On NIH funded research: Job or "gift"?

Dec 17 2009 Published by under Careerism, Grant Review, NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

I had a very fascinating comment pop up in a prior thread following a post which described the relationship between Congressional budget passing and the ability of the NIH to fund grants. This was motivated, I will remind you, by a comment at writedit's place from a trainee who was holding a 3%ile score (i.e., well within any likely payline) and anticipating a NIH fellowship award on Dec 1.

A couple of commenters described NIH grants as "FREE money" or "gifts"..and I took exception to this characterization.

There were a couple of exchanges until finally another (?) commenter laid down enough rotten egg to merit another post. It started with:

Bitter much?


Sure. I'm bitter about some aspects of this career and not bitter about others. Some of those issues I talk about on the blog affect (or affected or might affect) me personally and some only apply to others. So what? On the whole this is a pretty good business to be in, which I talk about now and again. You think people should just shut up and not complain about anything having to do with their professional lives? Get real.

Now another reason for answering this question has to do with this comment:

I'm actually asking because I am curious, as a research administrator

Okay, I'll credit this as true. If so, we have a serious problem here if the people administering government programs for the support of science actually think these things. It actually explains quite a lot about how cavalier some "research administrators" seem to be about issues that are highly important to the funded research staff out and about in the rest of the country.

full circle back to mandatory vs. discretionary grant programs. Interstate highways are mandatory, a research project that is funded out of millions of applications, is discretionary. Two different unrelated pools of MONEY.

This is because this and another commenter want to, as usual, focus on the trees instead of the forest of the general point that I am making. It boils down to this.

The NIH is a government program like any other. It is, in the end analysis, an extension of the will of the US citizens. Like any other program, expenditure or service of the US federal government. You can whinge all you want about your own political preferences but once a program is in place they are all the same from a philosophical stance.

When our country decides to pay a warfighter or a politician or a scientist it is all the same. When it chooses to build a road, contribute to local school districts' educational budgets, pay for health care for the older folks or buy a fancy new fighter jet....it is the same.

An extension of the will of the people.

If you want to characterize one of these as some sort of "gift" or handout or "FREE" money...you need to characterize all of the government activities in the same way. Conversely if you characterize any of the government activities as needed, necessary or something other than a gift than you are full of stuff and nonsense to refer to any other specific program as a "gift".

This whole mandatory/discretionary nonsense is a bunch of crap. Yes we understand that the government structures some of its expenditures so that they are easier to change month to month, year to year and decade to decade. So what? How is the timeframe or ease of change relevant to how it should be viewed?

And in this I've answered the next question:

Please can I ask this question... Why is there the expectation that the federal government should subsidize your livelihood?

Well, if this commenter is on the federal dime we might turn the question on him/her. Why should it subsidize *your* livelihood? Are you expected to fight out your ability to do your job on a 5yr (haha!) cycle for 10% hit rate? Are you expected to fight out your ability to have a job and get paid? Are you sanguine about a 4 mo gap in salary while Congress fails to pass a budget? Is every other aspect of the federal layout equally sanguine? ...cause I seem to remember some pretty loud whining during some previous "shut down the federal government" disputes between prior Congresses and Presidents.

Obviously there are levels of expectation. In some senses, nobody is guaranteed any job under our political system. I happen to think that is okay. But there is also some degree of community compact and trust between employer and employee that, IMO, maximizes mutual benefit, productivity and all around good social stuff. In the case of NIH-funded science I do think that recently we have veered so far over into uncertainty of resources and uncertainty of career that the enterprise itself, meaning the desired goal of the federal effort under the NIH, is getting submaximal output.

why PIs balk at submitting reports and gripe about applications, when in reality you get close to millions over several years in "gift" money to run a lab and all they ask is for a yearly report?

Well I can't really help out with the first one. I don't "balk" at submitting my annual progress report, I support the necessity myself. The reason we gripe at applications, as you well know, is that the process takes us away from what we are really supposed to be doing. You know, creating new knowledge and reporting it into the archival literature. Training the next generation of scientists to take over for us. Trying to transmit our knowledge to the public which employs us (and government research administrators) as well. But again, this is not "gift" money. Far from it. We are not doing this as some sort of self-indulgent fluff entirely at our own behest. We are doing this because the taxpayers of the US have decided, and expressed in the course of the political system, that they wish to purchase scientific advances. We scientists are employees of the tax payer when it gets right down to it. We are being paid to do a job and we do it.

