Archive for the 'NIH' category

NIH Director Collins and CSR Director Nakamura continue to kick the funding disparity can down the road

A News piece in Science by Jeffrey Mervis details the latest attempt of the NIH to kick the Ginther can down the road.

Armed with new data showing black applicants suffer a 35% lower chance of having a grant proposal funded than their white counterparts, NIH officials are gearing up to test whether reviewers in its study sections give lower scores to proposals from African-American applicants. They say it’s one of several possible explanations for a disparity in success rates first documented in a 2011 report by a team led by economist Donna Ginther of the University of Kansas, Lawrence.

Huh. 35%? I thought Ginther estimated more like a 13% difference? Oh wait. That's the award probability difference. About 16% versus 29% for white applicants which would be about a 45% lower chance. And this shows "78-90% the rate of white...applicants". And there was Nakamura quoted in another piece in Science:

At NIH, African-American researchers “receive awards at “55% to 60% the rate of white applicants,” Nakamura said. “That's a huge disparity that we have not yet been able to seriously budge,” despite special mentoring and networking programs, as well as an effort to boost the number of scientists from underrepresented minorities who evaluate proposals.

Difference vs rate vs lower chance.... Ugh. My head hurts. Anyway you spin it, African-American applicants are screwed. Substantially so.

Back to the Mervis piece for some factoids.

Ginther..noted...black researchers are more likely to have their applications for an R01 grant—the bread-and-butter NIH award that sustains academic labs—thrown out without any discussion...black scientists are less likely to resubmit a revised proposal ...whites submit at a higher rate than blacks...

So, what is CSR doing about it now? OK HOLD UP. LET ME REMIND YOU IT IS FIVE YEARS LATER. FIFTEEN FUNDING ROUNDS POST-GINTHER. Ahem.

The bias study would draw from a pool of recently rejected grant applications that have been anonymized to remove any hint of the applicant’s race, home institution, and training. Reviewers would be asked to score them on a one-to-nine scale using NIH’s normal rating system.

It's a start. Of course, this is unlikely to find anything. Why? Because the bias at grant review is a bias of identity. It isn't that reviewers are biased against black applicants, necessarily. It is that they are biased for white applicants. Or at the very least they are biased in favor of a category of PI ("established, very important") that just so happens to be disproportionately white. Also, there was this interesting simulation by Eugene Day that showed a bias that is smaller than the non-biased variability in a measurement can have large effects on something like a grant funding system [JournalLink].

Ok, so what else are they doing?

NIH continues to wrestle with the implications of the Ginther report. In 2014, in the first round of what NIH Director Francis Collins touted as a 10-year, $500 million initiative to increase the diversity of the scientific workforce, NIH gave out 5-year, $25 million awards to 10 institutions that enroll large numbers of minority students and created a national research mentoring network.

As you know, I am not a fan of these pipeline-enhancing responses. They say, in essence, that the current population of black applicant PIs is the problem. That they are inferior and deserve to get worse scores at peer review. Because what else does it mean to say the big money response of the NIH is to drum up more black PIs in the future by loading up the trainee cannon now?

This is Exhibit A of the case that the NIH officialdom simply cannot admit that there might be unfair biases at play that caused the disparity identified in Ginther and reinforced by the other mentioned analyses. The are bound and determined to prove that their system is working fine, nothing to see here.

So....what else ?

A second intervention starting later this year will tap that fledgling mentoring network to tutor two dozen minority scientists whose R01 applications were recently rejected. The goal of the intervention, which will last several months, is to prepare the scientists to have greater success on their next application. A third intervention will educate minority scientists on the importance of resubmitting a rejected proposal, because resubmitted proposals are three times more likely to be funded than a de novo application from a researcher who has never been funded by NIH.

Oh ff..... More of the same. Fix the victims.

