The NIH funds grants at "foreign applicant institutions", meaning a University in another country.
In these times should we be continuing this practice or is scientific grant protectionism a good idea?
The NIH funds grants at "foreign applicant institutions", meaning a University in another country.
In these times should we be continuing this practice or is scientific grant protectionism a good idea?
One of the things that is immediately picked up by the typical reader is the conceit we scientists express about having a job paid for by taxpayer funds, that allows us to do whatever we want, unfettered and without any obligation to the people paying for the work.
One example of the type:
I argue that the very presence of government (taxed) money is "free" money to scientists to indulge in directions that perhaps are pointless. When something is free, people line-up to collect it (with bad science or poor quality work). A better approach is no funding at all. Then, only the best science would be a candidate for private funding since that is money that people are voluntarily investing expecting a return.
This is what you call an own-goal, people. We cause it by the way we talk about our jobs.
We usually get into this topic most specifically when we are discussing overhead rates awarded to local Universities by the Federal process and when we are discussing the percentage of faculty salaries that should be paid from Federal grants versus the University pot of MagicLeprechaunFairyMoney.
I am the one who continually makes the point that science funded by the NIH (or DOD, CDC, FDA, NSF and a bunch of other Federal entities) should be viewed EXACTLY the same as any other good or service. I tend to get a lot of push-back on this from those of you who are committed to the argument that Universities need to put "skin in the game" and that the solution to the entire NIH budget problem lies with defunding those Universities who get more than 50% overhead.
Bushwa. Science is no different from any other good or service the Federal government wishes to obtain. Yes, the deliverables are going to differ in terms of how concrete they may be but this makes no difference to the main point. The US Federal government pays Universities, Research Institutes and the occasional small business to conduct research. That is what they want, that is what we extramural, NIH-funded scientists provide them with.
The fact that we find it enjoyable is of no importance. The folks making money off building the latest jet fighter (that doesn't work) or the latest software security package for the FBI (that doesn't work) or the latest armor for the Humvees (that we hope works better) find their profits enjoyable. The people getting paid to send plumbers and truck drivers and "private security contractors" along with our military to help pacify Afghanistan or Iraq enjoy making many times the salary they would get otherwise in the civilian world.
Know anyone in elite military jobs? I have known several in my lifetime. Guess what? They enjoy the everloving blazes out of the opportunity that they had to DO something that they find personally fulfilling. Do we question the SEAL or Ranger or TopGun type duder and ask them to do it for free just because they find their jobs personally fulfilling and the taxpayer is footing the bill? Isn't the fact that they are shoo-ins for much better paid gigs as airline pilots and "private security contractors" in their post-Federal-employment career evidence that we don't need to worry about how they are paid while doing the Nation's business?
In many of these cases, the companies and people responding to the US Government request for a good or service tell the government exactly what and how they choose to respond. They present themselves as available for the task. The Government agencies involved then select the winner via a competitive bidding process or other competitive review. Sounds very similar to the NIH Grant game to me.
The Government very frequently, if I read the newspapers correctly, ends up paying even more than the bid, more than expected, more than reasonable for that good or service. Cost overruns. Ooopsies. Progress not as expected in the wildly optimistic original bid. Stuff happens when trying to build a complex modern fighter jet. Mission creep. Is the variable outcome of a NIH Grant funding interval any different? Why should anyone expect it to be different?
I also note that it has to get really, really bad in terms of excessive payouts and utter failure to provide a semblance of the good or service before the Nation's attention is engaged when it comes to most other areas. Golden toilet seats in my era. Then it was fighter jets. Then Haliburton's war profiteering and Blackstoneriverwtfever "security". FBI software upgrade. Fighter jets again. It goes on and on.
The extramural NIH-funded science area of government contracting for goods and services really doesn't look so bad when you put it up against the proper comparison.
We generate knowledge and we publish it. Just as we are asked to do. By the US taxpayer.
The individual taxpayer may object to the US federal government asking us to provide them with a service. That's fine. I have a problem with the amount of military stuff we ask for.
But don't try to pretend we scientists are grifters, looking for a handout to do whatever the heck we want, purely on our own hook. We choose to work in a particular job sector, true. But a lot of other people choose to work in a federally-funded job sector as well.
We should be viewed the same. We should view ourselves* as the same.
*consistent with the percentage of our effort dedicated to Federal goods and services requests, of course.
