Archive for the 'Fixing the NIH' category

RFAs do not narrow the NIH portfolio, quite the opposite.

Nov 06 2015 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH, NIH Careerism

Mike the Mad Biologist has taken issue with the findings of a "cross-campus, cross-career stage and cross-disciplinary series of discussions at a large public university" which "has produced a series of recommendations for addressing the problems confronting the biomedical research community in the US".

Mike the Mad has pulled out a number of the proposals and findings to address but I was struck by one on the role of "R&D contracts, Requests for Applications (RFAs) and intramural research". From page 4 of the UW report:

Fourth, the NIH should increase the proportion of its budget directed to Research Project Grants, Center Grants and Training, and it should decrease the proportion directed to R&D contracts, Requests for Applications (RFAs) and intramural research. These changes would redirect funds towards investigator-initiated research and allow funding of a greater diversity of projects. R&D contracts and RFAs place limits on the topics and approaches that can be pursued, so a shift away from them will lead to fewer intellectual constraints being placed on researchers. We emphasize that this is not a recommendation to eliminate R&D contracts or RFAs, but rather to reduce their number, which will sharpen their quality and provide the funds needed to award more investigator-initiated grants.

I disagree with the notion that RFAs are poisonous to diversity and the notion that pure "investigator-initiated" leads to fewer intellectual constraints.

The NIH peer review process is an inherently conservative one because it tends to reinforce itself. Those who are successful within the system do the primary judging of who is next to be successful. Those who become successful have to, in large degree, adapt themselves to the thinking and expectations of those who have previously been successful.

When it comes to the role of Program Officers in selecting grants for pickups and saves, well, they too are influenced by the already-successful. This is in addition to the fact that POs have long term careers and thus their orientations and biases come into play across literally decades of grant applications. To the extent that POs are judged by the performance of their grant portfolios, you can see that they are no different than the rest of us. Higher JIF, higher citations, more press attention, more high-profile scientists....all of these things dictate them selecting grants that are going to be more of the same.

Sure, this is a thumb on the scale. Lots of scientists are open to new ideas. Lots of scientists can become enamoured of scientific proposals that are outside of their immediate interests. Peer reviewers and Program Officers alike.

But there more assuredly is a thumb on the scale. And it is a constantly reinforcing cycle of conservatism to select grants for funding that are very much like ones that have previously been funded. Alike in topic, alike in PI characteristics, alike in the University which is applying.

Request for Applications (RFAs) quite often serve to fight against the narrowing of topic diversity and in favor of getting grants funded in a new area of investigation. Trust me, if they already have copious amounts of grant funding on a topic, this does not result in additional RFAs!

In some of my general oversight of RFAs over the years from some of my favorite ICs I've noticed topics like sex-differences and less-usual experimental models are often at play. Adolescent/developmental studies as well. To take a shot at my much beloved NIDA--- well, they have been, and continue to be, the National Institute on Cocaine and Heroin Abuse. Notice how whenever the current Director Nora Volkow gets interviewed on the general lay media she goes on and on about the threat of marijuana to our adolescents? Try a trip over to RePORTER to review NIDA's respective portfolios on marijuana versus cocaine or heroin.

There have been several NIDA RFAs, PARs and PASs over the years which are really about "Gee, can't we fund at least two grants on this other drug over here?". There's an old one begging for medications development for cannabis dependence (RFA-DA-04-014; 10 awards funded) and another asking for investigation of developmental effects of cannabis exposure (RFA-DA-04-016; 6 awards funded). Prenatal exposure to MDMA (RFA-DA-01-005). Etc.

The latest version of this is PAR-14-106 on synthetic drugs. You know, the bath salts and the fake weed. I've been chatting with you about these since what, 2010? The PAR was issued in 2014 (4 awards funded so far, 5 if you include R03/R21 versions).

Is this because evil NIDA wants to force everyone to start working on these topics? Constraining their intellectual freedom? Hampering the merry progress on cocaine and heroin? You might ask the same about various sex-differences FOA that have been issued over the years.

Heck no. All that stuff has continued to be funded at high rates under NIDA's normal operation. Why? well because tons and tons and tons of highly funded and highly productive researchers have focused on cocaine and heroin for their entire careers. And these are the grants that seem most important to them....the cocaine and heroin grants. They are the successful scientists who review other grants and who whisper in the ears of POs at every turn.

So the other drugs get short shrift in the funding race.

