Archive for the 'NIH' category

Repost: Keep the ball in play

Sep 21 2016 Published by under NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

This was originally posted 16 September, 2014.

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.

*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 🙂

4 responses so far

Bring back the 2-3 year Developmental R01

Sep 19 2016 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH, NIH funding

The R21 Mechanism is called the Exploratory/Developmental mechanism. Says so right in the title.

NIH Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant Program ( Parent R21)

In the real world of NIH grant review, however, the "Developmental" part is entirely ignored in most cases. If you want a more accurate title, it should be:

NIH High Risk / High Reward Research Grant Program ( Parent R21)

This is what reviwers favor in my experiences sitting on panels and occasionally submitting an R21 app. Mine are usually more along the lines of developing a new line of research that I think is important rather than being truly "high risk/high reward".

And, as we all know, the R01 application (5 years, full modular at $250K per annum direct costs if you please) absolutely requires a ton of highly specific Preliminary Data.

So how are you supposed to Develop an idea into this highly specific Preliminary Data? Well, there's the R21, right? Says right in the title that it is Developmental. doesn't work in practice.

So the R01 is an alternative. After all it is the most flexible mechanism. You could submit an R01 for $25K direct costs for one year. You'd be nuts, but you could. Actually you could submit an R03 or R21 for one $25K module too, but with the R01 you would then have the option to put in a competitive renewal to continue the project along.

The only thing stopping this from being a thing is the study section culture that won't accept it. Me, I see a lot of advantages to using shorter (and likely smaller) R01 proposals to develop a new line of work. It is less risky than a 5 year R01, for those that focus on risk/$. It has an obvious path of continuation as a genuinely Developmental attempt. It is more flexible in scope and timing- perhaps what you really need is $100K per year for 3 years (like the old R21) for your particular type of research or job type. It doesn't come laden with quite the same "high risk, high reward" approach to R21 review that biases for flash over solid workmanlike substance.

The only way I see this working is to try it. Repeatedly. Settle in for the long haul. Craft your Specific Aims opening to explain why you are taking this approach. Take the Future Directions blurb and make it really sparkle. Think about using milestones and decision points to convince the reviewers you will cut this off at the end if it isn't turning out to be that productive. Show why your particular science, job category, institute or resources match up to this idea.

Or you could always just shout aimlessly into the ether of social media.

41 responses so far

More evidence of the generational screw job in NIH grant award

Sep 02 2016 Published by under NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics, NIH Careerism

ScienceHound has posted a new analysis related to the NIH budget and award policy. He's been beavering away with mathematical models lately that are generally going to be beyond my ability to understand. In a tweet however, he made it pretty clear.

As expanded in his blog post:

The largest difference between the curves occurs at the beginning of the doubling period (1998-2003) where the model predicts a large increase in the number of grants that was not observed. This is due to the fact that NIH initiated a number of larger non–RPG-based programs when substantial new funding was available rather than simply funding more RPGs (although they did this to some extent). For example, in 1998, NIH invested $17 million through the Specialized Center–Cooperative Agreements (U54) mechanism. This grew to $146 million in 1999, $188 million in 2000, $298 million in 2001, $336 million in 2002, and $396 million in 2003. Note that the change each year matters for the number of new and competing grants that can be made because, for a given year, it does not matter whether funds have been previously committed to RPGs or to other mechanisms.

This interval of time, in my view, is right around when the first of the GenXers were getting (or should have been getting) appointed Assistant Professor. Certainly, YHN was appointed in this interval.

Let us recall a couple of graphs. First, this one:

The red trace depicts success rates from 1962 to 2008 for R01 equivalents (R01, R23, R29, R37). Note that they are not broken down by experienced/new investigators status, nor are new applications distinguished from competing continuation applications. The blue line shows total number of applications reviewed...which may or may not be of interest to you. [update 7/12/12: I forgot to mention that the data in the 60s are listed as "estimated" success rates.]

Ok, Ok, Not much to see here, right? The 30% success rate was about the same in the doubling period as it was in the 80s. Now view this broken down by noobs and experienced investigators.

As we know from prior posts, career-stage differences matter a LOT. In the 80s when the overall success rate was 30%, you can see that newcomers were at about 20% and established investigators were enjoying at least a 17%age point advantage (I think these data also conflate competing continuation with new applications so there's another important factor buried in the "Experienced" trace.) Nevertheless, since the Experienced/New gap was similar from 1980 to 2006, we can probably assume it held true prior to that interval as well.

