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I think I have received at least four NIH grants on the topic of "how in the heck is there very little science done on this entirely obvious (to me) idea?".
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The paper I am working on.
The paper I should be working on as my top priority.
The paper I can't wait to work on once the last bit of data we are waiting for arrive.
The paper I shouldn't bother working on until one of the manuscripts under review comes back with comments.
Only two of these refer to the same manuscript.
As the neuroscientists in the audience prepare for their largest annual scientific gathering, I like to remind my Readers to attend to a chore which will improve their odds of obtaining NIH grant funding. This includes a little bit of homework on your part, so block out an hour or two with your coffee cup.
Part of the process of sustained NIH funding includes the long game of developing interpersonal relationships with the Program Officers that staff the NIH ICs of interest to our individual research areas. Sure, they do turn over a bit and may jump ICs but I've had some POs involved with my proposals for essentially the entire duration of my funded career to date.
Many scientists find the schmoozing process to be uncomfortable and perhaps even distasteful.
To this I can only reply "Well, do you want to get funded or not?".
This post originally went up Nov 12, 2008.
One of the most important things you are going to do during the upcoming SfN Annual Meeting in Washington DC is to stroll around NIH row. Right?
We talk quite a bit around here about the role of Program (meaning the individual NIH Institutes and Centers which fund grant proposals) in determining which grants actually receive funding. Hopefully by this point my readers realize that although the priority scores assigned by the study section (and the resulting percentile ranks) are very, very important there is also a role for Program Officials (POs). The ICs frequently reshuffle the percentile ranks based on a number of factors having to do with the type of science that is proposed, their view of the quality of the review and various IC initiatives, desires and intentions. The process by which the IC selects the grants which it is going to pick up (outside of the percentile order) is a bit opaque but believe you me it is done by real human POs with typical human virtues/failings.
In short, social factors matter. They matter in deciding just which applications get picked up and which do not. I'm sure that the official line is that the process is objective and has nothing to do with interpersonal schmoozing......HAHAHAHAAHAHA! Get real.
This is not the time to get on your high horse about the way the world should work. The annual meeting of a large-ish (like SfN or Experimental Biology) or IC-dedicated-ish (like RSA, CPDD) societies is the time for you to work with reality to nudge your current and future grant applications ever closer to funding.
So find the big row of booths which are populated by the NIH ICs at the upcoming SfN meeting in Washington DC. This is an unbelievably good time since one might assume the density of POs is higher at DC meetings than any other location. The brain institutes will dominate, of course, but you'd be surprised just how many of the ICs have interests in the neurosciences.
Hi, My Name is....
My closest collaborator and PI on a most critically important, low-N developmental biology study once gave some firm advice when I was preparing a slide on the topic of schmoozing NIH Program staff. It was pointed out to me that nonspecific calls to "go schmooze" are not necessarily all that helpful and that trainees could use some specific pointers. Therefore, I'll include some thoughts on somewhat more concrete steps to take for the shy/retiring personality types. Please excuse if I am insulting anyone's social intelligence.
First, you need to spend some time in the next day or two figuring out a couple of basic things. Which Institute (or Center) supports your lab? The labs in the departments around you? Hit RePORTER if you need to, it is simple to search your PI, look at the abstract page for the specific way your University or local Institute is described. Then go back to the RePORTER search and pull up all the awards to your University from a given NIH IC.
Second, ask your PI who his/her POs are. Who they have been in the recent past, if necessary. This is optional but will be useful to make you seem with it when you get to the meeting. If you happen to hold an individual NRSA fellowship, this would be a good time to re-check the name of your PO!
(And I simply must remind the PIs..you too!!!! There is nothing more embarrassing by having no idea who your PO is when s/he is standing in front of you. Yes, I've known peers who don't know who their PO is.)
