The NIH Grant "Have" States Resist Sharing

Apr 04 2014 Published by under NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics, NIH funding

From the Boston Globe (of course):

Two dozen rural states stretching from Maine to Mississippi and Montana are clamoring to increase their share of federal research dollars now disproportionately awarded to Boston-area institutions and scientists.

Whaddaya mean, "disproportionately"? WE DESERVE IT!!!

“There’s a battle between merit and egalitarianism,” said Dr. David Page, director of the Whitehead Institute, a prestigious research institution in Cambridge affiliated with MIT.

Yeah, pure merit versus affirmative action quotas for lame ass science from Universities we've never heard of maaaang. There couldn't possibly be any bias in grant review and award that puts a finger on the scale could there?

In one of the efforts, Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican on the Appropriations Committee, is proposing that funding for the special program to benefit rural states, formally called the NIH’s Institutional Development Award, be raised to $310 million, up from the current $273 million. The current amount equals just 1 percent of the institute’s research grants — a drop in the bucket compared with what Boston researchers win each year.

Last time I checked Massachusetts Congressional District 8 for NIH funding (probably a number of FY ago), Brigham and Women's Hospital was pulling in $253,333,482 in NIH grants. MIT? $172,184,305. Harvard Medical School? $168,648,847. The list goes on in this single Congressional district.

and while the Globe has this scare passage near the top:

The coalition of states that benefits from the NIH special program for rural states doubled the amount of money it spent on lobbying in the last decade, to $590,000 in 2013 from $300,000 in 2003. That number does not include direct lobbying by universities in those states.

this is going to barely manage to tread water against the combined might of the richest of "have" Universities and institutions:

Representative Michael Capuano, whose district encompassing the Boston-area research hospitals wins more NIH money than any other congressional district, said the Massachusetts delegation is playing defense right now.

“The system works reasonably well but it’s under attack in a serious way,” Capuano said.

Massachusetts is mobilizing. Hospital executives, university presidents, and Washington lobbyists make routine trips to the Capitol. Their not-so-subtle message: Boston is on top because its elite institutions offer the best chances of big scientific breakthroughs.

then there is classic misdirection and the usual conceit that the NIH award process is purely about merit, uncontaminated by self-reinforcing vicious cycles of the rich getting richer.

“There are people in Boston who deserve more than a million dollars in NIH money because that is the best use of those dollars,” said Dr. Barrett Rollins, chief scientific officer at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a top recipient of federal research funds. “Congress has a responsibility to spend taxpayer money in the best possible way, and to me, the most straightforward way to do that is to make sure the dollars are invested in the most meritorious work without regard to geographic distribution.”

Because the quality of science is not evenly distributed across the country, researchers should not expect federal dollars to be either, said Harry Orf, senior vice president for research at Massachusetts General Hospital, another top recipient of NIH grants.

“You have congressmen who can’t evaluate science sending money to places not rated for innovation,” Orf said. “As funds get more and more scarce, you want to make sure you’re betting on the best science.”

It is beyond asinine to pretend that the NIH grant money is distributed by geographic affirmative action to any extend that squeezes the elite coastal research institutions. The above numbers and any current search on RePORTER verifies that the kind of money that is being proposed to go into this geographical affirmative action is a drop in the bucket. One or two of the larger institutions funded by NIH (and keep in mind that a place such as "Harvard" is made up of multiple institutions which are named as independent awardees in the NIH records) account for the entire outlay in the the NIH’s Institutional Development Award program. Even if the increase to $310M goes through.

There is considerable debate about "the best science" and about the best way to hedge our scientific bets. The NIH works, haltingly, in a way by which the serendipity of chance discovery from a diversity of approaches is balanced against predictable brute-force progress from exceptionally well funded Universities, Medical Schools and research institutions. I find myself citing papers from the very biggest institutions, sure, but I have numerous critical findings that I cite in my work that have come from smaller research programs in smaller Universities and (gasp) Colleges. Don't you? If you do not, I question your scholarship. Seriously.

I suggest a purely self-interested goal, for those of you who are elite-coastal-University die hards. Every Congress Critter gets a more or less equal vote. The ones from Maine (Susan Collins, see above), from Alabama....

“It’s hard to compete against MIT or Harvard. . . . They’ve had their share. A lot of state colleges and universities all over the country, from Idaho to Maine, have some ideas too, and I think we should give these people from smaller schools in other states an opportunity,” said Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. “It’s time to fix that.”

from West Virginia...

“The program stipulates that not everything goes to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford,” said Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat.

and from Oklahoma, among others.

Representative Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, said he’s simply interested in supporting research that occurs “outside the normal corridors of power.”

Rep Cole seems to understand why geographical affirmative action is necessary, doesn't he?