Every now and again a PO gets up the courage to mount an assault on this conservatism and get a few grants funded in his or her bee-in-the-bonnet interest. Having watched one of these develop back in the good old days, it takes time. Two POs I observed at NIDA set up mini-symposia at NIH and at meetings for several years before lo and behold an RFA was issued on that topic. This was in the days when presumably they had the spare cash to do this sort of grooming of a topic domain.

The CRAN initiative initially side-stepped the review process altogether and issued supplements for combined-drug research (think "effects of alcohol drinking on smoking behavior and vice versa").


I am sure that parallels exist at all of the other ICs.

And let me be emphatically clear on this. It isn't as though there are not individual investigators out there independently initiating grant applications on these topics. OF COURSE there are.

They just haven't been able to get funded.

I come back to this claim in the UW document that RFAs "place limits on the topics and approaches that can be pursued" and the suggestion that their diminishment will lead to "fewer intellectual constraints being placed on researchers".

This is nonsense. Targeted FOAs very often address topics which have been "investigator-initiated" many, many times but these applications have not been successful in navigating the study section process. I would be shocked if there were more than a very small number of targeted funding announcements from the NIH that were on a topic that nobody had ever applied for funding to research. Shocked.

The pool of people applying for funding is just so large and so diverse that any half-way interesting idea has been proposed by somebody at some point in time. The idea that NIH Program have come up with something that nobody in the extramural community has ever thought about is just not that credible.

17 responses so far

Glam cost

Sep 24 2015 Published by under #FWDAOTI, Academics, Careerism, Fixing the NIH

How much do you think it costs to generate the manuscript that is accepted for publication at your average Glam journal?

How do you align this with your views on fair distribution of research funding?

52 responses so far

NIH reminds conference organizers to watch the bias against women, etc

Sep 09 2015 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH, NIH Careerism

We were just talking about a site which tracks conferences in the neurosciences to determine how well their speaker list reflects the sex distribution of subfield neuroscientists.

The fact that there is a need for, and a lot of applause for, such a site is interesting in view of this recent notice from the NIH.

NOT-OD-15-152 includes this comment:

NIH-Supported Conferences and Scientific Meetings
The NIH recognizes the value of supporting high quality scientific conferences and meetings relevant to its mission and to public health.   These conferences are enhanced when they welcome participants and presenters from all backgrounds, and when barriers to participation are eliminated.  Therefore, a critical component of the application for NIH conference support is documentation of representation of women, racial/ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities, and other individuals who are underrepresented in science in the planning and implementation of, and participation in the proposed conference. See, Guidelines for Inclusion of Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in NIH-Supported Conference Grants Policy, NOT-OD-03-066

Consistent with Federal civil rights laws, it is expected that organizers of NIH-supported conferences and scientific meetings take steps to maintain a safe and respectful environment for all attendees by providing an environment free from discrimination and harassment, sexual or otherwise. 

4 responses so far

Salary Cap and the BRDPI Inflation Estimate

Jul 16 2015 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

Wow. I last used the BRDPI estimate of inflation in the cost of biomedical research to illustrate how the full modular grant ($250K direct) had not changed and therefore purchasing power had eroded.

Jeff Mervis at Science has a blockbuster observation.

To remind you, the BRDPI is this:

The annual change in the Biomedical Research and Development Price Index (BRDPI) indicates how much the NIH budget must change to maintain purchasing power. The BRDPI was developed and is updated annually by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), Department of Commerce under an interagency agreement with the NIH.

That link also leads you to the data tables where you find the annual rates stretching back to the 50s.

The Mervis article highlights the historical low for FY2012 and reminds us of the cut in the salary cap (maximum amount of an Investigator's salary that can be charged to NIH grants)

Congress passed a spending bill in December 2011 that lowered the salary ceiling for investigators on a standard NIH grant from $199,700 to $179,700.

and concludes with a caution:

NIH enjoys strong support in Congress, and the realization that biomedical inflation largely tracks salary trends, not the sticker price of essential lab equipment and supplies, is unlikely to have a major impact on policy debates. Still, it may behoove biomedical lobbyists to think twice before citing the cost of high-tech science as a rationale for pumping up NIH's budget.

Yeah, I hear that. Let's peer a little closer though.

The NIH Office of the Budget January 2015 overview [PDF] futher anticipates that salary cap is a major driver of the inflation index.

The modest BRDPI growth rate of 2.0 percent for FY 2014 reflects the effect of the NIH extramural investigator salary limitation (“cap”) of $181,500 and an increase on salaries of Federal civilian employees of 0.75 percent for that fiscal year.
The projected 2.2 percent growth for FY 2015 assumes a one percent increase for Federal salaries starting in January 2015, as well as an increase on the extramural investigator salary cap to $183,300.

