Archive for the 'NIH' category

NIH's rapid growth has let in a bunch of riff-raff!

I am sure Dr. McKnight realizes that when he asserts that "Biomedical research in the 1960s and 1970s was a spartan game" and "Biomedical research is a huge enterprise now; it attracts riff-raff who never would have survived as scientists in the 1960s and 1970s" he is in fact lauding the very scientists "When I joined the molecular cytology study section in the 1980s.. all kinds of superb scientists" who were the riff-raff the prior generation complained about.

From a very prestigious general Science journal in 1962:

Some of [this change] arises from expressions of concern within the scientific community itself over whether the NIH's rapid growth has sacrificed quality to achieve quantity.

The astute reader will also pick up on another familiar theme we are currently discussing.

And some of it reflects nothing more than the know-nothing ramblings of scientific illiterates, who conclude that if the title of a research project is not readily comprehensible to them, some effort to swindle the government must be involved.

1962, people. 1962.
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Greenberg DS. NIH Grants: Policies Revised, but Critics Not Likely To Turn Away. Science. 1962 Dec 28;138(3548):1379-80.

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The Origami Condom and NIH Ebola funding

One of the NIH funded research projects that has been bandied about with much glee from the right wing, in the wake of Francis Collins' unfortunate assertion about Ebola research and the flatlined NIH budget, is the "Origami Condom". It shows why NIH Director Collins should have known better. The Origami Condom sounds trivial and ridiculous, right? "Origami". hahah. Oooh, "condom". Wait, what are we, 12 year olds?

Rand Paul provides a convenient example.
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18 responses so far

Eisen Nails Down Why Collins Was Wrong on Ebola Assertion

Oct 13 2014 Published by under NIH, NIH funding, Public Health

Endorse. Go read:

But what really bothers me the most about this is that, rather than trying to exploit the current hysteria about Ebola by offering a quid-pro-quo “Give me more money and I’ll deliver and Ebola vaccine”, Collins should be out there pointing out that the reason we’re even in a position to develop an Ebola vaccine is because of our long-standing investment in basic research, and that the real threat we face is not Ebola, but the fact that, by having slashed the NIH budget and made it increasingly difficult to have a stable career in science, we’re making it less and less likely that we’ll be equipped to handle all of the future challenges to public health that we’re going to be face in the future.

46 responses so far

Should we continue long-funded NIH grant programs under younger PIs?

Oct 13 2014 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

In the course of discussing the infamous graph showing the longitudinal increase in the median age of first-R01 award, and the other infamous slide deck showing the aging of the distribution of all NIH-funded PIs there is something that eventually comes up.

To wit, how do we ease the older investigators out of the system, at least to the extent of cutting down how many grants they submit and are awarded?
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13 responses so far

Supporting postdoctoral training activities on research grants

Oct 10 2014 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism, Postdoctoral Training

Jeepers.

This has to be the longest winded and most indirect way of putting it.

My interpretation (I could be wrong) is that yes, you can use R-mech research grant funds to send your postdocs to meetings, give seminars and do other postdoctoral training activities that are not directly related to the goals of the research grant.
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15 responses so far

A pants leg can only accommodate so many Jack Russells

Oct 07 2014 Published by under #FWDAOTI, Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism

Some DAOTI asked a silly question

got the simple answer of "no", demanded data and was summarily mocked. For this he got all fronty.

because of course he already knew the answer he wanted to hear in response to his question.

This all arose in the wake of an article in the Boston Globe about the postdoc glut that contained this hilariosity.

“They really are the canary in the coal mine,” said Marc Kirschner, a professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School whose lab of 17 scientists includes 12 postdocs. “They decided they’d go ahead and try to understand why a cancer cell is different from a normal cell, and here they are a few years out. They knew it was a competitive situation, and they were going to work very hard, but they didn’t see the whole system was going to sour so quickly.”

I bolded for the slower reader. My initial reaction was:

Right?

On to the point.

