Archive for the 'NIH' category

Peer review and the death sentence

Jun 25 2015 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism

It is relatively easy to kill grant applications because the reviewer knows the applicant can always apply again.

Same thing for hiring decisions because surely some lesser University will hire the three other candidates on the short list.

In many tenure cases, the Department knows that this person will get a professorial rank job elsewhere*.

Germain's scheme is going to require peers in the field to pass a death sentence on the career. And to make the numbers add up, there will be a LOT of this.

Those peers know that they themselves will be up for chopping in the next 5-7 years.

I do not foresee much enthusiasm for scoring progress as deficient and this will only grow more intense with each successive 5 year review interval.

*and anyway these are so personal at this point that it is a different matter.

15 responses so far

Republicans of Science

Jun 25 2015 Published by under NIH, Tribe of Science

10 responses so far

Predicting the future

Jun 24 2015 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism

One of the biggest whoppers told by Ronald Germain in his manifesto on fixing the NIH is this:

it is widely accepted that past performance, not a detailed research plan, is the best predictor of future success. So why stay with the fiction that R01 grant proposals are the best method for determining support of the individual scientist,

As I often say there is nothing so a-scientific and illogical as a scientist on the business of science.

The way he states this plays the usual sleight of hand with the all-important, unmentioned variable.

Namely, the means to do the research. Grant funding.

There is no bigger predictor for the success of a given research plan submitted to the NIH than whether or not the PI receives the funding to do the work. Funnily enough, Germain actually recognizes this and totally undercuts his argument in one of his caveats:

with 5–7 years of support per round and 1–2 years of bridge funding available, I think it is unlikely that a highly competent investigator will fail to produce enough during 6–9 years of research to warrant a “passing grade” without further extensions, except in extenuating circumstances.

Right? He sees right here that all that matters is funding. Most competent investigators will succeed if they but have the funding! Which makes his idea that this will cut down on competition and the "stochastic" nature of getting the grant funding look as silly as it is.

It's just another way to say "We'll pick our favored winners in advance of any independent accomplishment based on who they trained with (i.e., us!) They will keep right on winning because they will be the only ones with the means to accomplish anything. All others can stay the heck away from our effortless stream of moola, no matter how good their ideas might be".

This is important and it is why basing funding on accomplishment, rather than great ideas and the capacity to fulfill them is recipe for a death spiral of the Extramural NIH productivity as a whole.

This plan will self-reinforce and harden a silo around a limited set of brains, doing science in the way they see fit. Good ideas from outside this silo will not be given a chance to compete....unless they happen to occur to someone inside the silo. And on the whole, that person will not represent a diversity of ideas, approaches and interests. This will, across the enterprise of NIH-funded science, reduce the rate of discovery.

Those who manage to accomplish will continue to have a stranglehold on the means to accomplish. Means leads to accomplishment leads to more means in the Germain scheme.

So what gets accomplished will be narrowed, iteratively, with each 5-7 year review. Only to be refreshed, minimally, with each squeezed down cohort of new hires who manage to make it into his starter, block-grant scenario. Those, of course, will be selected by Universities on the basis of seeming like the people who are already most successful since the review will be anticipated to be on the basis of the person. Naturally, the trainees of the insider club will be most highly sought after. (Take a look at the way HHMIers, espcially the Early Career ones have been trained folks. about the past predicting the future and all, right?)

So when you hear someone talking about "the best predictor of future performance is past performance", make sure to ask whether that is with or without the funding and how they know this.

The second truthy whopper Germain tells follows soon after.

true creativity is often cause for lower scores?

Personally I have yet to see a well-prepared truly creative grant get killed just for being creative and new. Maybe wackaloon geniuses who have great ideas but simply refuse to write an actual grant proposal struggle in some sections. I guess. But here's a secret for Germain. (A "secret" known to just about anyone who has served on 2-3 traditional standing study sections.) People that he is talking about, those who have demonstrated a high level of accomplishment in the past 5-7 years, get away with utterly crappy proposals and still get their funding based on their record of accomplishment.

That's right. We ALREADY have a system in place that HUGELY benefits and prioritizes the funding of people with a track record of accomplishment. The "creativity" in their proposal does not prevent them from getting funded. Nor, btw, does diverging substantially from the plan they got the money for hurt them in the next round of evaluation.

Given this, there is no conceivable way that switching to Germain's plan changes the ability to be creative.