OK, let's route ourselves back to the NIH Office of the Budget report from January 2013 [PDF] which indeed draws an explicit link.

The modest BRDPI growth rate of 1.4 percent for FY 2012 reflects the effect of the reduction of the NIH extramural investigator salary limitation (“cap”) from $199,700 to $179,700 for that year and the continued freeze on salaries of Federal civilian employees.

However, it also goes on to note other contributions:

The BRDPI growth rate was also adjusted for the growth of stipends and related expenses on fellowships and training awards. In addition, the FY 2012 BRDPI growth is lower than the growth for FY 2011 because the rate of growth of prices for several input categories slowed down in FY 2012 compared with the growth during FY 2011. For inside NIH activities, the categories with slower growth in prices include travel, transportation, printing and reproduction, ADP and other IT services, instruments and apparatus, laboratory supplies, office supplies, utilities, repairs and alterations of facilities, compensation rates for consultants and support contracts. For extramural activities, fringe benefits, travel, equipment, supplies, patient care alterations and indirect costs each showed slower price growth during FY 2012 compared with FY 2011.

Wait. Sooooo, everything contributes a little bit? This seems out of step with Mervis' column. Wait, wait....the 2013 overview continues....

Primarily because of the freeze on Federal civilian employee salaries and the cap on compensation of extramural investigators, the rate of growth of the BRDPI during the years FY 2011 through FY 2013 has been relatively low compared with its historical relationship with general inflation as represented by the growth of the GDP Price Index.

Primarily. So that circles us right back to the reduction in the extramural cap and elimination of Federal civilian salary raises. [You might ask why the Federal civilians did not also suffer salary reductions, merely freezes, eh?] But if we take this as a valid and intended connotation then it would seem Mervis has it right. The salary issues are huge.

I wonder why they didn't just find the dollar figure. How many Investigators funded by the NIH in a given year are paying up to the cap? Multiply that by you favored reduction or increase and boom, you can translate that into new R01s.

The annual Salary Cap numbers can be found here. It seemed to steadily increase from 2005-2010, including that 2008-2009 interval that produced the most immediately prior reduction in the BRDPI. So why didn't salary cap drive the BRDPI that year?

30 responses so far


Jul 10 2015 Published by under Careerism, Fixing the NIH, Postdoctoral Training


Lastly, there IS one way to experimentally test how much a PD is worth, at least to PIs, and you are promoting that test, whether you know it or not. And that is a PD strike. I would love to see you discussing how spoiled PDs are in between gel runs because your PD is really not there. I think 50K/yr wouldn't sound that much then.

Go ahead dudes, you have nothing to lose but your chains.

22 responses so far

Question of the day

Jun 29 2015 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH, NIH Careerism

What percentage of K99 should fail to transition to the R00 phase in a healthy system?
What percentage of those that go to R00 should fail to ever gain major independent funding as a PI? 

38 responses so far

Ronald Germain Explains How To Fix The NIH

Continue Reading »

99 responses so far

The Germain nonsense on fixing the NIH

Jun 19 2015 Published by under Fixing the NIH

I know you guys want to talk about this ridiculous commentary because the blog ephone has been ringing off the hook. Unfortunately I really don't have the time for a proper post.


UPDATE: One thing I noticed about the proposal that merits a little more....specific discussion.

I believe the NIH should transition to a system that links getting a first job (faculty appointment) with sufficient funding to support a reasonably sized laboratory (three to five people, including the PI) in terms of staff salaries and supplies

Obviously there is a big range in terms of types of staff and the amounts that they are paid. However, I think we can start with the salaries of a 0 experience postdoc on NRSA scale ($42,840) and a 4 year postdoc (50,112). I am going to use $100,000 as the PI salary.

Benefits can range from 25% to 50% (again, as a rough approximation based on my limited experience with such numbers) which brings us to $241,190 or $289,428 per year for a three person laboratory. That is salary cost only. Obviously types of research vary tremendously but I have heard numbers in the range of 60% to 80% of research grant costs going to support staff salaries. Before we get into that, let's raise the estimates to Germain's upper bound of a lab of 5 individuals, the PI as above and two of each experience level postdocs ($357,380 and $428,856, depending on benefit rate).

With this estimate, if the staff cost is 80%, this brings us to the $357,380-$428,856 per year range. If staff cost is 60% of the research grant expenditure, then $595,633 - $714,760 range.