The world of "R1, TT" positions in science is incredibly diverse, yes, even within "biomedical" or just plain "biology". I repeatedly urge postdocs who feel helpless about the glut of postdocs to start by doing some research. Find out ALL of the people who have recently been hired all across the US in jobs that are somewhat remotely related to your skillset. Note, not your "interests". Your SKILLSET!

I follow this up with a call to do the same on RePORTER to find out about the vast diversity of grants that are funded by the NIH. Diversity in topic and diversity in geographical region and diversity in University or Department stature.

This is even before I tell people to get their "R1" noses out of the air and look seriously at Universities that are supposedly beneath their notice.

So what makes for a successful "competitor" for all of the jobs that are open? Is it one thing? Such as "vertically ascending eleventy systems buzzword biology science" training? That is published in Nature and derives from a 12+ postdoc lab with everyone busily trying to hump the same pantsleg?

"Everyone" here is, guess what? Your competition. And yes, if you choose to only seek out "R1, TT" jobs that are in a University that boatloads of people want to work in, applying techniques to topic domains that a dozen fellow postdocs are also doing right beside you, chasing CNS "gets" that a few scores of labs worldwide are also chasing...well, yes, you are going to be at a disadvantage if you are not training in one of those labs.

But this doesn't also mean that making all of those choices is not also putting you at a disadvantage for a "R1, TT" job if that is your goal. Because it is putting you at a disadvantage.

Vince Lombardi's famous dictum applies to academic careers.

Run to Daylight.

Seek out ways to decrease the competition, not to increase it, if you want to have an easier career path in academic science. Take your considerable skills to a place where they are not just expected value, but represent near miraculous advance. This can be in topic, in geography, in institution type or in any other dimension. Work in an area where there are fewer of you.

Given this principle, no, a big lab does not automatically confer an advantage to obtaining a tenure-track position at an R1 university. According to Wikipedia the US has 108 Carnegie-approved "Very high research activity" Universities. Another 99 are in the next bin of "high research activity" and this includes places that would be quite reasonable for someone who wants to be an actual teaching + research old school professor. I know many scientists at these institutions and they seem to be productive enough and, I assume*, happy to be actual Professors.

Would coming from a big lab be a help? Maybe. But often enough search committees at R1s (and the next bin) are looking for signs of independent thought and a unique research program. That is hard to establish in a big lab...far easier to demonstrate from a lab with one or two concurrent postdocs. Other times, the "big labs" in a field (say, Drug Abuse) are simply not structured like they are in cannon-fodder, bench-monkey, GlamourHumping, MolecularEleventy labs. Maybe this is because the overall "group" organized around the subject has Assistant Professors where those "big labs" have Nth year "postdocs". Maybe it is because this just isn't the culture of a subfield. If that is the case, then when an R1 is hiring in your domain, they aren't expecting to see a CV that competes with three other ones just like it from people sharing your lab. They are expecting to see a unique flower with easily discernible individual contribution to the last three years of work from that small lab. That type of candidate has an advantage for this particular job search.

So yeah. It is a stupid question to ask if [single unique training environment] confers an "advantage" for some thing as general as a tenure-track job at an R1 University.

I'll close with a tweet from yesterday:

and a followup

This all reminds me of a famous Twitter "independent scientist" jackhole who applied to a few elite Universities, couldn't get an offer and summarily declared all of science to be broken, corrupt, crowded with "diversity" riff raff and all sorts of other externalizing excuses. Make sure you don't fall into this trap if you are serious about succeeding in an academic career.
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*actually, they say so.

21 responses so far

Rep Harris wants to help the "Young, Brilliant and Unfunded". Allegedly.

Oct 03 2014 Published by under Call yer CongressCritter, Fixing the NIH, NIH

In an Op-Ed in the NYT, Representative Andy Harris (R, Maryland) lays out three main issues that he would like to address regarding the functions of the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Harris [Wikipedia] was a Physician Scientist prior to running for Congress and was the PI of NIH Grant R01 GM036044-04. This grant ran from 1986-2007 and was competitively renewed three times. This, in my mind, gives us much more reason, than is usual for a Congress Critter, to hear the man out.