Ah, here we go. Mervis finally gets around to explaining that 35% number

NIH officials recently updated the Ginther study, which examined a 2000–2006 cohort of applicants, and found that the racial disparity persists. The 35% lower chance of being funded comes from tracking the success rates of 1054 matched pairs of white and black applicants from 2008 to 2014. Black applicants continue to do less well at each stage of the process.

I wonder if they will be publishing that anywhere we can see it?

But here's the kicker. Even faced with the clear evidence from their own studies, the highest honchos still can't see it.

One issue that hung in the air was whether any of the disparity was self-inflicted. Specifically, council members and NIH officials pondered the tendency of African-American researchers to favor certain research areas, such as health disparities, women’s health, or hypertension and diabetes among minority populations, and wondered whether study sections might view the research questions in those areas as less compelling. Valantine called it a propensity “to work on issues that resonate with their core values.” At the same time, she said the data show minorities also do less well in competition with their white peers in those fields.

Collins offered another possibility. “I’ve heard stories that they might have been mentored to go into those areas as a better way to win funding,” he said. “The question is, to what extent is it their intrinsic interest in a topic, and to what extent have they been encouraged to go in that direction?”

Look, Ginther included a huge host of covariate analyses that they conducted to try to make the disparity go away. Now they've done a study with matched pairs of investigators. Valantine's quote may refer to this or to some other analysis I don't know but obviously the data are there. And Collins is STILL throwing up blame-the-victim chaff.

Dude, I have to say, this kind of denialist / crank behavior has a certain stench to it. The data are very clear and very consistent. There is a funding disparity.

This is a great time to remind everyone that the last time a major funding disparity came to the attention of the NIH it was the fate of the early career investigators. The NIH invented up the ESI designation, to distinguish it from the well established New Investigator population, and immediately started picking up grants out of the order of review. Establishing special quotas and paylines to redress the disparity. There was no talk of "real causes". There was not talk of strengthening the pipeline with better trainees so that one day, far off, they magically could better compete with the established. Oh no. They just picked up grants. And a LOT of them.

I wonder what it would take to fix the African-American PI disparity...

Ironically, because the pool of black applicants is so small, it wouldn’t take much to eliminate the disparity: Only 23 more R01 applications from black researchers would need to be funded each year to bring them to parity.

Are you KIDDING me? That's it?????

Oh right. I already figured this one out for them. And I didn't even have the real numbers.

In that 175 bin we'd need 3 more African-American PI apps funded to get to 100%. In the next higher (worse) scoring bin (200 score), about 56% of White PI apps were funded. Taking three from this bin and awarding three more AA PI awards in the next better scoring bin would plunge the White PI award probability from 56% to 55.7%. Whoa, belt up cowboy.

Moving down the curve with the same logic, we find in the 200 score bin that there are about 9 AA PI applications needed to put the 200 score bin to 100%. Looking down to the next worse scoring bin (225) and pulling these 9 apps from white PIs we end up changing the award probability for these apps from 22% to ..wait for it..... 20.8%.

Mere handfuls. I had probably overestimated how many black PIs were seeking funding. If this Mervis piece is to be trusted and it would only take 23 pickups across the entire NIH to fix the problem....

I DON'T UNDERSTAND WHAT FRANCIS COLLINS' PROBLEM IS.

Twenty three grants is practically rounding error. This is going to shake out to one or maybe three grants per year for the ICs, depending on size and what not.

Heck, I bet they fund this many grants every year by mistake. It's a big system. You think they don't have a few whoopsies sneak by every now and again? Of course they do.

But god forbid they should pick up 23 measly R01s to fix the funding disparity.

37 responses so far

NIH gets serious about the mouths-at-the-trough. Sortof.

Jun 06 2016 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH, NIH Careerism

The latest Open Mike blogpost from NIH Deputy Director for the OER, Mike Lauer, ventures into analysis of TheRealProblem at last.

The setup, in and of itself, is really good information.