“There is a network where you tend to reward peers and people you know, and I think the distribution of funds, not intentionally, is skewed a bit toward places like Boston,” Cole said. “We just want to make sure that the playing field is fair.”

We need all these Critters to be on board if we expect Congress to listen to our pleas on behalf of the NIH.

It is politically stupid to fail to understand this.

52 responses so far

  • If these dumshittes had half a fucken brain, they'd be all like, "YES! We totally support putting a couple hundred million more into this program! It is very important to nurture science all over the country!" And then *their* fucken congressdouches can negotiate with the redneck congressdouches on some reality-based level.

    Do they really have no idea what delusional narcissistic ILAF assholes they sound like??

    This fuckewaddes are like dinosaurs staring at the asteroid barreling down on the earth going "This asteroid has a responsibility to hit some other planet, because we dinosaurs are the bestest animals and the asteroid should make sure that it doesn't wipe us out without regard for the laws of gravitational physics."

  • arlenna says:

    Wow, just wow. That is so ridiculously elitist, I can't even...

    It just further reinforces why I would never want to work at one of those Ivyitis institutions. I am afraid I would end up drinking the kool-aid, too.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    One of the reasons it's so difficult to implement even modest cuts to defense spending is that the military was careful to spread the useless pork vital national security investments among as many congressional districts as possible. Those trying to keep science funded could learn from this.

  • Though MA's Senator Warren today called for doubling the NIH budget. Maybe growing the pie higher (to use a phrase) is the answer here.

    Also, it was interesting to note that Maryland's massive NIH funding bolus (NIH is in Bethesda) goes unmentioned (I know, those aren't awards).

    I agree though, it's politically tone-deaf.

  • Dave says:

    Because the quality of science is not evenly distributed across the country

    Dear oh dear. What a ridiculous statement. Surely only an administrator could say something like this.

  • Dee says:

    If Shelby et al. wants to have more of the pie for other states how about they get lobbied to make the pie bigger. Everybody wins right? Those Bostonians quoted sounded so snobbish looking down their noses at institutions outside their state. I'd wager that many discoveries come out of their institutions because they have the resources to essentially take a published idea moving forward at snails pace (because of lack of funding) and run with it and get the credit.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    Only way CPP's comment could be improved is to add some profanity.

  • MorganPhD says:

    Of course Harvard will get more (absolute) dollars than the University of Oklahoma. The question is whether or not the success rates at Harvard are 60% while at the University of Oklahoma are 5% (hypothetically, since the NIH will almost certainly NEVER release individual university success rates, which it absolutely should). Or if awarded budgets are being cut more in Idaho than in California. And does Yale get an advantage because they can negotiate an indirect rate of 65.5% while Idaho gets 45.3%.

    Those are interesting questions. It's not interesting (to me, at least) if 20X more PI's are applying for grants in Boston than are in Alabama.

    IMO, lobbying for an increased NIH budget will not solve any of these types of structural, state-to-state issues. The additional $$$ will be reabsorbed by the large institutes proportionally to what it is now.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I don't think the coastal elites really want to get Congress Critters engaging with indirect cost rates, do you?

  • Odyssey says:

    The Bostonians aren't worried about the ~$40 million increase in IDEA funding. Hell, their share of the loss would be a mere couple of R01's a year. Not enough to get their jockstraps all knotted. They're worried about the future potential of that funding. IDEA awards fund a lot of infrastructure, including a lot of core facilities. Core facitilities IDEA eligible institutions wouldn't otherwise have. That infrastructure gives investigators the ability to put in more competitive proposals. More competitive proposals means the Bostonians stand to lose a much bigger share of the increasingly limited NIH pot.

  • MorganPhD says:

    Of course the coastal elites don't want Congress to know about indirect costs. I actually don't think any university REALLY wants Congress to look into the NIH budget, other than to approve a larger overall budget.

  • Ola says:

    The only way in which I've seen these programs work against good science, is in more rural areas of states with big cities. So for example the ventral valley of CA, the rural bits of IL, NY, PA. Because they "already have enough" research infrastructure in the big cities, they're not eligible for COBRE type awards. There are some real backwaters in those places that are arguably just as podunk as ME, OK, VT et al.

    It really shouldn't be by state, but by city or even institution. Divvying up resources by state completely sucks because divvying up anything by state also sucks. But, given this is the system we have, yeah the Hahvads etc. should fuckin' spread the love, selfish twats.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    Funding science across the US has a huge amount of broader impacts than just a few areas. Though the calls for "level playing field" from the crowd that never wants to level the playing field of any number of other areas is a bit rich.

