Archive for the 'NIH' category

Crystal clear grant advice from NIAID

May 21 2015 Published by under Grant Review, Grantsmanship, NIH, NIH Careerism

from this Advice Corner on modular budgeting:

As you design your research proposal, tabulate a rough cost estimate. If you are above but near the $250,000 annual direct cost threshold, consider ways to lessen your expenses. Maybe you have a low-priority Specific Aim that can be dropped or a piece of equipment you could rent rather than buy new.

H/t: PhysioProf

Related Reading:

Sample Grants

26 responses so far

Fighting with the New Biosketch format

I have been flailing around, of and on for a few months, trying to write my Biosketch into the new format [Word doc Instructions and Sample].


I am not someone who likes to prance around bragging about "discoveries" and unique contributions and how my lab's work is I am so awesomely unique because, let's face it, I don't do that kind of work. I am much more of a work-a-day type of scientist who likes to demonstrate stuff that has never been shown before. I like to answer what are seemingly obvious questions for which there should be lots of literature but then it turns out that there is not. I like to work on what interests me about the world and I am mostly uninterested in what some gang of screechy monkey GlamourHumpers think is the latest and greatest.


This is getting in the way of my ability to:

Briefly describe up to five of your most significant contributions to science. For each contribution, indicate the historical background that frames the scientific problem; the central finding(s); the influence of the finding(s) on the progress of science or the application of those finding(s) to health or technology; and your specific role in the described work.

Now interestingly, it was someone who works in a way most unlike the way I do that showed me the light. Actually, he gave me the courage to think about ignoring this supposed charge in the sample / instruction document. This person recommended just writing a brief sentence or two about the area of work without trying to contextualize the importance or significance of the "contribution". I believe I actually saw one of the five permitted subheadings on his version that was more or less "And here's some other stuff we work on that wasn't easily categorized with the rest of it."

I am at least starting from this minimalist standpoint. I don't know if I will have the courage to actually submit it like this, but I'm leaning towards doing so.

I have been hearing from quite a number of you that you are struggling with creating this new version of the NIH Biosketch. So I thought I'd open it up to comment and observation. Anyone have any brilliant solutions / approaches to recommend?

One of the things that has been bothering me most about this is that it takes the focus off of your work that is specific to the particular application in question. In the most recent version of the Biosketch, you selected 15 pubs that were most directly relevant to the topic at hand. These may not be your "most significant contributions" but they are the ones that are most significant for the newly proposed studies.

If one is now to list "your most significant contributions", well, presumably some of these may not have much to do with the current application. And if you take the five sections seriously, it is hard to parse the subset of your work that is relevant to one focal R01 sized project into multiple headings and still show now those particular aspects are a significant contribution.

I still think it is ridiculous that they didn't simply make this an optional way to do the Biosketch so as to accommodate those people that needed to talk about non-published scholarly works.

64 responses so far

The Capstone (Emeritus) Award is Already in Pending Legislation

May 07 2015 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH

In case you weren't already cynical enough about NIH's trial balloon at Rockey's Blog and the ensuing RFI (link to the comments is posted at DataHound), now the DataHound casually notes something really scary predictable.

As a further update, as first pointed out to me by @ChrisPickett5, the latest draft of the 21st Century Cures Act currently being developed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee includes a section about a "Capstone Award" (pg. 26-27).  

Which says, in the current version of the Act:

‘‘(a) IN GENERAL.—The Secretary may make awards
3 (each of which, hereafter in this section, referred to as
4 a ‘Capstone Award’) to support outstanding scientists who
5 have been funded by the National Institutes of Health.
6 ‘‘(b) PURPOSE.—Capstone Awards shall be made to
7 facilitate the successful transition or conclusion of re

8search programs, or for other purposes, as determined by
9 the Director of NIH, in consultation with the directors
10 of the national research institutes and national centers.
11 ‘‘(c) DURATION AND AMOUNT.—The duration and
12 amount of each Capstone Award shall be determined by
13 the Director of NIH in consultation with the directors of
14 the national research institutes and national centers.
15 ‘‘(d) LIMITATION.—Individuals who have received a
16 Capstone Award shall not be eligible to have principle in

017vestigator status on subsequent awards from the National
18 Institutes of Health.’’.

Which, should this pass, totally makes the Emeritus award a done deal despite the many critical comments offered on Rockey's blog and in the RFI responses.

Reading between the lines here it appears that what NIH specifically needed Congress to approve* was the LIMITATION part, i.e., the authority to prevent Capstone Awardees from serving on any subsequent grants as principle [sic] investigator.