Now, for those outsiders or people with a brand new idea absent a track record....yeah, they may take it on the chin under the current NIH system. But they would ALSO fail to gain support under Germain's. It isn't like we're inventing up some new peers to do the reviewing here. No matter if it were McKnight's panel of NAS members or Germain's ideas of the deserving elite or traditional NIH-style panels judging the "track record"....there is no way that we can assume that genius PI behind every PCR or gene knockout technology or whatever Nobel-worthy breakthrough will be immediately recognized as awesome and funded.

28 responses so far

Ronald Germain Explains How To Fix The NIH

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99 responses so far

Gender smog in grant review

Jun 19 2015 Published by under Gender, Grant Review, NIH, NIH Careerism

I noticed something really weird and totally unnecessary.

When you are asked to review grants for the NIH you are frequently sent a Word document review template that has the Five Criteria nicely outlined and a box for you to start writing your bullet points. At the header to each section it sometimes includes some of the wording about how you are supposed to approach each criterion.

A recent template I received says under Investigator that one is to describe how the

..investigator’s experience and qualifications make him particularly well-suited for his roles in the project?


12 responses so far

The Germain nonsense on fixing the NIH

Jun 19 2015 Published by under Fixing the NIH

I know you guys want to talk about this ridiculous commentary because the blog ephone has been ringing off the hook. Unfortunately I really don't have the time for a proper post.


UPDATE: One thing I noticed about the proposal that merits a little more....specific discussion.

I believe the NIH should transition to a system that links getting a first job (faculty appointment) with sufficient funding to support a reasonably sized laboratory (three to five people, including the PI) in terms of staff salaries and supplies

Obviously there is a big range in terms of types of staff and the amounts that they are paid. However, I think we can start with the salaries of a 0 experience postdoc on NRSA scale ($42,840) and a 4 year postdoc (50,112). I am going to use $100,000 as the PI salary.

Benefits can range from 25% to 50% (again, as a rough approximation based on my limited experience with such numbers) which brings us to $241,190 or $289,428 per year for a three person laboratory. That is salary cost only. Obviously types of research vary tremendously but I have heard numbers in the range of 60% to 80% of research grant costs going to support staff salaries. Before we get into that, let's raise the estimates to Germain's upper bound of a lab of 5 individuals, the PI as above and two of each experience level postdocs ($357,380 and $428,856, depending on benefit rate).

With this estimate, if the staff cost is 80%, this brings us to the $357,380-$428,856 per year range. If staff cost is 60% of the research grant expenditure, then $595,633 - $714,760 range.

I invite you to compare these numbers, which Germain is recommending for 5-7 years starting presumably from Day 1, with the funding trajectories of yourself and your peers. At the upper bound, three modular R01s worth of funding for the entire duration of the pre-tenure interval.

This call is for a LOT fewer noob Assistant Professors being allowed to get in the game, by my calculation. Either that, a huge Congressional increase in the NIH budget or a massive retirement of those who are already in the game.

Note that I too would love to see that be possible. It would be fantastic if everyone could get three grants worth of funding to do whatever the heck they wanted, right from the start.

But in the real actual non-fantasy world, that would come with some serious constraints on who can be a scientist.

And I do not like people like Germain's ideas on who those people should be.

59 responses so far

Re-Repost: The funding is the science II, "Why do they always drop the females?"

The NIH has recently issued the first round of guidance on inclusion of Sex as a Biological Variable in future NIH research grants. I am completely behind the spirit of the initiative but I have concerns about how well this is going to work in practice. I wrote a post in 2008 that detailed some of the reasons that have brought us to the situation where the Director of the NIH felt he had to coauthor an OpEd on this topic. I believe these issues are still present, will not be magically removed with new instructions to reviewers and need to be faced head-on if the NIH is to make any actual progress on ensuring SABV is considered appropriately going forward.

The post originally appeared December 2, 2008.

The title quote came from one of my early, and highly formative, experiences on study section. In the course of discussing a revised application it emerged that the prior version of the application had included a sex comparison. The PI had chosen to delete that part of the design in the revised application, prompting one of the experienced members of the panel to ask, quite rhetorically, "Why do they always drop the females?"

I was reminded of this when reading over Dr. Isis' excellent post [Update: Original Sb post lost, I think the repost can be found here] on the, shall we say less pernicious, ways that the course of science is slanted toward doing male-based research. Really, go read that post before you continue here, it is a fantastic description.