Again, first time applicants had about the same lack of success in the 80s as they did in the early stages of the doubling (ok, actually a few points higher in the 80s). About 20%. Things didn't go severely into the tanker for the noobs until the end of the doubling around 2004. But think of the career arc. A person who started in the 80s with their first grant jumped up to enjoy 30% success rates and a climbing trend. Someone who managed to land a five year R01 in 2000, conversely, faced steeply declining success rates just when they were ready to get their next grant 4-5 years later.

This is for Research Project Grants (R01, R03, R15, R21, R22, R23, R29, R33, R34, R35, R36, R37, R55, R56, RC1, P01, P42, PN1, U01, U19, UC1) and does not refer to the Centers or U54 that ScienceHound discussed. Putting his analysis and insider explanation (if you don't know, ScienceHound was NIGMS Director from 2003-2010) to work, we can assume that these RPG or R01-equiv success rates would have been much higher during the doubling, save for the choice of NIH not to devote the full largesse to RPGs.

So. Instead of restoring experienced investigator success to where it had been during the early 80s and instead of finally (finally) doing something about noob-investigator success rates that had resulted in handwringing since literally the start of the NIH (ok, the 60s anyway) the NIH decided to spend money on boondoggles.

The NIH decided to assign a disproportionate share of the doubling to the very best funded institutions and scientists using mechanisms that were mostly peer reviewed by....the best funded scientists from the best-funded institutions. One of the CSR rules, after all, is that apps for a given mechanism should be reviewed mostly by those who have obtained such a mechanism. You have to have an R01 to be in a regular R01-reviewing panel and P50/P60/P01 are reviewed mostly by those who have been funded by such mechanisms.

One way to look at this is that a lot of the doubling was sequestered from the riff-raff by design.

This is part of the reason that Gen X will never live up to its scientific potential. The full benefit of the doubling was never made available to us in a competitive manner. Large-mech projects under the elite, older generation kept us shadowed. Maybe a couple of us* shared in the Big-Mechanism wealth in minor form but we were by no means ready to make a play to lead them and get the full benefit. Meantime, our measly R01 applications were being beat up mercilessly by the established and compared unfavorably to Senior PI apps supported by their multi-R01 and BigMech labs.

The story is not over.

Given that I grew up as a scientist in this era, and given that like most of us I was pretty ignorant of longitudinal funding trends, etc, my perception was that a Big Mech was...expected. As in eventually, we were supposed to get to the point where not just the very tippy-top best of us, but basically anyone with maybe top-25% verve and energy could land a BigMech. Maybe a P01 Program Project, maybe a Center. The Late-Boomers felt it too. I saw several of the late Boomers get into this mode right as the badness struck. They were semi-outraged, let me tell you, when the nearly universal Program Officer response was "We're not funding P01s anymore. We suggest you don't submit one.".

AYFK? For people who were used to hearing POs say "We advise you to revise and resubmit" at the drop of a hat and who had never been told by a PO not to try (with a half decent idea) this was quite surprising. Especially when they looked at the lucky ducks who had put their Big Mechs together just a few years before....well there was a lot of screaming about bias and unfairness at first.

P01s are relatively easy for Program to shut down. As always, YMMV when it comes to NIH matters. But in general, I'd say that P01s tended to be a lot more fluid** than Centers (P50/P60). Once a Big Hitter group got a-hold of a Center award, they tended to stay funded. For decades. IME, anyway. or in my perception, more accurately.

Take a look at the history of Program Projects versus Centers in your field / favorite ICs, DearReader and report back, eh?

Don't get me wrong. There is much to like about Program Projects and Centers. Done right, they can be very good at shepherding the careers of transitioning / new scientists. But they are profoundly undemocratic and tend to consolidate NIH funding in the hands of the few elite of the IC in question. Often times they appear to be less productive than those of us not directly in them would calculate "should" happen for the the same expenditure on R01s. Such complaints are both right and wrong and often simultaneously when it comes to the same Center award. It is something that depends on your perspective and what you value and/or predict as outcome.

I can think of precisely one GenX Center Director in the stable of my favorite ICs at the moment. No doubt there are more because I don't do exhaustive review and I don't recognize every name to put to a face right off if I were to go RePORTERing. But still. I can rattle off tons of Boomer and pre-Boomer Center Directors.

It goes back to a point I made in a prior post. Gen X scientists were not just severely filtered. Even the ones that managed to transition to faculty appointments were delayed at every step. Funding came harder and at a delay. Real purchasing power was reduced. Publication expectations went up. We were not ready and able to take up the reins of larger efforts to anywhere near the same extent when we approached mid career. We could not rely upon clockwork schedules of grant renewal. We could not expect that a high percentage of our new proposals would be funded. We did not have as extensive a run of successful individual productivity on which to base a stretch for BigMech science.

