Archive for the 'NIH Budgets and Economics' category

The NIH Director Talked to Congress About Scientific Inspiration

The Director of the NIH went to testify before Congress today and one of the tweets from the @NIH account summarized a point he was making thusly:

In case there is any trouble with the auto post of the tweet, it reads in part:

And, now, on to my favorite: Scientific Inspiration. I can assure you that researchers funded by #NIH come to work every day full of innovative ideas and the wherewithal to see those ideas through.

It is, of course, very likely true that on any given day of the year there are at least two researchers (he did use the plural) who come to work full of innovative ideas and the wherewithal to see those idea through. Given the size and scope of the NIH funding mission (let us assume he meant extramural, not just intramural, funding) this is statistically obvious.

What is not true, however, is the broader implication that all or even most researchers who are funded by NIH extramural grants have the wherewithal to see their many innovative ideas through. If this is what he conveyed, intentional or not, he misled Congress. I was going to say "lied to" but I really have no idea whether Francis Collins legitimately believes this false notion to be true or not.

The @NIH twitter also pointed out that Director Collins bragged how they were focusing on, and increasing, the number of funded young investigators:

In an environment where the NIH budget has been essentially flatlined since 2004 (with a resulting decrement in purchasing power, due to inflation) you cannot increase the number of funded investigators without decreasing the amount of grant funding each of the investigators enjoys, on average. As we know, the purchasing power of the full modular R01 (the workhorse award) has declined substantially, it is now something like 61% of what it was in 2000.

Ever increasing numbers of applications resulted in decreasing per-application success rates all through the 2000s. Data from the NIH website show that success rates of under 20% have been the reality for the past 7 years.

At last report from the NIH, most investigators held one or two major awards from the NIH at any one time. The reality of poor success rates has meant that maintaining consistent funding with one or two awards across time is very uncertain. Even the ability to competitively continue an existing award given reasonable progress has essentially disappeared. PIs have to put in competing continuations early and many of us realize that we have to have overlapping "new" awards on the same topic in order to have any decent chance of continuity of a research program.

The loss of funding can have dire consequences. It means technicians, students or postdocs may have to be let go. New staff cannot be brought on board until funding is re-acquired. There will be a significant delay until postdocs and graduate students can be recruited (up to 12 months is not unusual). And as Datahound analyzed, the cumulative probability of a lab regaining funding after a gap was 20% within 2 years (in 2012) and reached an asymptote of about 40% within 5-6 years in prior Fiscal Year data.

I have been around approximately continuously NIH grant funded PIs for about two decades now. I have engaged similar folks in online discussion for over a decade, broadening my experiences beyond my department and subfield.

It is simply not true that the majority of NIH funded scientists enjoy some sort of halcyon period where we all "come to work full of innovative ideas and the wherewithal to see those idea through". Most of the time, we come to work fearful that we cannot maintain the wherewithal to keep the laboratory functioning in a minimally healthy way with reasonably good expectations for a continuously funded future for the duration of our careers. And we spend too much time strategizing about how to maintain the wherewithal.

Admittedly, it isn't all terrible all the time. I would estimate something on the order of 20-25%ish of my time as a grant funded PI has indeed been great. I have had extended intervals of time in which I did have the wherewithal to come to work focused only on the scientific ideas I wanted to pursue. It is AWESOME to have these intervals. Really. I totally get it. I appreciate it. I love(d) these times.

But it is not the constant reality of the vast majority of NIH funded PIs that I talk to. It has not been my consistent reality.

The fact that the very head of the NIH does not seem to understand this is dismaying. It means that nothing will change. And, in fact, given his glee at creating yet more mouths at the trough this aspect of NIH funded science will continue to get worse under his Directorship.

6 responses so far

The Purchasing Power of the NIH Grant Continues to Erode

It has been some time since I made a figure depicting the erosion of the purchasing power of the NIH grant so this post is simply an excuse to update the figure.