What really motivated me, however, was a comment from the always insightful Stephanie Z:

Thank you. That's the first time I've seen someone address the reasons behind ongoing gender disparities in health research. I still can't say as it thrills me (or you, obviously), but I understand a bit better now.

Did somebody ring?

As I pointed out explicitly at least once ([Update: Original 2007 post]), research funding has a huge role in what science actually gets conducted. Huge. In my book this means that if one feels that an area of science is being systematically overlooked or minimized, one might want to take a close look at the manner by which science is funded and the way by which science careers are sustained as potential avenues for systematic remedy.


There are a couple of ways in which the generalized problems with NIH grant review lead to the rhetorical comment with which I opened the post. One very common StockCritique of NIH grant review is that of an "over ambitious" research plan. As nicely detailed in Isis' post, the inclusion of a sex comparison doubles the groups right off the bat but even more to the point, it requires the inclusion of various hormonal cycling considerations. This can be as simple as requiring female subjects to be assessed at multiple points of an estrous cycle. It can be considerably more complicated, often requiring gonadectomy (at various developmental timepoints) and hormonal replacement (with dose-response designs, please) including all of the appropriate control groups / observations. Novel hormonal antagonists? Whoops, the model is not "well established" and needs to be "compared to the standard gonadectomy models", LOL >sigh<.

Grant reviewers prefer simplicity
Keep in mind, if you will, that there is always a more fundamental comparison or question at the root of the project, such as "does this drug compound ameliorate cocaine addiction?" So all the gender comparisons, designs and groups need to be multiplied against the cocaine addiction/treatment conditions. Suppose it is one of those cocaine models that requires a month or more of training per group? Who is going to run all those animals ? How many operant boxes / hours are available? and at what cost? Trust me, the grant proposal is going to take fire for "scope of the project".

Another StockCritique to blame is "feasibility". Two points here really. First is the question of Preliminary Data- of course if you have to run more experimental conditions to establish that you might have a meritorious hypothesis, you are less likely to do it with a fixed amount of pilot/startup/leftover money. Better to work on preliminary data for two or three distinct applications over just one if you have the funds. Second aspect has to do with a given PIs experience with the models in question. More opportunity to say "The PI has no idea what s/he is doing methodologically" if s/he has no prior background with the experimental conditions, which are almost always the female-related ones. As we all know, it matters little that the hormonal assays or gonadectomy or whatever procedures have been published endlessly if you don't have direct evidence that you can do it. Of course, more latitude is extended to the more-experienced investigator....but then s/he is less likely to jump into gender-comparisons in a sustained way in contrast to a newly minted PI.

Then there are the various things under grantspersonship. You have limited space in a given type of grant application. The more groups and comparisons, the more you have to squeeze in with respect to basic designs, methods and the interpretation/alternative approaches part. So of course you leave big windows for critiques of "hasn't fully considered...." and "it is not entirely clear how the PI will do..." and "how the hypothesis will be evaluated has not been sufficiently detailed...".


Although research funding plays a huge role in career success, it is only part of the puzzle. Another critical factor is what we consider to be "great" or "exciting" science in our respective fields.

The little people can fill in the details. This is basically the approach of GlamourMagz science. (This is a paraphrase of something the most successful GlamourMagz PI I know actually says.) Cool, fast and hot is not compatible with the metastasizing of experimental conditions that is an inevitable feature of gender-comparison science. Trouble is, this approach tends to trickle down in various guises. Lower (than GlamourMag) impact factor journals sometimes try to upgrade by becoming more NS-like (Hi, J Neuro!). Meticulous science and exacting experimental designs are only respected (if at all) after the fact. Late(r) in someone's career they start getting props on their grant reviews for this. Early? Well the person hasn't yet shown the necessity and profit for the exhaustive designs and instead they just look...unproductive. Like they haven't really shown anything yet.

As we all know splashy CNS pubs on the CV trump a sustained area of contribution in lower journals six ways to Sunday. This is not to say that nobody will appreciate the meticulous approach, they will. Just to say that high IF journal pubs will trump. Always.