Excellent comment from eeke:
My last NIH grant application was criticized for not including a post-doc at 100% effort. I had listed two techs, instead. Are reviewers under pressure to ding PI's for not having post-docs or some sort of trainee? WTF?
I think it is mostly because reviewers think that a postdoc will provide more intellectual horsepower than a tech and especially when you have two techs, you could have one of each.
I fully embrace this bias, I have to admit. I think a one-tech, one-PD full modular R01 is about the standardest of standard lineups. Anchors the team. Best impact for the money and all that.
A divergence from this expectation would require special circumstances to be explained (and of course there are many projects imaginable where two-tech, no-postdoc *would* be best, you just have to explain it)
What do you think, folks? What arrangement of personnel do you expect to see on a grant proposal in your field, for your agencies of closest interest? Are you a blank slate until you see what the applicant has proposed or do you have....expectations?
This is a fascinating read.
Grantome.com is a project of data scientists who have generated a database of grant funding information. This particular blog post focuses on a longitudinal analysis of some of the most heavily NIH-funded Universities and other research institutions. It shows those which are maintaining stable levels of support, those in decline and those which are grabbing an increased share of the extramural NIH pie.
The following graph was described thusly:
Each histogram bar represents the range in the percentage of grants that has been held between 1986 and 2013. The current, 2013 level is represented by a black vertical line. Finally, arrows inform on the latest trend in how these values are changing, where their length and direction reflect predictions in the level of funding that each institution will have over the next 3 years. These predictions were made from linear extrapolation of the average rate of change that was observed over the last 3 years.
This serves as an interesting counterpoint to the discussion of the "real problem" at the NIH as it has typically centered around too many awards per PI, too much funding per PI, the existence of soft-money job categories, the overhead rates enjoyed by certain Universities, etc.
I am particularly fascinated by their searchable database, in which you can play around with the funding histories of various institutions. Searches by fiscal year, funding IC are illuminating, as is toggling between total costs and the number of awards on the graphical display.
Somebody I normally respect is on the Twitts naming and shaming scientists who have lost their NIH funding and are, allegedly*, shuttering their laboratories.
This makes me deeply uncomfortable for the naming and shaming part, one.
More important is the implication that it is somehow a greater tragedy** that people who have enjoyed something on the order of 20 years of NIH funding are now at the end of their careers.
This is nonsense. First of all, if you have the luxury to retire at 60 with a nice fat pension, maybe an Emeritus office to visit, with your kids through college (generationally more likely), house paid off (ditto), etc, etc then retiring "early" is what we used to think of as a huge win. So you stopped publishing science a little earlier than you might have liked. So what. Get a hobby.
More importantly, it necessarily diminishes the tragedy of others who never had funding.
I am not okay with this.
As you know, I've managed to keep my head above water as an NIH funded lab head......so far. And yeah, I feel the greatest affinity for my own continued survival in this career. Sure. Hard to avoid and I don't fault anyone for feeling the same way. What I do fault people for is not realizing at some level how deeply selfish this tendency is. At least act like you understand everyone should have a fair shot?
And that is the point. It has been decades that I have watched the fate of people who might have become NIH-funded investigators of various levels of fame, fortune and pizzaz. Decades over which I have watched the career arcs of people who have enjoyed NIH grant support.
There are a lot of people who should have been PIs with generous amounts of grant support who never achieved this outcome. Lots. There are a lot of people who managed to maintain funding that are clearly no more, and often less, worthy than those who did not enjoy such success.
There has to be at least one unsuccessful young gun of your field that, were you the boss of science, you would put 5 senior investigators*** out to pasture to fund. If you don't know of any people like that, you aren't thinking very hard about it.
So sure, it is a tragedy when a luminary of your field closes shop. It is distressing even when a middle rank plodder has to pack it in. These people are salient to you, I realize. Because they are publishing. They have generated papers that are important to you.
The folks who never had a chance in the first place? All too easy to forget. All too easy to shrug off their failure to become a luminary as fault of their own (they "chose" alt career) or the system (life is hard).
But they are most assuredly a Lost Lab too.
Try not to forget that.
*I say allegedly because we have heard a tremendous amount of rumoring about labs "about to close" because of the dismal NIH grant situation. See this 2009 report in Nature News. As it turned out, one of those researchers was just fine and one was picked up at the time but didn't learn the proper lesson.