The Op-Ed proposes to alter the infamous age-of-first-R01 award. Even the NIH [see post at RockTalking] itself agrees that the age of 42 might be too old. Consequently, when Harris recommends:

Congress should also mandate that the median age of first research awards to new investigators be under 40 within five years, and under 38 within 10 years. Failure to meet these benchmarks would result in penalties for the N.I.H., including possible funding cuts.

I am in full agreement. I might even want more aggressive benchmarks. Telling NIH that they must address this is fine because pretty much all stakeholders have been agreeing this is ridiculous. There is very little that I have heard in the way of any serious argument that this increasing age of first-R01 award is a good thing. Now....what I really want to see is the inter-quartile range. What we see is the median and it simply doesn't square with my seat of the pants estimate. It looks really old to me, meaning I know a lot of people that got their start in their early to mid thirties (yes, within the last 15 years, thanks) and very few that got their first R01 at 43 or older. It may be the case that the distribution is nearly Gaussian....or it could be really skewed. It would not surprise me in the least if the 25th percentile is age 36 and the 75th percentile is age 45, for example. I want to see the entire distribution, ideally, but the inter-quartile range would be a good substitute.

The next item is standard right winger, Republican fare when it comes to federally funded science and I oppose it. Strongly. Rep Harris' version:

To make sure it meets those goals, we should insist on the development of an N.I.H.-wide strategic plan — not just for targeting younger researchers, but for prioritizing different avenues of research overall. Today we see too many grants going to things like creating a video game for moms to teach them how to get their kids to eat more vegetables, or studying the creation of a social security system in southern Mexico. Such projects may have value to some, but is creating a video game really more important than researching a cure for Alzheimer’s?

It is easy for anyone to point to some "ridiculous" grant award or study topic that revs up their base. Whether you are opposed to research into topics that are "solved" in the Republican mind with prohibition and moral tut-tutting (HIV/AIDS, drug abuse), in the Democratic mind with hippie veganism and anticorporatism (diabetes, heart diseasee) or in the waccaloon mind by denial (ban all animal research, for example) isn't really important. I can show you how stupidly irrelevant some basic research is, Sarah Palin can dismiss drosophila models or PP and St. McKnight can insist that only "vertically ascending science" is relevant to real advance. We're all wrong. The tremendous strength and success of the NIH-funded research enterprise relies intimately on the relative absence of top-down control. Investigator initiated science is the best way, of a myriad of options. Period. When we try to be "efficient" by picking winners in advance, we hinder scientific advance. It is really surprising Dr. Harris doesn't realize this, even if Representative Harris feels compelled to advance the standard right wing attack against science that discomforts their constituencies of Big Business and Social Conservative Theocrats.

The final agenda item of Rep Harris is, I believe, the true agenda. The bone thrown to young investigators is only a sweetener, I would bet. He wants to end the "tap".

For one thing, we need to eliminate a budget gimmick, known as the “tap,” that allows the Department of Health and Human Services to shift money out of the N.I.H. budget into other department efforts. The N.I.H. lost $700 million to the “tap” in 2013 alone. Instead, the money should be placed under the control of the N.I.H. director, with an explicit instruction that it go to young investigators as a supplement to money already being spent. If we don’t force the N.I.H. to spend it on young investigators, history has shown that the agency won’t.

And what is this, you ask? Datahound to the rescue:

DJMH: The HHS Secretary has the authority to transfer funds for Program Evaluation. This has been down routinely for more than a decade to fund AHRQ and other agencies and to support program evaluation at NIH.

See http://www.nih.gov/about/director/crsrept.pdf

The NIH and other Public Health Service agencies within HHS are subject to
a budget “tap” called the PHS Program Evaluation Transfer, authorized by section
241 of the PHS Act (42 U.S.C. § 238j). It is used to fund not only program
evaluation activities, but also functions that are seen as having benefits across the
Public Health Service, such as the National Center for Health Statistics in CDC and
the entire budget of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. These and
other uses of the evaluation tap by the appropriators have the effect of redistributing
appropriated funds among PHS agencies. The FY2005 and FY2006 L-HHS-ED
appropriations set the tap at 2.4%, as does the FY2007 Senate bill. The House bill
returns the maximum tap to 1.0%, the level specified in the PHS Act. Since NIH has
the largest budget among the PHS agencies, it becomes the largest “donor” of
program evaluation funds and is a relatively minor recipient.