I guarantee you that this was not some Congress Critter coming up with this idea out of thin air. The NIH, meaning with the full involvement of Francis Collins, asked for this. Which means they are steaming right ahead, absolutely regardless of any responses they got on the RFI.


I'm sure they will trot out some Executive Summary of the responses that is unduly heavy on the "pro" responses and dismissive of the "con" responses. Just you watch.


Thanks to the DataHound's FOIA request, we'll all be able to watch their pre-established agenda perfidy in action.


Pop your corn, folks, pop your corn.



*This is evidence of exactly what I mean when I express dismissal of any NIH excuses that they are not authorized to make some change or other. It is as simple as them going to their favorite Congress Critter and getting whatever they want inserted into the next handy bill. So when NIH says "we don't have the authority" the proper interpretation is to hear it as "we don't really want to do that".


25 responses so far

That study of peer review perplexes me

Apr 24 2015 Published by under Grant Review, NIH, NIH Careerism, Peer Review

I just can't understand what is valuable about showing that a 1%ile difference in voted score leads to 2% difference in total citations of papers attributed to that grant award. All discussions of whether NIH peer review is working or broken center on the supposed failure to fund meritorious grants and the alleged funding of non-meritorious grants. 

Please show me one PI that is upset that her 4%ile funded grant really deserved a 2%ile and that shows that peer review is horribly broken. 

The real issue, how a grant overlooked by the system would fare *were it to be funded* is actually addressed to some extent by the graph on citations to clearly outlying grants funded by exception.

This is cast as Program rescuing those rare exception brilliant proposal. But again, how do we know the ones that Program fails to rescue wouldn't have performed well?

23 responses so far

Newt Gingrich to the rescue! (Again)

Apr 22 2015 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

Newt has called for substantial increases in the NIH allocation

15 responses so far

Review your own CV. Frequently.

Apr 14 2015 Published by under Careerism, NIH, Peer Review

Yesterday's review of the research publications of a person who had written about closing down his lab due to lack of funding in this "unfair" grant award environment touched a nerve on at least one Reader. I assume it was uncomfortable for many of you to read.

It was uncomfortable for me to write.

You can tell because I felt compelled to slip in the odd caveat about my own record. I can write one of those reviews about my own career that would be equally, if not more, critical and uncomfortable.

No doubt more than one of you got the feeling that if I wrote a similar review of your record you would come up wanting ...or at least PhysioProffe would jump in to tell you how shitasse you are*. Certainly at least one correspondent expressed this feeling.

But that tinge of anxiety, fear and possibly shame that you feel should tell you that it is a good idea to perform this little review of yourself now and again. Good to try to step outside of your usual excuses to yourself and see how your CV looks to the dispassionate observer who doesn't know anything about your career other than the publication and NIH-award (or other grants, as relevant) record.

Do you have obvious weaknesses? Too few publications? Too few first/last author (as appropriate). Too few collaborations? Insufficiently high Journal Impact Factor points? Etc.

What is all of this going to say to grant reviewers, hiring committees or promotions committees?

Then, this allows you to do something about it. You can't change the past but you can alter the course of your future.

In some situations, like crafting the NIH Biosketch Personal Statement, you do actually have the opportunity to alter the past....not the reality but certainly the perception of it. So that is another place where the review of your CV helps. That voice of excuse-making that arises? Leverage that. You DO have reasons for certain weaknesses and perhaps other features of your CV help to overcome that if they are just pointed out properly.

*he wouldn't, btw.

32 responses so far

On productivity and the "unfair" grant funding game

Apr 13 2015 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism

There is an article up on ASBMB Today by Andrew D. Hollenbach that laments the shut-down of his research program. In The reality that dare not speak its name we learn:

It was the day after my lab manager left, forced to find a new job by a vicious funding environment that took a trusted employee and friend from me and shut down my research program.

This is terrible, I will acknowledge. I have feared this outcome for my own research program, only briefly interrupted, for my entire independent career. The wolves are always near the door and winter is most certainly coming.

Hollenbach finds this to be unfair. And that assertion triggers slightly more thought than mere sympathy and empathetic butt clenching.

I spent 20 years studying the mechanisms underlying a childhood muscle tumor. I published more than 20 articles with a lab of no more than three people at one time, intentionally kept small so I could focus on mentoring. I established a new paradigm in my field, identified viable therapeutic targets and trained five students (three of whom went to Harvard University for postdocs). I am recognized worldwide for my research.