In brief, the NIH modular budget system used for a lot of R01 awards limits the request to $250,000 in direct costs per year. A PI can ask for more but they have to use a more detailed budgeting process, and there are a bunch of reasons I'm not going to go into here that makes the "full-modular" a good starting point for discussion of the purchasing power of the typical NIH award.

The full modular limit was put in place at the inception of this system (i.e., for applications submitted after 6/1/1999) and has not been changed since. I've used the FY2001 as my starting point for the $250,000 and then adjusted it in two ways according to the year by year BRDPI* inflation numbers. The red bars indicate the reduction in purchasing power of a static $250,000 direct cost amount. The black bars indicate the amount the full-modular limit would have to be escalated year over year to retain the same purchasing power that $250,000 conferred in 2001.


(click to enlarge)

The executive summary is that the NIH would have to increase the modular limit to $450,000 $400,000** per year in direct costs for FY2018 in order for PIs to have the same purchasing power that came with a full-modular grant award in 2001.
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*The BRDPI inflation numbers that I used can be downloaded from the NIH Office of Budget. The 2017 and 2018 numbers are projected.

**I blew it. The BRDPI spreadsheet actually projects inflation out to 2023 and I pulled the number from 2021 projection. The correct FY2018 equivalent is $413,020.

7 responses so far

Addressing the Insomnia of Francis Collins and Mike Lauer

The Director of the NIH and the Deputy Director in charge of the office of extramural research have posted a blog post about The Issue that Keeps Us Awake at Night. It is the plight of the young investigator, going from what they have written.


The Working Group is also wrestling with the issue that keeps us awake at night – considering how to make well-informed strategic investment decisions to nurture and further diversify the biomedical research workforce in an environment filled with high-stakes opportunity costs. If we are going to support more promising early career investigators, and if we are going to nurture meritorious, productive mid-career investigators by stabilizing their funding streams, monies will have to come from somewhere. That will likely mean some belt-tightening in other quarters, which is rarely welcomed by the those whose belts are being taken in by a notch or two.

They plan to address this by relying on data and reports that are currently being generated. I suspect this will not be enough to address their goal.

I recently posted a link to the NIH summary of their history of trying to address the smooth transition of newly minted PIs into NIH-grant funded laboratories, without much comment. Most of my Readers are probably aware by now that handwringing from the NIH about the fate of new investigators has been an occasional feature since at least the Johnson Administration. The historical website details the most well known attempts to fix the problem. From the R23 to the R29 FIRST to the New Investigator check box, to the "sudden realization"* they needed to invent a true Noob New Investigator (ESI) category, to the latest designation of the aforementioned ESIs as Early Established Investigators for continued breaks and affirmative action. It should be obvious from the ongoing reinvention of the wheel that the NIH periodically recognizes that the most recent fix isn't working (and may have unintended detrimental consequences).

One of the reasons these attempts never truly work and have to be adjusted or scrapped and replaced by the next fun new attempt was identified by Zerhouni (a prior NIH Director) in about 2007. This was right after the "sudden realization" and the invention of the ESI. Zerhouni was quoted in a Science news bit as saying that study sections were responding to the ESI special payline boost by handing out ever worsening scores to the ESI applications.

Told about the quotas, study sections began “punishing the young investigators with bad scores,” says Zerhouni.

Now, I would argue that viewing this trend of worsening scores as "punishing" is at best only partially correct. We can broaden this to incorporate a simple appreciation that study sections adapt their biases, preferences and evolved cultural ideas about grant review to the extant rules. One way to view worsening ESI scores may have to do with the pronounced tendency reviewers have to think in terms of fund it / don't fund it, despite the fact that SROs regularly exhort them not to do this. When I was on study section regularly, the scores tended to pile up around the perceived payline. I've seen the data for one section across multiple rounds. Reviewers were pretty sensitive to the scuttlebutt about what sort of score was going to be a fundable one. So it would be no surprise whatsoever to me if there was a bias driven by this tendency, once it was announced that ESI applications would get a special (higher) payline for funding.