We first looked at all research project grants (RPGs) funded between 2003 and 2015. For each year, we identified unique principal investigators who were named on at least one RPG award in that year. Figure 1 shows that the number of NIH-supported investigators has increased only slightly, and has remained fairly constant at about 27,500 over the past thirteen years.

Burn that one into your brain, people. There are about 27,500 unique PIs funded at any given time and this number has been rock steady for at least thirteen years. Sure, it is crazy-making stuff that they do not go back past the doubling interval to see what is really going on but hey, this is a significant improvement. At last the NIH is grappling with their enterprise by funded-investigators instead of funded-applications. This is a key addition and long, long overdue. I approve.

There are some related analyses from DataHound that lead into these considerations as well. I recommend you go back and read Longitudinal PI Analysis: Distributions, Mind the Gap and especially A longitudinal analysis of NIH R-Funded Investigators: 2006-2013. This latter one estimated a similar number of unique PIs but it also estimated the churn rate, that is, the number in each fiscal year that are new and the number who have left the funded-PI distribution (it was about 5,300 PIs per FY).

Back to Lauer's post for the supplicant information that DataHound couldn't get:

To determine how many unique researchers want to be funded, we identified unique applicants over 5-year windows. We chose to look at a multi-year window for two reasons: most research grants last for more than one year and most applicants submit applications over a period of time measured in years, not just 12 months, that may overlap with their periods of funding, if they are funded. Figure 2 shows our findings for applicants as well as awardees: the number of unique applicants has increased substantially, from about 60,000 investigators who had applied during the period from 1999 to 2003 to slightly less than 90,000 in who had applied during the period from 2011 to 2015.

via https://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2016/05/31/how-many-researchers/

The too-many-mouths problem is illustrated. Simply. Cleanly. We can speculate about various factors until the cows come home but this is IT.

Too Many Mouths At The Trough And Not Enough Slops.

The blogpost then goes on to calculate a Cumulative Investigator Rate which is basically how many PIs get funded over a 5 year interval out of those who wish to be funded. In 2003 it was 43% and this declined to 31% in 2015. This was for RPGs. If you limit to R01 only, the CIR goes from 45% to 34% over this interval of time. For R21s, the CIR was at 20% in 2003 and is down around 11% for 2015. Newsbreak: Funding rates for R21s are terrible, despite what you would imagine should be the case for this mechanism.

Now we get to the hard part. Having reviewed these data the person responsible for the entire Extramural Research enterprise of NIH boots the obvious. Hard. First, he tries to off load the responsibility by citing Kimble et al and Pickett et al. Then he basically endorses their red herring distractions (when it comes to this particular issue).

NIH leadership is currently engaged in efforts to explore which policies or policy options best assure efficient and sustainable funding given the current hypercompetitive environment. These efforts include funding opportunity announcements for R35 awards which focus on programs, rather than highly specific projects; new models for training graduate students and postdoctoral fellows; establishment of an office of workforce diversity;

Right? It's right there in front of you, dude, and you can't even say it as one of a list of possible suggestions.

We need to stop producing so many PhD scientists.

This is the obvious solution. It is the only thing that will have sustained and systematic effect, while retaining some thin vestige of decency towards the people who have already devoted years and decades to the NIH extramural enterprise.

Oh and don't get me too wrong. From a personal perspective, clearly Lauer is not completely idiotic:

and even what we are doing here, namely drawing attention to numbers of unique investigators and applicants.

HAHAHHAHAHAAH. What a bureaucratic weasel. He sees it all right. He does. And he's trying to wink it into the conversation without taking any responsibility whatsoever. I see you, man. I see you. Okay. I'll take up the hard work for you.

We need to stop training so many PhDs. Now. Yesterday in fact. All of us. Stop pretending your high-falutin program gets to keep all their students and those inferior jerks, over there, need to close up shop. Significant reductions are called for.

Personally, I call for a complete moratorium on new PhD admits for 5 years.

Go.

