Archive for the 'NIH' category

NIH should involve the not-yet-funded in review

Nov 09 2015 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism

Following up my post on RFAs and the inherent self-reinforcing conservatism of NIH grant review.

35 responses so far

RFAs do not narrow the NIH portfolio, quite the opposite.

Nov 06 2015 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH, NIH Careerism

Mike the Mad Biologist has taken issue with the findings of a "cross-campus, cross-career stage and cross-disciplinary series of discussions at a large public university" which "has produced a series of recommendations for addressing the problems confronting the biomedical research community in the US".

Mike the Mad has pulled out a number of the proposals and findings to address but I was struck by one on the role of "R&D contracts, Requests for Applications (RFAs) and intramural research". From page 4 of the UW report:

Fourth, the NIH should increase the proportion of its budget directed to Research Project Grants, Center Grants and Training, and it should decrease the proportion directed to R&D contracts, Requests for Applications (RFAs) and intramural research. These changes would redirect funds towards investigator-initiated research and allow funding of a greater diversity of projects. R&D contracts and RFAs place limits on the topics and approaches that can be pursued, so a shift away from them will lead to fewer intellectual constraints being placed on researchers. We emphasize that this is not a recommendation to eliminate R&D contracts or RFAs, but rather to reduce their number, which will sharpen their quality and provide the funds needed to award more investigator-initiated grants.

I disagree with the notion that RFAs are poisonous to diversity and the notion that pure "investigator-initiated" leads to fewer intellectual constraints.

The NIH peer review process is an inherently conservative one because it tends to reinforce itself. Those who are successful within the system do the primary judging of who is next to be successful. Those who become successful have to, in large degree, adapt themselves to the thinking and expectations of those who have previously been successful.

When it comes to the role of Program Officers in selecting grants for pickups and saves, well, they too are influenced by the already-successful. This is in addition to the fact that POs have long term careers and thus their orientations and biases come into play across literally decades of grant applications. To the extent that POs are judged by the performance of their grant portfolios, you can see that they are no different than the rest of us. Higher JIF, higher citations, more press attention, more high-profile scientists....all of these things dictate them selecting grants that are going to be more of the same.

Sure, this is a thumb on the scale. Lots of scientists are open to new ideas. Lots of scientists can become enamoured of scientific proposals that are outside of their immediate interests. Peer reviewers and Program Officers alike.

But there more assuredly is a thumb on the scale. And it is a constantly reinforcing cycle of conservatism to select grants for funding that are very much like ones that have previously been funded. Alike in topic, alike in PI characteristics, alike in the University which is applying.

Request for Applications (RFAs) quite often serve to fight against the narrowing of topic diversity and in favor of getting grants funded in a new area of investigation. Trust me, if they already have copious amounts of grant funding on a topic, this does not result in additional RFAs!

In some of my general oversight of RFAs over the years from some of my favorite ICs I've noticed topics like sex-differences and less-usual experimental models are often at play. Adolescent/developmental studies as well. To take a shot at my much beloved NIDA--- well, they have been, and continue to be, the National Institute on Cocaine and Heroin Abuse. Notice how whenever the current Director Nora Volkow gets interviewed on the general lay media she goes on and on about the threat of marijuana to our adolescents? Try a trip over to RePORTER to review NIDA's respective portfolios on marijuana versus cocaine or heroin.

There have been several NIDA RFAs, PARs and PASs over the years which are really about "Gee, can't we fund at least two grants on this other drug over here?". There's an old one begging for medications development for cannabis dependence (RFA-DA-04-014; 10 awards funded) and another asking for investigation of developmental effects of cannabis exposure (RFA-DA-04-016; 6 awards funded). Prenatal exposure to MDMA (RFA-DA-01-005). Etc.

The latest version of this is PAR-14-106 on synthetic drugs. You know, the bath salts and the fake weed. I've been chatting with you about these since what, 2010? The PAR was issued in 2014 (4 awards funded so far, 5 if you include R03/R21 versions).

Is this because evil NIDA wants to force everyone to start working on these topics? Constraining their intellectual freedom? Hampering the merry progress on cocaine and heroin? You might ask the same about various sex-differences FOA that have been issued over the years.

