Archive for the 'NIH Budgets and Economics' category

Projected NRSA salary scale for FY2017

NOT-OD-16-131 indicates the projected salary changes for postdoctoral fellows supported under NRSA awards.

Being the visual person that I am...
NRSAFY16-17chart

As anticipated, the first two years were elevated to meet the third year of the prior scale (plus a bit) with a much flatter line across the first three years of postdoctoral experience.

What think you o postdocs and PIs? Is this a fair* response to the Obama overtime rules?

Will we see** institutions (or PIs) where they just extend that shallow slope out for Years 3-7+?

h/t Odyssey and correction of my initial misread from @neuroecology
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*As a reminder, $47,484 in 2016 dollars equals $39,715 in 2006 dollars, $30,909 in 1996 dollars and $21,590 in 1986 dollars. Also, the NRSA Yr 0 for postdocs was $20,292 for FY1997 and $36,996 for FY2006.

**I bet yes***.

***Will this be the same old jerks that already flatlined postdoc salaries? or will PIs who used to apply yearly bumps now be in a position where they just flatline since year 1 has increased so much?

38 responses so far

Columbia University busted for taking too much overhead on NIH grants

Jul 15 2016 Published by under NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

From the Manhattan branch of the US Attorney's Office charged:

The United States’ Complaint-In-Intervention (the “Complaint”) alleges that from July 1, 2003, through June 30, 2015, COLUMBIA impermissibly applied its “on-campus” indirect cost rate – instead of the much lower “off-campus” indirect cost rate – when seeking federal reimbursement for 423 NIH grants where the research was primarily performed at off-campus facilities owned and operated by the State of New York and New York City. The Complaint further alleges that COLUMBIA failed to disclose to NIH that it did not own or operate these facilities and that COLUMBIA did not pay for use of the space for most of the relevant period.

...and Columbia University admitted:

COLUMBIA has admitted that it applied the on-campus indirect cost rate to the 423 NIH grants even though the research was primarily performed in space not owned or operated by Columbia, and that it submitted to NIH certified reports that used the on-campus indirect cost rate to calculate the indirect cost amounts claimed by the university.

Ah, those tricky accountants.

Oh. cool. paging down on the complaint we get some specifics:

From July 1, 2003, through June 30, 2015, COLUMBIA’s On-Campus F&A Rate was approximately 61 percent, its Off-Campus F&A Rate was 26 percent, and its Modified Off-Campus F&A Rate was 29.4 percent. The Modified Off-Campus F&A Rate was to be applied to research conducted off-campus but within a certain proximity of the COLUMBIA campus.

Y'know. When I first read this my first thought was that I know some Columbia folks that work off campus at.... oh shit. It's them. It's the drug abuse folks.

COLUMBIA has a collaborative relationship with the New York State Psychiatric Institute (“NYSPI”), a clinical research facility administered by the New York State Office of Mental Health. COLUMBIA faculty perform research in two off-campus buildings owned by the State of New York and operated by NYSPI (the “NYSPI Buildings”). COLUMBIA faculty also perform research in another off-campus building owned and operated by the City of New York (the “City Building”).

For most of the relevant period, COLUMBIA did not pay the State of New York for use of the NYSPI Buildings, and therefore did not incur indirect “facilities-related” costs with respect to the medical research performed in these buildings. Similarly, COLUMBIA did not pay the City of New York for use of the City Building.

Presumably my friends who are the PIs on these grants had no idea. I have no idea what my institution actually charges the NIH as overhead on my grants, all I look at is my direct cost expenditures and balances. But still, sorry to see that it was their research grants that were involved. If nothing else it means that NIDA [Update: I found some details and 22/423 total grants were driect listings from NIDA, although there are what look like subaward identifiers (that may or may not involve other NIDA grants.)] was the entity being ripped off. The settlement was for $9.5 million. It doesn't say how much of this is direct recovery for the fraud and how much is court costs or punishment.

oh, wait. Damn. This looks bad.

COLUMBIA did not state on the applications for the NIH Grants that the research would be primarily performed off-campus, as required. Instead, Columbia frequently included the main address for the College of Physicians & Surgeons in the section of the application that was supposed to list the primary performance location. Even where the NYSPI Buildings or the City Building were listed in that section of the grant application, or mentioned elsewhere in the application, COLUMBIA failed to disclose that these buildings were not owned and operated by the university.