This tendency might also be driven in part by a "Get in line, youngun, don't get too big for your britches" phenomenon. I've written about this tendency a time or two. I came up as a postdoc towards the end of the R29 / FIRST award era and got a very explicit understanding that some established PIs thought that newbies had to get the R29 award as their first award. Presumably there was a worsening bias against giving out an R01 to a newly minted assistant professor as their first award**, because hey, the R29 was literally the FIRST award, amirite?

sigh.

Then we come to hazing, which is the even nastier relative of the "Don't get to big for your britches". Oh, nobody will admit that it is hazing, but there is definitely a subcurrent of this in the review behavior of some people that think that noob PIs have to prove their worth by battling the system. If they sustain the effort to keep coming back with improved versions, then hey, join the club kiddo! (Here's an ice pack for the bruising). If the PI can't sustain the effort to submit a bunch of revisions and new attempts, hey, she doesn't really have what it takes, right? Ugh.

Scientific gate-keeping. This tends to cover a multitude of sins of various severity but there are definitely reviewers that want newcomers to their field to prove that they belong. Is this person really an alcohol researcher? Or is she just going to take our*** money and run away to do whatever basic science amazeballs sounded super innovative to the panel?

Career gate-keeping. We've gone many rounds on this one within the science blog- and twittospheres. Who "deserves" a grant? Well, reviewers have opinions and biases and despite their best intentions and wounded protestations...these attitudes affect review. In no particular order we can run down the favorite targets of the "Do it to Julia, not me, JULIA!" sentiment. Soft money job categories. High overhead Universities. Well funded labs. Translational research taking all the money away from good honest basic researchers***. Elite coastal Universities. Big Universities. R1s. The post-normative-retirement crowd. Riff-raff plodders.

Layered over the top of this is favoritism. It interacts with all of the above, of course. If some category of PI is to be discriminated against, there is very likely someone getting the benefit. The category of which people approve. Our club. Our kind. People who we like who must be allowed to keep their funding first, before we let some newbie get any sniff of a grant.

This, btw, is a place where the focus must land squarely on Program Officers as well. The POs have all the same biases mentioned above, of course. And their versions of the biases have meaningful impact. But when it comes to thought of "we must save our long term investigators" they have a very special role to play in this debacle. If they are not on board with the ESI worries that keep Collins and Lauer awake at night, well, they are ideally situated to sabotage the effort. Consciously or not.

So, Director Collins and Deputy Director Lauer, you have to fix study section and you have to fix Program if you expect to have any sort of lasting change.

I have only a few suggestions and none of this is a silver bullet.

I remain convinced that the only tried and true method to minimize the effects of biases (covert and overt) is the competition of opposing biases. I've remarked frequently that study sections would be improved and fairer if less-experienced investigators had more power. I think the purge of Assistant Professors effected by the last head of the CSR (Scarpa) was a mistake. I note that CSR is charged with balancing study sections on geography, sex, ethnicity, university type and even scientific subdomains...while explicitly discriminating against younger investigators. Is it any wonder if there is a problem getting the newcomers funded?

I suggest you also pay attention to fairness. I know you won't, because administrators invariably respond to a situation of perceived past injustice with "ok, that was the past and we can't do anything about it, moving forward please!". But this is going to limit your ability to shift the needle. People may not agree on what represents fair treatment but they sure as heck are motivated by fairness. Their perception of whether a new initiative is fair or unfair will tend to shape their behavior when reviewing. This can get in the way of NIH's new agenda if reviewers perceive themselves as being mistreated by it.

Many of the above mentioned reviewer quirks are hardened by acculturation. PIs who are asked to serve on study section have been through the study section wringer as newbies. They are susceptible to the idea that it is fair if the next generation has it just about as hard as they did and that it is unfair if newbies these days are given a cake walk. Particularly, if said established investigators feel like they are still struggling. Ahem. It may not seem logical but it is simple psychology. I anticipate that the "Early Established Investigator" category is going to suffer the same fate as the ESI category. Scores will worsen, compared to pre-EEI days. Some of this will be the previously mentioned tracking of scores to the perceived payline. But some of this will be people**** who missed the ESI assistance who feel that it is unfair that the generation behind them gets yet another handout to go along with the K99/R00 and ESI plums. The intent to stabilize the careers of established investigators is a good one. But limiting this to "early" established investigators, i.e., those who already enjoyed the ESI era, is a serious mistake.