Third, click on over to the websites of 2-3 relevant ICs. You are going to have to look around a bit for the "Organization" structure because the ICs all have different webpage designs. And I will note that some make it really difficult to do the following research (so if you are stymied it may not be you). Using NIMH as the example, you'll see a bunch of "Offices and Divisions" listed. At this point you are going to just have to wade through government gobbledygook, sorry. It is not always clear which Division is the most specific to your interests. Under each Division (the director of which would typically have a personal portfolio as supervising PO) you will see a number of "Branches" also with a head PO (and often some additional POs) listed. As you are reading the descriptions of the research domains of interest to each Division and Branch you might want to note the ones that sound most like your areas of interest. Maybe even jot down the PO names.
Fourth, if you did manage to get some PO names from your PI you may be able to shortcut this process a bit by just plugging their name into the staff directory or IC page search box to figure out which Division/Branch they inhabit.
Now you are ready to take a stroll on NIH row!
The first thing to remember is that this is their job! You are not wasting their time or anything like that. The POs are there at the meeting, staffing the booth to talk with you. Yes, you. From the trainee up through the greybearded and bluehaired types. So have no concerns on that score. Plus they are quite friendly. Especially in this context (on the phone when you are complaining about your grant score is another matter, of course).
Second, the POs of a given IC will usually have a schedule floating around on the table indicating when you might find a specific person at the booth. Not that you shouldn't talk with whichever PO happens to be there, but you may want to leverage your researches to speak with a specific person.
Third, hang around and swing back by. There are going to be times when the POs are all seemingly occupied by rabid squirrel PIs, gesticulating wildly and complaining about their latest grant review. So you may have to brave up a bit or just wait for a quieter time to get the attention of a PO. Don't worry, there will be plenty of literature sitting on the tables for you to read while waiting your chance to horn in.
So what do you say once you get the attention of a PO? Well introduce yourself, indicate who you work under and, if you can remember under the stress, indicate that the grants you work on are funded by the IC or even that this person is the supervising PO for one of your PI's grants. Tell her a little bit about your research interests-remember, on of the primary jobs of the PI is to tell the POs what is the most interesting current and future science!
After that, act dumb! Seriously, just lay out where you are career-wise and science-wise and say "I don't really understand much about grant support and I figure I need to get up to speed for my future career".
Or you may want to troll 'em with a few choice questions from our discussions here- ask about R21 versus R01, New Investigator fears, RFA versus PA versus totally unsolicited proposals, etc.
Remember, the goal is not solely information transfer. It is to start the process of individual POs in your most-likely IC homes knowing who you are, putting a face to a name and, hopefully, coming away impressed that you have a head on your shoulders and are doing interesting science. You are trying to create the impression that you are "one of their investigators". Yes, my friends, POs have a pronounced tendency to develop proprietary feelings for their peeps. I've been described as such by POs at a time when I didn't even hold funding from the IC in question! So have a few of my peers. If you have trained under their awards, attended "their" society meetings, maybe had a training grant or even just a travel award...well, they are going to be looking out for you when it comes time to pick up New Investigator grants.
In closing, this may sound pretty crass when written out. Really, it ends up being quite natural when you do it. And it gets easier with practice. Believe me. This sort of thing is far from my natural behavior and I was very slow to pick it up. I've seen the results, however, of getting oneself on the radar of Program Officials and it is a very GoodThing.
We recently discussed how the Origami Condom project supported under the Small Business Innovation Research Congressional mandate had quite obvious public health implications in a prior post. This was in response to the gleeful Republican bashing of NIH funding priorities in the wake of NIH Director Francis Collins' rather poorly considered claims* that Ebola research has been held back by the flatlining of the NIH budget over the past ten years.
Today we take on another one of these claims that the NIH has not been using its appropriations wisely. Fox news provides a handy example of the claim:
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has spent more than $39 million on obese lesbians
As the wags are posting on various social media outlets, more Americans have been dumped by [insert popular entertainment personality] than have been killed by Ebola.