**I am also unimpressed by the recitation of these Lost Labs' publication record by Journal or by the lab in which that PI was trained. As if that tells us anything about how tragic it is or is not to have lost their labs. Please.
***Naturally even within a subfield, not everyone agrees on who the most promising young gun(s) is/are and not everyone agrees on who are the 5 dispensable peers. I am not suggesting this Lost Lab situation is easy to fix.
...need to be ended.
They represent a huge risk for bias dependent on the personal characteristics of the investigators to rule the day.
Are you an older, white-haired, heteronormative appearanced, able-bodied picture of "Scientist and Professor"? Great!
Are you overweight? Do you stutter? Express unexpected gender presentation? Nonwhite? Female? Are your language skills less than native to the reviewer's ears? Too young? Too hot? Not hawt enough? .... Not so great.
Should your grant proposal be affected strongly by the direct face to face impression of these characteristics?
Update: See PDF for site visit procedures
From the Boston Globe (of course):
Two dozen rural states stretching from Maine to Mississippi and Montana are clamoring to increase their share of federal research dollars now disproportionately awarded to Boston-area institutions and scientists.
Whaddaya mean, "disproportionately"? WE DESERVE IT!!!
“There’s a battle between merit and egalitarianism,” said Dr. David Page, director of the Whitehead Institute, a prestigious research institution in Cambridge affiliated with MIT.
Yeah, pure merit versus affirmative action quotas for lame ass science from Universities we've never heard of maaaang. There couldn't possibly be any bias in grant review and award that puts a finger on the scale could there?
In one of the efforts, Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican on the Appropriations Committee, is proposing that funding for the special program to benefit rural states, formally called the NIH’s Institutional Development Award, be raised to $310 million, up from the current $273 million. The current amount equals just 1 percent of the institute’s research grants — a drop in the bucket compared with what Boston researchers win each year.
Last time I checked Massachusetts Congressional District 8 for NIH funding (probably a number of FY ago), Brigham and Women's Hospital was pulling in $253,333,482 in NIH grants. MIT? $172,184,305. Harvard Medical School? $168,648,847. The list goes on in this single Congressional district.
and while the Globe has this scare passage near the top:
The coalition of states that benefits from the NIH special program for rural states doubled the amount of money it spent on lobbying in the last decade, to $590,000 in 2013 from $300,000 in 2003. That number does not include direct lobbying by universities in those states.
this is going to barely manage to tread water against the combined might of the richest of "have" Universities and institutions:
Representative Michael Capuano, whose district encompassing the Boston-area research hospitals wins more NIH money than any other congressional district, said the Massachusetts delegation is playing defense right now.
“The system works reasonably well but it’s under attack in a serious way,” Capuano said.
Massachusetts is mobilizing. Hospital executives, university presidents, and Washington lobbyists make routine trips to the Capitol. Their not-so-subtle message: Boston is on top because its elite institutions offer the best chances of big scientific breakthroughs.
then there is classic misdirection and the usual conceit that the NIH award process is purely about merit, uncontaminated by self-reinforcing vicious cycles of the rich getting richer.
“There are people in Boston who deserve more than a million dollars in NIH money because that is the best use of those dollars,” said Dr. Barrett Rollins, chief scientific officer at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a top recipient of federal research funds. “Congress has a responsibility to spend taxpayer money in the best possible way, and to me, the most straightforward way to do that is to make sure the dollars are invested in the most meritorious work without regard to geographic distribution.”
Because the quality of science is not evenly distributed across the country, researchers should not expect federal dollars to be either, said Harry Orf, senior vice president for research at Massachusetts General Hospital, another top recipient of NIH grants.
“You have congressmen who can’t evaluate science sending money to places not rated for innovation,” Orf said. “As funds get more and more scarce, you want to make sure you’re betting on the best science.”
It is beyond asinine to pretend that the NIH grant money is distributed by geographic affirmative action to any extend that squeezes the elite coastal research institutions. The above numbers and any current search on RePORTER verifies that the kind of money that is being proposed to go into this geographical affirmative action is a drop in the bucket. One or two of the larger institutions funded by NIH (and keep in mind that a place such as "Harvard" is made up of multiple institutions which are named as independent awardees in the NIH records) account for the entire outlay in the the NIH’s Institutional Development Award program. Even if the increase to $310M goes through.