I invite you to compare these numbers, which Germain is recommending for 5-7 years starting presumably from Day 1, with the funding trajectories of yourself and your peers. At the upper bound, three modular R01s worth of funding for the entire duration of the pre-tenure interval.

This call is for a LOT fewer noob Assistant Professors being allowed to get in the game, by my calculation. Either that, a huge Congressional increase in the NIH budget or a massive retirement of those who are already in the game.

Note that I too would love to see that be possible. It would be fantastic if everyone could get three grants worth of funding to do whatever the heck they wanted, right from the start.

But in the real actual non-fantasy world, that would come with some serious constraints on who can be a scientist.

And I do not like people like Germain's ideas on who those people should be.

59 responses so far

Re-Repost: The funding is the science II, "Why do they always drop the females?"

The NIH has recently issued the first round of guidance on inclusion of Sex as a Biological Variable in future NIH research grants. I am completely behind the spirit of the initiative but I have concerns about how well this is going to work in practice. I wrote a post in 2008 that detailed some of the reasons that have brought us to the situation where the Director of the NIH felt he had to coauthor an OpEd on this topic. I believe these issues are still present, will not be magically removed with new instructions to reviewers and need to be faced head-on if the NIH is to make any actual progress on ensuring SABV is considered appropriately going forward.

The post originally appeared December 2, 2008.

The title quote came from one of my early, and highly formative, experiences on study section. In the course of discussing a revised application it emerged that the prior version of the application had included a sex comparison. The PI had chosen to delete that part of the design in the revised application, prompting one of the experienced members of the panel to ask, quite rhetorically, "Why do they always drop the females?"

I was reminded of this when reading over Dr. Isis' excellent post [Update: Original Sb post lost, I think the repost can be found here] on the, shall we say less pernicious, ways that the course of science is slanted toward doing male-based research. Really, go read that post before you continue here, it is a fantastic description.

What really motivated me, however, was a comment from the always insightful Stephanie Z:

Thank you. That's the first time I've seen someone address the reasons behind ongoing gender disparities in health research. I still can't say as it thrills me (or you, obviously), but I understand a bit better now.

Did somebody ring?

As I pointed out explicitly at least once ([Update: Original 2007 post]), research funding has a huge role in what science actually gets conducted. Huge. In my book this means that if one feels that an area of science is being systematically overlooked or minimized, one might want to take a close look at the manner by which science is funded and the way by which science careers are sustained as potential avenues for systematic remedy.


There are a couple of ways in which the generalized problems with NIH grant review lead to the rhetorical comment with which I opened the post. One very common StockCritique of NIH grant review is that of an "over ambitious" research plan. As nicely detailed in Isis' post, the inclusion of a sex comparison doubles the groups right off the bat but even more to the point, it requires the inclusion of various hormonal cycling considerations. This can be as simple as requiring female subjects to be assessed at multiple points of an estrous cycle. It can be considerably more complicated, often requiring gonadectomy (at various developmental timepoints) and hormonal replacement (with dose-response designs, please) including all of the appropriate control groups / observations. Novel hormonal antagonists? Whoops, the model is not "well established" and needs to be "compared to the standard gonadectomy models", LOL >sigh<.

Grant reviewers prefer simplicity
Keep in mind, if you will, that there is always a more fundamental comparison or question at the root of the project, such as "does this drug compound ameliorate cocaine addiction?" So all the gender comparisons, designs and groups need to be multiplied against the cocaine addiction/treatment conditions. Suppose it is one of those cocaine models that requires a month or more of training per group? Who is going to run all those animals ? How many operant boxes / hours are available? and at what cost? Trust me, the grant proposal is going to take fire for "scope of the project".

Another StockCritique to blame is "feasibility". Two points here really. First is the question of Preliminary Data- of course if you have to run more experimental conditions to establish that you might have a meritorious hypothesis, you are less likely to do it with a fixed amount of pilot/startup/leftover money. Better to work on preliminary data for two or three distinct applications over just one if you have the funds. Second aspect has to do with a given PIs experience with the models in question. More opportunity to say "The PI has no idea what s/he is doing methodologically" if s/he has no prior background with the experimental conditions, which are almost always the female-related ones. As we all know, it matters little that the hormonal assays or gonadectomy or whatever procedures have been published endlessly if you don't have direct evidence that you can do it. Of course, more latitude is extended to the more-experienced investigator....but then s/he is less likely to jump into gender-comparisons in a sustained way in contrast to a newly minted PI.