123 responses so far

Your Grant in Review: Investigator Independence

May 27 2016 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

superkash started it:


and amplified it:

there was a bit of chatter and then eventually AListScientist asserted:

First, I addressed Independence of a NIH Grant PI to some extent way back in 2007, reposted in 2009.

I, as well as several other colleagues who review grants, have noticed a seemingly sharp uptick in the number of applications coming in from PIs who are more "transitioning" than "transitioned". PIs whose job titles might be something other than "Assistant Professor" and ones who are still in or around the same laboratory or research group in which they have done a big chunk of postdoctoral work. In extreme cases the PI might still be titled "Postdoc" or have trained in the same place essentially since graduate school!

Readers of this blog might conclude that this trend, which I've been noticing for at least the past 3-4 rounds, delights me. And to the extent that it represents a recognition of the problems with junior scientist's making the career transition to independence this does appear a positive step. To the extent that it opens up artificial barriers blocking the next generation of scientists- great.

The slightly more cynical view expressed by colleagues and, admittedly, myself is that this trend has been motivated by IC Program behavior both in capping per-PI award levels and in promoting grant success for New Investigators. In other words that the well-established PIs with very large research groups are thinking that grants for which they would otherwise be the PI will now be more successful with some convenient patsy long-term postdoc at the helm. The science, however, is just the same old stuff of the established group and PI.

I surmise that the tweeting of @superkash was related to this conundrum. I would suggest to newcomers to the NIH system that these issues are still alive and well and contribute in various ways to grant review outcome. We see very clearly in various grant/career related discussion on twitter, this blog and commentary to various NIH outlets that peer scientists have strong ideas on categories of PI that deserve or don't deserve funding. For example in the recent version on CSR's Peer Review website, comments suggest we should keel the yuge labs, keel the ESIs, keel the riffraff noobs and save the politically disconnected. The point being that peer reviewers come with biases for and against the PI(s) (and to lesser extent the other investigators).

The fact that the Investigator criterion is one of the five biggies (and there is no official suggestion that it is of any lesser importance than Approach, Significance or Innovation) permits (and one might say requires) the reviwers to exercise these biases. It also shows that AListScientist's apparent belief that Investigators are not to be evaluated because the applicant University has certified them is incorrect.

The official CSR Guidance on review of the Investigator criterion is posed as a series of questions:

Are the PD/PIs, collaborators, and other researchers well suited to the project? If Early Stage Investigators or New Investigators, or in the early stages of independent careers, do they have appropriate experience and training? If established, have they demonstrated an ongoing record of accomplishments that have advanced their field(s)? If the project is collaborative or multi-PD/PI, do the investigators have complementary and integrated expertise; are their leadership approach, governance and organizational structure appropriate for the project?

"well suited"
"appropriate experience"
Right there you can see where the independence of the PI might be of interest to the reviewer.

"have they demonstrated an ongoing record of accomplishments"
We what to know what they personally have accomplished. Or caused to have accomplished if you want to natter about PIs not really doing hands on science. The point is, can this PI make the proposed studies happen? Is there evidence that she has done so before? Or is there merely evidence that he has existed as glorified hands in the PIs lab up to this point in time?

"are their leadership approach, governance and organizational structure appropriate for the project?"

Can they lead? Can they boot all the tails hard enough to get this project accomplished? I say that this is an entirely appropriate consideration.

I hope you do as well and I would be interested to hear a counter argument.

I suspect that most of the pushback on this comes from the position of thinking about the Research Assistant Professor who IS good enough. Who HAS operated more or less independently and led projects in the SuperLab.

The question for grant review is, how are we to know? From the record and application in front of us.

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I am unable to leave this part off: If you are a RAP or heading to be one as a mid to late stage postdoc, the exhortation to you is to lay down evidence of your independence as best you are able. Ask Associate Professor peers that you know about what possible steps you can take to enhance the optics of you-as-PI on this.