Really in the case of grants there are no "deliverables". You don't promise a cure for AIDS and they don't expect one from you, they just expect you to try.

Sure there are deliverables. Knowledge. We're supposed to generate new understanding of the natural world, broadly put. And that's exactly what we do. There is uncertainty and failure to deliver, perhaps, but all the government can do is to halt payment or fail to award subsequent funding (unless there are specific penalties built in or fraud/misconduct). This is just the same as any other government layout, all of which expect some sort of deliverable result. Building a new government warplane or administrative software system or stretch of interstate... none of these differ from science in any categorical way that I can detect.

What other profession on earth has that kind of flexibility?

Look, dude, I'm starting to hear a little of the green monster come out here. If you will recall, the point of my prior post was to criticize Congress for not getting their budgets passed on time. I didn't say anything to criticize NIH program officials who are mere pawns of that appropriations process. Yeah, this gig is pretty cool and has a lot of upsides. I happen to like it quite a bit myself. But there are a lot of other jobs which have other kinds of upsides which we do not enjoy. Do we need to start talking smack about gold plated toilet seats, defense contract overruns, bailouts for companies "too big to fail", the infamous FBI software system that wasn't, NIH intramural output per dollar spent and Lord knows what other government actions that look like pretty cushy gigs to an NIH-funded extramural PI?

Let me come back to my core realization. Let us just suppose this person is a program officer at the NIH. I don't know that it is, but let us suppose. This is a person who thinks that NIH grants are some sort of "gift" to be lavished or withheld as some sort of whim? really? This might explain why the institution as a whole seems so cavalier about the impact of the way they do business. Unfortunately, viewing their corner of the government's business in this way actually interferes with the success of that little corner of activity.

How so? Well there are some relatively direct impacts. First, the uncertainty and variability of funding impedes scientific progress. I don't care what kind of science you are talking about, there are going to be benefits of sustained resources whether they be trained staff, colonies of gene-altered mice, physical research space or some other things. Part of the PIs job is to keep those resources steadily maintained over time- uncertainty or unanticipated delays in the granting process compromises output. Second, the overall impression of a good or bad career arc influences who stays in the business for the long haul. Some people who might be fantastic scientists are going to take a look at this process and run for the hills industry or take teaching-only jobs. Some are going to exit the career because they failed to get tenure based on grant-getting criteria that reference a time long-past instead of the present. The point here is not to levy blame but to point out that there is an impact. It matters how well NIH manages its extramural research force.

Finally, in a practical sense, the more you expect the scientists to spend their time writing endless applications for funding, the less time they have for concentrating on the science. Sure, technically grant preparation is not on the NIH dime. But that is ridiculous. Even if a PI is in a sufficiently hard money job to technically prepare applications on University time, it sucks up their time. Time that would otherwise have been spent thinking about and working on the NIH-funded projects. No matter how you parse it, the NIH is getting less output for their money if they are failing to optimize the awarding of grant moneys.

34 responses so far

  • Namnezia says:

    I couldn't agree with you more. I don't think people realize how difficult this job is or how valuable it is to society.
    Sigh.

  • Sara says:

    We need to stop calling these things grants and start calling them what they are fee-for-service.
    This is a service. This is what you get paid for preforming said service. Sometimes that service is laying concrete, sometimes it is coming up with a better concrete, doing concrete analysis. They all need to be done or we'd still be riding on crappy dirt roads right? Sometimes these things happen in the private sector and sometimes nations decide to pay for them for the good of the nation (well in theory). They are all things that are done.
    There are a very very very few "gift" programs. Very very very few. Usually something is expected in exchange. It makes me sad but unsuprised that people don't understand this.

  • lost academic says:

    In other parts of the government, they're called contracts. Some have specific outcomes delineated. Some don't because they can't. Perhaps the public, too, would be able to understand better what the money is for (and maybe prioritize it better...) if it were discussed in terms that more of us use regularly.

