Archive for the 'NIH Budgets and Economics' category

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.

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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.
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

Lost Labs and Implied Tragedy

Apr 25 2014 Published by under NIH Budgets and Economics, NIH Careerism

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.
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*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.

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Grant Review Site Visits

...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?

No.

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H/t: @jwoodgett

Update: See PDF for site visit procedures

21 responses so far

The NIH Grant "Have" States Resist Sharing

Apr 04 2014 Published by under NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics, NIH funding

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.

52 responses so far

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