Heck no. All that stuff has continued to be funded at high rates under NIDA's normal operation. Why? well because tons and tons and tons of highly funded and highly productive researchers have focused on cocaine and heroin for their entire careers. And these are the grants that seem most important to them....the cocaine and heroin grants. They are the successful scientists who review other grants and who whisper in the ears of POs at every turn.

So the other drugs get short shrift in the funding race.

Every now and again a PO gets up the courage to mount an assault on this conservatism and get a few grants funded in his or her bee-in-the-bonnet interest. Having watched one of these develop back in the good old days, it takes time. Two POs I observed at NIDA set up mini-symposia at NIH and at meetings for several years before lo and behold an RFA was issued on that topic. This was in the days when presumably they had the spare cash to do this sort of grooming of a topic domain.

The CRAN initiative initially side-stepped the review process altogether and issued supplements for combined-drug research (think "effects of alcohol drinking on smoking behavior and vice versa").

Etc.

I am sure that parallels exist at all of the other ICs.

And let me be emphatically clear on this. It isn't as though there are not individual investigators out there independently initiating grant applications on these topics. OF COURSE there are.

They just haven't been able to get funded.

I come back to this claim in the UW document that RFAs "place limits on the topics and approaches that can be pursued" and the suggestion that their diminishment will lead to "fewer intellectual constraints being placed on researchers".

This is nonsense. Targeted FOAs very often address topics which have been "investigator-initiated" many, many times but these applications have not been successful in navigating the study section process. I would be shocked if there were more than a very small number of targeted funding announcements from the NIH that were on a topic that nobody had ever applied for funding to research. Shocked.

The pool of people applying for funding is just so large and so diverse that any half-way interesting idea has been proposed by somebody at some point in time. The idea that NIH Program have come up with something that nobody in the extramural community has ever thought about is just not that credible.

17 responses so far

NCI announces the R50 Research Specialist career award

Nov 02 2015 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism

PAR-16-025 invites applications for the R50 Research Specialist award.

The Research Specialist Award is designed to encourage the development of stable research career opportunities for exceptional scientists who want to pursue research within the context of an existing cancer research program, but not serve as independent investigators. These scientists, such as researchers within a research program, core facility managers, and data scientists, are vital to sustaining the biomedical research enterprise. The Research Specialist Award is intended to provide desirable salaries and sufficient autonomy so that individuals are not solely dependent on grants held by Principal Investigators for career continuity.

This mechanism is for salary support up to 100% and for travel up to $5,000 per year. Maximum duration is 5 years. It is interesting that they chose to make this an R mech instead of a K mech. I like that. A lot.

This idea was discussed by NCI a little bit ago, as discussed in this blog post, in the wake of a hint from Varmus when he left the NCI Director office. The devil will be in the detail but this new mechanism appears to leave some wiggle room for the Research Specialist to avoid some deficits I identified in the original discussion (start at 2:20).

I was most concerned about all the discussion focusing on the original PI and how this proposed new mechanism was to his or her benefit more than the Research Specialist themselves.

2:29 -the research proposal is to be written jointly by the applicant and the sponsoring PI, describing the research.

[DM- I think this is workable even though my eye started to twitch. There is going to be some slippage here with respect to the goals of making this award portable and not tied to the fate of one lab's research grant]

2:29:55 -Initially the Research Specialist to apply while supported on an existing research grant. Once the K05 is awarded, it would be expected to be 50/50 support with the grant and then continuing on the K05 100% once the grant ended.

2:30:30 - Review criteria. Accomplishment of applicant individually and within the nominating lab's program. Accomplishment of the PI and Uni. Importance of the applicant to the research program of the PI.

[DM- Welp. This is certainly going down a road of contributing to the rich getting richer which is not something I support. Unless "importance to the research program of the PI" means helping to stabilize the science of a have-not type of PI who struggles to maintain consistent funding.]

and

2:32: slide on portability of the award - possible but requires PO approval if PI and K05 move together, if the PI leaves and K05 stays, if the grant is lost, etc.

if K05 Specialist chooses on her/his own hook to leave old lab, it will require a new PI, approval, etc. The old PI is eligible for 2 year administrative supplement because they are "suddenly missing a critical support component".