Then there are the various things under grantspersonship. You have limited space in a given type of grant application. The more groups and comparisons, the more you have to squeeze in with respect to basic designs, methods and the interpretation/alternative approaches part. So of course you leave big windows for critiques of "hasn't fully considered...." and "it is not entirely clear how the PI will do..." and "how the hypothesis will be evaluated has not been sufficiently detailed...".


Although research funding plays a huge role in career success, it is only part of the puzzle. Another critical factor is what we consider to be "great" or "exciting" science in our respective fields.

The little people can fill in the details. This is basically the approach of GlamourMagz science. (This is a paraphrase of something the most successful GlamourMagz PI I know actually says.) Cool, fast and hot is not compatible with the metastasizing of experimental conditions that is an inevitable feature of gender-comparison science. Trouble is, this approach tends to trickle down in various guises. Lower (than GlamourMag) impact factor journals sometimes try to upgrade by becoming more NS-like (Hi, J Neuro!). Meticulous science and exacting experimental designs are only respected (if at all) after the fact. Late(r) in someone's career they start getting props on their grant reviews for this. Early? Well the person hasn't yet shown the necessity and profit for the exhaustive designs and instead they just look...unproductive. Like they haven't really shown anything yet.

As we all know splashy CNS pubs on the CV trump a sustained area of contribution in lower journals six ways to Sunday. This is not to say that nobody will appreciate the meticulous approach, they will. Just to say that high IF journal pubs will trump. Always.

So the smart young PI is going to stay away from those messy sex-differences studies. Everything tells her she should. If he does dip a toe, he's more likely to pay a nasty career price.
This is why NIH efforts to promote sex-comparison studies are necessary. Promoting special funding opportunities are the only way to tip the equation even slightly more favorable to the sex-differences side. The lure of the RFA is enough to persuade the experienced PI to write in the female groups. To convince the new PI that she might just risk it this one time.

My suspicion is that it is not enough. Beyond the simple need to take a stepwise approach to the science as detailed by Isis, the career and funding pressures are irresistible forces.

9 responses so far

Really NIDA National Advisory Council? REALLY????

Jun 09 2015 Published by under Fixing the NIH, Intramural Research Programs, NIH

I was reading over the minutes from the 119th meeting of the National Advisory Council for NIDA. As you may imagine, Dear Reader, I am more than usually interested in the doings of this particular IC.

I ran across the part where Hannah A. Valantine, M.D., MRCP, Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity, National Institutes of Health came to report on diversity issues, explicitly linked to the wake of the Ginther report.

She began her focus as the COSWD by reviewing evidence from the NIH Intramural Research Program as a Laboratory for Testing Interventions to Diversify the Biomedical Workforce evaluation. The results, as of October 2014 showed that among intramural tenure track investigators 38 % are female and 1.4% are African American, 10% are Hispanic, and 0.5% are Native American compared to approximately 61% being both males and white.

PhotoCredit: ASBMB

PhotoCredit: NIDA IRP

Wow, NIDA IRP, wow. Only 1.4%...okay that's just Jean Lud Cadet, correct? I mean, you only list 28 "PIs" so how many tenure track investigators could there be?

Not something that is on our radar that much out here in extramural researchistan but.... yeah. Get on that NIH ICs. I would be fascinated to see the representation numbers for the various NIH Intramural Research Programs at the various levels of lab heads and non-head so-called tenure-track investigators. I imagine this is not going to look good.

There's a lot more blah de blah in the NIDA Council notes from Valantine about the NIH efforts, particularly the "pipeline" solutions that so irritate me.

But that isn't the hilarious part. The hilarious part comes after Valentine described detail the strategy and essential components, such as a strategic partnership with research intensive institutions, and tracking and evaluation. Program deliverables, would include: a national network to support career transitions; evidence-based literature to eliminate/reduce barriers to key career transition points; Individual access to the network in support of career development success; organizational infrastructure to support career development and transitions; and tools and resources to catalyze and sustain career transition success.

Here was the Council response.

NIDA Council members thanked Dr. Valantine for her dedication to this issue and for implementing so many diverse and potentially transformative programs. Council members encouraged, as applicable by the research, efforts to measure success with endpoints other than “tenure”.


Oh hey, let's not create too high of a barrier for ourselves. Let's not set it at sustained tenured research careers THAT WERE THE VERY POINT OF THE GINTHER REPORT! Differential success of PIs at getting grant funding. How is this not intimately tied to the tenure success of African-American academic scientists?

Failing grade, National Advisory Council. Failboat.

2 responses so far

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