Archive for the 'NIH Budgets and Economics' category

These ILAF types just can't help sounding selfishly elitist, can they?

Good Gravy.

One David Korn of the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School has written a letter to Nature defending the indirect cost (IDC; "overhead") rates associated with NIH grants. It was submitted in response to a prior piece in Nature on IDC which was, to my eye, actually fairly good and tended to support the notion that IDC rates are not exorbitant.

But overall, the data support administrators’ assertions that their actual recovery of indirect costs often falls well below their negotiated rates. Overall, the average negotiated rate is 53%, and the average reimbursed rate is 34%.

The original article also pointed out why the larger private Universities have been heard from loudly, while the frequent punching-bag smaller research institutes with larger IDC rates are silent.

Although non-profit institutes command high rates, together they got just $611 million of the NIH’s money for indirect costs. The higher-learning institutes for which Nature obtained data received $3.9 billion, with more than $1 billion of that going to just nine institutions, including Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and Stanford (see ‘Top 10 earners’).

Clearly Dr. Korn felt that this piece needed correction:

Aspects of your report on US federal funding of direct research costs and the indirect costs of facilities and administration are misleading (Nature 515, 326–329; 2014).

Contrary to your claim, no one is benefiting from federal largesse. Rather, the US government is partially reimbursing research universities for audit-verified indirect costs that they have already incurred.

Ok, ok. Fair enough. At the very least it is fine to underline this point if it doesn't come across in the original Nature article to every reader.

The biomedical sciences depend on powerful technologies that require special housing, considerable energy consumption, and maintenance. Administration is being bloated by federal regulations, many of which dictate how scientists conduct and disseminate their research. It is therefore all the more remarkable that the share of extramural research spending on indirect costs by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been stable at around 30% for several decades.

Pretty good point.

But then Korn goes on to step right in a pile.

Negotiated and actual recovery rates for indirect costs vary across the academic community because federal research funding is merit-based, not a welfare programme.

You will recognize this theme from a prior complaint from Boston-area institutions.

“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.

Tone deaf, guys. Totally tone deaf. Absolutely counter-productive to the effort to get a majority of Congress Critters on board with support for the NIH mission. Hint: Your various Massachusetts Critters get to vote once, just like the Critters from North and South Dakota, Alabama and everywhere else that doesn't have a huge NIH-funded research enterprise.

And why Korn chooses to use a comment about IDC rates to advance this agenda is baffling. The takeaway message is that he thinks that higher IDC rates are awarded because His Awesome University deserves it due to the merit of their research. This totally undercuts the point he is trying to make, which is presumably "institutions may be private or public, urban or rural, with different structures, sizes, missions and financial anatomies.".

I just don't understand people who are this clueless and selfish when it comes to basic politics.

23 responses so far

NIGMS will now consider PIs' "substantial unrestricted research support"

According to the policy on this webpage, the NIGMS will now restrict award of its grants when the applicant PI has substantial other research support. It is effective as of new grants submitted on or after 2 Jan, 2015.

The clear statement of purpose:

Investigators with substantial, long-term, unrestricted research support may generally hold no more than one NIGMS research grant.

The detail:

For the purposes of these guidelines, investigators with substantial, long-term, unrestricted support (“unrestricted investigators”) would have at least $400,000 in unrestricted support (direct costs excluding the principal investigator’s salary and direct support of widely shared institutional resources, such as NMR facilities) extending at least 2 years from the time of funding the NIGMS grant. As in all cases, if NIGMS funding of a grant to an investigator with substantial, long-term, unrestricted support would result in total direct costs from all sources exceeding $750,000, National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council approval would be required

This $400,000 limit, extending for two years would appear to mean $200,000 per year in direct costs? So basically the equivalent of a single additional R01-worth of direct cost funding?

I guess they are serious about the notion that two grants is fine but three-R01-level funding means you are a greedy commons-spoiling so-and-so.

51 responses so far

The proof is in the budgeting

Dec 17 2014 Published by under NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

When we last discussed Representative Andy Harris it was in the wake of an editorial he published in the NYT. It consisted of a call to put hard targets on the NIH for reducing the average age of the first R01, standard Golden Fleece style carping about frivolous research projects and a $700M "tap" of the NIH budget. I speculated that this last was the real target because the "tap" is money appropriated to the NIH that then goes to "program evaluation" and the AHRQ. There is the possibility that this is a covert attack on the ACA ("Obamacare").

The recent appropriation to the NIH passed by the Congress is interesting because it addresses these three issues. According to Jocelyn Kaiser at ScienceInsider:

The report also directs NIH to pay more attention to the age at which new NIH investigators receive their first research grant... but lacks that specific target.

So toothless verbiage, but no more.