So the smart young PI is going to stay away from those messy sex-differences studies. Everything tells her she should. If he does dip a toe, he's more likely to pay a nasty career price.
This is why NIH efforts to promote sex-comparison studies are necessary. Promoting special funding opportunities are the only way to tip the equation even slightly more favorable to the sex-differences side. The lure of the RFA is enough to persuade the experienced PI to write in the female groups. To convince the new PI that she might just risk it this one time.

My suspicion is that it is not enough. Beyond the simple need to take a stepwise approach to the science as detailed by Isis, the career and funding pressures are irresistible forces.

9 responses so far

Really NIDA National Advisory Council? REALLY????

Jun 09 2015 Published by under Fixing the NIH, Intramural Research Programs, NIH

I was reading over the minutes from the 119th meeting of the National Advisory Council for NIDA. As you may imagine, Dear Reader, I am more than usually interested in the doings of this particular IC.

I ran across the part where Hannah A. Valantine, M.D., MRCP, Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity, National Institutes of Health came to report on diversity issues, explicitly linked to the wake of the Ginther report.

She began her focus as the COSWD by reviewing evidence from the NIH Intramural Research Program as a Laboratory for Testing Interventions to Diversify the Biomedical Workforce evaluation. The results, as of October 2014 showed that among intramural tenure track investigators 38 % are female and 1.4% are African American, 10% are Hispanic, and 0.5% are Native American compared to approximately 61% being both males and white.

PhotoCredit: ASBMB

PhotoCredit: NIDA IRP

Wow, NIDA IRP, wow. Only 1.4%...okay that's just Jean Lud Cadet, correct? I mean, you only list 28 "PIs" so how many tenure track investigators could there be?

Not something that is on our radar that much out here in extramural researchistan but.... yeah. Get on that NIH ICs. I would be fascinated to see the representation numbers for the various NIH Intramural Research Programs at the various levels of lab heads and non-head so-called tenure-track investigators. I imagine this is not going to look good.

There's a lot more blah de blah in the NIDA Council notes from Valantine about the NIH efforts, particularly the "pipeline" solutions that so irritate me.

But that isn't the hilarious part. The hilarious part comes after Valentine described detail the strategy and essential components, such as a strategic partnership with research intensive institutions, and tracking and evaluation. Program deliverables, would include: a national network to support career transitions; evidence-based literature to eliminate/reduce barriers to key career transition points; Individual access to the network in support of career development success; organizational infrastructure to support career development and transitions; and tools and resources to catalyze and sustain career transition success.

Here was the Council response.

NIDA Council members thanked Dr. Valantine for her dedication to this issue and for implementing so many diverse and potentially transformative programs. Council members encouraged, as applicable by the research, efforts to measure success with endpoints other than “tenure”.


Oh hey, let's not create too high of a barrier for ourselves. Let's not set it at sustained tenured research careers THAT WERE THE VERY POINT OF THE GINTHER REPORT! Differential success of PIs at getting grant funding. How is this not intimately tied to the tenure success of African-American academic scientists?

Failing grade, National Advisory Council. Failboat.

2 responses so far

NIH Mandate to Consider Sex as a Biological Variable in Grant Apps

Jun 09 2015 Published by under NIH, NIH funding, Sex Differences

The NIH has published NOT-OD-15-102 Consideration of Sex as a Biological Variable in NIH-funded Research which informs us:

This notice focuses on NIH's expectation that scientists will account for the possible role of sex as a biological variable in vertebrate animal and human studies. Clarification of these expectations is reflected in plans by NIH's Office of Extramural Research (OER) to update application instructions and review questions; once approved by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), these updates will take effect for applications submitted for the January 25, 2016, due date and thereafter.


Accounting for sex as a biological variable begins with the development of research questions and study design. It also includes data collection and analysis of results, as well as reporting of findings. Consideration of sex may be critical to the interpretation, validation, and generalizability of research findings. Adequate consideration of both sexes in experiments and disaggregation of data by sex allows for sex-based comparisons and may inform clinical interventions. Appropriate analysis and transparent reporting of data by sex may therefore enhance the rigor and applicability of preclinical biomedical research.4

NIH expects that sex as a biological variable will be factored into research designs, analyses, and reporting in vertebrate animal and human studies. Strong justification from the scientific literature, preliminary data, or other relevant considerations must be provided for applications proposing to study only one sex. Investigators are strongly encouraged to discuss these issues with NIH program staff prior to submission of applications.