You would think that all of that would be enough to bring in money and continue my research. But it’s not.

My immediate thought was no, no I don't think that is enough in this day and age. 20 papers in 20 years of an independent career is not a fantastic publishing rate. Of course, yes, there are going to be field and model specifics that greatly affect publishing rate. There will be differences in publishing style and venue as well...if this had been 20 CNS publications, well, this would be pretty good productivity. But a search of PubMed seems to confirm that the pursuit of the very highest Glamour publications was not the issue. I am not an expert in this guy's field of study but glancing over his publication titles and journals I get the distinct impression of a regular-old Jane/Joe type of scientist here. Many people can claim to have established new paradigms, sent trainees off to impressive-sounding postdoctoral stints (or assistant professorships) and to have identified 'viable' therapeutic targets. I say this not to belittle the guy but to point out that this is not in any way special. It is not an immediately obvious compensation for a rather underwhelming rate of publication. For a PI, that is, who asserts he's had a long-term lab manager and up to three people in his group at a time.

Hollenbach's funding hasn't been overwhelmingly generous but he's had NIH grants. RePORTER shows that he started with a component of a P20 Center grant from 2004-2009 and an R01 from 2009-2013.

Wait. What "20 years"?

Hollenbach's bio claims he was made junior faculty in 2001 and won his first Assistant Professor job in 2003. This matches up better with his funding history so I think we'd better just focus on the past 10 years to really take home a message about careerism. One senior author publication in 2003 from that junior-faculty stint and then the next one is 2007 and then three in 2008. So far, so good. Pretty understandable for the startup launch of a new laboratory.

Then we note that there is only one paper in each of 2009 and 2010. Hmmm. Things can happen, sure. Sure. Two papers in 2011 but one is a middle authorship. One more publication in each of 2012, 2014 and 2015 (to date). The R01 grant lists 7 pubs as supported but two of those were published before the grant was awarded and one was published 9 months into the first funding interval. So 5 pubs supported by the R01 in this second phase. And an average as a faculty member that runs just under a publication per year.

Lord knows I haven't hit an overwhelming publication output rate across my entire career. I understand slowdowns. These are going to happen now and again. And for certain sure there are going to be chosen model systems that generate publishable datasets more slowly than others.



One paper per year, sustained across 10 years, is not the kind of productivity rate that people view as normal and average and unremarkable. Particularly when it comes to grant review at the NIH level.

I would be very surprised if the grant applications this PI has submitted did not receive a few comments questioning his publication output.

Look at my picture, and you will not see a failure. You will see someone who worked hard, excelled at what he did, held true to himself and maintained his integrity. However, you also will see someone whose work was brought to a halt by an unfair system.

Something else occurs to me. The R01 was funded up to March 2013. So this presumably means that this recent dismissal of the long-term lab manager comes after a substantial interval of grant submission deadlines? I do wonder how many grant applications the guy submitted and what the outcomes were. This would seem highly pertinent to the "unfair system" comment. You know my attitude, Dear Reader. If one is supported on a single grant, bets the farm on a competing continuation hitting right on schedule and is disappointed...this is not evidence of the system being unfair. If a PI is unfunded and submits a grant, waits for the reviews, skips a round, submits the revision, waits for the reviews, skips another round, writes a new proposal..... well, THIS IS NOT ENOUGH! This is not trying. And if you are not trying, you have no right to talk about the "unfair system" as it applies to your specific outcome.

I close, as I often do, with career advice. Don't do this people. Don't let yourself publish on the lower bound on what is considered an acceptable rate for your field, approaches, models and, most importantly, funding agency's review panels.

PS: This particular assertion regarding what surely must be necessary to survive as a grant-funded is grotesquely inaccurate.

Some may say that I did not do enough. Maybe I didn’t. I could have been a slave-driving mentor to get more publications in journals with higher impact factors. I could have worked 80-hour weeks, ignoring my family and friends. I could have given in to unfettered ambition, rolling over anyone who got in my way.

98 responses so far

A new Stock Criticism for NIH Grants

Apr 11 2015 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH Careerism

I have decided to deploy a brand new Stock Criticism.

 "No effort for a staff scientist is described, which may limit progress."

Feel free to borrow it.

5 responses so far

McKnight posts an analysis of NIH peer review

Apr 08 2015 Published by under NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics, NIH funding, Peer Review


In his latest column at ASBMB Today, Steve McKnight attempts to further his assertion that peer review of NIH grants needs to be revamped so that more qualified reviewers are doing the deciding about what gets funded.