Lawmakers also address a perennial concern: that the amount NIH spends on specific diseases doesn’t take into account the burden that disease creates or death rates. The report “urges NIH to ensure research dollars are invested in areas in which American lives may be improved.” It also tells NIH “to prioritize Federal funds for medical research over outreach and education,”

"urges". Again, this is totally impotent. Two strikes on Rep Harris.

One recent concern about NIH’s budget—that each year some money is skimmed off for other Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) agencies—is remedied in the bill. It says that the $700 million that NIH is set to contribute to the “tap” this year will come back as $715 million for the agency.

Well that seems like Rep Harris got a win on the tap, no? And his goal was what again?

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.

"lost". "supplement to money already being spent". This creates the strong impression that Rep Harris was trying to increase the NIH budget by $700M. And yet. The overall NIH appropriation only increased by $150M.

So in point of fact Rep Harris took three strikes.

Or so it appears.

Of course, if his agenda was to go after those agencies that received their support from the tap, perhaps he didn't strike out after all. We'll have to see if those agencies got all their money in this budget and, more importantly, if they remain this way in subsequent years. It is not impossible that breaking the previous recipients of the "tap" down into individual line items in the budget will allow them to be eliminated one by one.

One thing is for sure, Rep Harris didn't do anything concrete to help out the young investigator issue at the NIH in this budget appropriation.

UPDATE: Actually I screwed this up. If there is no net decrease in the budget and the NIH no longer loses $700M to the tap obligations, I guess this is a net gain. My bad.

15 responses so far

Top down or bottom up? NIH RFAs are a two-way discussion between Program and Investigators

One of the erroneous claims made by Steven McKnight in his latest screed at the ASBMB President's space has to do with the generation of NIH funding priorities. Time will tell whether this is supposed to be a pivot away from his inflammatory comments about the "riff raff" that populate the current peer review study sections or whether this is an expansion of his "it's all rubbish" theme. Here he sets up a top-down / bottom-up scenario that is not entirely consistent with reality.

When science funding used to be driven in a bottom-up direction, one had tremendous confidence that a superior grant application would be funded. Regrettably, this is no longer the case. We instead find ourselves perversely led by our noses via top-down research directives coming from the NIH in the form of requests for proposals and all kinds of other programs that instruct us what to work on instead of asking us what is best.

I find it hard to believe that someone who has been involved with the NIH system as long as McKnight is so clueless about the generation of funding priorities within the NIH.

Or, I suppose, it is not impossible that my understanding is wrong and jumps to conclusions that are unwarranted.

Nevertheless.

Having watched the RFAs that get issued over the years in areas that are close to my own interests, having read the wording very carefully, thought hard about who does the most closely-related work and seeing afterwards who is awarded funding... it is my belief that in many, many cases there is a dialog between researchers and Program that goes into the issuance of a specific funding announcement.

Since I have been involved directly in beating a funding priority drum (actually several instruments have been played) with the Program staff of a particular IC in the past few years and they finally issued a specific Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOA) which has text that looks suspiciously similar to stuff that I have written, well, I am even further confident of my opinion.

The issuance of many NIH RFAs, PAs and likely RFPs is not merely "top-down". It is not only a bunch of faceless POs sitting in their offices in Bethesda making up funding priorities out of whole cloth.

They are generating these ideas in a dialog with extramural scientists.

That "dialog" has many facets to it. It consists of the published papers and review articles, conference presentations, grant applications submitted (including the ones that don't get funded), progress reports submitted, conversations on the phone or in the halls at scientific meetings. These are all channels by which we, the extramural scientists, are convincing the Program staff of what we think is most important in our respective scientific domains. If our arguments are good enough, or we are joined by enough of our peers and the Program Staff agree there is a need to stimulate applications (PAs) or secure a dedicated pool of funding (RFAs, PASs) then they issue one of their FOA.

Undoubtedly there are other inputs that stimulate FOAs from the NIH ICs. Congressional interest expressed in public or behind the scenes. Agenda from various players within the NIH ICs. Interest groups. Companies. Etc.

No doubt. And some of this may result in FOAs that are really much more consistent with McKnight's charge of "...programs that instruct us what to work".

But to suggest that all of the NIH FOAs are only "top-down" without recognizing the two-way dialog with extramural scientists is flat out wrong.

15 responses so far

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.

3 responses so far

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.
Continue Reading »

18 responses so far

Question of the Day

Sep 29 2014 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

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?

30 responses so far

Thought of the Day on how the Public Views Scientists

The comments that are submitted to the NPR pieces on NIH, NIH-funded science and academic careers by Richard Harris (see here, here, here) are interesting.

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.

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*consistent with the percentage of our effort dedicated to Federal goods and services requests, of course.

36 responses so far

Your Grant in Review: The Ideal Personnel Lineup

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?

My answer:

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?

22 responses so far

Grantome details the trajectories of the NIH Grant "have" institutions

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.

23 responses so far

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