  • Excellent post DM. I lost track of the commenting on the previous post, but anyone who thinks of grant money as a "gift" or something other than paying for the research output in an essentially contractual way has no sweet fucking clue what goes on in academic research. If said person is in any way affiliated with a funding body, that scares the shit out of me... but explains a lot.

  • Bitter Much says:

    What if that person posted to see what your comments were? I actually really liked your opinions and liked the discussion it generates.
    "The reason we gripe at applications, as you well know, is that the process takes us away from what we are really supposed to be doing. You know, creating new knowledge and reporting it into the archival literature. Training the next generation of scientists to take over for us. Trying to transmit our knowledge to the public which employs us (and government research administrators) as well. But again, this is not "gift" money. Far from it. We are not doing this as some sort of self-indulgent fluff entirely at our own behest."
    That's what I expected to hear, and I can't disagree one bit.
    Although yes there is a huge difference between mandatory and discretionary funds. Mandatory grants are as you speak of from the "will of the people". They are called "entitlement programs" The demand for federal highways, social security, unemployment, and medicaid. These programs have authorizing legislation and these funds are rock solid guaranteed. Discretionary, is the more flexible funds. Earmarks come out of these funds, NIH funding for biomedical research along the same lines. The categories are not interchangeable when there is a shortfall in one category the other category. The pot for discretionary funding is not very large, and there are many competing priorities.
    Contracts are 100% different than grants. Contract is a legally binding document in which the parties make promises to deliver a product or service in exchange for consideration (usually money.) You can be taken to court for breach of contract. A comparison would be clinical trial agreements. There a milestones and deliverables. Anyone who has a contract will tell it's a different animal. Monthly reporting due to submitting invoices, more active involvement of the funder, stringent auditing and accounting. Fee for service is a contract.
    A grant is more so a good faith effort, one party grants funds to another party to do something, in reasonable hopes that the task can be accomplished. If you fail to deliver, just because your research does not pan out, its still a task accomplished. Barring any research misconduct, you will not find yourself in court in most instance for a "breach of grant".
    Thus the "gift" idea.
    "research output in an essentially contractual way has no sweet fucking clue what goes on in academic research"
    As someone from the academic world from academic research, sometimes I think it's not the most hospitable condusive enironment for research. You get some start up funds, if you're a PI then you generate your salary from grants. It's a hard pressure environment. Your way into getting a better position and tenure, is having a long litany of funding and publication behind your name.
    But let's just touch upon something I heard most often from the older established PIS facing difficult times: "20 years ago this would have been funded". Science is known for innovation, and being current. Why wouldn't you expect the landscape and design of funding not to change as well? Did the federal organizations create this with their era of doubling or did academic institutions create this with their expectations and their demands?
    But the point is, what if there isn't enough wealth for the masses and a bulk of most research scientists have the attitude that their research should be consistently funded by the federal government. Demand is higher than supply.
    So going back to the post doc who passed up on the teaching opportunity because he counted on the award starting exactly in December, neglecting that as the forms say it's the earliest possible start date, as you accurately state nothing is guaranteed until a Notice of Award arrives. But should the post doc be grateful for the opportunity rather than having some expectations?
    Sorry so long.

  • CP says:

    I'm curious how you think the new NIH application rules will affect the state of affairs. Applications will be shorter but that might only benefit reviewers in the end (a good thing, nonetheless). In relation to the issue of time allocation, it might take just as long, or longer, to write a succinct and effective application under the new rules.
    A concern of mine is that the impact and innovation criteria might produce a system that tends to reward those with an above-average ability to conjecture rather than do above average science. Moreover, they are talking about "revolutionary," not "evolutionary" science. The latter is what I've always thought scientific development primarily is built upon and what most scientists can hope to be effective at doing. Revolutions are tough to come by and come up with.
    Will the "free" money take even more work to obtain?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    What if that person posted to see what your comments were?
    Oh we would never post something provocative around here just to see what people had to say about it, nuh-uh.
    I actually really liked your opinions and liked the discussion it generates.
    Me too!!
    Barring any research misconduct, you will not find yourself in court in most instance for a "breach of grant".
    What about if you don't do any research and spend it on a yacht? My point is that the situation is not categorically different just because the contractual conditions differ in specificity.
    But should the post doc be grateful for the opportunity rather than having some expectations?
    My point in discussing this is mostly to make as many folks aware as possible that start dates tend to slip past the "first available". It should be apparent that this is not obvious to everyone and can really disrupt their planning. Just part of our overall mission to help to communicate career-related tidbits that I may have learned the hard way...