He starts off with a comment that further reveals his naivete and noobitude when it comes to these issues.

Reviewers judge the application using five criteria: significance, investigator, innovation, approach and environment. Although study sections may weigh the importance of these criteria to differing degrees, it seems to me that feasibility of success of the proposed research plan (approach) tends to dominate. I will endeavor to provide a quantitative assessment of this in next month’s essay.

The NIH, led by then-NIGMS Director Berg, already provided this assessment. Ages ago. Try to keep up. I mention this because it is becoming an obvious trend that McKnight (and, keep in mind, many of his co-travelers that don't reveal their ignorance quite so publicly) spouts off his ill-informed opinions without the benefit of the data that you, Dear Reader, have been grappling with for several years now .

As reported last month, 72 percent of reviewers serving the HHMI are members of the National Academy of Sciences. How do things compare at the NIH? Data kindly provided by the CSR indicate that there were 7,886 reviewers on its standing study sections in 2014. Evaluation of these data reveals the following:

48 out of 324 HHMI investigators (15 percent) participated in at least one study section meeting.
47 out of 488 NIH-funded NAS members (10 percent) participated in at least one study section meeting.
11 of these reviewers are both funded by HHMI and NAS members.

These 84 scientists constituted roughly 1.1 percent of the reviewer cadre utilized by the CSR.

This tells us nearly nothing of importance. How many investigators from other pertinent slices of the distribution serve? ASBMB members, for example? PIs from the top 20, 50, 100 funded Universities and Medical Schools? How many applications do NAS / HHMI investigators submit each year? In short, are they over- or under-represented in the NIH review system?

Anyway, why focus on these folks?

I have focused on the HHMI investigators and NAS members because it is straightforward to identify them and quantify their participation in the review process. It is my belief that HHMI investigators and NIH-funded members of the NAS are substantively accomplished. I readily admit that scientific accomplishment does not necessarily equate to effective capacity to review. I do, however, believe that a reasonable correlation exists between past scientific accomplishment and capacity to choose effectively between good and poor bets. This contention is open for debate and is — to me — of significant importance.

So confused. First, the supposed rationale that these elite scientists are readily discernible folks amongst a host of well qualified so that's why he has used them for his example, aka the Street Lamp excuse. Next we get a ready admission that his entire thesis he's been pursuing since the riff-raff column is flawed, followed immediately by a restatement of his position based on..."belief". While admitting it is open to debate.

So how has he moved the discussion forward? All that we have at this point is his continued assertion of his position. The data on study section participation do exactly nothing to address his point.

Third, it is clear that HHMI investigators and NIH-funded members of the NAS participate in study sections charged with the review of basic research to a far greater extent than clinical research. It is my belief that study sections involving HHMI investigators and NAS members benefit from the involvement of highly accomplished scientists. If that is correct, the quality of certain basic science study sections may be high.

Without additional information this could be an entirely circular argument. If HHMI and NAS folks are selected disproportionally for their pursuit of basic science (I believe they are, Professor McKnight. Shall you accept my "belief" as we are expected to credit yours? or perhaps should you have looked into this?) they of course they would be disproportioanlly on "basic" study sections. If only there were a clinically focused organization of elite good-old-backslappers-club folks to provide a suitable comparison of more clinically-focused scientists.

McKnight closes with this:

I assume that it is a common desire of our biomedical community that all sources of funding, be they private or public, find their way to the support of our most qualified scientists — irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity, geographical location or any other variable. In subsequent essays, I will offer ideas as to how the NIH system of grant award distribution might be altered to meet this goal.

Nope. We want the funding to go to the most important science. Within those constraints we want the funding to go to highly qualified scientists but we recognize that "the most qualified" is a fool's errand. Other factors come in to play. Such as "the most qualified who are not overloaded with other research projects at the moment". Or, "the most qualified who are not essentially carbon copies of the three other folks funded in similar research at the moment".

This is even before we get into the very thorny argument over qualifications and how we identify the "most" qualified for any particular purpose.

McKnight himself admits to this when he claims that there are lots of other qualified people but he selected HHMI/NAS out of mere convenience. I wonder if it will eventually trickle into his understanding that this mere convenience pollutes his entire thinking on this matter?

h/t: philapodia

48 responses so far

Do try to keep up

Mar 26 2015 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

I hope you all have read through the Bridges to Independence (2005) report. Yes? It's freely downloadable and told us a lot about the state of NIH extramural funding, age cohorts and demographic disparities....a DECADE ago.

So when Rockey posts abbreviated data sets.....yeah.

3 responses so far

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