73 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

Collins announces NRSA salaries will meet Obama's overtime rule

In a piece on HuffPo, NIH Director Francis Collins announces the NIH response to Obama's new rules on overtime for salaried employees. Collins:

Under the new rule, which was informed by 270,000 public comments, the threshold will be increased to $47,476 effective December 1, 2016. ....In response to the proposed FLSA revisions, NIH will increase the awards for postdoctoral NRSA recipients to levels above the threshold.

"levels". Meaning, presumably the entire scale will start around $47.5K and move upward with years of postdoctoral experience, as the NRSA scale usually does.

What about the larger population of postdocs that are paid from non-NRSA funds, Dr. Collins?

..we recognize that research institutions that employ postdocs will need to readjust the salaries they pay to postdocs that are supported through other means, including other types of NIH research grants. While supporting the increased salaries will no doubt present financial challenges to NIH and the rest of the U.S. biomedical research enterprise, we plan to work closely with leaders in the postdoc and research communities to find creative solutions to ensure a smooth transition.

Imprecise and highly disappointing when it comes to the postdocs supported on "other types of NIH research grants". This would have been a great opportunity to state that the NIH expects any postdocs paid from RPGs to be on the NRSA scale, wouldn't it? Most postdocs are supported on NIH grants. This Rock Talk post shows in FY2009 something like 11,000 basic biomed postdocs on Federal research grants and only 1,000 on Federal fellowships and training grants (and ~7,800 on nonFederal support). So Francis Collins is talking the happy talk about 10% of the postdocs who work for him and throwing 90% into the storm.

The OER head, Michael Lauer, has a few more interesting points on the Open Mike blog.

Institutions that employ postdocs through non-NRSA support can choose how to follow the new rule. They may choose to carefully track their postdocs’ hours and pay overtime. Or, keeping with the fact that biomedical research – as in many professional and scientific careers – does not fit into neatly defined hourly shifts, institutions can choose to raise salaries to the new FLSA salary threshold or above it, if they do not yet pay postdocs at or above that level.

This would imply that Dr. Collins' supposed plan to "work closely with" and "ensure a smooth transition" is more realistically interpreted as "hey, good luck with the new Obama regs, dudes".

Before we get at it in the comments, a few lead off points from me:

The current NRSA scale pays 0 year postdocs $43,692 so in December the brand new postdoc will see a $4,000 raise, roughly. There is currently something on the order of $1,800 increases for each successive year of experience, this estimate is close enough for discussion purposes. If this yearly raise interval is maintained we can expect to see that same $4,000 pay rise applied to every salary level. Remember to apply your local benefits rate for the cost to a grant, if you are paying your postdocs at NRSA scale from RPG funds. Could turn this into a $5,000-$6,000 cost to the grant.

Postdocs getting paid more is great. Everyone in science should be paid more but there is something specific here. Postdocs frequently work more than 40 h per week for their salaried positions. This is right down the middle of the intent of Obama's change for the overtime rules. He is right on this. Period.

With that said, there is a very real disconnect here between the need to pay postdocs more and the business model which funds them. As mentioned above, 90% of Federally funded postdocs are supported by research grants, and 10% on fellowships or traineeships. (A population almost 8 times as large as the latter are supported by nonFederal funds- the percentage of these working on Federal research projects is likely to be substantial.) A grant may have one or two postdocs on it so adding another $5,000-$10,000 per year isn't trivial. Especially since the research grant budgets are constrained in a number of ways.

First, in time. We propose grants in a maximum of 5 year intervals but often the budget is designed one or two years prior to funding. These grant budgets are not supplemented in the middle of a competitively-awarded interval just because NRSA salary levels are increased. Given the way NRSA rises have been coming down randomly over the years, it is already the case that budgets are stretched. Despite what people seem to think (including at NIH), we PIs do not pad the heck out of our proposed research budgets. We can't. Our peers would recognize it on review and ding us accordingly.