Okay....you think to yourself, why would a Republican Congressman be so het up over this? Well, if you do some judicious googling about AHRQ you find things like this.

The U.S. House Committee on Appropriations released their draft 2013 Labor, Health and Human Services funding bill. In their summary, the number one stated intent is the following:
“Defunding ObamaCare – The legislation contains several provisions to stop the implementation of ObamaCare...

One extreme cut that was thrown in the draft was not just defunding, but total termination of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a tiny agency under the Department of Health and Human Services. AHRQ has a budget of $405 million.

That looks to be more than half of the "tap" that Rep Harris wants to close. And this brings us to wonder if Dr. / Rep Harris has any opinions on the ACA?

Looks as though he is not a fan. Nope, not a fan. At all.

So, Dear Reader, I confess I come away from Rep Harris' Op-Ed with a feeling that the true agenda here is a very familiar right-wing Republican one that goes after part of the Affordable Care Act and attempts to gain additional direct say over what grants the NIH funds. The part about supporting younger scientists is merely a convenient ploy to sweeten the deal and attract the unwary. I don't believe it is the true purpose here.

26 responses so far

CSR says that applications are up by 10%

Oct 02 2014 Published by under Grant Review, NIH, NIH Careerism

Again, according to the Peer Review Notes for September 2014, CSR of the NIH says that applications are up by 10%.

“Total numbers of applications going to CSR study sections have surged about 14 percent," said CSR Director Dr. Richard Nakamura. “The NIH Office of Extramural Research reports about a 10 percent increase in research project grant applications across NIH.”

The difference in the two number is because "CSR is reviewing a slightly larger portion of NIH applications (79%) now than before.", the balance are reviewed in study sections managed by ICs themselves.

Why the bump in applications?

The CSR appears to be blaming this slight increase on the revision of the policy regarding resubmitting previously unfunded applications. As you know, if your revised version (A1) of a proposal is not funded, you may now resubmit it as a "new" application, making no mention whatever of the fact it was previously reviewed.

“It’s clear a large part of this increase is due to NIH removing limits on resubmitting the same research idea,” he said. “The new policy was designed to keep alive worthy ideas that would have been funded had the NIH budget kept up with inflation.”

Obviously, success rates will go down since I see very little chance the budget is going to increase any time soon. The only possible bright spot would be if the recent award of BRAIN Initiative largesse frees up the regular funds within the general framework of neuroscience that would otherwise be won by these folks. I am not holding my breath on that one.

This bump is hitting around the time of the beginning of the fiscal year when there is no appropriation from Congress, as usual. So grants submitted in the summer (first possible after the policy change) will be reviewed this fall and sent to Advisory Councils in January. My assumption is that we will still be under a Continuing Resolution and many ICs will be conservative, per their usual practice.

So anyone who has proposals in for the upcoming Council round has a bit of extra stress ahead. Tougher competition at review and uncertainty of funding all the way through Council. Probably start hearing news about scores on the bubble in March if we're lucky.

The really interesting question is whether this is a sustained trend (and does it really have anything to do with the A2asA0 policy shift).

I bet it will be short lived, IF it has anything to do with that change. Maybe just that one round or at best two rounds and we'll have cleared out that initial exuberance, is my prediction.

20 responses so far

Sometimes CSR just kills me

Oct 01 2014 Published by under Fixing the NIH, Grant Review, NIH

The Peer Review Notes for September 2014 contains a list of things you should never write when reviewing grants.

Some of them are what we might refer to as Stock Critique type of statements. Meaning that they don't just appear occasionally during review. They are seen constantly. A case in point:

7. “This R21 application does not have pilot data, which should be provided to ensure the success of the project.”