Starting in fiscal year 2009, in lieu of paying rent for use of one of the NYSPI Buildings, the Department of Neuroscience paid NYSPI a portion of the inflated indirect cost recoveries it received from NIH for research projects performed in that building.

This smells a lot more like highly intentional fraud and less like a mistake that someone should have caught. In the pre-award review of the grant, if you ask me. Especially when CU was clearly negotiating the rental arrangements with NYSPI. Someone pretty high up in the office of grants and contracts had to be doing this whole charade intentionally and with planning. There are a handful of other regulatory issues that I don't want to get into which very likely pointed a spotlight on the "performance location" too. This had to be intentional.

Turns out that this was a whistleblower case.

In connection with the filing of the lawsuit and settlement, the Government joined a private whistleblower lawsuit that had previously been filed under seal pursuant to the False Claims Act.

Good for that brave person for bringing this to light.

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Final thought: I bet you that Columbia University is not the only NIH funded University out there that pulls some shenanigans like this. Now, you would think that there would be some sort of broad and universal alert sent to the Signing Officials of each University that has an on- and off-campus rate. Telling them to get their act together on this or any future investigation that busts them will automatically have the fines tripled. But going by at least one narrow similar area that I've followed over the past couple of decades (the anti-lobbying / grant writing thing) apparently this does not happen. So keep your eyes peeled for the next decade. I bet there will be more of these and that in each case it will again be figured out only via whistleblower.

43 responses so far

Where the NIGMS argument doesn't add up

Jul 08 2016 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

The NIGMS continues its ongoing argument for funding more labs with ever decreasing amounts of grant funding in a new Feedback Loop post.

This one focuses, yet again, on "productivity" as assessed by publication counts and (this time) citations of those publications. It is, as always, significantly flawed by ignoring the effects of Glamour publications. I've done that before and it is starting to bore me. In short, you cannot compare apples to oranges because of the immense difference in the cost of generating your average Nature paper versus a Brain Research paper. And citations don't help because getting into a Glam journal does not mean your paper will get any particular number of citations. Furthermore, there is very little chance that papers that cost 10 or 20 times more will generate ten or twenty times the citations, on average, given the skew in citation distributions and the fact that Glam journals are only hitting means in the 30-40 range. Finally, their "efficiency" measures completely ignore the tremendous inefficiencies of interrupted funding, which is a reality under the current system and also not necessarily fixed with their spread-the-wealth schemes.

The real issue of the day is the opinion of the fans of NIGMS's "conclusion*", which reads:

Overall, however, the data suggest that supporting a greater number of investigators at moderate funding levels is a better investment strategy than concentrating high amounts of funding in a smaller number of researchers.

The Sally Rockey blog entry on "mythbusting" is relevant here. As of FY2009 about 72% of NIH funded investigators had one RPG. Another 20% had two and maybe 5% had three.

That's all.

The NIGMS data analyses are big on fitting productivity lines to about the single R01 level of direct costs (~$200K per year) and showing how the productivity/cost drops off as the grant funding increases. Take a good look at the most recent analysis. Linear productivity up to $300K direct costs with the 75%ile sustained all the way to $500K. The famous original 2010 analysis by Jeremy Berg at NIGMS is pretty similar in the sense that you don't get much change in the line fit to mean publications until you get to the $600-$700K direct costs range.

There is a critical point in lining up these two bits of information which is that the NIGMS policy intent is not supported by their analysis and it can't be. One or two RPG level from Rockey's post should be interpreted in full modular R01 terms ($250K direct, usually cut to $200K, $225K direct and in NIGMS' case to 4 years by default) with a little bit of float upwards for the rare cases. Consequently, it is obvious that most NIH awardees operate in the ~$200-250K part of NIGMS' dataset. Another 20% operate in the $400-$500K direct range. In other words, well within the linear part of the productivity/cost curve.

Mean publications as represented by the 2010 Berg analysis are increasing linearly well up to the three to four grant level of $750K direct costs.

In either case, the "inefficient" grant levels are being obtained by a vanishingly small number of investigators.