Second, grants are constrained by the modular budgeting process which limits direct costs to $250,000 per year. This a soft and nebulous limit which depends on the culture of grant design, review and award. Formally speaking, one can choose a traditional budget process at any time if one needs to request funds in excess of $250,000 per year. Practically speaking, a lot of people choose to use the modular budget process. For reasons. The purchasing power has been declining for 15 years and there is no sign of a change in the expectations for per-grant scientific output.

Third, grant budgets are often limited by reductions to the requested budget that are imposed by the NIH. This can be levied upon original funding of the award or upon the award of each of the annual non-competing intervals of funding. These can often range to 10%, for argument's sake let's keep that $25,000 figure in mind when assessing the impact of such a reduction on paying a salary for a staff member, such as a postdoc. Point being, it's a big fraction of a salary. This new postdoc policy isn't going to result in fewer cuts or shallower cuts. Believe me.

I will be watching the way that local Universities choose to deal with the new policy with curiosity. I think we all see that trying to limit postdocs to 40 h a week of work so as to avoid raising the base salary is a ridiculous plan*. The other competitive motivations will continue to drive some postdocs to work more. This will put Universities (and PIs) in the extremely distasteful position of creating this elaborate fiction about working hours.

One potential upside for the good PI, who is already maintaining postdocs at NRSA levels even when funded from the RPG, is that it will force the bad PIs into line. This should narrow the competitive disadvantage that comes with trying to treat your postdocs well.

Final point. This will take away jobs. Fewer postdocs will be hired. Whether this is good or bad....well, opinions vary. But the math is unmistakable.

[UPDATE: The modular budget grant limit of $250,000 was established for R01s in FY2000 and the NRSA 0 year postdoc salary in FY2000 was $26,916. This is 10.8% of the direct costs of a full modular R01. In FY2017 when this new NRSA adjustment, the 0 year postdoc will be 19% of the direct costs of a full modular R01. In short the postdoc is now 76% more expensive than the postdoc was in FY2000.]
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*It is, however, a failed opportunity to attempt to normalize academic science's working conditions. I see no reason we shouldn't take a stab at enforcing a 40 h work week in academic science, personally. Particularly for the grad student and post-doc labor force who are realistically not very different from the technicians who do, btw, enjoy most labor protections.

111 responses so far

The proper number of Specific Aims for your NIH Grant

May 10 2016 Published by under NIH funding

The Aims shall be Three, and Three shall be the number of Aims.

Four shalt there not be, nor Two except as they precede the Third Aim.

Five is right out.

20 responses so far

Reviewing SABV grant applications for the NIH

May 09 2016 Published by under NIH, NIH funding, Sex Differences

The first study section rounds that are obliged to grapple with the new SABV policy are upon us.
SROs are instructing panels and issuing grant assignments to reviewers.

If you are reviewing, what are your thoughts?

Me, I see more of the entirely predictable ahead- people ignoring it (or accepting thin excuses for not studying both sexes, in reality) or brandishing it as a cudgel in highly variable fashion. I'm cynical, perhaps unduly so, eh?

The opportunity to beat a panel into better agreement will come far too late for most applications. There is no way that guilt over consistency will drag the triaged apps up for discussion. 

I still seek consistency. In my own reviewing and in any panels I serve. I think this a virtue to strive for.

And I think that consideration and discussion of the approach to tricky review issues is the way to advance toward that goal. 

I also think that when you accept a reviewer position, you are agreeing to give the NIH what it is requesting, to the best of your ability. If you fight against the SABV push, you are doing it very wrong, IMO.

So....what do you think? How are you approaching the SABV mandate? Now that you have a few examples of how applicants have dealt with it, have you learned anything useful for us to consider?

--
Open Mike blog on SABV mandate

11 responses so far

NIH policy on SABV and realistic review

May 06 2016 Published by under NIH, NIH funding

My prediction is that the grants that will do best in the next few rounds are those that successfully excuse themselves from including both male and female subjects. 