There is considerable debate about "the best science" and about the best way to hedge our scientific bets. The NIH works, haltingly, in a way by which the serendipity of chance discovery from a diversity of approaches is balanced against predictable brute-force progress from exceptionally well funded Universities, Medical Schools and research institutions. I find myself citing papers from the very biggest institutions, sure, but I have numerous critical findings that I cite in my work that have come from smaller research programs in smaller Universities and (gasp) Colleges. Don't you? If you do not, I question your scholarship. Seriously.
I suggest a purely self-interested goal, for those of you who are elite-coastal-University die hards. Every Congress Critter gets a more or less equal vote. The ones from Maine (Susan Collins, see above), from Alabama....
“It’s hard to compete against MIT or Harvard. . . . They’ve had their share. A lot of state colleges and universities all over the country, from Idaho to Maine, have some ideas too, and I think we should give these people from smaller schools in other states an opportunity,” said Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. “It’s time to fix that.”
from West Virginia...
“The program stipulates that not everything goes to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford,” said Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat.
and from Oklahoma, among others.
Representative Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, said he’s simply interested in supporting research that occurs “outside the normal corridors of power.”
Rep Cole seems to understand why geographical affirmative action is necessary, doesn't he?
“There is a network where you tend to reward peers and people you know, and I think the distribution of funds, not intentionally, is skewed a bit toward places like Boston,” Cole said. “We just want to make sure that the playing field is fair.”
We need all these Critters to be on board if we expect Congress to listen to our pleas on behalf of the NIH.
It is politically stupid to fail to understand this.
This guest post is from @iGrrrl, a grant writing consultant. I think I first ran across her in the comments over at writedit's place, you may have as well. She brings a slightly different, and highly valuable, perspective to the table.
For those who have been worrying about their own grant applications, the Ginther report detailed the relationship of race and ethnicity to NIH grant funding at the R01 level, and NIH has created a few initiatives to try to change the pattern of lower success rates for African American applicants. In early April, the applications are due for the Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) Initiative, which would fund large-scale projects within individual institutions, and the NIH National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN), which is designed to build a network of mentors. In other words, diversity interventions writ large, with millions of dollars behind them.
The NSF ADVANCE program started in a similar way, and some of the early ADVANCE projects included programs with a limited evidence base. The successes of components of these programs were variable, and the recent RFA included a social science research component to complement the required evaluation of ADVANCE-funded activity. It started with good intentions, and eventually became clear that more than good intentions were needed. Part of the NRMN announcement calls for pilot programs, but I would argue that in the first year, the network should do the social science work to consolidate the anecdotes African Americans tell about their mentoring experiences into hard data, so that the pilot programs can be based upon addressing the needs identified by African Americans who have been through, or training right now in, the current system.
At the recent AAAS meeting in Chicago there were sessions on building diversity in science. At one I learned that explicit bias has reduced in the last 30 years, but implicit bias hasn't. We think we have made progress, and that our conscious intentions are enough. But they clearly are not. Expecting trainees to overcome biased behaviors (to which the actors are blind) places an undue burden on those who are discriminated against. There are studies showing that education about implicit bias helps to reduce such biased behavior, but education attempts can also be done badly and backfire. As pointed out in a recent piece in Science by Moss-Racusin, et al., there is an evidence base now for doing intervention well. If NIH is putting money into large-scale intervention, I hope the existing science will be part of the applications, and expected by the reviewers.
I've spent a lot of my professional life working on exactly the kind of large, infrastructure-based grant application represented by the BUILD and NRMN programs. It is easy for PIs to make assumptions that interventions that sound good on paper will actually have any impact. My concern is that what will be proposed by the applicants to BUILD and NRMN may miss the strong social science work that exists, and that still needs to be done. In fact, some of the best research on effective mentoring is the business literature, a place where few biomedical scientists would think to look.
Grant applications shouldn't be pure fiction, but based on solid evidence. Every grant application represents a possibility, a reality, that could come to pass if the funds are awarded. In the mentoring literature, practices that improve the success for African Americans are often shown to improve the climate for everyone. There is an opportunity here for those in biomedicine to learn from other fields, to consider an evidence base that is outside their usual ken, and to improve the entire biomedical enterprise by improving the overall environment. I hope that those applying for BUILD and the NRMN include the social sciences, and even more importantly, include the voices and ideas of the very people these programs are meant to serve.