Which CSR answers with:

R21s are exploratory projects to collect pilot data. Preliminary data are not required, although they can be evaluated if provided.

What kind of namby-pamby response is this? They know that the problem with R21s is that reviewers insist they should have preliminary data or, at the least only give good scores to the applications that have strong preliminary data. They bother to put this up on their monthly notes but do NOTHING that will have any effect. Here's my proposed response: "We have noticed reviewers simply cannot refrain from prioritizing preliminary data on R21s so we will be forbiding applicants from including it". Feel free to borrow that, Dr. Nakamura.

Another one:

“This is a fishing expedition.”

CSR:

It would be better if you said the research plan is exploratory in nature, which may be a great thing to do if there are compelling reasons to explore a specific area. Well-designed exploratory or discovery research can provide a wealth of knowledge.

This is another area of classic stock criticism of the type that may, depending on your viewpoint, interfere with getting the desired result. As indicated by the answer, CSR (and therefore NIH) disagrees with this anti-discovery criticism as a general position. Given how prevalent it is, again, I'd like to see something stronger here instead of an anemic little tut-tut.

One of these is really good and a key reminder.

“The human subject protection section does not spell out the specifics, but they already got the IRB approval, and therefore, it is ok.”

Response:


IRB approval is not required at this stage, and it should not be considered to replace evaluation of the protection plans.

And we can put IACUC in there too. Absolutely. There is a two tiered process here which should be independent. Grant reviewers take a whack at the proposed subject protections and then the local IACUC takes a whack at the protocol associated with any funded research activities. It should be a semi-independent process in which neither assumes that the approval from the other side of the review relieves it of responsibility.

Another one is a little odd and may need some discussion.

“This application is not in my area of expertise . . . “

I find that reviewers say this in discussion but have never seen it in a written critique (even during read phase before SRO edits eliminate such statements).

The response is not incorrect...

If you’re assigned an application you feel uncomfortable reviewing, you should tell your Scientific Review Officer as soon as possible before the meeting.

...but I think there is wiggle room here. Sometimes, reviewers are specifying that they are only addressing the application in a particular way. This is OKAY! In my experience it is rare that a given application has three reviewers who are stone cold experts in every single aspect of the proposal. The idea is that they can be primary experts in some part or another. And, interestingly given the recent statements we discussed from Dr. McKnight, it is also okay if someone is going at the application from a generalist perspective as well. So I think for the most part reviewers say this sort of thing as a preamble to boxing off their areas of expertise. Which is important for the other panel members who were not assigned to the application to understand.

4 responses so far

Sometimes the good guys win

Sep 30 2014 Published by under Neuroscience, NIH

I've mentioned a time or two that I think the DREADD approach is infinitely more useful than optogenetics for anything that matters.

So congrats to the team for this new award.

DREADD2.0: AN ENHANCED CHEMOGENETIC TOOLKIT

DESCRIPTION (provided by applicant): The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative has the ambitious goal of elucidating how neuronal ensembles interactively encode higher brain processes. To accomplish this goal, new and improved methods for both recording and manipulating neuronal activity will be needed. In this application, we focus on technologies for manipulating neuronal activity. The major significance of this application is that we will provide an enhanced chemogenetic toolbox that allows non-invasive, multiplexed spatiotemporal control of neuronal activity in domains ranging from single synapses to ensembles of neurons. To achieve this, we will provide: Chemical actuators with improved pharmacokinetics and pharmacodyamics suited for use with current DREADDs in eukaryotes ranging from Drosophila to primates (Specific Aim #1) Photo-caged CNO and other chemical actuators to provide millisecond-scale control (Specific Aim #1) Novel DREADDs and 'split-DREADDs' targeted to distinct neuronal pathways to enable multiplexed interrogation of neuronal circuits (Specific Aims #2 and 3) Chemogenetic platforms with minimized desensitization and down-regulation (Specific Aim #3)

I am excited to see where this leads.

More awards under The BRAIN Initiative.

27 responses so far

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