Archive for the 'NIH funding' 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.

15 responses so far

Rockey looking to leave the NIH

Nov 03 2014 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

It looks like Sally Rockey, Deputy Director in charge of NIH's Office of Extramural Research since 2005, is looking to depart the NIH.

and

show that she is on the short-list to become the next President of the University (system) of Nebraska. Other shortlist candidates are a state level commissioner of higher education, a State University President and a State University (system) chancellor.

In the US some State University systems (i.e., multiple campuses which act as semi-autonomous Universities) call their campus heads President and the System-wide leader the Chancellor whereas other systems reverse these titles. This job appears to be the system-wide leadership position. This explains why there are two system-level leaders in the hunt.

It also may influence your opinion on the appropriateness of someone who has been a research administrator her whole career being in the running for such a position. Obviously she is being looked at as some sort of Federal grant rainmaker/expert to upgrade the amount of money that enters the University of Nebraska system from the Federal government and possibly other sources. I cannot imagine why else such a person, with no related experience heading a University or University system would be on the shortlist otherwise.

The main point of this news can be summed up in this handy figure from Jimmy Margulies, New Jersey Record, who was commenting on a different topic. The point remains, however.
The NIH is a sinking ship. I suspect that the folks at NIH realize this and the ones who have opportunity to cash in on their authoritah! by finding a nice top level administrative gig at one of the supplicant Universities will do so. The have-not Universities which find themselves in the most difficulty obtaining NIH funding will be desperate to land a rain-maker and even the "have" Universities may see this as a good investment. Especially if you have an IC Deputy Director or better, you can argue that they have significant administrative experience within an organization not entirely unrelated to academics. It should be an easy sell for a search committee to make the argument for NIH insiders to be considered for University President positions, Deans of Research and the like.

Is it a smart move? Well yes, if you think that their will be some benefit to their insider status. If you think that the replacement figures and holdovers will take the calls of these NIH emigres and listen to the concerns of their new University.

UPDATE: This news account explains that an attempt to close a Nebraska open-records law was made when the previous President of the UN system resigned.

As the law stands now, candidates may be kept private until the search for a president is narrowed to a pool of at least four applicants, all of whom must be disclosed. The bill would have allowed search committees to keep confidential presidential, vice presidential and chancellor candidates until they’ve narrowed the pool to one finalist.

Proponents of the bill say a closed search would allow for a better pool of applicants, including those who may otherwise be hesitant to apply and jeopardize their current position by publicly seeking another one. Opponents say the current law allows for students, faculty, the general public and the media to meet, investigate and learn about the candidates.

Hadley introduced the bill on behalf of the University of Nebraska’s Board of Regents after President James Milliken announced last month that he would be leaving Nebraska to become chancellor of the City University of New York.

51 responses so far

Tenure expectations and PI dropout from NIH funding

Oct 31 2014 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

Rockey's post on PI survival also had a graph on the persistence of PIs in submitting applications.

IMG_1135.JPG

She noted that the 1989 first-R01-equivalent folks dropped off in their grant submitting persistence around years 3-5 more than the younger cohorts.

A comment by qaz on the prior post of mine triggered a thought.

What about people who otherwise didn't really want or need a NIH R01 grant but it was a requirement for (or strongly supportive of) a tenure case?

If department expectations/preferences (for tenure or in who they hired in the first place) have changed since the late 80s, this could explain the difference in early drop-out, one-and-done rates across cohort.

19 responses so far

Your Grant in Review: Follow the Reviewers' Style Guide

Oct 27 2014 Published by under Grant Review, Grantsmanship, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

The NIH grant application has a tremendous amount of room for stylistic choice. No, I'm not talking about Georgia font again, nor your points-leaving choice to cite your references with numbers instead of author-date.

Within the dictated structure of Aims, Significance, Innovation, etc, there is a lot of freedom.

Where do I put the Preliminary Data now that there is no defined section? What comes first in the Approach- Aim 1? The Timeline? A bunch of additional rationale/background? Do you start every Aim with a brief Rationale and then list a bunch of Experiments? Which methods are "general" enough to put them at the end of Aim 3?

Do I include Future Directions?

What about discussion of Possible Pitfalls and Alternate Considerations and all that jazz?

Is the "Interpretation" for each Aim supposed to be an extensive tretise on results that you don't even have yet?

In all of this there is one certainty.

Ideally you are submitting multiple applications to a single study section over time. If not that, then you are likely submitting a revised version of an application that was not funded to the same study section that reviewed it in the first place. Study sections tend to have an evolved and transmissible culture that changes only slowly. There is a tendency for review to focus (overfocus, but there you have it) on certain structural expectations, in part as a way to be fair* to all the applications. There is a tendency for the study section to be the most comfortable with certain of these optional, stylistic features of a grant application included in juuuust the way that they expect.

So, and here is the certainty, if a summary statement suggests your application is deficient in one of these stylistic manners just suck it up and change your applications to that particular study section accordingly.

Is a Timeline silly when you've laid out a very simple and time-estimated set of experiments in a linear organization throughout the Aims? Perhaps. Is it idiotic to talk about alternatives when you conduct rapid, vertically ascending eleventy science and everything you propose right now is obsolete by the time Year 2 funds? Likely. Why do you need to lead the reviewers by the hand when your Rationale and experimental descriptions make it clear how the hypothesis will be tested and what it would mean? Because.

So when your summary statement suggests a stylistic variant that you wouldn't otherwise prefer...just do it.
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Additional Your Grant in Review posts.

*If the section has beaten up several apps because they did not appropriately discuss the Possible Pitfalls, or include Future Directions, well, they have to do it for all the apps. So the tendency goes anyway.