  • sandokan says:

    "Evolutionary" without "Revolutionary" Science historically leads to "Stationary Science"

  • whimple says:

    A concern of mine is that the impact and innovation criteria might produce a system that tends to reward those with an above-average ability to conjecture rather than do above average science.
    I concur with sandokan above. Any trained (drug)monkey can do "above average science", or fully half of them can anyway. 🙂 The ability to move science forward is very strongly rate limited by the capacity for conjecture, rather than the capacity for doing.

  • TIred of entitled Attitude says:

    Good post, Bitter.
    One last thing to point out about the start date post. If no one submits for the Dec. 1 earliest possible start date, the NIH isn't going to change their cycles of funding. They're going to fund to the determined percentile from that round, even if it isn't the best, cutting edge science because that's what they have to choose from and all the people who saved their applications for later rounds because of the funding issue in December, i.e. the Continuing Resolution, will find a much more difficult time getting funded because of the sheer volume of applications vying for that round's pot. So, you can accept the fact that this is how it works, you are not guaranteed to be funded by December 1, and be happy you get funded or you can choose to wait and run the risk of never getting funded.
    The guy who submits and never makes it is going to have an extremely hard time mustering up any sympathy for those of you who do get funded. I bet he would bend over backwards and do backflips just to be able to say he was funded by the NIH.
    One last thing, the federal government has a responsibility to fund medical research to improve the health and welfare of the citizens of the United States. Through funding medical research, the health and welfare of the global community is being improved as well. No one doubts the work that goes into what you do and no one thinks you should have to do it for "free." But the federal government is not duty bound to fund medical research in the academic, non-profit, for-profit, etc., communities. They could take ALL the funds and fund research within the government labs. However, in the infinite wisdom and grace of some people in goverment many years ago, it was determined that the very BEST investment of the medical research funds would be to go into those communities because the forward-thinking, cutting edge science was there. That is why the NIH was established and has always been the mission of the NIH - to improve the health and welfare of the country through advancing medical research. That is why this is discretionary and why everyone should be glad this funding is available. As a taxpayer, I am eternally grateful for the advances the medical research community have made in my lifetime. I guess I'm just a glass half full kind of person.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    you can choose to wait and run the risk of never getting funded.
    Let's not mistake my kvetch here. Every so often I hear people start to strategerize on the best round to submit. This is crazy talk. The best round to submit is the next available one after the Aims crystallize in your mind. Put that bad girl in and write another one for the next, most strategic round....
    But the federal government is not duty bound to fund medical research in the academic, non-profit, for-profit, etc., communities.
    The federal government is not duty bound to fund most of the stuff it does either, no matter the discretionary/mandatory (unless it is laid out in the Constitution) or politically entrenched/unentrenched nature of it. This was why I emphasize that essentially ALL federal government services and efforts should be viewed identically. If one is a "gift" or something of the like, then they all are. NIH-funded science is not unique. The fed could choose to build jet fighters with their own Foundry of Military Hardware and Kewl Exploshuns!!11!! .. but they don't.

  • Bitter Much says:

    Ohh the yacht, you had to bring Stanford in this debate? Buying a yacht would be misconduct, therefore legal penalties.
    Ok yeah, it's a gift with some strings attached.
    Actually "first available" is related to start dates, the first date that NIH can legally make an award. Alot goes into that.
    Please note this little caveat on the Standard Due Dates for Competing Applications chart:
    NOTE: Awarding components may not always be able to honor the requested start date of an application; therefore, applicants should make no commitments or obligations until confirmation of the start date by the awarding component.

