your desire to tour Europe with an opera group every summer. You may have to give up some of the "life" stuff

23 responses so far

The worst drivers on US roads are

The demonstrably worst drivers are 1) Beemer pilots, 2) Volvo drivers of the mom demographic, 3) jacked up pickemup trucks with trucknutz idiots and 4) minivan drivers. Lately the ecophreaks driving Prii are making a *strong* showing. But I suspect that is either the dope or the conversion of #2s to Prii.


42 responses so far

Idiot runners


The notion that I have to be all #getoffylawn about the concept of fartlek pains me.

It is not intervals, you do not pluralize the word and you most certainly should not be throwing up at the end of the workout.

9 responses so far

On providing feedback: A simple poll

Apr 13 2012 Published by under #FWDAOTI, Ask DrugMonkey, Poll

Multiple choice, select as many as apply.....

8 responses so far

When should new PIs submit their second major grant?

Dec 20 2011 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism

This question arose on the Twitts and the person wanted to know if waiting for the first renewal was a good idea.

In short, no.

First off, the days of counting on the NIH renewal application being funded, even given great productivity, are over. Tactically you need to shoot for overlapping awards just to ensure continuity of a one-R01 sized lab.

Second, it is my continued view that it is really hard to make it as a single grant lab in the long term. You need diversity of projects because one might run into doldrums now and again for reasons outside of your control.

The third point addresses a followup concern- can newb profs handle the load of two major projects? I say yes. I can't think of a single scientist who struggled and/or failed because they had two R01 support in the early years. I'm sure they exist but I can't think of any examples from my experiences. I do know a few folks lucky to get two major awards early (first 2-3 years) and they did (and are doing) just fine.

OTOH I can think of several examples of folks who struggled with just one award and for whom I think things would have been vastly better with two grants.

18 responses so far

PA! Huh. What's it good for? ....absolutely nothin! Say it again, PA!

A query to the blog is a very typical reaction of those new (and not so new) to the NIH Grant game. As you will see in my answer. First, the question:

I'm now confused about this whole Program Announcement thing. The PO said that my application would be judged normally, just as part of whatever else the study section was reviewing, and that there was no special money set aside for the PA. If that's the case, what's the point of the PA in the first place? I had been under the impression it would be judged with other grants responding to the PA, but apparently that's not true.


It is the RFA that generally routes applications into a dedicated, special emphasis panel type study section for review. For those Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOA) there is indeed a set aside pool of money and generally just a single receipt date. The PAS (Program Announcement with Set Aside Funds) also has dedicated funding, generally for the first round of submissions, then it converts to a regular old Program Announcement (PA) type FOA. Applications submitted for a PAR (Program Announcement with special receipt, referral and/or review considerations) is reviewed by a special panel, generally within an IC.

Regular old PAs are open for 3 years and generally use the standard receipt dates. In the ICs of my greatest experience they tend to be renewed and thus may represent essentially permanent PAs for much of your grant writing life. As per the reader query, the applications are reviewed in standard, CSR study sections with the appropriate domains of coverage and expertise. Alongside those applications that use the generic, mechanism based FOA. I would argue that you would only use the latter if you had to. Again, in the ICs of my greatest experience the PAs can be incredibly broad. Take "PA-10-268 Neuroscience Research on Drug Abuse (R01)" as an example. If your IC of interest has such broad topic might as well use them.

Now as the reader question intimates, there is no overtly special benefit to your chances of getting funded. And there may be no benefit at all. Hard to tell. Because of course this sort of business only matters* when Program is considering the grey zone pickup funding. Is there a slant or a formula for how many approximately equivalently scored grants they will select under one of their PAs versus the generic parent FOA? I would suspect so, else why have such things? But I can't say for sure. Maybe it is just make work for Program lay out their priorities. Or maybe it is a defensive excuse for those rare cases when they decide to stiff a grant that came in under the payline "Sorry PI Squirrel, it didn't fit any of our Programmatic Interests...don't you read the PAs?".

The bottom line here for those new to the system is not to get all that excited when language in a PA seems directed at your research program. It isn't *that* good of a bennie. But you might as well have some idea what is in the PAs and respond to them when you can. Because you just never know when it might help.
*assuming you have a modicum of sense and are not submitting stuff that is clearly not going to be of interest under the generic R01 parent FOA.

11 responses so far

The reason I urge newbie profs to keep up with NIH funding solicitations is quite simple

Sep 15 2011 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, NIH Careerism

No matter what esoteric small town grocer science you conduct in your laboratory, there will eventually be a FOA just for you.