The grants that try to respond to the spirit of the new NIH SABV initiative will get comparatively hammered in review. 

28 responses so far

Entitled to a Grant: What is fair?

May 02 2016 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

I am genuinely curious as to how you people see this. Is there any particular difference between people arguing that that acquisition of the first major grant award should be protected versus multiple award and the people arguing that acquisition of the first and third concurrent awards should be on an equal footing?

If we agree that NIH (or NSF or CIHR or whatever) grants are competitively awarded, it follows that nobody is actually entitled to a grant. And as far as I am aware, all major funding agencies operate in a way that states and demonstrates the truth of this statement.

Specifically in the NIH system, it is possible for the NIH officials to choose not to fund a grant proposal that gets the best possible score and glowing reviews during peer review. Heck, this could happen repeatedly for approximately the same project and the NIH could still choose not to fund it.

Nobody is entitled to a grant from the NIH. Nobody.

It is also the case that the NIH works very hard to ensure a certain amount of equal representation in their awarded grants. By geography (State and Congressional district), by PI characteristics of sex and prior NIH PIness, by topic domain (see the 28 ICs) or subdomain (see Division, Branches of the ICs. also RFAs), etc.

Does a lean to prioritize the award of a grant to those with no other major NIH support (and we're not just talking the newcomers- plenty of well-experienced folks are getting special treatment because they have run out of other NIH grant support) have a justification?

Does the following graph, posted by Sally Rockey, the previous head of Extramural Research at the NIH make a difference?

This shows the percentage of all PIs in the NIH system for Fiscal Years 1986, 1998, 2004 (end of doubling) and 2009 who serve as PI on 1-8 Research Project Grants. In the latest data, 72.3% had only one R01 and 93% had 1 or 2 concurrent RPGs. There were 5.4% of the PIs that held 3 grants and 1.2% that held 4 grants. I just don't see where shifting the 7% of 3+ concurrent awards into the 1-2 grant population is going to budge the needle on the perceived grant chances of those without any major NIH award. Yes, obviously there will be some folks funded who would otherwise not have been. Obviously. But if this is put through in a systematic way*, the first thing the current 3+ grant holders are going to do is stop putting in modular grants and max out their allowable 2 at $499,999 direct costs. Maybe some will even get Program permission to breach the $500,000 DC / y threshold. So there won't be a direct shift of 7% of grants back into the 1-2 grant PI population.

There has been a small trend for PIs holding more grants concurrently from 1986 to the late naughties but this is undoubtedly down to the decreasing purchasing power of the modular-budget grant.

BRDPI.
I"ve taken their table of yearly adjustments and used those to calculate the increase necessary to keep pace with inflation (black bars) and the decrement in purchasing power (red bars). The starting point was the 2001 fiscal year (and the BRDPI spreadsheet is older so the 2011 BRDPI adjustment is predicted, rather than actual). As you can see, a full modular $250,000 year in 2011 has 69% of the purchasing power of that same award in 2001.

Without that factor, I'd say the relative proportions of PIs holding 1, 2, 3 etc grants would be even more similar across time than it already is.

So I come back to my original question. What is fair? What policies should the NIH or any broad governmental funding body adopt when it comes to distributing the grant wealth across laboratories? On what basis should they do this?

Fairness? Diversity of grant effort? PR/optics?

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*and let us face it, it is hugely unlikely that the entire NIH will put through a 2-grant cap without any exceptions. Even with considerable force and authority behind it, any such initiative is likely to be only partially successful in preventing 3+ grant PIs.

DISCLAIMER: As always, I am an interested party in these discussions. My lab's grant fortunes are affected by broad sweeping policies that the NIH might choose to adopt or fail to adopt. You should always read my comments about the NIH grant game with this in mind.