    DM, I heard the craziest thing today- the possibility of removing the "substantial revision" criterion for new A0 related to previous A1. Supposedly announcement soon- I was kind of surprised.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Interesting. A return to essentially A7s? Or a move to make all submissions A0?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Wait Odyssey...but if "merit" is the plan here, why should the Boaston crowd fear that infrastructure equalization would affect them? I mean, they are the best scientists, right? It doesn't have anything to do with the resources they command or anything....

  • CD0 says:

    I have worked at COBRE/IDEA eligible institutions and it was much easier to get funding to support a lab. In fact, I thought that there was some waste of resources being poured at places without competitive research.

    I do not think that cutting funds from meritorious projects to give easy money to unproductive institutions benefits scientific progress. And I do not think that the best minds will be massively attracted to rural North Dakota if millions of dollars are spent in building new facilities in the prairie. The most productive scientists that I know prefer an environment of scientific excellence and nearby industrial partners where they programs may grow, although this typically implies more competitive conditions.

    Merit, competition and accountability have been always the bases of success of Science in America and what made a difference with, for instance, European countries.

  • qaz says:

    I'm not going to defend getting congress getting involved in indirect costs (because congress is such a mess right now), but indirect costs are very very different at elite and non-elite institutions. In fact, because salaries are so different between these big coastal cities and the rest of the country, the direct costs are often very very different at elite and non-elite institutions. If we were allowed to take cost into account on study section, we might well find people saying "I'll take two projects at StateResearchU in trade for that one project at FancyPseudoIvySchool."

  • qaz says:

    PS. I strongly second Academic Lurker's comment. Imagine what the US would look like (in terms of congress, education, and the whole anti-science mess) if we had well-funded earmarked science aimed at every congressional district in the country, where thousands of jobs in each congressional district depended on continued science funding.

    Of course, someone on this blog has been arguing in favor of the Thunderdome of competition and against the small town grocers who tend to live in those other institutions, who can't compete against the FancySchools with their large private endowments and their large PR departments connected to big media markets.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Who has been "arguing against" small town grocers from smaller institutions, qaz? 🙂

  • drugmonkey says:

    CD0- and of course there is *never* any waste of $$$ at highly funded institutions, right?

  • Things Scientists Know Yet Are Not True: 'elite' schools have higher indirect costs. No one is leaving money on the table. No one.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    Supposedly it was still A0/A1 model, but pseudo A2 is an A0 and treated like a new application. I really don't know what to think. Supposedly came from a PO (second hand to me), but maybe this was a discussion that happened on April 1? Who knows.

  • qaz says:

    Mike - I never said the overheads weren't necessary. Nor did I say the salaries weren't necessary to survive in expensive FancyCoastCities. Just that the cost of science is less in those other schools.

  • Mark says:

    The place to watch over the next decade or so is California, rather than Boston area.
    http://grantome.com/blog/california-rules-r01-race
    Also, it is possible to create booming biomedical research centers outside of California & Massachusetts: North Carolina research triangle, Pittsburgh, and Ann Arbor, Michigan are examples. If any of you are in this area, can you tell me what they are doing 'right'?

  • MorganPhD says:

    PhD students, postdocs, and new faculty should be required to take courses on federal grants and university expenses including fringe rates, indirect costs, lab budgets, etc.

  • MorganPhD says:

    Suggestion for the "smaller, non-elite schools". Stop trying to emulate the "elite" schools. Carve out a niche. Do something different.

    No matter how hard Harvard tries, it's not going to beat the University of Wisconsin Department of Dairy Science at it's game.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Mark- I suspect you will find most attempts to create biotech reasearch hubs fall flat. Most successful ones arise organically around a research university. We'll have to keep watching south FL but I hear it isn't going so well. That's the latest fresh-sheet one that I've heard of.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Also, are you really comparing CA (with three major research areas) with a single city? Are we comparing Texas to Johns Hopkins University too?

  • DJMH says:

    If we were allowed to take cost into account on study section,

    It's a lot simpler than that. We could just raise the R01 budget, but include indirects in the budget, so that everyone gets the $350K/year or whatever, but at high-IDC institutions the PI ends up with about half that, whereas at low-IDC institutions the PI ends up with more like two-thirds. That would really encourage PIs to consider whether those high-IDC places were worth their overhead.

  • GAATTC says:

    DJMH,

    That's a pretty interesting proposal...

  • drugmonkey says:

    Every time the NIH starts talking about this the elite coastal institutions gird for war. And the talk quickly goes away. Congress Critters don't care about scientists and ephemeral value counters like papers. They understand dollars and jobs on their districts. So indirect or direct means little to them.

  • Mark says:

    @Drugmonkey
    We looked both at individual institutions as well as whole states. In the first figure of that blog, we showed how the individual institutions were changing what fraction they obtained of the grant pool on the US map. In the last figure of that blog we compared the whole states (i.e. whole CA, MA, MI, etc.) by summing over all the institutions.

