Archive for the 'NIH' category

The new ASBMB President has words for the science riff-raff

Sep 29 2014 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH, NIH Careerism

Now honestly, this thing reads like a spoof or some top-quality trolling akin to my Boomer bashing. Albeit without a shred of actual data on which it is based (unlike my Boomer bashing).

However, you will be interested to hear the new ASBMB President's analysis of the real problem in science today.

Two or three decades ago, this system was effective, yet I now judge it to be flawed. What went wrong? I submit that the demise of the review process can be attributed to two changes. First, the quality of scientists participating in CSR study sections two to three decades ago was, on average, superior to the quality of study section participants today. Second, study sections have become highly specialized such that they narrowly define a differentiated club of biomedical research.

Hrm, hrm, I submit to you, hrm hrm, that I and my fellow Great Men of Science used to get our grants funded every time we submitted them. Now things have changed! Clearly there is a problem that is simple to diagnose. Read on.

Among all problems leading to devolution of CSR study sections, the elephantine expansion of the biomedical research complex tops the list. Biomedical research in the 1960s and 1970s was a spartan game.

Wait, what? Does this guy know it is 2014? That would make it three to four decades ago...but who is counting.

First, the average scientist today is not of the quality of our predecessors; it’s a bit analogous to the so-called “greatest generation” of men and women of the United States who fought off fascism in World War II compared with their baby boomer children. Biomedical research is a huge enterprise now; it attracts riff-raff who never would have survived as scientists in the 1960s and 1970s. There is no doubt that highly capable scientists currently participate in the grant-review process. Likewise, unfortunately, study sections are undoubtedly contaminated by riff-raff.

Hmmmm. Okay so let me just think about this. The greatest change in the population of Professor-scientists since the 1070s is....hmmm. Women? Persons underrepresented in the sciences (and academia)? Those from a less-well-off background? All of the bloody above?

Good LORD what a snob.

A second cause of the demise in study section quality can be attributed to the fact that it is a thankless task balanced by few benefits. Three to four decades ago, it was a feather in one’s cap to be appointed to an NIH study section. When I joined the molecular cytology study section in the 1980s, Bruce Alberts was chairman, and the committee included the likes of Tom Pollard and all kinds of superb scientists. To spend three meetings per year with an esteemed group of scientists was both inspirational to me as a young scientist and of tangible value to my maturation as a researcher.

Less than one decade ago I went on study section and it was considered by all of my local peers (and members of my field external to my University) to be quite a feather in my cap. I also had the opportunity to spend three meetings a year with an esteemed group of scientists in my field. It was inspirational to me and of tangible value to my maturation as a scientist.

Wow. It is almost like nothing has changed.

Finally, as study sections have become ever more dedicated to thin slices of the biomedical landscape, participants are exposed to less and less science outside of the narrowly defined disciplines covered by their individual study sections. As such, one rarely learns much of anything new by participating in an NIH study section meeting.

I can't speak to every study section but I did have the good fortune to be appointed to one with a broad mission. Broad across IC assigned for possible funding, broad in study subject population / models and broad in scientific questions being asked. From my perspective, of course. Not sure how Dr. McKnight would see it but I'm willing to argue the merits of that study section on the stats.

let’s consider what might be expected from a grant review committee composed largely of second-tier scientists with limited knowledge of the breadth of biology and medicine. I propose that these committees are equally good at ensuring that the worst and best applications never get funded. They can see a terrible grant wherein the science is flawed and the investigator has no track record of achievement. These committees are, unfortunately, equally good at spotting and excluding the most creative proposals – the grant applications coming from inspired scientists whose research is damned because it is several steps ahead of the curve and damned because it comes from an applicant not blessed with club membership.

as they say on Wikipedia, [citation needed].

Now, to the second of two evils: the evolution of scientific clubs. Back when we used to “walk miles to school,” the scientific meetings we attended had some level of breadth.

Ok. If this is an intentional troll, this is the tell right here. Right? Right?

Fast-forward 30 years, and what do we now have? The typical modern biomedical meeting spends a week on a ridiculously thin slice of biology. There are entire meetings devoted to the hypoxic response pathway, sirtuin proteins, P53, mTor or NFkB. If a scientist studies some aspect of any of these domains, he or she absolutely has to attend these mindless meetings where, at most, some miniscule increment of advancement is all to be learned.

Is it possible that science really has gotten more complex so that low hanging fruit cannot be scooped up by a generalist, gentleman dilettante anymore? I mean, it couldn't be that, could it?