[DM- ugh, this last part. Why should the original grant be compensated for the K05 person deciding to leave? It will already have benefited from that 50% free effort. Rich get richer, one. and a reward for that scenario where the PI is such a jerkface that the K05 leaves him/her? no. and regarding "critical support component", dude, what about when any postdoc chooses to leave? happens all the time. can I get some free money for suddenly missing an awesome postdoc?]

2:36 on assessment of the pilot. "critical to get input from the PI about how well their needs have been served"

[DM- well sure. but...... grrrr. this should be about the K05 awardee's perspective. The whole point is that the existing system puts these people's careers into the hands of the big cheese PI. That is what the focus should be on here. The K05 Research Specialist. Not on whether the PI's loss of control has allowed him or her to continue to exploit or whether this is just a way to shield the haves of the world from the grant game a little bit more.]

Two interesting parts of note in the section on Award Administration from this new PAR:

5) Funds freed up through the R50 will be restricted from any other personnel use, but may be rebudgeted for other research costs with NCI prior approval.

6) Research Specialists would have the option, with prior NCI approval, to move to other research programs or institutions (e.g. if the Unit Director's laboratory is closed, if the institution closes a core, etc.).

Number 5 is a bit weird. Why not be able to hire another person to work on the project? And re-budgeting is allowed only with prior approval? For a salary? This is unusual.

But everything about this rests on what Number 6 turns out to be in practice. It echos another part in the FOA scope part that reads:

The proposed new research support is intended to provide desirable salaries and sufficient autonomy so that individuals are not solely dependent on grants held by Principal Investigators for career continuity. Research Specialists would have the option, with prior NCI approval, to move to other research programs or institutions while maintaining funding from this award (e.g., if the Principal Investigator's laboratory is closed, if the institution closes a core, etc.).

This is the part that gives the Research Specialist the true "sufficient autonomy" and "not solely dependent" business that is written all throughout the PAR. It is essential how broadly this "e.g." is interpreted, particularly with respect to who makes the decisions about permitting a change. Obviously, the one major thing missing from these examples is the autonomous choice of the Research Specialist. What if she or he simply wants to join a different lab or university? How easily can it be moved to another city when the person's spouse gets a new job? How easily can they detach themselves from a toxic PI? etc.

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h/t: @superkash

29 responses so far

Thought of the Day

Oct 16 2015 Published by under Grant Review, Grantsmanship, NIH, NIH Careerism

I know this NIH grant game sucks.

I do.

And I feel really pained each time I get email or Twitter messages from one of my Readers (and there are many of you, so this isn't as personal as it may seem to any given Reader) who are desperate to find the sekrit button that will make the grant dollars fall out of the hopper.

I spend soooooo much of my discussion on this blog trying to explain that NOBODY CAN TELL YOU WHERE THE SEKRIT BUTTON IS BECAUSE IT DOESN'T EXIST!!!!!!!!!!!!

Really. I believe this down to the core of my professional being.

Sometimes I think that the problem here is the just-world fallacy at work. It is just so dang difficult to give up on the notion that if you just do your job, the world will be fair. If you do good work, you will eventually get the grant funding to support it. That's what all the people you trained around seemed to experience and you are at least as good as them, better in many cases, so obviously the world owes you the same sort of outcome.

I mean yeah, we all recognize things are terrible with the budget and we expect it to be harder but.....maybe not quite this hard?

I feel it too.

Believing in a just-world is really hard to shed.

69 responses so far

NIH grant application changes are in the offing

Oct 16 2015 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

The Weekly NIH Guide (for 16 October 2015, that link will update) has a whole slew of changes summarized in NOT-OD-16-004.

NOT-OD-16-006 seeks to simplify the Vertebrate Animals section by deleting requirement for describing vet care, euthanasia if consistent with AVMA guidelines and justification for the number of animals used.