106 responses so far

Open Grantsmanship

Apr 27 2016 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism

The Ramirez Group is practicing open grantsmanship by posting "R01 Style" documents on a website. This is certainly a courageous move and one that is unusual for scientists. It is not so long ago that mid-to-senior level Principal Investigator types were absolutely dismayed to learn that CRISP, the forerunner to RePORTER, would hand over their funded grants' abstract to anyone who wished to see it.

There are a number of interesting things here to consider. On the face of it, this responds to a plea that I've heard now and again for real actual sample grant materials. Those who are less well-surrounded by grant-writing types can obviously benefit from seeing how the rather dry instructions from NIH translate into actual working documents. Good stuff.

As we move through certain changes put in place by the NIH, even the well experienced folks can benefit from seeing how one person chooses to deal with the Authentication of Resources requirement or some such. Budgeting may be helpful for others. Ditto the Vertebrate Animals section.

There is the chance that this will work as Open Pre-Submission Peer Review for the Ramirez group as well. For example, I might observe that referring to Santa Cruz as the authoritative proof of authentic antibodies may not have the desired effect in all reviewers. This might then allow them to take a different approach to this section of the grant, avoiding the dangers of a reviewer that "heard SC antibodies are crap".

But there are also drawbacks to this type of Open Science. In this case I might note that posting a Vertebrate Animals statement (or certain types of research protocol description) is just begging the AR wackaloons to make your life hell.

But there is another issue here that I think the Readers of this blog might want to dig into.

Priority claiming.

As I am wont to observe, the chances are high in the empirical sciences that if you have a good idea, someone else has had it as well. And if the ideas are good enough to shape into a grant proposal, someone else might think these thoughts too. And if the resulting application is a plan that will be competitive, well, it will have been shaped into a certain format space by the acquired wisdom that is poured into a grant proposal. So again, you are likely to have company.

Finally, we all know that the current NIH game means that each PI is submitting a LOT of proposals for research to the NIH.

All of this means that it is likely that if you have proposed a 5 year plan of research to the NIH someone else has already, or will soon, propose something that is a lot like it.

This is known.

It is also known that your chances of bringing your ideas to fruition (published papers) are a lot higher if you have grant support than if you do not. The other way to say this is that if you do not happen to get funded for this grant application, the chances that someone else will publish papers related to your shared ideas is higher.

In the broader sense this means that if you do not get the grant, the record will be less likely to credit you for having those ideas and brilliant insights that were key to the proposal.

So what to do? Well, you could always write Medical Hypotheses and review papers, sure. But these can be imprecise. They describe general hypotheses and predictions but....that's about all.

It would be of more credit to you to lay out the way that you would actually test those hypotheses, is it not? In all of the brilliant experimental design elegance, key controls and fancy scientific approaches that are respected after the fact as amazing work. Maybe even with a little bit of preliminary evidence that you are on the right track, even if that evidence is far too limited to ever be published.

Enter the Open Grantsmanship ploy.

It is genius.

For two reasons.

First, of course, is pure priority claiming. If someone else gets "your" grant and publishes papers, you get to go around whining that you had the idea first. Sure, many people do this but you will have evidence.

Second, there is the subtle attempt to poison the waters for those other competitors' applications. If you can get enough people in your subfield reading your Open Grant proposals then just maaaaaybe someone on a grant panel will remember this. And when a competing proposal is under review just maaaaaaybe they will say "hey, didn't Ramirez Group propose this? maybe it isn't so unique.". Or maybe they will be predisposed to see that your approach is better and downgrade the proposal that is actually under review* accordingly. Perhaps your thin skin of preliminary data will be helpful in making that other proposal look bad. Etc.

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*oh, it happens. I have had review comments on my proposals that seemed weird until I became aware of other grant proposals that I know for certain sure couldn't have been in the same round of review. It becomes clear in some cases that "why didn't you do things this way" comments are because that other proposal did indeed do things that way.

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