In striking contrast, obesity is a big killer of Americans. According to one review of the evidence:
Using data on all eligible subjects from all six studies, Allison et al. estimated that 280,184 obesity-attributable deaths occurred in the U.S. annually. When risk ratios calculated for nonsmokers and never-smokers were applied to the entire population (assuming these ratios to produce the best estimate for all subjects, regardless of smoking status, i.e., that obesity would exert the same deleterious effects across all smoking categories), the mean estimate for deaths due to obesity was 324,940.
Additional analyses were performed controlling for prevalent chronic disease at baseline using data from the CPS1 and NHS. After controlling for preexisting disease, the mean annual number of obesity-attributable deaths was estimated to be 374,239 (330,324 based on CPS1 data and 418,154 based on NHS data).
Over 350,000 Americans die annually of obesity. For the Republican Congresspersons in the audience, "annually" means every year. Last year, this year, next year. Over 350,000.
No biggie, right?
Whoops, maybe it is worse than we thought?
Researchers found that obesity accounted for nearly 20 percent of deaths among white and black Americans between the ages of 40 and 85. Previously, many scientists estimated that about 5 percent of deaths could be attributed to obesity.
And is coming close to beating smoking as the top preventable killer of American citizens?
Flegel et al 2004 and Flegel et al 2013 provide some handy context to estimating mortality causes for the nerdier types. From the 2013 meta-analysis:
[overweight (BMI of 25-<30), obesity (BMI of ≥30), grade 1 obesity (BMI of 30-<35), and grades 2 and 3 obesity (BMI of ≥35) ] .. CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE: Relative to normal weight, both obesity (all grades) and grades 2 and 3 obesity were associated with significantly higher all-cause mortality. Grade 1 obesity overall was not associated with higher mortality, and overweight was associated with significantly lower all-cause mortality.
So. Just this easily we can confirm that obesity is a major public health concern from mortality alone. This doesn't even get into non-mortal effect of obesity on personal well-being. Major public health concerns are the very province of NIH-funded academic research.
So once again, the applicability of grants that are targeted at reducing obesity (even if it is just understanding the causes of obesity) to the goals of the NIH, as mandated by Congress, is not in question. At all. This is not a frivolous expenditure.
That leaves us with the specific projects in question. I trotted over to RePORTER and pulled up 6 current awards- two are K-mechanism mentored training awards so we'll focus on the R-mechanism research projects.
R01 HD066963: SEXUAL ORIENTATION AND OBESITY: TEST OF A GENDERED BIOPSYCHOSOCIAL MODEL
nearly three-quarters of adult lesbians overweight or obese, compared to half of heterosexual women. In stark contrast, among men, heterosexual males have nearly double the risk of obesity compared to gay males. Despite clear evidence from descriptive epidemiologic research that sexual orientation and gender markedly pattern obesity disparities, there is almost no prospective, analytic epidemiologic research into the causes of these disparities. It will be impossible to develop evidence-based preventive interventions unless we first answer basic questions about causal pathways, as we plan to do.
I bolded a key part, from my perspective. You waste a ton of money, often public money, if you go off with solutions to problems without having a clear understanding of the things causing or following from this problem. Epidemiological and sociological research guides not just public policy but also additional studies of physiology, genetic liabilities, etc. So this specific project would seem to be of considerable use.
R01 DK099360:TYPE 2 DIABETES AND SEXUAL ORIENTATION DISPARITIES IN WOMEN
lesbian and bisexual (LB) women may be at elevated risk for developing T2D because they are more likely than heterosexual women to experience obesity and other risk factors linked with T2D such as cigarette smoking, violence victimization, and depressive distress. Nonetheless, knowledge of T2D and how it may disproportionately affect LB women is severely limited. Studies using longitudinal designs that have comprehensively examined how lifestyle, diet, and psychosocial risk factors for T2D may differ between LB and heterosexual women across the life course are virtually nonexistent.