I think Lauer is either aware, or verging on awareness, of something that I've mentioned repeatedly on this blog. I.e. that a lot of the pressure on the grant system- increasing numbers of applications, PIs seemingly applying greedily for grants when already well funded, they revision queuing traffic pattern hold - comes from a vicious cycle of the attempt to maintain stable funding. When, as a VeryEstablished colleague put it to me suprisingly recently "I just put in a grant when I need another one and it gets funded" is the expected value, PIs can be efficient with their grant behavior. If they need to put in eight proposals to have a decent chance of one landing, they do that. And if they need to start submitting apps 2 years before they "need" one, the randomness is going to mean they seem overfunded now and again. This applies to everyone all across the NIH system. Thinking that it is only those on their second round of funding that have this stability problem is a huge mistake for Lauer and Collins to be making. And if you stabilize some at the expense of others, this will not be viewed as fair. It will not be viewed as shared pain.

If you can't get more people on board with a mission of shared sacrifice, or unshared sacrifice for that matter, then I believe NIH will continue to wring its hands about the fate of new investigators for another forty years. There are too many applicants for too few funds. It amps up the desperation and amps up the biases for and against. It decreases the resistance of peer reviewers to do anything to Julia that they expect might give a tiny boost to the applications of them and theirs. You cannot say "do better" and expect reviewers to change, when the power of the grant game contingencies is so overwhelming for most of us. You cannot expect program officers who still to this day appear entirely clueless about they way things really work in extramural grant-funded careers to suddenly do better because you are losing sleep. You need to delve into these psychologies and biases and cultures and actually address them.

I'll leave you with an exhortation to walk the earth, like Caine. I've had the opportunity to watch some administrative frustration, inability and nervousness verging on panic in the past couple of years that has brought me to a realization. Management needs to talk to the humblest of their workforce instead of the upper crust. In the case of the NIH, you need to stop convening preening symposia from the usual suspects, taking the calls of your GlamHound buddies and responding only to reps of learn-ed societies. Walk the earth. Talk to real applicants. Get CSR to identify some of your most frustrated applicants and see what is making them fail. Find out which of the apparently well-funded applicants have to work their tails off to maintain funding. Compare and contrast to prior eras. Ask everyone what it would take to Fix the NIH.

Of course this will make things harder for you in the short term. Everyone perceives the RealProblem as that guy, over there. And the solutions that will FixTheNIH are whatever makes their own situation easier.

But I think you need to hear this. You need to hear the desperation and the desire most of us have simply to do our jobs. You need to hear just how deeply broken the NIH award system is for everyone, not just the ESI and EEI category.

PS. How's it going solving the problem identified by Ginther? We haven't seen any data lately but at last check everything was as bad as ever so...

PPS. Are you just not approving comments on your blog? Or is this a third rail issue nobody wants to comment on?
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*I make fun of the "sudden realization" because it took me about 2 h of my very first study section meeting ever to realize that "New Investigator" checkbox applicants from genuine newbies did very poorly and all of these were being scooped up by very well established and accomplished investigators who simply hadn't been NIH funded. Perhaps they were from foreign institutions, now hired in the US. Or perhaps lived on NSF or CDC or DOD awards. The idea that it took NIH something like 8-10 years to realize this is difficult to stomach.