Damn the fool who does not attend these meetings: The consequence is failure to maintain club membership. And why is club membership of such vital importance? Yes, precisely, there is nearly a one-to-one correspondence between these clubs and CSR study sections.

Actually, the study section I spent the most time reviewing for contained LOTS of people that tend to attend meetings that I do not attend. I met many of them for the first time on study section. So the "one-to-one correspondence" simply doesn't square with my experience. Oh, and btw, I have ad-hoc'd on panels that are related but have a more defined focus than the one I served as an appointed member. Guess what? Also a dearth of "one-to-one correspondence" with any particular scientific meetings I or they attend.

So, to wrap up, this guy has zero data for his assertions, they come from the expected direction of unearned privilege of those who got their starts in the 1960s and early 1970s and his claims about modern study section are at considerable odds with my own experiences.

I will be fascinated to see if my readers share his view on the modern study section experience.

ETA: A check of Dr. McKnight's funded grants from the NIH suggests he is no stranger to the Special Emphasis Panel.

UPDATE 10/08/14: A Nature News piece notes that McKnight 'was “saddened” by suggestions that he has any gripe with young researchers or with diversity. He meant to criticize review committees as a whole, not just young scientists, he added.'
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h/t: Some twitter troll who shall not be identified unless s/he so choses.

99 responses so far

Question of the Day

Sep 29 2014 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

The NIH funds grants at "foreign applicant institutions", meaning a University in another country.

In these times should we be continuing this practice or is scientific grant protectionism a good idea?

30 responses so far

Ask the DM Blog Braintrust: Advice on First Study Section?

Sep 24 2014 Published by under Grant Review, NIH Careerism

A query came it that is best answered by the commentariat before I start stamping around scaring the fish.

I'm a "newbie" heading to study section as an ESR quite soon...
I'd really, really appreciated it if you could do a post on

a) your advice on what to expect and how to ... not put my foot in my mouth

b) what in an ideal world you'd like newbies to achieve as SS members

Thoughts?

32 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

On Paying Postdocs Whatever for Whatevs

Sep 19 2014 Published by under NIH, Postdoctoral Training, Postgraduate Training

There was a discussion on Twitter regarding postdoctoral compensation that veered off into the assertion that it is "easy" for PIs to give a 20% bump to their postdocs if they wanted to. It eventually incorporated some allegation that particular subspecialties (like computer/informatics jockeys) required a bonus bit of pay above normal for postdocs. Eventually it became clear to me that there are both some postdocs and indeed junior faculty that basically think they are able to just pay their postdocs whatever they want if they happen to have sufficient grant or other money to do so.

In one case I tried gently to raise the spectre of unequal treatment, bias and discrimination in wage compensation. I do this not just because of the general observation that in far too many workplaces women just happen to get paid less. I do this also because I have been around training environments where the direct-experience pain of unequal postdoc pay ("because DewdDoc has a family to support and you, WomanDawk do not") was made clear to me. While I have not heard of anybody pulling that crap in my current department...let's just say I'm not the trusting type.

I have tried to adhere to postdoctoral compensation policies that were external to my own (inevitably biased) self in my actions as a lab head. In brief, I have stuck to the NRSA guidelines. At one point that meant that my postdocs were being paid better than the mean in my department. I think we are now all doing better but my sense is that my institution only requires the starting pay to be at NRSA minimum and doesn't enforce the yearly steps.

I tried the subtle way but it is not, apparently, working.

PhysioProf, growing tired of the shenanigans got shouty.

Hint to all of you: THERE ARE FUCKEN FEDERAL COST PRINCIPLES THAT YOU ARE OBLIGATED TO FOLLOW BY FEDERAL LAWS AND REGULATIONS. THESE PRINCIPLES DETERMINE THE ANSWER TO DOUCHEMONKEY'S QUESTION.

Head on over to the NIH Grants Policy Statement where it talks about Salaries. Emphasis added for the slower readers.

Allowable. Compensation for personal services covers all amounts, including fringe benefits, paid currently or accrued by the organization for employee services rendered to the grant-supported project. Compensation costs are allowable to the extent that they are reasonable, conform to the established policy of the organization consistently applied regardless of the source of funds, and reasonably reflect the percentage of time actually devoted to the NIH-funded project.

and on "bonuses", a mechanism used to supplement postdocs that I have heard of.

Allowable as part of a total compensation package, provided such payments are reasonable and are made according to a formally established policy of the grantee that is consistently applied regardless of the source of funds.

