Archive for the 'NIH' category

Thing I learned on Twitter

Jan 18 2017 Published by under Grant Review, NIH

Valid #NIHgrant review is determined only by the aspects of the application that I excel at and any other influence is unfair bias.

2 responses so far

Ask DrugMonkey: Should I go over my NIH Program Officer's head?

Jan 12 2017 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, NIH, NIH Careerism

I get this question from grant applicants now and again so I thought maybe it was time to answer it on the blog. The latest version was from the Twitts:

Ok, first of all "escalate" is the wrong way to think about it. So don't do that. But you should absolutely explore the opinions and input of other Program Officers if you are unhappy with the responses (or lack thereof) that you are getting from your assigned PO.

As a brief reminder, many if not most of the NIH IC's have their POs arranged in a hierarchical structure. The smallest unit is typically a Branch, inhabited by ~2-5 POs, one of whom is the Branch Chief. The grant applications assigned to those POs will all share certain scientific properties, depending on how the Branch is designed. The individual POs in the Branch may have primary distinct roles and expertises in terms of their portfolios but there will be substantial overlap. The Branch Chief is responsible for all of the grants and applications in her Branch, obviously. These are small groups of people so, also obviously, they are closely interacting colleagues. They talk to each other a LOT about the business of the Branch. This is one practical reason you don't want to think about "escalating" and you want to approach matters carefully. The whole Branch may actually share your assigned PO's low opinion of your work. The Chief may be totally buddies with your assigned PO and not really appreciate you screaming about how she or he is incompetent, biased and shouldn't be working for the NIH at all.

Branches are collected into Divisions. I'm a little less certain about the universality of how ICs are organized on this but sometimes the Division director also functions, in essence, as a Branch Chief. She just also has the responsibility for overseeing the entire Division of related Branches.

Still with me? Take a stroll on the Organization page of your favorite IC to see what I mean if this is confusing.

Division directors are allowed to talk to God, aka the IC Director. What I mean by this is that when it comes to the hammer and tongs discussion of what is to be funded, what can possibly be picked up with exception funding, etc, it is the Division director level that is making the case. To all the other Division Directors and to the IC Director. I think they are the ones called upon in Council meetings, generally, if a specific question arises.

The point here is that the Division Director needs to know your applications too. They have a direct chain-of-command responsibility for them. And ultimately they have a responsibility for the performance of the entire Division portfolio of funded grants. They are involved.

Another thing to remember. POs get promoted up the ranks. The Branch Chief of today might be the Division Director of tomorrow. Your PO may become Branch Chief. Also, there can be some shuffling of individual POs across Branches (and even ICs as it happens).

This is why I continue to bang on about how it is in your best interest to meet POs, many of them, and to continue your relationship with them when opportunities arise (annual scientific meetings, for example).

So, back to the question. This usually arises because the applicant feels like their assigned PO is just not interested in their work. The PO may never return their calls. The PO may actively criticize their Specific Aims and tell them not to apply. The PO may be giving all sorts of unhelpful advice or just sticks to the mantra (I advise you to revise and resubmit). The PO may be refusing to push for a pickup for a grey zone score.

An obvious thing to do is to appeal. To try to get someone else.

This is a reasonably good idea. You just need to approach it judiciously. POs can be biased or they can just not "get" your work or proposal. They may have applications on their list that are higher priority to them. They may still be bitter about something that happened with your grad student advisor*!

If your PO is not your Branch Chief, that is probably your first stop. As I say above, it is possible that she knows all about your situation but perhaps she does not. So give it a try. It is also not impossible that she knows all about the limitations of PO X under her Branch but can only really act when someone complains.

When you take it up the chain, I always think the best approach is to be in a stance of seeking advice, rather than complaining about your rights.

"I don't understand...there is a lack of [feedback, enthusiasm, explanation]...perhaps my applications are being assigned to the wrong PO, would another one be better?"

That sort of thing. You can take this same approach with the Division Director. If you do this, however, you need to express doubt that the original Branch is the right one and find some key words in the description of another Branch to suggest perhaps that is a better fit.

Ultimately, sure, you can take this straight to the IC Director. Even the NIH Director, I suppose.