NIH has a long history of using dollars to encourage cultural change, with mixed results, because applicants can have varying levels of commitment to the NIH vision while being happy to take NIH dollars. The ADVANCE program at NSF had some hiccups as they worked out what worked to improve the climate for women in STEM. The leadership teams for BUILD and NRMN should include people with a deep knowledge of the research and scholarship on bias and on mentoring, and who can do the rigorous analysis of the current state of affairs for African Americans in biomedical science. I hope I'm wrong here in worrying that such people won't be included, but I've seen fiction in grant applications a few too many times.
This is important enough to elevate to an entry.
I had a recent post discussing some analysis Jeremy Berg posted at ASBMB Today ("The impact of the sequester: 1,000 fewer funded investigators") looking at some NIH data on the number of PIs who entered and exited the R-mech funded population across FY11-13.
He came by and left this comment:
I would welcome any suggestions about other longitudinal aspects of the NIH grantee pool that might be high priorities for analysis. Post here, at http://www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday/201403/PresidentsMessage/ or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So if you can clearly specify some sort of examination of the extramural PI population go to it! He's apparently the guy who can actually make it happen.
Jeremy Berg has a new column up at ASBMB Today which examines the distribution of NIH intramural funding. Among other things, he notes that you can play along at home via searching RePORTER using the ZIA activity code (i.e., in place of R01, R21, etc). At first blush you might think "WOWZA!". The intramural lab is pretty dang flush. If you think about the direct costs of an extramural R01 grant - the full modular is only $250K per year. So you would need three awards (ok, the third one could be an R21) just to clear the first bin. But there are interesting caveats sprinkled throughout Berg's comments and in the first comment to the piece. Note the "Total Costs"? Well, apparently there is an indirect costs rate within the IRPs and Berg comments that it is so variable that it is hard to issue anything similar to a negotiated extramural IDC rate for the entire NIH Intramural program. The comment from an ex-IRP investigator points to more issues. There may be some shared costs inserted into a given PI's apparent budget that this PI has no control over. Whether this is part of the overhead or an overhead-like cost....or maybe a cost shard across one IC's IRP...who knows?
We also don't know what a given PI has to pay for out of his or her ZIA allocation. What are animal housing costs like? Are they subsidized for certain ICs' IRPs? For certain labs? Who is a PI and who is a staff scientist of some sort within the IRPs? Do these status' differ? Are they comparable to extramural lab operations? I know for certain sure that people who are more or less the equivalent of an extramural Assistant/Associate Professor in a soft money job category exist within the NIH IRPs without being considered a PI with their own ZIA allocation. So that means that a "PI" on the chart that Berg presents may in fact be equivalent to 2-3 PIs out here in extramural land. (And yes, I understand that some of the larger extramural labs similarly have several people who would otherwise be heading their own lab all subsumed within the grants awarded to one BigCheez PI.)
With that said, however, the IRP is supposed to be special. As Berg notes
The IRP mission statement asserts that the IRP should “conduct distinct, high-impact laboratory, clinical, and population-based research” and that it should support research that “cannot be readily funded or accomplished in traditional academia.”
So by one way of looking at it, we shouldn't be comparing the IRP scientists to ourselves. They should be different.
Even if we think of IRP investigators as not much different from ourselves, I'm having difficulty making any sense of these numbers. It is nice to see them, but it is really hard to compare to what is going on with extramural grant funding.
Perhaps of greater value is the analysis Berg presents for whether NIH's intramural research is feeling their fair share of the budgetary pain.
In 2003, when I became an NIH institute director, the overall NIH appropriation was $26.74 billion, while the overall intramural program consumed $2.56 billion, or 9.6 percent. In fiscal 2013, the overall NIH appropriation was $29.15 billion, and the intramural share had grown to $3.26 billion, or 11.2 percent.
Some of this growth is because of ongoing intramural activities, such as those involving the NIH Clinical Center, where, like at other hospitals, costs are very hard to contain below rates of inflation, or because of new activities, such as the NIH Chemical Genomics Center. The IRP is particularly expensive in terms of taxpayer dollars, because it is difficult to leverage the federal support to the IRP with funds from other sources as occurs in the extramural community.
So I guess that would be "no". No the IRP, in aggregate, is not sharing the pain of the flatlined budget. There is no doubt that some of the individual components of the various IRPs are. It is inevitable. Previously flush budgets no doubt being reduced. Senior folk being pushed out. Mid and lower level employees being cashiered. I'm sure there are counter examples. But as a whole, it is clear that the IRP is being protected, inevitably at the expense of R-mech extramural awards.