The grants policy has this to say about Fraud and Waste:

Examples of fraud, waste, and abuse that should be reported include, but are not limited to, embezzlement, misuse, or misappropriation of grant funds or property, and false statements, whether by organizations or individuals. Other examples include theft of grant funds for personal use; using funds for non-grant-related purposes; theft of federally owned property or property acquired or leased under a grant; charging the Federal government for the services of “ghost” individuals; charging inflated building rental fees for a building owned by the grantee; submitting false financial reports; and submitting false financial data in bids submitted to the grantee (for eventual payment under the grant).

The Federal government may pursue administrative, civil, or criminal action under a variety of statutes relating to fraud and making false statement or claims.

It doesn't precisely say that overpaying staff outside of what is "reasonable" and that "conform to the established policy of the organization" is the same as "theft for personal use" and they talk about "inflated...fees" only in the context of building rental. But c'mon.

It doesn't take a neurobrainrocketscientistsurgeon to deduce that an individual NIH-grant-holding PI has some obligation to pay their staff only what is consistent with institutional policies external to their own personal preferences.

I take no position whatever on what institutional postdoc compensation policies should be in various locations in this fair land. Ok, that's a lie, I think NRSA scale should be a minimum. But if there need to be local adjustments, no problem. If there needs to be institutional recognition that some job types (like a informatics / computational biology postdoc) require a consistent bonus to compete with the local killer-app startup, fine.

But it is VERY clear to me that individual PIs do not just get to willy-nilly decide what to pay their trainees without any reference to what is "reasonable" and what has been made "established policy of the organization".

65 responses so far

NIH Grant Strategy: Just keep the ball in play

Sep 16 2014 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism

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

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

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

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

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

There is one thing you can do, Dear Reader.

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

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

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

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

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

16 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

NPR on the NIH Grant situation

Sep 10 2014 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding, Public Health

In the event that you missed it, NPR has been running stories on the current situation with NIH-funded biomedical research in the US. These seem to be mostly the work of Richard Harris, so many thanks to him for telling these stories to the public. You will note that these are not issues new to this readership for the most part. The themes are familiar and, perhaps necessarily, latch onto one position and therefore lack breadth and dimension. Those familiar with my views on "the real problem" with respect to NIH funding will see many things I object to in terms of truthy sounding assertions that don't hold water on examination. Still, I am positively delighted that this extensive series is being brought to the NPR audience.

Enjoy.

When Scientists Give Up

"When I was a very young scientist, I told myself I would only work on the hardest questions because those were the ones that were worth working on," he says. "And it has been to my advantage and my detriment."

Over the years, he has written a blizzard of grant proposals, but he couldn't convince his peers that his edgy ideas were worth taking a risk on. So, as the last of his funding dried up, he quit his academic job.

"I shouldn't be a grocer right now," he says with a note of anger in his voice. "I should be training students. I should be doing deeper research. And I can't. I don't have an outlet for it."

U.S. Science Suffering From Booms And Busts In Funding

"If I don't get another NIH grant, say, within the next year, then I will have to let some people go in my lab. And that's a fact," Waterland says. "And there could be a point at which I'm not able to keep a lab."

He notes that the hallway in his laboratory's building is starting to feel like a ghost town as funding for his colleagues dries up. He misses the energy of that lost camaraderie.

"The only people who can survive in this environment are people who are absolutely passionate about what they're doing and have the self-confidence and competitiveness to just go back again and again and just persistently apply for funding," Waterland says.He has applied for eight grants and has been rejected time and again. He's still hoping that his grant for the obesity research will get renewed — next year.

Built In Better Times, University Labs Now Lack Research Funding

PAULA STEPHAN: In many ways, the research university that's evolved today is much like a shopping mall.

HARRIS: She says think of universities as mall owners and individual scientists as the shopkeepers. Scientists get research grants and then pay rent to the universities out of that money. When grant funding doubled between 1998 and 2003, construction cranes went up all over the country to build more lab space.

STEPHAN: Universities were exuberant. They thought that they could keep running this kind of scheme - where the NIH budget would keep going up, and they could keep hiring more people.

HARRIS: But that didn't happen. After the NIH budget doubled, it stagnated. In fact it's declined more than 20 percent when you take inflation into account.

STEPHAN: We greatly overbuilt the shopping malls.

By The Numbers: Search NIH Grant Data By Institution (support site for the pieces by Richard Harris)

113 responses so far

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