Fine, screw them, right?

Sure....but this does nothing to address either the stated goal of NIGMS in hedging their bets across many labs or the goal of the unfunded, i.e., to increase their chances substantially.

A recent Mike Lauer Blog post showed that about a third of those PI's who seek RPG funding over a rolling 5 year interval achieve funding. Obviously if you take all the multi-grant PIs and cut them down to one tomorrow, you'd be able to bump funded investigators up by 15-20%, assuming the FY2009 numbers are relatively good still**. It isn't precise because if you limit the big guys to one award then these are going to drift up to $499K direct at a minimum and a lot more will have special permission to crest the $500K threshold.

There will be a temporary sigh of relief and some folks will get funded at 26%ile. Sure. And then there will be even more PIs in the game seeking funding and it will continue to be a dogfight to retain that single grant award. And the next round of newbies will face the same steep odds of entry. Maybe even steeper.

So the ONLY way for NIGMS' plan to work is to cut per-PI awards way, way down into the front part of their productivity curves. Well below the point of inflection($300-500K or even $750K depending on measure) where papers-per-grant dollar drops off the linear trend. Even the lowest estimate of $300K direct is more than one full-modular grant. It will take a limit substantially below this level*** to improve perceptions of funding ease or to significantly increase the number of funded labs.

Which makes their argument based on those trends a lie, if they truly intend it to support their "better investment strategy". Changing the number of investigators they support in any fundamental way means limiting per-PI awards to the current full modular limit (with typical reductions) at the least, and very likely substantially below this level to produce anything like a phase change.

That's fine if they want to just assert "we think everyone should only have X amount of direct costs" but it is not so fine if they argue that they have some objective, productivity-based data analysis to support their plans. Because it does not.

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*This is actually their long standing assertion that all of these seemingly objective analyses are designed to support.

**should be ballpark, given the way Program has been preserving unfunded labs at the expense of extra awards to funded labs these days.

***I think many people arguing in favor of the NIGMS type of "small grants for all" strategy operate from the position that they personally deserve funding. Furthermore that some grant award of full modular level or slightly below is sufficient for them. Any dishonest throwaway nod to other types of research that are more expensive (as NIGMS did "We recognize that some science is inherently more expensive, for example because of the costs associated with human and animal subjects.") is not really meant or considered. This is somewhat narrow and self-involved. Try assuming that all of the two-granters in Rockey's distribution really need that amount of funding (remember the erosion of purchasing power?) and that puts it at more like 92% of awardees that enjoy basic funding at present. Therefore the squeeze should be proportional. Maybe the bench jockeys should be limited to $100K or even $50K in this scenario? Doesn't seem so attractive if you consider taking the same proportional hit, does it?

22 responses so far

Postdoc salaries and reinforcer value

One issue I've heard raised is that some PIs like to use salary differentials to reward the "good postdocs" with bonus pay.

Given the behaviorist education that lurks in my background, I am theoretically* in support of this notion.

The new salary rules may minimize such flexibility in the future.

Are you aware of labs in which merit of postdocs as interpreted by the PI leads to salary differentials?

Is this a legitimate complaint about the overtime rules?

Will PIs use the permission to work overtime (and be paid for it) as a workaround for merit pay?
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*Given my distaste for workplace bias and desire to be a fair manager, I have never used merit to decide postdoc pay. I stick to NRSA schedules and to institutional adjustments as appropriate.

40 responses so far

Never Ever Trust a Dec 1 NIH Grant Start Date: The Sickening

Mar 09 2016 Published by under NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics, NIH Careerism

As I noted in a prior post, the Cycle I NIH Grant awards (submitted in Feb-Mar, Reviewed Jun-July, Council Aug) with a first possible funding date of December 1 hardly ever are funded on time. This is due to Congress never passing a budget for the Fiscal Year that starts in October on time. The Congress sometimes goes into a stop-gap measure, like Continuing Resolution, which theoretically permits Federal agencies to spend along the parameters of the past year's budget. I find that NIH ICs of my greatest interest are highly conservative and never* fund new grants in December. The ICs that I follow almost inevitably wait until late Jan when Congress returns from their winter recess to see if they will do something more permanent.