Your ability to get them to take your call or pay any attention to your concerns whatever will depend on your status in the world. I've definitely had senior colleagues who are in continual contact with IC directors and would for sure talk to them directly about grant matters. Things as specific as picking up a near-miss grant application for funding. If you happen to know an IC director well, sure, go for it when the situation is really critical. Other people are sure as heck doing it so why shouldn't you?

I'll close by reiterating that you need to be judicious about this. Keep entitled demanding far away from your thoughts. Keep angry complains about the bias and incompetence of the PO that is frustrating you out of your mind. Take the position of seeking information. Strike an attitude of not understanding why your experience is different from the advice you are getting to contact POs.


17 responses so far

Today's ponder

Dec 19 2016 Published by under NIH Careerism, Tribe of Science

Today's version of this was me pointing out that if you are on a "9 month appointment" of Salary X but every workplace expectation is that you will be doing University related work for 12 months, that in fact Salary X is your base 12-mo salary. The "9 month" thing is a dodge the Universities pull to turn your job into a contingency plan like selling cars.

If you sell a grant idea, you get to bonus your Salary X to the tune of those three extra summer months.

I'm sure there are a lot of fancy accounting reasons Universities pull this. There is certainly a whiff of distasteful "sing for your supper" in the underlying expectation that such Profs must acquire extramural funding to pay for themselves that I'm sure is being whisked aside with this dodge.

What I don't understand is why so many of the victims of such schemes are so amped to defend them and call me terrible for pointing this out.

Look, if there is genuinely a situation where your Professor career is a-okay from start to finish if you only work 9 months out of the year than sure. I buy it. This person's 9-month salary is plausibly a 9-month salary. I'm going to raise an eyebrow if they don't cut off your card key access and VPN over the summer but....okay, fine.

But, the second you have a situation where you are expected to work those extra three months on University related business in order to retain your job or to advance normally (see: tenure) then this is a base salary for a 12-month job.

33 responses so far

The Pirate Stronghold Strategy

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

Being a pirate probably really sucked.

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

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

Especially when you are constantly on the run?

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

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

24 responses so far

Here's the deal

Dec 14 2016 Published by under Careerism, NIH Careerism

When a lever of power unexpectedly extends into your operant chamber, press it.

That is what they have done to get to where they are. Constantly.

I know it irritates you that the world works this way. It irritates me too. This irritation changes nothing.

Take the opportunity. If needs be, remind yourself of all those times the system screwed you over. Let this make up for that.

Press the damn lever.

14 responses so far

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

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


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

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

12 responses so far

Overtime rules

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

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

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

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

*activist judge

56 responses so far

Foreign Applicant Institution NIH Grants

Nov 21 2016 Published by under NIH, NIH funding

The NIH allows non-US Universities and other institutions to apply for NIH grants. I don't pay much attention to this issue so I don't know how many.
What I am curious about is whether the PIs who review have noticed anything about these applications. How are they received in study sections you have attended? Is there a high bar for the unique environment or capabilities? 
I believe I was on study section during a transition where the foreign applications were essentially treated like domestic apps to where there was intense skepticism. This was around the mid-naughties, approximately a decade ago. 
I'm curious what you folks are seeing. 

26 responses so far

Grant Supplements and Diversity Efforts

The NIH announced an "encouragement" for NIMH BRAINI PIs to apply for the availability of Research Supplements to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research (Admin Supp).

Administrative supplements for those who are unaware, are extra amounts of money awarded to an existing NIH grant. These are not reviewed by peer reviewers in a competitive manner. The decision lies entirely with Program Staff*. The Diversity supplement program in my experience and understanding amounts to a fellowship- i.e., mostly just salary support - for a qualifying trainee. (Blog note: Federal rules on underrepresentation apply....this thread will not be a place to argue about who is properly considered an underrepresented individual, btw.) The BRANI-directed the encouragement lays out the intent:

The NIH diversity supplement program offers an opportunity for existing BRAIN awardees to request additional funds to train and mentor the next generation of researchers from underrepresented groups who will contribute to advancing the goals of the BRAIN Initiative. Program Directors/Principal Investigators (PDs/PIs) of active BRAIN Initiative research program grants are thus encouraged to identify individuals from groups nationally underrepresented to support and mentor under the auspices of the administrative supplement program to promote diversity. Individuals from the identified groups are eligible throughout the continuum from high school to the faculty level. The activities proposed in the supplement application must fall within the scope of the parent grant, and both advance the objectives of the parent grant and support the research training and professional development of the supplement candidate. BRAIN Initiative PDs/PIs are strongly encouraged to incorporate research education activities that will help prepare the supplement candidate to conduct rigorous research relevant to the goals of the BRAIN Initiative