  • Tired of Entitled Attitude says:

    I pay taxes for roads/military/all that mandatory stuff, it ain't a gift. I bought and paid for it.
    By the way there are new laws made every year in this country, which our forefathers left of the constitution (eg. who knew we would need highways for troop movements-Eisenhower did, Jefferson didn't), that are duty bound in exchange for taking our income taxes. So in essense taxpayers have purchased all these things; defense from enemies foreign and domestic (military), infrastructure, and improved health and welfare. I can drive on any road I choose, but I can't walk into your lab and use it whenever I wish, what I do expect for my tax dollars is that you may be the one to find the cure for cancer. If I get cancer, I expect access to the cure. This is why funding for medical research via grants is a gift.

  • drdrA says:

    Time spent writing grants takes away from every other aspect of academic science- including the generation of 'deliverables' which are knowledge and papers.
    When I think of the amount of time that I have spent in the last 3 years just writing grants... Well, its crazy. I would have loved for those to be spent writing papers.

  • kellybean says:

    Time spent writing grants takes away from every other aspect of academic science- including the generation of 'deliverables' which are knowledge and papers.
    When I think of the amount of time that I have spent in the last 3 years just writing grants... Well, its crazy. I would have loved for those to be spent writing papers.
    Posted by: drdrA | December 18, 2009 11:53 AM
    By what other method would you hope to obtain grants if you're not writing grant applications? The Grant Fairy?

  • whimple says:

    By what other method would you hope to obtain grants if you're not writing grant applications? The Grant Fairy?
    By intramural funding. After single-digit paylines destroy scientific continuity everywhere else, that's all that will be left.

  • drdrA says:

    Kellybean- NO, I'm happy to write grants. But 22 in 3 years is quite a lot of time spent grant writing. And... that much time spent grant writing makes it nearly impossible to encounter the inevitable criticism of review panels that your productivity (which is ONLY measured in papers published) is low.

  • namnezia says:

    I agree with drdrA, I spent most of my time during my first 2-3 years of my faculty position writing unsuccessful grants, and this seriously cut into the productivity of my lab. This "lack of productivity" was of course smarmily pointed out by sadistic grant reviewers who then proceeded to trash my grant, restarting the vicious cycle again. Following the advice of a senior colleague, I then took a year off from grantwriting to get a bunch of papers out. After that the comments on the grants and attitude of the reviewers improved dramatically. Even so it took countless tries and 5 1/2 years before my R01 was funded - with the start date pushed back to Jan 1. But I'm not complainin' If I were starting over, I would try to get papers out a soon as possible and then start submitting grants, if your startup allows you to.

  • Jonathan says:

    Not to mention, if it wasn't for the grants coming in, the university wouldn't be able to topslice 50+% off the bat in order to pay for the research admin's salary and stuffed bear collection that they decorate their office with (there's probably needlepoint homilies too, to be fair).

  • Paula says:

    As a professional grant writer, I have helped hundreds get funding without being taken from their work. Think about hiring a grantwriter to write and then administer the grant. This person is a sub contractor, not employee...

  • DM,
    As you know I have argued, and written, before about how we need to communicate to the people what a tremendous return on investment they get from the NIH dollar. From the NIH director's budget report in 2007, “The estimated total cumulative investment at the NIH per American over the past 30 years including the doubling period is about $1,334 or about $44 per American per year over the entire period. In return, Americans have gained over six years of life expectancy and are aging healthier than ever before.”
    So for about $44 per person per year, the average American gains 2.4 months in life expectancy per year. Of course, the NIH is not solely responsible for this---but it is the chief driving force behind biological research that impacts health and medicine. There's your freaking deliverable.
    And for those who want to talk 'gifts', how about those great private sector economy boosters like the banking industry, the auto industry, the airline industry etc, huh? Never touch the government dime do they? Just this one banking industry/WallSt bailout could have funded the NIH for 25-50 years.
    So there's illusion of productivity---while people line their pockets with, essentially and eventually, taxpayer money---that gets respect as 'industry', while the reality of productivity---of thousands of researchers working at modest salaries, without bonuses or often even thanks, to advance the cause of knowledge and medicine---gets labeled as, essentially, welfare?
    As far as I'm concerned, anyone who talks about grants being gifts or who thinks of NIH as a way to 'subsidize a scientist's livelihood' instead of as an agency that pays for the generation of knowledge and medical advancement, or prattles on about 'deliverables' and other convenient Liberitario-republico ignorant talking-point bullshit that need have no tether to actual productivity, can shut the fuck UP.