Additional information is provided in a three page PDF overview:

Literature review. Consider and describe how sex and gender may influence the research question(s) at hand. Conduct a review of the human clinical literature and any relevant preclinical literature. If there are differences between males and females in previous preclinical or clinical studies, this would provide a strong rationale for building consideration of sex into the research design and analyses of data. The absence of previous study data in an area of research does not, by itself, constitute strong justification to study only one sex.

Very nice. So helpful. Look NIH, clearly this is going to be a place where applicants who do not wish to incorporate SABV into the design are going to seek a loophole. What would be helpful here would be a more assertive statement about what does and, most importantly does not, constitute a "strong justification to study only one sex". Uncontrolled, this will devolve back to the reviewers who are already failing (going by your highly effortful and high profile new initiative) to appropriately favor* SABV in research grant proposals. They are the ones that will decide that the tiniest fig leaf of excuse making is acceptable "justification" if you give them half a chance to do so. This part needs strengthening.

and later on in the document:

Single-sex studies. Applicants must provide strong justification for applications proposing to study only one sex. Such justification may include the study of sex-specific conditions or phenomena (e.g., ovarian or prostate cancer), acutely scarce resources (e.g., non-human primates), or investigations in which the study of one sex is scientifically appropriate. The absence of evidence regarding sex differences in an area of research does not constitute strong justification to study only one sex.

Sex-specific conditions or phenomena, check. Good. Will hard-to-breed mice constitute "acutely scarce resources"? Human drug abusers of various characteristics that make it hard to recruit female or male participants? The devil will be in the detail. But "scientifically appropriate"? Again, this holds open a big old loophole of escape. And a repeat of the absence-of-evidence statement. What does this mean? What are the limits on this strong justification? How are you going to get reviewers on board with this, instead of leaving them to accept any old excuse?

Research design, data analysis, and reporting.
....Where little or no sex-specific data is available, sex-specific hypotheses may not be possible, whereas previously observed sex differences may prompt sex-specific hypotheses.

Dude what? Are you kidding with this? We all know there must be a supported hypothesis in the research plan. And if there has not been any sex-differences research in the past, well, there are no hypotheses we can advance. And therefore, so sorry, we must avoid proposing anything that investigates SABV because the study section will kill us for lack of a clear hypothesis**. Another whoppingly huge escape clause for the SABV resistant PI.

Acknowledge limitations in the applicability of findings that may arise from the samples, methods, and analyses used, in the research plan as well as in progress reports and publications.

Emphasis added. HAHAHAHHAHHAA!!!! Yeah RIGHT! Every NIH Grant awardee who does not explicitly include SABV in a paper must make sure to add the caveat in the Discussion that their results cannot be extended to the other sex. Sure that's going to happen. Sure.

Finally, one for my peers who already conduct SABV research with regularity.

Researchers working with animal models should consider if and how the female estrous cycle is relevant for experimental design and analysis; it may be relevant for some research questions and not others

This one is pointed straight at the buzz saw of the sex-differences aficionado Stock Criticism of grant applications. One of the ways that sex-differences gets stamped out of research proposals is that the "real" experts start in on "YOU MUST DO THE SEX-COMPARISONS RIGHT AND AS WE HAVE DONE". This may include cycle synchronization, gonadectomy, pharmacologico-hormonal manipulations, endless groups, etc, etc, etc.

There is little tolerance from these people for "First, let's give it a go in female (or male) animals/cells/tissues and see what we turn up" exploratory fishing expeditions.

I would argue that tolerance for fishing expeditions is precisely what the NIH needs if they want to jumpstart real change. You have to make the barrier low and, especially in this day and age, of low cost. Demanding that it has to be SABV design 101eleventy at all times or it is not worth doing is going to motivate resistance. Resistance on the part of PIs doing their grant proposing and on the part of peers doing the grant reviewing.

I propose that a NIH policy of "Any old Third Aim that will engage in sex-differences comparisons is good enough and a total freebie for the first five years***" is what is necessary.

*oh yes, believe you me there are puh-lenty of investigators who propose SABV aspects in proposals and get it beat out of them at review.


***that may have to be slightly more formal

34 responses so far

Learning and training

Jun 05 2015 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism, Peer Review

Every aspect of human endeavor that involves teaching newcomers how to do something involves both didactic and practical experiences. 

That is just the way it works.

Grant review is one of those things. Formal instruction only gets the job partially done. More learning takes place in the doing.

6 responses so far

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