I'll let you read PA-16-288 for the details but we're going to talk generally about the Administrative Supplement process so it is worth reprinting this bit:

Administrative supplement, the funding mechanism being used to support this program, can be used to cover cost increases that are associated with achieving certain new research objectives, as long as the research objectives are within the original scope of the peer reviewed and approved project, or the cost increases are for unanticipated expenses within the original scope of the project. Any cost increases need to result from making modifications to the project that would increase or preserve the overall impact of the project consistent with its originally approved objectives and purposes.

Administrative supplements come in at least three varieties, in my limited experience. [N.b. You can troll RePORTER for supplements using "S1" or "S2" in the right hand field for the Project Number / Activity Code search limiter. Unfortunately I don't think you get much info on what the supplement itself is for.] The support for underrepresented trainees is but one category. There are also topic-directed FOAs that are issued now and again because a given I or C wishes to quickly spin up research on some topic or other. Sex differences. Emerging health threats. Etc. Finally, there are those one might categorize within the "unanticipated expenses" and "increase or preserve the overall impact of the project" clauses in the block I've quoted above.

I first became aware of the Administrative Supplement in this last context. I was OUTRAGED, let me tell you. It seemed to be a way by which the well-connected and highly-established use their pet POs to enrich their programs beyond what they already had via competition. Some certain big labs seemed to be constantly supplemented on one award or other. Me, I sure had "unanticipated expenses" when I was just getting started. I had plenty of things that I could have used a few extra modules of cash to pay for to enhance the impact of my projects. I did not have any POs looking to hand me any supplements unasked and when I hinted very strongly** about my woes there was no help to be had***. I did not like administrative supplements as practiced one bit. Nevertheless, I was young and still believed in the process. I believed that I needn't pursue the supplement avenue too hard because I was going to survive into the mid career stretch and just write competing apps for what I needed. God, I was naive.

Perhaps. Perhaps if I'd fought harder for supplements they would have been awarded. Or maybe not.

When I became aware of the diversity supplements, I became an instant fan. This was much more palatable. It meant that at any time a funded PI found a likely URM recruit to science, they could get the support within about 6 weeks. Great for summer research experiences for undergrads, great for unanticipated postdocs. This still seems like a very good thing to me. Good for the prospective trainees. Good for diversity-in-science goals.

The trouble is that from the perspective of the PIs in the audience, this is just another rich-get-richer scheme whereby free labor is added to the laboratory accounts of the already advantaged "haves" of the NIH game. Salary is freed up on the research grants to spend on more toys, reagents or yet another postdoc. This mechanism is only available to a PI who has research grant funding that has a year or more left to run. Since it remains an administrative decision it is also subject to buddy-buddy PI/PO relationship bias. Now, do note that I have always heard from POs in my ICs of closest concern that they "don't expend all the funds allocated" for these URM supplements. I don't know what to make of that but I wouldn't be surprised in the least if any PI with a qualified award, who asks for support of a qualified individual gets one. That would take the buddy/buddy part out of the equation for this particular type of administrative supplement.

It took awhile for me to become aware of the FOA version of the administrative supplement whereby Program was basically issuing a cut-rate RFA. The rich still get richer but at least there is a call for open competition. Not like the first variety I discussed whereby it seems like only some PIs, but not others, are even told by the PO that a supplement might be available. This seems slightly fairer to me although again, you have to be in the funded-PI club already to take advantage

There are sometimes competing versions of the FOA for a topic-based supplement issued as well. In one case I am familiar with, both types were issued simultaneously. I happen to know quite a bit about that particular scenario and it was interesting to see the competing variety actually were quite bad. I wished I'd gone in for the competing ones instead of the administrative variety****, let me tell you.

The primary advantage of the administrative supplement to Program, in my viewing, is that it is fast. No need to wait for the grant review cycle. These and the competing supplements are also cheap and can be efficient, because of leverage from the activities and capabilities under the already funded award.

As per usual, I have three main goals with this post. First, if you are an underrepresented minority trainee it is good to be aware of this. Not all PIs are and not all think about it. Not to mention they don't necessarily know if you qualify for one of these. I'd suggest bringing it up in conversations with a prospective lab you wish to join. Second, if you are a noob PI I encourage you to be aware of the supplement process and to take advantage of it as you might.