**The R29 was crippled in terms of budget, btw. and had other interesting features.

***lolsob

****Yep, that would be my demographic.

12 responses so far

NIH reminds Universities not to keep paying harasser PIs from grant funds while suspended

On the May 1, 2018 the NIH issued NOT-OD-18-172 to clarify that:

NIH seeks to remind the extramural community that prior approval is required anytime there is a change in status of the PD/PI or other senior/key personnel where that change will impact his/her ability to carry out the approved research at the location of, and on behalf of, the recipient institution. In particular, changes in status of the PI or other senior/key personnel requiring prior approval would include restrictions that the institution imposes on such individuals after the time of award, including but not limited to any restrictions on access to the institution or to the institution’s resources, or changes in their (employment or leave) status at the institution. These changes may impact the ability of the PD/PI or other senior/key personnel to effectively contribute to the project as described in the application; therefore, NIH prior approval is necessary to ensure that the changes are acceptable.

Hard on the heels of the news breaking about long term and very well-funded NIH grant Principal Investigators Thomas Jessel and Inder Verma being suspended from duties at Columbia University and The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, respectively, one cannot help but draw the obvious conclusion.

I don't know what prompted this Notice but I welcome it.

Now, I realize that many of us would prefer to see some harsher stuff here. Changing the PI of a grant still keeps the sweet sweet indirects flowing into the University or Institute. So there is really no punishment when an applicant institution is proven to have looked the other way for years (decades) when their well-funded PIs are accused repeatedly of sexual harassment, gender-based discrimination, retaliation on whistleblowers and the like.

But this Notice is still welcome. It indicates that perhaps someone is actually paying a tiny little bit of attention now in this post-Weinstein era.

4 responses so far

When Congress boosts the NIH budget midyear weird stuff happens

Apr 19 2018 Published by under NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics, NIH funding

Interesting comment about NIGMS recent solicitation of supplement applications for capital equipment infrastructure.

If true this says some interesting things about whether NIH will ever do anything to reduce churn, increase paylines and generally make things more livable for their extramural workforce.

9 responses so far

The Pirate Stronghold Strategy

Dec 16 2016 Published by under NIH Budgets and Economics, NIH Careerism

Being a pirate probably really sucked.

Your odds of profiting from a raid were dodgy. Some of the victims fought back. The authorities might show up. Don't even start with me about the storms.

If you were a pirate captain....whooo. Do you know how hard it is to get good help? How expensive to refit and provision a ship? And where do you store your money so that you don't lose it and can afford to pay crew if the raid didn't go well this time?

Especially when you are constantly on the run?

Wouldn't it be great to have a place to go? Wouldn't have to be fancy. Just some basic support to help you refit the ship, provision it and hire crew for your next raid on the coastal settlements.

This is what NIGMS has been doing with their strategy of getting sustenance grant funding to as many of their people as possible. Keep lots of privateer crews, sorry, labs, alive...but just barely. Then you know they will launch raids on the other ICs to bring in their booty. Which they will spend a lot of back at the pirate stronghold.

24 responses so far

I blew it, here's the version of 21st Century Cures that was passed by the House

Dec 01 2016 Published by under NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

ooops.

I had the wrong version. Thanks to Jocelyn Kaiser of Science mag for alerting me.

The 21st Century Cures site is here and I think the right version of the bill is here in PDF form.

12 responses so far

Overtime rules

So. A federal judge* managed to put a hold on Obama's move to increase the threshold for overtime exemption. Very likely any challenge to this will fail to succeed before a new Administration takes over the country. Most would bet there will be no backing for Obama's plans under the new regime.

NIH is planning to steam ahead with their NRSA salary guidelines that met the Obama rule. Workplaces are left in a quandary. Many have announced their policies and issued notification of raises to some employees. Now they are not being forced to do so, at the last hour.

My HR department has signaled no recent changes in plans. Postdocs will get raises up to the Obama threshold. There are some other categories affected but I've seen no announcement of any hold on those plans either.

How about you folks? What are your various HR departments going to do in light of the de facto halt on Obama's plans!

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*activist judge

56 responses so far

The NIH has shifted from being an investor in research to a consumer of research

WOW. This comment from dsks absolutely nails it to the wall.