This project emphasizes non-mortal morbidity, i.e., Type 2 Diabetes (T2D). And again, the abstract describes how we know almost nothing about the reasons for the obesity disparity between lesbian and heterosexual women. If we are going to disentangle potential social, behavioral, cultural, physiological and genetic contributors to the disparity, we need information. And very likely, through this research we will come to know more about how these variables affect obesity risk for all Americans, across all subpopulations. This will help us design better interventions to reduce the obesity burden. Clearly this is another grant that is clearly non-frivolous and fits into the public health mandate of the NIH.
R21 HD073120: UNDERSTANDING DISPARITIES IN OBESITY AND WEIGHT BEHAVIORS BY SEXUAL IDENTITY
Previous research indicates that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) adults experience more adverse health outcomes than their peers. Findings from the few studies examining weight disparities among adults suggest that lesbian women are more likely to be overweight or obese compared to their heterosexual peers, though less is known about gay men and bisexuals. Given the scant research to date in this area, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recently issued a call for additional research on LGBT health. Furthermore, IOM highlighted the need to utilize a life-course framework when examining health disparities by sexual identity, acknowledging the unique influence of various life stages on health
What's this now? Even the US Institute of Medicine has reported on how important it is to combat obesity in US citizens? I mean dang, guys, it's the IOM.
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) is an independent, nonprofit organization that works outside of government to provide unbiased and authoritative advice to decision makers and the public.
Established in 1970, the IOM is the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, which was chartered under President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Nearly 150 years later, the National Academy of Sciences has expanded into what is collectively known as the National Academies, which comprises the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Research Council, and the IOM.
And they do investigations, review evidence, compare the facts...
anyway, this R21 is going to focus on young adults and do studies under the following Aims:
(1) Quantify disparities in obesity, dietary intake, physical activity, unhealthy weight control behavior, body satisfaction and other weight-related health outcomes among LGB and heterosexual students; (2) Identify major weight-related health behavioral patterns, or profiles, and the extent to which these behavioral profiles differ by sexual identity and gender; and (3) Characterize these behavioral profiles by demographic factors and health outcomes (e.g., age, socioeconomic status, health care coverage, obesity, and health status). We hypothesize that LGB students engage in more adverse behaviors than their heterosexual peers and exhibit differential behavioral patterning.
Yep, more psycho-social research but I continue to assert that without this evidence, we run the risk of wasting more money pursuing directions that could have been falsified by the epidemiological and social science studies of this type.
The final research project is an R15/AREA grant:
R15 AA020424: MINORITY STRESS, ALCOHOL USE, AND INTIMATE PARTNER VIOLENCE AMONG LESBIANS
Ok, going by the Abstract this one is indeed focused on Alcohol abuse and intimate partner violence and I don't see why it is being triggered by the obesity keyword on the search. But still, I think we can see that this one ALSO would draw right wing fire. Even though, once again, alcoholism and intimate partner violence are huge health issues in the US.
As with the Origami Condom NIH Grant, we can find with relatively little thinking that the "National Institutes of Health (NIH) has spent more than $39 million on obese lesbians" comment is wrongly placed in an article addressing "wasteful" spending on the part of the NIH. These projects address the causes of obesity, which is basically a top predator of Americans at the moment. Obesity causes excess mortality and morbidity, which is of course associated with financial costs. Costs to the individual and costs to us all as a society that shares some degree of social support for the health care of our fellow citizens. It is in our direct and obvious interests to conduct research that will help us reduce this burden of obesity. As far as studying subpopulations who appear to be at increased risk for obesity goes, there is no reason not to want to help African-Americans, Southern Americans, Flyoverlandia Americans or...Lesbian-Americans. Right? And while it may take a little bit of a leap of faith for those who haven't thought hard about it, understanding the causes of a major health condition in those other people over there helps to understand the causes in people who are just like ourselves. By subtraction if by no other means.
For my regular Readers I'll close with a plea. Use analysis like this one to beat back this stupid meme that is going around about "frivolous" NIH expenditures. This is not just about this current Ebola fervor. This is about the normal operations of the NIH as it has progressed over decades. There are always those wanting to score cheap political points by bashing science as trivial or obviously ridiculous. Nine times out of ten, these charges are easily rebutted. So take the time to do so, even if it just posting some text pulled from the grant abstract and a link to a morbidity report on whichever health concern happens to be under discussion.