New Cycle I grants then start trickling out in Feb, again, typically.

This year one of my favorite ICs, namely NIDA, has only just issued new Cycle I grants** this week, they hit RePORTER today.

March friggin 9th.

Six new R01 awards. Three K01, three K99s, one R15, one "planning grant" and three SBIR.

Even this is just a trickle, compared to what they should be funding for one of their major Cycles. I anticipate there will be a lot more coming out over the next couple of weeks so that they can (hopefully?) clear the decks for the Cycle II awards that are supposed to fund April 1.

I pity all those poor PIs out their waiting, just waiting, for their awards to fund. I cannot imagine why NIDA chooses to do this instead of at least trickling out the best score awards and the stuff they KNOW they are going to fund, way back in December***.
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*Statistically undifferentiable from never

**You can tell by clicking on the individual awards and you'll see that they (R01s anyway) end Nov 30 or Dec 31 for the initial round of funding. These are Cycle I, not upjumped Cycle II.

***Some ICs do tend to fund a few new awards in December, no matter what the status of Congress' activity on a budget.

7 responses so far

Congress let the NIH drop the HIV/AIDS set-aside: Implications for NIDA?

Dec 15 2015 Published by under Drug Abuse Science, NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

Jocelyn Kaiser reported in Science Insider:

the National Institutes of Health (NIH) today announced it will no longer support setting aside a fixed 10% of its budget—or $3 billion this year—to fund research on the disease. The agency also plans to reprogram $65 million of its AIDS research grant funding this year to focus more sharply on ending the epidemic.

Whoa. Big news. This is an old Congressional mandate so presumably it needs Congress to be on board. More from Kaiser:

The changes follow growing pressure in Congress and from some advocacy groups for NIH to reallocate its funding based on the public health burden a disease causes.... some patient groups and members of Congress have recently asked why AIDS receives disproportionately far more than diseases with higher death rates, such as heart disease and Alzheimer’s....Last year, Congress omitted instructions asking NIH to maintain the 10% AIDS set aside.

Emphasis added. An act by omission is good enough for gov'mint work, eh? Congress is on board.

@jocelynkaiser was kind enough to link to relevant NIH budgetary distributions:

As you can see, NIDA devotes about $300M to HIV/AIDS research. The annual NIDA budget allocation is about $1B so you can see that something on the order of 30% of the NIDA budget is (and has been) devoted to this Congressional Mandate.

Wait, whut? What about that 10% mandate above? Yep, the HIV/AIDS money has not been evenly distributed across the ICs.

Now, I don't know exactly when and how all of this shook down. It was FY 1987 when the NIAID budget went up by something like 47% when other similarly sized ICs didn't see such a large percentile increase. Clearly 1986 was when Congress got serious about HIV/AIDS research. We can't assess the meaning of

AIDS has received 10% of NIH’s overall budget since the early 1990s, when Congress and NIH informally agreed it should grow in step with NIH’s overall budget.
...
NIH must treat AIDS dollars as a distinct pot of money within its overall budget. That is because a 1993 law carved out a separate HIV/AIDS budget, Collins says. And undoing that law would take action by Congress.

from this article. It is a little frustrating, to be frank. But...on to the NIDA situation.

NIDA doesn't appear in the NIH tables until FY1993 because it didn't actually join the NIH until 1992. Nevertheless that history page on NIDA notes:

1986: The dual epidemics of drug abuse and HIV/AIDS are recognized by Congress and the Administration, resulting in a quadrupling of NIDA funding for research on both major diseases.

There are many ways of looking at this situation.

Some in the NIDA world who are not all that interested in HIV/AIDS matters complain bitterly about why "A third of our budget is reserved for HIV/AIDS". Our.

Another way of looking at this would be "If Congress mandated NIH devote 10% of its budget to HIV/AIDS but NIH did this by incorporating NIDA with its existing HIV/AIDS funding then the entire rest of NIH is shirking its response to the mandate on the back of NIDA".

And yet a final way of looking at this* would be "Dude, NIDA wouldn't even have this money if not for Congress' interest in funding HIV/AIDS research so it isn't 'our' funding being diverted to HIV/AIDS research."

Is this important? Yes and no.