Finally, DearReader, I turn to you and your views on Administrative Supplements. Good? Bad? OUTRAGE?

COI DISCLAIMER: I've benefited from administrative supplements under each of the three main categories I've outlined and I would certainly not turn up my nose at any additional ones in the future.

*I suppose it is not impossible that in some cases outside input is solicited.

**complained vociferously

***I have had a few enraging conversations long after the fact with POs who said things like "Why didn't you ask for help?" in the wake of some medium sized disaster with my research program. I keep to myself the fact that I did, and nobody was willing to go to bat for me until it was too late but...whatevs.

****I managed to get all the way to here without emphasizing that even for the administrative supplements you have to prepare an application. It might not be as extensive as your typical competing application but it is much more onerous than Progress Report. Research supplements look like research grants. Fellowship-like supplements look like fellowships complete with training plan.

20 responses so far

SFN 2016: Put NIH Row on Your Itinerary

Nov 03 2016 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism

As the neuroscientists in the audience prepare for their largest annual scientific gathering, I like to remind my Readers to attend to a chore which will improve their odds of obtaining NIH grant funding. This includes a little bit of homework on your part, so block out an hour or two with your coffee cup.

Part of the process of sustained NIH funding includes the long game of developing interpersonal relationships with the Program Officers that staff the NIH ICs of interest to our individual research areas. Sure, they do turn over a bit and may jump ICs but I've had some POs involved with my proposals for essentially the entire duration of my funded career to date.

Many scientists find the schmoozing process to be uncomfortable and perhaps even distasteful.

To this I can only reply "Well, do you want to get funded or not?".

A version of this post originally went up Nov 12, 2008.

One of the most important things you are going to do during the upcoming SfN Annual Meeting in San Diego, CA is to stroll around NIH row. Right? The National Institutes of Health populates quite a bit of real estate in the vendor/exhibitor section of the poster floor. If you are new to SFN, go find it once you arrive. If you are and old hand, I expect you know what I am talking about.

This blog has frequently discussed the role of Program (meaning the individual NIH Institutes and Centers which fund grant proposals) in determining which grants actually receive funding. Although the priority scores assigned by the study section review (and the resulting percentile ranks) are very, very important there is also a role for Program Officials (POs). The ICs will frequently fund grants outside of the order of the percentile ranks based on a number of factors having to do with the type of science that is proposed, their view of the quality of the review and various IC initiatives, desires and intentions. The process by which the IC selects the grants which it is going to pick up for funding outside of the percentile order is a bit opaque but believe you me it is done by real human POs with typical human virtues/failings.

Consequently, there are social factors that matter. These factors matter in deciding just which applications get picked up and which do not.

I'm sure that the official line is that the process is objective and has nothing to do with interpersonal schmoozing......HAHAHAHAAHAHA! Get real.

This is not the time to get on your high horse about the way the world should work. The annual meeting of a large-ish (like SfN or Experimental Biology) or IC-dedicated-ish (like RSA, CPDD) societies is the time for you to work with reality to nudge your current and future grant applications ever closer to funding.

So find the big row of booths which are populated by the NIH ICs at the upcoming SfN meeting in San Diego. The brain institutes will dominate, of course, but you'd be surprised just how many of the ICs have interests in the neurosciences.

Hi, My Name is....

sfnbadge2016My closest collaborator and the PI on a most critically important, albeit low-N, developmental biology study once gave some firm advice when I was preparing a slide on the topic of schmoozing NIH Program staff. It was pointed out to me that nonspecific calls to "go schmooze" are not necessarily all that helpful and that trainees could use some specific pointers. Therefore, I'll include some thoughts on somewhat more concrete steps to take for the shy/retiring personality types. Please excuse if I am insulting anyone's social intelligence.

First, you need to spend some time in the next day or two figuring out a couple of basic things. Which Institute (or Center) supports your lab? The labs in the departments around you? Hit RePORTER if you need to, it is simple to search your PI, look at the results page for the specific way your University or local Institute is described. Then go back to the RePORTER search and pull up all the awards to your University from a given NIH IC.

Second, ask your PI who his/her POs are. Who they have been in the recent past, if necessary. This is optional but will be useful to make you seem with it when you get to the meeting. If you happen to hold an individual NRSA fellowship, this would be a good time to re-check the name of your PO!