And this comes back to a phenomenon ScienceHound identifies. The NIH decided*** to put a disproportionate share of the doubling monies into Centers rather than R01s for the struggling new PIs. This had a very long tail of lasting effects.

*I certainly did.

**Note: The P01 is considered an RPG with the R01s, etc, but Centers are not. There is some floofraw about these being "different pots of money" from an appropriation standpoint. They are not directly substitutable in immediate priority, the way I hear it.

***Any NIH insiders that start in on how Congress tied their hands can stop before starting. Appropriations language involved back and forth with NIH, believe me.

18 responses so far

NIH sued for promotion bias against women in the Intramural Research Program

Aug 29 2016 Published by under Intramural Research Programs, NIH, NIH Careerism

via Lenny Bernstein at the Washington Post:

What Bielekova doesn’t have, at age 47, is tenure, the coveted guarantee of recognition, job security and freedom to pursue controversial ideas that is critical to long-term success in an academic career. She was not put forward as a candidate for the second time last year, despite a positive recommendation from a panel of outside experts who reviewed her qualifications.

To me the kicker is this part. NIH intramural is weird the way they have big deal lab heads and a lot of career scientists under them that would be standard tenure rank folks elsewhere. So when the big deal head dies or retires it is always a little weird. Do they hand the lab to one of the folks already there? And boot the rest? Or do they spawn off a couple of new jobs? or find homes for people in other big-deal groups?

Bielekova alleges retaliation and discrimination based on gender after what she describes as a “power struggle” following the retirement of her mentor, who was chief of the neuro-immunology branch. She said male scientists were provided numerous advantages in the aftermath and that she has been harmed by groundless accusations from male colleagues of unprofessional conduct. A male colleague from her branch, she said, was nominated for tenure at the same time that she was held back.


Amazingly Story Landis, prior NINDS Director, gave the full reveal quote:

While tenure awards are supposed to be based largely on merit, it is widely acknowledged that personality conflicts, budget constraints, internal politics and other factors affect them.

“Tenure decisions are complicated, and not just about what you’ve published,” Landis said.

In this, the NIH IRPs are no different than anywhere else, eh? It isn't about objective merits but about the subjective views of your colleagues, when it comes right down to it.

And lets in a whole lot o' bias.

Bielekova, ..has filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint against her institute’s director and two others,

Twill be interesting to watch this play out.

13 responses so far

Great lens to use on your own grants

Aug 26 2016 Published by under Grant Review, NIH, NIH Careerism

If your NIH grant proposal reads like this, it is not going to do well.

9 responses so far

Your Grant in Review: Throwing yourself on the mercy of the study section court

Aug 24 2016 Published by under Careerism, Grant Review, NIH, NIH Careerism, Uncategorized

A question and complaint from commenter musclestumbler on a prior thread introduces the issue.

So much oxygen is sucked up by the R01s, the med schools, etc. that it tends to screw over reviews for the other mechanisms. I look at these rosters, then look at the comments on my proposals, and it's obvious that the idea of doing work without a stable of postdocs and a pool of exploitable Ph.D. students is completely alien and foreign to them.

and extends:

I personally go after R15 and R03 mechanisms because that's all that can be reasonably obtained at my university. ... Postdocs are few and far between. So we run labs with undergrads and Masters students. Given the workload expectations that we have in the classroom as well as the laboratory, the R15 and R03 mechanisms support research at my school. Competing for an R01 is simply not in the cards for the productivity level that we can reasonably pursue...

This isn't simply fatalism, this is actual advice given by multiple program officers and at workshops. These mechanisms are in place to facilitate and foster our research. Unfortunately, these are considered and reviewed by the same panels that review R01s. We are not asking that they create an SEP for these mechanisms - a "little kids table" if you will - but that the panels have people with these similar institutions on them. I consider it a point of pride that my R15 is considered by the same reviewers that see the R01s, and successfully funded as well.

The point is that, the overwhelming perception and unfortunate reality is that many, many, many of the panelists have zero concept of the type of workload model under which I am employed. And the SROs have a demonstrably poor track record of encouraging institutional diversity. Sure, my panel is diverse- they have people from a medical school, an Ivy League school, and an endowed research institution on the West Coast. They have Country, and Western!

I noted the CSR webpage on study section selection says:

Unique characteristics of study sections must be factored into selection of members. The breadth of science, the multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary nature of the applications, and the types of applications or grant mechanisms being reviewed play a large role in the selection of appropriate members.