The news is potentially huge for those who seek to get the HIV/AIDS funding via NIDA grants and for those who seek non-HIV/AIDS funding. It makes matters slightly better for the latter and worse for the former. Right? If there is no special set-aside, the latter folks now have at least a shot at that $300M that had been out of reach for them. This consequently increases the competition for those who have HIV/AIDS relevant proposals. Who are presumably sad right now.

But it all depends on what Collins plans to do with his newly won freedom. Back to Kaiser:

Francis Collins agrees: At a meeting of his Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) today, he noted that no other disease receives a set proportion of the NIH budget and the argument that AIDS still deserves such a set-aside is “not a defensible one.”

The end of the set-aside has “free[d] us up” to refocus NIH’s AIDs portfolio, Collins says.

However the article only then talks about $65M being reprioritized. What about the rest of the 10% of the ~$30B / yr NIH budget? No idea.

So I want to know a few things. Is the $300M in the NIDA budget that goes to HIV/AIDS part of this 10% overall NIH mandate? If so, will Collins try to claw that back for some other agenda?

If a miracle occurs and it stays within NIDA, will Nora Volkow use this new-found freedom to ease the pressure on the non-HIV/AIDS researchers by letting them (ok, "us") get a shot at that previously-sequestered pool?

Or will Volkow use it to pay for the latest boondoggle initiatives of ABCD and BRAINI?

The way I hear it, this latter is likely to happen because up to this point all other NIDA initiatives are being squeezed** to make ABCD and BRAINI happen.

Obviously I would prefer to see Volkow choose to use this new freedom a little more democratically by spreading the love across all of the portfolio.

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*this has been my view for some time now.

**this manifests, IME, as profound pessimism on the part of POs that anything in the grey zone (which is robust reality at no-public-payline-NIDA) will be picked up because all spare change is going to the two aforementioned boondoggles.

27 responses so far

Rockey Explains Indirect Costs

Oct 05 2015 Published by under NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

11 responses so far

NIDDK tries to help its K-awardees succeed

Sep 11 2015 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics, NIH Careerism

NIDDK announced a Limited Competition: Small Grant Program for NIDDK K01/K08/K23 Recipients (R03)

The stated goal is clearly one of helping their new generation of hand-picked (ok, study section picked) scientists succeed.

Through the use of this mechanism, the NIDDK is seeking to enhance the capability of its K01, K08, and K23 award recipients to conduct research as they complete their transition to fully independent investigator status. .... The R03 is, therefore, intended to support research projects that can be carried out in a short period of time with limited resources and that may provide preliminary data to support a subsequent R01, or equivalent, application.

$50k direct for two years is what the R03 gets you. Not all that much for a launch to full independence but better than nothing. What does NIDDK think they will accomplish for the awardee?

Increased fiscal independence for the award recipient as a precursor to complete independence.

An opportunity for the recipient to generate additional publications and data to support a subsequent R01 application.

An opportunity for the awardee to demonstrate additional success in the peer review process during the course of their career development award.

Ok, the third one is easy- accomplished by definition and a benefit not to be sneezed at. Valid.

Increased fiscal independence? Well.....maybe. If the poor K-awardee is hooked up with jerk mentors, this may not be enough. If the PI is not a jerk, the K-awardee probably already controls this much budget from the surrounding projects. But sure, every bit of independent PI-status R-mech funding helps. Valid.

The middle one though. Helps to get a publication? Maybe. For some people. And depending on the other available funds, sure this will permit preliminary data to be generated. I'm giving this goal partial marks.

So...my analysis says this is basically well intentioned and will slightly help the awardees to move up the career arc. It isn't anywhere enough, in my view. I'd rather see something R01ish for this purpose. If NIDDK really wants a hard launch, that would be smarter and more successful.

9 responses so far

A medium sized laboratory

How many staff members (mix of techs, undergrads, graduate students, postdocs, staff sci, PI) constitute a "medium sized laboratory" in your opinion? 

36 responses so far

Salary Cap and the BRDPI Inflation Estimate

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

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

Jeff Mervis at Science has a blockbuster observation.

To remind you, the BRDPI is this:

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

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

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

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

and concludes with a caution:

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, it also goes on to note other contributions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 responses so far

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