(And I simply must remind the too!!!! There is nothing more embarrassing then having no idea who your PO is when s/he is standing in front of you. Yes, I've known peers who don't know who their PO is. Also, as I mentioned, your grants can get reassigned midstream with no particular notice to you. This is a good time to recheck.)

Third, click on over to the websites of 2-3 relevant ICs. You are going to have to look around a bit for the "Organization" structure because the ICs all have different webpage designs. And I will note that some make it really difficult to do the following research (so if you are stymied it may not be you). Using NIMH as the example, you'll see a bunch of "Offices and Divisions" listed. At this point you are going to just have to wade through government gobbledygook, sorry. It is not always clear which Division is the most specific to your interests. Under each Division (the director of which would typically also have a personal portfolio as supervising PO) you will see a number of "Branches" also with a head PO (and often some additional POs) listed. As you are reading the descriptions of the research domains of interest to each Division and Branch you might want to note the ones that sound most like your areas of interest. Maybe even jot down the PO names. If you are really feeling in the zone, you can go back to RePORTER and search on a PO name to see the extend of her/his portfolio.

Fourth, if you did manage to get some PO names from your PI you may be able to shortcut this process a bit by just plugging their name into the staff directory or IC page search box to figure out which Division/Branch they inhabit. And again, maybe just search out this person's portfolio of funded grants on RePORTER.

Fifth, you can email a PO in advance and ask if they are attending the meeting and if so, can you schedule a meeting with them. This is an optional step but if you are the busy/scheduled type and/or you really need to see a specific PO this is a way to go. This is a good time to mention to the PO when your presentation will be taking place as well.

Now you are ready to take a stroll on NIH row!


The first thing to remember is that this is their job! You are not wasting their time or anything like that. The POs are there at the meeting, staffing the booth to talk with you. Yes, you. From the trainee up through the greybearded and bluehaired types. So have no concerns on that score. Plus they are quite friendly. Especially in this context (on the phone when you are complaining about your grant score is another matter, of course).

Second, the POs of a given IC will usually have a schedule floating around on the table indicating when you might find a specific person at the booth. Not that you shouldn't talk with whichever PO happens to be there, but you may want to leverage your researches to speak with a specific person.

Third, hang around and swing back by. There are going to be times when the POs are all seemingly occupied by rabid squirrel PIs, gesticulating wildly and complaining about their latest grant review. So you may have to brave up a bit or just wait for a quieter time to get the attention of a PO. Don't worry, there will be plenty of literature sitting on the tables for you to read while waiting your chance to horn in. There is usually a magazine rack full of Funding Opportunity Announcements and similar interesting reading somewhere in the booth.

So what do you say once you get the attention of a PO? Well introduce yourself, indicate who you work under and indicate that the grants you work on are funded by the IC or, where relevant, that this person is the supervising PO for one of your PI's grants. Tell her a little bit about your research interests-remember, on of the primary jobs of the PI is to tell the POs what is the most interesting current and future science!

After that, act dumb! Seriously, just lay out where you are career-wise and science-wise and say "I don't really understand much about grant support and I figure I need to get up to speed for my future career".

Or you may want to troll 'em with a few choice questions from our discussions here- ask about R21 versus R01, New Investigator fears, RFA versus PA versus totally unsolicited proposals, etc.

Remember, the goal is not solely information transfer. It is to start the process of individual POs in your most-likely IC homes knowing who you are, putting a face to a name and, hopefully, coming away impressed that you have a head on your shoulders and are doing interesting science. You are trying to create the impression that you are "one of their investigators". Yes, my friends, POs have a pronounced tendency to develop proprietary feelings for their peeps. I've been described as such by POs at a time when I didn't even hold funding from the IC in question! So have a few of my peers. If you have trained under their awards, attended "their" society meetings, maybe had a training grant or even just a travel award...well, they are going to be looking out for you when it comes time to pick up New Investigator grants or fellowships or even old-fogies' R01 applications.

I understand that this may sound pretty crass and forced when written out. I would observe it ends up being quite natural when you do it. And it gets easier with practice, believe me. This sort of thing is far from my natural behavior and I was very slow to pick it up. I've seen the results, however, of getting oneself on the radar of Program Officials and it is a very GoodThing.

16 responses so far

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