*"poorly considered" meaning he didn't apparently anticipate handing such a bunch of base-bait to the Republicans.
The comment of Francis Collins (NIH Director) about Ebola research being hampered by the decade long slide in NIH funding brought out a bit of the usual about science and the public interest. With the usual back and forth about how stupid and uninformed Americans just can't grasp how terribly important your genejockery ChiPSlipNDip EleventoptoArckylit bullshittio is.
I had a thought.
Maybe you all have trouble interesting your friends, family and neighbors because you do actually work on stuff nobody gives a flying fig about? and it IS actually irrelevant to them? just asking. I mean, I have never met a single person that isn't interested in talking about my stuff...
A Rockey post that I originally missed last spring tells us that the median age of first R01 for Early Stage Investigator (ESI) applicants is 39. This is of comfort to my longstanding inability to match the 42 year old number with my experience- I, of course, mentally ignore a key part of the NI distribution from which that median derives.
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One does not demonstrate "genius" by being the first over the line to answer a question that a whole bunch of other people know is the question and are likewise pursuing. Particularly when the thing that lets you "win" is access to some particular datum that someone else just doesn't happen to have right now.
Genius is more credibly associated with answering questions that no other scientist even realizes is the key question yet.
I'm in the middle of a slightly unusual grant reviewing task. It's weird in several ways but all you need to know is that all of the proposals were previously scored VERY highly. As in highly enough to get funded, highly.
You might imagine that these proposals would all be kick ass wonders of grant preparation, supportive preliminary data, innovation, slick and seamless plans of attack and all that jazz.
If you have been paying attention to my continued assertions about what happens in regular study section you will not be surprised in the least to learn that this is not so.
These suckers have warts all over them. Some of them, in my view as just one reviewer, are pretty terrible on many of the usual dimensions.
Just goes to show you.
There is an interesting story over at retraction watch.
Last month, PubPeer announced that a scientist had threatened to sue the site for defamation. At the time, all PubPeer would say was that the “prospective plaintiff” is a US researcher” who was “aggrieved at the treatment his papers are getting on our site.”
Today, PubPeer revealed the that the prospective plaintiff was Fazlul Sarkar, a distinguished professor of pathology at Wayne State University in Detroit. Sarkar’s attorney, Nicholas Roumel, tells us that Sarkar had a job offer from the University of Mississippi, which rescinded it after seeing comments about his work on PubPeer.
The part that interests me is, as you might predict, that the offending "comments" at PubPeer detail retractions, suspicious figures and basically edge right up to calling Sarkar a cheater. A data faker. A fraud.
If it is indeed the case that this guy had a job offer at a different University and it was revoked, we may finally be seeing a clear success of post-publication review.
One of the thornier problems involved with nailing a data faker is the twin whammy of Universities having no skin in the game once a data faker has departed their employment and a general fear of being sued for defamation if data faking cannot be proved.
There was a prior case detailed on this blog in which a pair of scientists hop-skipped-and-jumped across three Universities until eventually disappearing. There is a fair bit of high quality rumoring that they finally got busted for data fakery.
There are other cases, even in the ORI findings, where a given scientists seems to have a short tenure at a given University and moves quickly along. Eventually, the person is busted and it may become clear that some of the fraudulent work stretches back to a prior appointment.
What one wonders is how many times a scientific fraud departs his or her University before an investigation can come to a conclusion? Gets out of Dodge before the posse arrives. Given the usual lengthy process of investigation, she or he would know long before any finding can be made public that the heat was coming. Long enough to search out a faculty appointment elsewhere. Perhaps at a lower-profile institution that cannot believe their good fortune that such a high-flier wants to work there (and bring all that grant money!).
Maybe this is a case where the University got wind of the cheating before they hired the guy. Thanks to publicly available comments on his suspicious data.