59 responses so far

Eisen Nails Down Why Collins Was Wrong on Ebola Assertion

Oct 13 2014 Published by under NIH, NIH funding, Public Health

Endorse. Go read:

But what really bothers me the most about this is that, rather than trying to exploit the current hysteria about Ebola by offering a quid-pro-quo “Give me more money and I’ll deliver and Ebola vaccine”, Collins should be out there pointing out that the reason we’re even in a position to develop an Ebola vaccine is because of our long-standing investment in basic research, and that the real threat we face is not Ebola, but the fact that, by having slashed the NIH budget and made it increasingly difficult to have a stable career in science, we’re making it less and less likely that we’ll be equipped to handle all of the future challenges to public health that we’re going to be face in the future.

46 responses so far

Should we continue long-funded NIH grant programs under younger PIs?

Oct 13 2014 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

In the course of discussing the infamous graph showing the longitudinal increase in the median age of first-R01 award, and the other infamous slide deck showing the aging of the distribution of all NIH-funded PIs there is something that eventually comes up.

To wit, how do we ease the older investigators out of the system, at least to the extent of cutting down how many grants they submit and are awarded?
Continue Reading »

13 responses so far

Federal RePORTER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sep 24 2014 Published by under Grantsmanship, NIH, NIH funding

This is soooo friggin cool.

There is now a tool to search all Federal research grants, i.e. across the various funding agencies.

Federal RePORTER awaits!

13 responses so far

Your Grant in Review: Longitudinal Human Studies

Sep 22 2014 Published by under Grant Review, Grantsmanship, NIH funding

Man.

Reviewing a competing continuation of a longitudinal human subjects study always has a little bit of a whiff of extortion to it. I'm not saying this is intentional but......

 

The sunk cost fallacy is a monster.

3 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

Scientists "cut corners", eh, NPR?

Sep 15 2014 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH, NIH funding

The latest in the NIH/science focused series from Richard Harris is:
Patients Vulnerable When Cash-Strapped Scientists Cut Corners

It hits on some of the expected themes. Including:

Most of the experimental ALS drugs, it turns out, undergo very perfunctory testing in animals before moving into human tests — based on flimsy evidence.

In hopes of figuring out why, scientists went back to take a second look at the mouse experiments that were the basis for the human study, and found them to be meager. Additional, more careful tests found no compelling reason to think the experimental drug would have ever worked.

Stefano Bertuzzi, the executive director of the American Society for Cell Biology, says that's partly because there is little incentive for scientists to take the time to go back and verify results from other labs.

"You want to be the first one to show something," he says — not the one to verify or dispute a finding, "because you won't get a big prize for that."

and then the former head of NINDS, Story Landis checks in:

Landis has thought a lot about how those last-chance patients ended up in this untenable situation. There is no single answer, she says, but part of the explanation relates to a growing issue in biomedical science: the mad scramble for scarce research dollars.

"The field has become hypercompetitive," she says.

Many excellent grant proposals get turned down, simply because there's not enough money to go around. So Landis says scientists are tempted to oversell weak results.

"Getting a grant requires that you have an exciting story to tell, that you have preliminary data and you have published," she says. "In the rush, to be perfectly honest, to get a wonderful story out on the street in a journal, and preferably with some publicity to match, scientists can cut corners."

So. The offending comment came from Story Landis. I am shaking my head with dismay.

Remember, SHE is the one who has made the decision on which grants get funded at the National Institute on Neurological Disorders and Stroke since 2003. Specifically and personally.

All that peer review of science and Program Officer priority and National Advisory Council concurrence? That is all process advisory to the Director who makes the ultimate decision on what to fund.

So, if there are any fingers to be pointed about what is driving particular aspects of scientist behavior in their attempts to stay funded merely so that they can work on thorny problems like ALS, well that finger goes right at Story Landis.

It's really simple, Directors of ICs. Simple as pie.

If you want to prioritize meticulously replicated and extended scientific investigations, you fund those proposals that are planning just that with urgent priority. When you are evaluating PIs to support with the usual spectrum of Programmatic priority handouts, select those with a history of meticulous replication instead of those who hit the hot highlights and never flesh out the story.

I'm telling you, this would snap a lot more PIs right into line in this current environment.

We are just exactly like everyone else. We respond to the contingencies under which we operate. When HawtEleventyGlamourScience and InstantlyTranslational is seen as the route to funding, guess what. We are going to "oversell weak results". When meticulous and incremental advance is seen as the province of irrelevant plodders who do not deserve grant funding, nobody in their right mind* is going to propose a project which mentions any such thing.

So, you want my advice? Find projects in your funded portfolio that meet the meticulous replication standard- give them a R37 MERIT extension and say why. Publicly. Next, find some of these type of proposals in your just-missed pile and fund them. Also brag on that.

Look up the PLoS ONE pubs that are associated with your grants.....presumably they are going to be enriched in negative results, confirmational findings and all the good stuff Story Landis seems to be seeking. Put out a press release on THOSE results. Particularly the negative ones.

In short, put your money where your mouth is, NIH. Don't engage in this double speak when you, yourselves, are a major contributing factor. Don't put this on your extramural investigators and pretend that you played anything other than a central role in their behavior.

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*I may possibly have proposed** a grant which was dedicated to replication and sorting out failures-to-replicate with the explicit expectation of a lot of essentially negative or pedestrian results.

**and received funding for***

***yes, I would have been, assuming that this indeed transpired, as amazed as you are****.

****should such a thing have occurred, I have absolutely no explanation for how such a feat was accomplished*****. Really, none.

*****I mean, the 2%ile priority score, if such had been the result, only begs the question, right?

11 responses so far

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