13 responses so far

Structural Aspects of Revising Your NIH Grant

A recent query to the blog emailbox echos things I occasionally see on the search traffic leading to the blog and that I deal with IRL. It asks about the more structural aspects to revising a NIH grant application that has been unsuccessful. In the most recent case it is coming from someone pretty junior who has been asked by the PI to learn how to accomplish this task. (I think that's weird, of course, this is the PI's job in my view but so it goes.)

One of the best starting places for getting in the proper mindset to revise a NIH grant is to think about the review process. There are a couple of key aspects that I didn't pick up on until I was actually doing reviews and a couple that I knew but didn't understand how to incorporate that information.

You are aware that in most cases your grant will go back to the same study section...but sometimes it will not. It will likely go back to at least one reviewer that has seen it before, but also to at least one reviewer new to the application. It is not impossible to get all three retreads or all three new, btw. The reviewers will see the summary statement from the prior review but not the application itself. This last is absolutely key.

You also have to keep in mind that any prior reviewers (and it is not impossible that members on the panel may have read your application closely even if not assigned as a reviewer) may of course remember your proposal. They may also have, illegally, retained a copy in their files to which they may refer.

With that as background, structurally speaking the revised application is duck soup. Here's what I recommend based on my own approaches and a distilled impression from reviewing grants that I am far from alone in this approach.

At present you have a one-page "Introduction to the Revised Application" to work with. Before the shortening of the R01 application, you had three. Space is most assuredly at a premium in the present era.

You should start off with a sentence to the effect of "This is a revision of IC031666 reviewed in Panel VWXYNot in Feb of 2011 where it received a priority score of 31 and a percentile rank of 26%".

Recall that while any reviewers who were present at the prior review know the post-discussion score range, they do not know how the mean of the panel went down, nor the all-important percentile rank. I think it a good idea to get this in their minds. Yes, yes, scores are not supposed to be benchmarked on the prior score but let me tell you this is a nearly inescapable psychology of some reviewers.

Next you will be inclined to polish the apple a little bit. Don't. You simply don't have room for that crap, nowadays.

The less-obvious no-no is that you will be inclined to reiterate some of the more glowing and approving comments made by the reviewers. I used to do this...

"We are gratified that Reviewer #2 found the PI's laboratory 'uniquely qualified' for the studies and Reviewer #1 thought the Approach was elegant and ideal for..."

...and got smacked down for it by a senior colleague who had study section experience. This is where your understanding that the reviewer has the summary statement right on her desk next to your revised application comes in handy. They can read the good bits and heck, they might have written those themselves. Cut to the chase.

I shouldn't have to mention this but also resist the urge to talk schmack about the prior review(ers). This doesn't go well.

The rest is, structurally speaking, quite simple. It should be a listing of the most-important and/or most-consistent criticisms, one by one, with your reply underneath. I like to set quoted material in italics and then answer in plain font. You can do this with a line in the margin (meh) or with font face (yuk) but I like italics better. I also edit this down to a few phrases that communicate the point and combine the same criticism from multiple reviewers if applicable- gotta save space. Remember, they have the summary statement.

Identifying which are the most critical comments is up to the Investigators and it is very hard to set general principles or advice here. Obviously you'd be best off if you can reply to anything that looks like a knock on your prior version but space is limited. Having more-experienced colleagues read your summary statement and draft Intro can be helpful here.

Likewise, the content of your response is going to be up to the criticism, your proposal and your situation in general. My generic advice is to give them something. Throw the reviewer a bone, even if you can't deliver the response they probably want to see. Never, ever totally stiff a comment by saying there is no way in hell you are going to do it. That is a surefire way to another crappy score.

Where possible it is nice to point the reviewer to where you made the discussed changes. A few parenthetical references to "see Innovation" or "Specific Aim 2" goes a long ways here.

Try as hard as you can not to blow off a criticism that seems important. If it shows up in the Resume of Discussion you'd damn well better have a response. Ditto if your conversation with your PO after the review revealed a major issue of discussion.

Then you end (or possibly end the first paragraph before you get into the point-by-point) with the comment that major changes in the proposal are indicated by a line in the margin (I find this the most readable) or italics or altered font or something. If there really is wholesale revision, you can say this and omit the indication of revised bits. But in most cases you are going to have a few key passages and design features, perhaps some new data, and you want to draw the reviewer's eye to what is new. Remember, that she does not have access to the prior version of the proposal...and may not have ever seen it before anyway.

These changed bits will hopefully correlate directly with the items you have listed in your point-by-point and indeed with other criticisms that have not made the cut for the one page Intro to the Revised Application.

The quality of your response to the prior criticism is a major factor in review. You do not want the reviewer in any doubt as to just what you have changed. Fortunately, the structural part is relatively easy.

It is only the content of your revision that should have you sweating bullets.

13 responses so far

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