  • Tired... says:

    Jonathan, the grantee institution - who is the recipient/grantee, not the individual - negotiates an F&A rate to pay for that admin salary. They do not topslice 50% +/- off the bat. The F&A is added to the grant on top of the Direct costs you request. Maybe in the past this happened, but that would have been a long time ago. And the admin component of that rate is limited to 26%. So if your institution's F&A rate is high, ask yourself what it is really paying for (facilities, capital buildings, utilities...)

  • KellyBean says:

    And just for the record, we don't have stuffed bear and needlepoint collection. It's a collection of ceramic cats. So offensive.

  • Tired... says:

    Anonymoustache..
    Debate party foul!!! Don't name call and curse people just because you don't agree!

  • BikeMonkey says:

    Word up, AM, word up!

  • drdrA says:

    Anonymoustache- Excellent, excellent point.

  • Tired... says:

    Ok, here's to everyone who doesn't like the way NIH funding is doled out. Hopefully, this will lighten the mood. Just don't forget, it's called peer review (your peers, presumably).


  • SurgPA says:

    #13-
    "I pay taxes for roads/military/all that mandatory stuff, it ain't a gift. I bought and paid for it...If I get cancer, I expect access to the cure. This is why funding for medical research via grants is a gift."
    Your argument isn't even internally consistent. As to the expectation of access to cure, it sounds like you're arguing a right to health care. I think that's a different topic, but is that your position? Access to health care is a right?
    Just as you pay taxes to have access to the roads that are built (I don't think you can call-in an air-strike at will, btw...) your taxes pay for access to the information gained by funded research. This information gets published. All you have to do is read...

  • SurgPA says:

    As a corollary to my comments above, am I correct to think that information gained/published from NIH grants becomes "public" knowledge, as differentiated from industry-funded research which frequently generates proprietary knowledge? Or is this oversimplified/wrong?

  • Tired.. says:

    I expect the cure for cancer to be available to anyone and not private because tax dollars have been used. If you pay for it from your own pocket without tax dollars, keep it. Don't share it, whatever.
    What makes you think I can't call in an air-strike?

  • Bitter Much says:

    Yup, SurgPA you're right, it's not oversimplified at all.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    SurgPA you are correct that published work is public knowledge and in fact a few years ago this was re-emphasized by act of Congress. Prior to this action, the literature was "public" but tied up in fee-access. Private publishing companies would take the NIH-generated manuscripts without payment or (amazingly enough) at additional charge to the authors and then turn around and charge fees for their journals. If you've ever tried to get a journal article recently you'll see that it is something on the order of $25 or more per article to get a single article if you are unaffiliated with a library system. At present, NIH grantees are obliged to deposit their manuscripts in PubMed Central so finally, at last, there is something closer to open access to the taxpayer funded work. w00t!

  • FredX says:

    At present, NIH grantees are obliged to deposit their manuscripts in PubMed Central so finally, at last, there is something closer to open access to the taxpayer funded work.

    The infrastructure to do do this was set up a while ago and when submission was voluntary, the response was dismal. How is that consistent with

    We are doing this because the taxpayers of the US have decided, and expressed in the course of the political system, that they wish to purchase scientific advances. We scientists are employees of the tax payer when it gets right down to it. We are being paid to do a job and we do it.

    I think there is more than a few academic scientists that don't feel the responsibility that that last quote implies. It shows up not only in the lack of effort to make the research they do broadly and usefully available, but also in the notion that no matter how many academic postions are created, or how many people are submitting grant applcations, there should be a constant success rate. Why should the tax payer be expected to take responsibility for the structural problems in academic science?

  • physician scientist says:

    I didn't take any offense at all when my research administrator (with the ceramic cats AND teddy bears) called my Burroughs Wellcome "that little grant" because they don't give indirects.
    For what its worth, I'm 3 years into running a lab. I bring in $214K in indirects to the university and pay 90% of my salary - no, I don't think the university is making money on this deal at all.

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