It seems very much the case to me that if R15s are habitually being reviewed in sections without participation of any reviewers from R15-eligible institutions, this is a violation of the spirit of this clause.

I suggested that this person should bring this up with their favorite SROs and see what they have to say. I note that now that there is a form for requesting "appropriate expertise" when you submit your NIH grant, it may also be useful to use this to say something about R15-eligible reviewers.

But ultimately we come to the "mercy of the court" aspect of this issue. It is my belief that while yes, the study section is under very serious constraints these days, it is still a human behavior that occasionally lets real humans make rational decisions. Sometimes, reviewers may go for something that is outside of the norm. Outside of the stereotype of what "has" to be in the proposal of this type. Sometimes, reviewers may be convinced by the peculiarities of given situation to, gasp, give you a break. So I suggested the following for this person who had just indicated that his/her R15s do perfectly well in a study section that they think would laugh off their R01 application.

I think this person should try a trimmed down R01 in this situation. Remember the R01 is the most flexible in terms of scope- there is no reason you cannot match it to the budget size of any of the other awards. The upside is that it is for up to five years, better than AREA/R15 (3 y) or R03 (2 y). It is competitively renewable, which may offer advantages. It is an R01, which, as we are discussing in that other thread, may be the key to getting treated like a big kid when it comes to study section empanelment.

The comments from musclestubmler make it sound as if the panels can actually understand the institutional situation, just so long as they are focused on it by the mechanism (R15). The R15 is $100K direct for three years, no? So why not propose an R01 for $100K direct for five years? or if you, Dear Reader, are operating at an R03 level, ask for $50K direct or $75K direct. And I would suggest that you don't just leave this hidden in the budget, sprinkle wording throughout everywhere that refers to this being a go-slow but very inexpensive (compared to full mod) project.

Be very clear about your time commitment (summers only? fine, just make it clear) and the use of undergrads (predict the timeline and research pace) in much the same way you do for an R15 but make the argument for a longer term, renewable R01. Explain why you need it for the project, why it is justified and why a funded version will be productive, albeit at a reduced pace. See if any reviewers buy it. I would.

Sometimes you have to experiment a little with the NIH system. You'd be surprised how many times it works in ways that are not exactly the stereotypical and formal way things are supposed to work.

27 responses so far

Continuous Submission Eligibility

Aug 23 2016 Published by under NIH, NIH funding

New thing I learned is that you can check on your continuous submission* status via the Personal Profile tab on Commons. It lists this by each Fiscal Year and gives the range of dates.

It even lists all of your study section participations. In case you don't keep track of that but have a need to use it.

I have been made aware of an apparent variation from the rules recently (6 study sections in an 18 mo interval). Anyone else ever heard of such a thing?

I've used continuous submission only a handful of times, to my recollection. TBH I've gone for long intervals of eligibility not realizing I was eligible because this policy has a long forward tail compared to when you qualify with 6 services / 18 mo.

How about you, Readers? Are you a big user of this privilege? Does it help you out or not so much? Do you never remember you are actually eligible?

*As a reminder, continuous submission isn't really continual. You have to get them in by Aug 15, Dec 15 and Apr 15 for the respective Cycles.

23 responses so far

Projected NRSA salary scale for FY2017

NOT-OD-16-131 indicates the projected salary changes for postdoctoral fellows supported under NRSA awards.

Being the visual person that I am...

As anticipated, the first two years were elevated to meet the third year of the prior scale (plus a bit) with a much flatter line across the first three years of postdoctoral experience.

What think you o postdocs and PIs? Is this a fair* response to the Obama overtime rules?

Will we see** institutions (or PIs) where they just extend that shallow slope out for Years 3-7+?

h/t Odyssey and correction of my initial misread from @neuroecology
*As a reminder, $47,484 in 2016 dollars equals $39,715 in 2006 dollars, $30,909 in 1996 dollars and $21,590 in 1986 dollars. Also, the NRSA Yr 0 for postdocs was $20,292 for FY1997 and $36,996 for FY2006.

**I bet yes***.

***Will this be the same old jerks that already flatlined postdoc salaries? or will PIs who used to apply yearly bumps now be in a position where they just flatline since year 1 has increased so much?

38 responses so far

NIH Director Collins went to Kenya and all I got was

Aug 04 2016 Published by under Diversity in Science, NIH

...a picture he took with the 0.2%.