NOT-OD-16-011 seeks to implement rigor and transparency in grant applications. Focus is on "the scientific premise forming the basis of the proposed research, rigorous experimental design for robust and unbiased results,consideration of relevant biological variables , and authentication of key biological and/or chemical resources."

oh, and for certain people around here NOT-OD-16-009 plans a change in allowable fonts that can be used in NIH grant applications. Key features are black text, 6 lines per vertical inch, 15 characters per linear inch and 11 pt type. The usual fonts are "recommended" although "other fonts (both serif and non-serif) are acceptable if they meet the above requirements"

16 responses so far

Publisher wants to take journal Open Access

Someone forwarded me what appears to be credible evidence that Wiley is considering taking Addiction Biology Open Access.

To the tune of $2,500 per article.

At present this title has no page charges within their standard article size.

This is interesting because Wiley purchased this title quite a while ago at a JIF that was at or below my perception of my field's dump-journal level.

They managed to march the JIF up the ranks and get it into the top position in the ISI Substance Abuse category. This, IMO, then stoked a virtuous cycle in which people submit better and better work there.

At some point in the past few years the journal went from publishing four issues per year to six. And the JIF remains atop the category.

As a business, what would you do? You build up a service until it is in high demand and then you try to cash in, that's what.

Personally I think this will kill the golden goose. It will be a slow process, however, and Wiley will make some money in the mean time.

The question is, do most competitors choose to follow suit? If so, Wiley wins big because authors will eventually have no other option. If the timing is good, Addiction Biology makes money early and then keeps on going as the leader of the pack.

All y'all Open Access wackaloons believe this is inevitable and are solidly behind Wiley's move, no doubt.

I will be fascinated to see how this one plays out.

50 responses so far

Rockey Explains Indirect Costs

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

11 responses so far

End of year pickups

Sep 29 2015 Published by under NIH, NIH funding

It's one of those times of years to go a-RePORTERing, my friends. Select 9/1 or 9/15 in the Project Start Date field and put your favorite IC in the field for that.

As the NIH reaches the end of the federal fiscal year, they have to balance their budget. Meaning that in many cases they will pick up out-of-order grants to satisfy some goal or other. No doubt sometimes it is just making the dollars and cents add up by slotting in a few more R03 or R21 grants.

Maybe it is a chance for them to trigger on priorities that they have been letting simmer on the back burner or maybe it is a class of grants that has to wait until the end of the year for some reason. BigMechs seem to be funded during September in several of my favorite ICs.

I seem to notice SBIR/STTR grants (R41, R42, R43, R44 mechs) rolling out, which makes sense. The overall NIH has a certain percentage it has to meet in terms of SBIR awards and I assume this rolls downhill to the IC level. So this is part of the balancing of books for the final accounting.

The thing I was noticing this year is that the list of grant awards from my favorite ICs seems...interesting. To me anyway. And given when I tend to find interesting (i.e., the unusual) it would be no surprise if this was as feature not a bug. I.e, real.

Look at it this way. The unusual has the potential to be treated somewhat poorly by study sections or it wouldn't be an unusual application. If you subscribe to a view that study sections suffer from a certain conservatism (and I do subscribe) than it makes sense that the end of year pickups might be interesting due to them being unusual. Perhaps there are POs who likewise look at the list of near-misses and are attracted to the grant application that offers a little breath of fresh air. Perhaps it is because there are the odd RFA extras that can be squeezed under the budget line.

...or maybe I am extrapolating too far from very limited data.

13 responses so far

Recruiting faculty

Professors L. Vosshall, C. Bargmann and N. Tronson were discussing the representation of women in the pools of applicants for faculty jobs the other day.

I surmised from the Twittscussion that they find that too few women are applying in their respective searches. These three are very well known neuroscientists so it isn't like they don't have the usual connections, either.

So what would you suggest?

How can a faculty member on a search committee work to get more underrepresented* individuals into the mix for a new hire?

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*we can broaden this beyond just sex disparity

58 responses so far

Glam cost

Sep 24 2015 Published by under #FWDAOTI, Academics, Careerism, Fixing the NIH

How much do you think it costs to generate the manuscript that is accepted for publication at your average Glam journal?

How do you align this with your views on fair distribution of research funding?

52 responses so far

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