The NIH is supposed to be taking on a major component of the risk in scientific research by playing the role of investor; instead, it seems to operates more as a consumer, treating projects like products to be purchased only when complete and deemed sufficiently impactful. In addition to implicitly encouraging investigators to flout rules like that above, this shifts most of the risk onto the shoulders of investigator, who must use her existing funds to spin the roulette wheel and hope that the projects her lab is engaged in will be both successful and yield interesting answers. If she strikes it lucky, there’s a chances of recouping the cost from the NIH. However, if the project is unsuccessful, or successful but produces one of the many not-so-pizzazz-wow answers, the PI’s investment is lost, and at a potentially considerable cost to her career if she’s a new investigator.

Of course one might lessen the charge slightly by observing that it is really the University that is somehow investing in the exploratory work that may eventually become of interest to the buyer. Whether the University then shifts the risk onto the lowly PI is a huge concern, but not inevitable. They could continue to provide seed money, salary, etc to a professor who does not manage to write a funded grant application.

Nevertheless, this is absolutely the right way to look at the ever growing obligation for highly specific Preliminary Data to support any successful grant application. Also the way to look at a study section culture that is motivated in large part by perceived "riskiness" (which underlies a large part of the failure to reward untried investigators from unknown Universities compared with established PIs from coastal elite institutions).

NIH isn't investing in risky science. It is purchasing science once it looks like most of the real risk has been avoided.

I have never seen this so clearly, so thanks to dsks for expressing it.

38 responses so far

Repost: Keep the ball in play

Sep 21 2016 Published by under NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

This was originally posted 16 September, 2014.


We're at the point of the fiscal year where things can get really exciting. The NIH budget year ends Sept 30 and the various Institutes and Centers need to balance up their books. They have been funding grants throughout the year on the basis of the shifting sands of peer review with an attempt to use up all of their annual allocation on the best possible science.

Throughout the prior two Council rounds of the year, they have to necessarily be a bit conservative. After all, they don't know in the first Round if maybe they will have a whole bunch of stellar scores come in during the third Round. Some one-off funding opportunities are perhaps schedule for consideration only during the final Round. Etc.

Also, the amount of funding requested for each grant varies. So maybe they have a bunch of high scoring proposals that are all very inexpensive? Or maybe they have many in the early rounds of the year that are unusually large?

This means that come September, the ICs are sometimes sitting on unexpended funds and need to start picking up proposals that weren't originally slated to fund. Maybe it is a supplement, maybe it is a small mechanism like a R03 or R21. Maybe they will offer you 2 years of funding of an R01 proposed for 5. Maybe they will offer you half the budget you requested. Maybe they have all of a sudden discovered a brand new funding priority and the quickest way to hit the ground running is to pick something up with end-of-year funds.

Now obviously, you cannot game this out for yourself. There is no way to rush in a proposal at the end of the year (save for certain administrative supplements). There is no way for you to predict what your favorite IC is going to be doing in Sep- maybe they have exquisite prediction and always play it straight up by priority score right to the end, sticking within the lines of the Council rounds. And of course, you cannot assume lobbying some lowly PO for a pickup is going to work out for you.

There is one thing you can do, Dear Reader.

It is pretty simple. You cannot receive one of these end-of-year unexpected grant awards unless you have a proposal on the books and in play. That means, mostly, a score and not a triage outcome. It means, in a practical sense, that you had better have your JIT information all squared away because this can affect things. It means, so I hear, that this is FINALLY the time when your IC will quite explicitly look at overhead rates to see about total costs and screw over those evil bastiges at high overhead Universities that you keep ranting about on the internet. You can make sure you have not just an R01 hanging around but also a smaller mech like an R03 or R21.

It happens*. I know lots and lots of people who have received end-of-the-FY largesse that they were not expecting. Received this type of benefit myself. It happens because you have *tried* earlier in the year to get funding and have managed to get something sitting on the books, just waiting for the spotlight of attention to fall upon you.

So keep that ball in play, my friends. Keep submitting credible apps. Keep your Commons list topped off with scored apps.

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*As we move into October, you can peruse SILK and RePORTER to see which proposals have a start date of Sep 30. Those are the end-of-year pickups.

h/t: some Reader who may or may not choose to self-identify 🙂

4 responses so far

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