9 responses so far

Columbia University busted for taking too much overhead on NIH grants

Jul 15 2016 Published by under NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

From the Manhattan branch of the US Attorney's Office charged:

The United States’ Complaint-In-Intervention (the “Complaint”) alleges that from July 1, 2003, through June 30, 2015, COLUMBIA impermissibly applied its “on-campus” indirect cost rate – instead of the much lower “off-campus” indirect cost rate – when seeking federal reimbursement for 423 NIH grants where the research was primarily performed at off-campus facilities owned and operated by the State of New York and New York City. The Complaint further alleges that COLUMBIA failed to disclose to NIH that it did not own or operate these facilities and that COLUMBIA did not pay for use of the space for most of the relevant period.

...and Columbia University admitted:

COLUMBIA has admitted that it applied the on-campus indirect cost rate to the 423 NIH grants even though the research was primarily performed in space not owned or operated by Columbia, and that it submitted to NIH certified reports that used the on-campus indirect cost rate to calculate the indirect cost amounts claimed by the university.

Ah, those tricky accountants.

Oh. cool. paging down on the complaint we get some specifics:

From July 1, 2003, through June 30, 2015, COLUMBIA’s On-Campus F&A Rate was approximately 61 percent, its Off-Campus F&A Rate was 26 percent, and its Modified Off-Campus F&A Rate was 29.4 percent. The Modified Off-Campus F&A Rate was to be applied to research conducted off-campus but within a certain proximity of the COLUMBIA campus.

Y'know. When I first read this my first thought was that I know some Columbia folks that work off campus at.... oh shit. It's them. It's the drug abuse folks.

COLUMBIA has a collaborative relationship with the New York State Psychiatric Institute (“NYSPI”), a clinical research facility administered by the New York State Office of Mental Health. COLUMBIA faculty perform research in two off-campus buildings owned by the State of New York and operated by NYSPI (the “NYSPI Buildings”). COLUMBIA faculty also perform research in another off-campus building owned and operated by the City of New York (the “City Building”).

For most of the relevant period, COLUMBIA did not pay the State of New York for use of the NYSPI Buildings, and therefore did not incur indirect “facilities-related” costs with respect to the medical research performed in these buildings. Similarly, COLUMBIA did not pay the City of New York for use of the City Building.

Presumably my friends who are the PIs on these grants had no idea. I have no idea what my institution actually charges the NIH as overhead on my grants, all I look at is my direct cost expenditures and balances. But still, sorry to see that it was their research grants that were involved. If nothing else it means that NIDA [Update: I found some details and 22/423 total grants were driect listings from NIDA, although there are what look like subaward identifiers (that may or may not involve other NIDA grants.)] was the entity being ripped off. The settlement was for $9.5 million. It doesn't say how much of this is direct recovery for the fraud and how much is court costs or punishment.

oh, wait. Damn. This looks bad.

COLUMBIA did not state on the applications for the NIH Grants that the research would be primarily performed off-campus, as required. Instead, Columbia frequently included the main address for the College of Physicians & Surgeons in the section of the application that was supposed to list the primary performance location. Even where the NYSPI Buildings or the City Building were listed in that section of the grant application, or mentioned elsewhere in the application, COLUMBIA failed to disclose that these buildings were not owned and operated by the university.

Starting in fiscal year 2009, in lieu of paying rent for use of one of the NYSPI Buildings, the Department of Neuroscience paid NYSPI a portion of the inflated indirect cost recoveries it received from NIH for research projects performed in that building.

This smells a lot more like highly intentional fraud and less like a mistake that someone should have caught. In the pre-award review of the grant, if you ask me. Especially when CU was clearly negotiating the rental arrangements with NYSPI. Someone pretty high up in the office of grants and contracts had to be doing this whole charade intentionally and with planning. There are a handful of other regulatory issues that I don't want to get into which very likely pointed a spotlight on the "performance location" too. This had to be intentional.

Turns out that this was a whistleblower case.

In connection with the filing of the lawsuit and settlement, the Government joined a private whistleblower lawsuit that had previously been filed under seal pursuant to the False Claims Act.

Good for that brave person for bringing this to light.

Final thought: I bet you that Columbia University is not the only NIH funded University out there that pulls some shenanigans like this. Now, you would think that there would be some sort of broad and universal alert sent to the Signing Officials of each University that has an on- and off-campus rate. Telling them to get their act together on this or any future investigation that busts them will automatically have the fines tripled. But going by at least one narrow similar area that I've followed over the past couple of decades (the anti-lobbying / grant writing thing) apparently this does not happen. So keep your eyes peeled for the next decade. I bet there will be more of these and that in each case it will again be figured out only via whistleblower.

46 responses so far

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