    Obviously, in this comparison, just like in the institutional comparison, there is a 'number of people bias'. Larger institutions, just like larger states might be able to accumulate a significantly larger share of resources. Regardless, the direction of change is important and one can see states in the middle of the country getting 'blue' - losing the money - and the coasts getting 'red' - gaining the R01 share.

    But we can provide raw data/analysis for anything you want.

  • In the larger context, it's worth remembering that these coastal elitist states send pay more in federal taxes than they receive in federal expenditures. Maybe we want to fix that as well?

  • becca says:

    I'd love to see more geographic diversity in where NIH dollars go. That said, perhaps the bigger question is how much congress should fiddle with NIH's process. If congress critters get it into their heads that every time they try to change the process of awarding money the scientists all collectively scream blood murder... maybe that has some advantages?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Obviously, in this comparison, just like in the institutional comparison, there is a 'number of people bias'.

    Which is why, as scientists, we want to avoid such inaccuracies where possible. I grasp that Senators work on a state basis, and Reps too. But for those of us who aren't political, is this a reason to make idiotic comparisons? I think not. Some states have a single big research institute, some have several and many have none. Only a limited number of states have geographic clusters and even fewer have more than one cluster. Mixing these things up is muddying the waters.

    Regardless, the direction of change is important and one can see states in the middle of the country getting 'blue' - losing the money - and the coasts getting 'red' - gaining the R01 share.

    absolutely. would love to see these as broader longitudinal trends. at what times did the non-coastal or non-elite regions gain ground? would be important to devising policy to reverse the recent trend, I would think.

    MtMB: it's worth remembering that these coastal elitist states send pay more in federal taxes than they receive in federal expenditures. Maybe we want to fix that as well?

    I'm sure the agribiz subsidy map would look different. as would the defense equipment map. but so what? Science can be done almost anywhere. Me, I am still pulling to site a new University of the United States in Detroit. Sort of like a service academy but for science.

    becca: That said, perhaps the bigger question is how much congress should fiddle with NIH's process.

    Definitely a real danger here. But it can be done right. We're still under a huge Congressional mandate on HIV/AIDS. Can argue whether topic domain still needs X amount of attention but the mandate resulted in a relatively light hand. Institutes were given the money to distribute but didn't say who, where or what projects. That was all left in the hands of the existing system. See the SBIR program as well. There is no reason that setting higher IDA targets for traditionally less-well-funded states (there are many) is going to be heavy handed dictation.

  • Ass(isstant) Prof says:

    I certainly support the increase in IDeA funding, for all of the reasons stated in posts above. Disclaimer: it's in my own interest because I live in an IDeA state and my startup was paid by IDeA funds.

    The impression one gets from this side is that study sections and ICs view IDeA funding (COBRE, INBRE) as something that gives them cover to limit R-series grants in those states. Because, hey, the local research climate just isn't good enough.

    One other aspect is the training opportunity afforded by IDeA funding. This mechanism has helped my university to hire new faculty with solid postdoc CVs and innovative research. These people also provide a much different perspective in the classroom to faculty with backgrounds more focused on teaching. Hence, good biomedical education gains a better geographic distribution. I've know some great students with MCAT scores in the 40s, who just couldn't afford to go out of state to BSD U. Should we limit the opportunities for these students because they aren't in Boston? One of the under grads doing IDeA-supported research in my lab was just accepted into a great east coast neuroscience PhD program. That wouldn't have happened otherwise.

    It's a pittance to Boston, but it does make a difference on the local level.

  • Davis Sharp says:

    I agree with the political sense of putting more money into the pool that goes to rural states with their Republican representatives who control the House appropriations.

    But isn't it about competition for grant awards? Isn't it about getting the best scientific return on investment? Isn't it about migration of skilled labor to areas that attract their talents through local investment? To read of GOP politicians asking for handouts because their constituents are ill-prepared to compete is affirmative-action socialism.

  • The Other Dave says:

    What's really stupid is all the deans and scientists who still think that federal funding is a sign of scientific skillz rather than ability to eat political pork.

    The next time you hear someone praised with the phrase "continuously funded by NIH...", shout: "Yea? my family's been continuously funded by the federal government via food stamps, but you don't hear me bragging about living off the taxpayer dime! Can we just hear whether the science is any good?"

  • AcademicLurker says:

    The next time you hear someone praised with the phrase "continuously funded by NIH..."

    It was at my previous institution that I first heard people explicitly mention NIH funding when introducing seminar speakers. It struck me as weird and misguided then and it it still does.

  • rs says:

    AL: It is not more weird than introducing speakers with 50 journal articles, 20 patents and 5 book chapters as if they are tomatoes you can count. At least one R01 is more or less equal to another R01 (if you are a PI)and can be counted, but none of my article are same, some were highly creative and fun (and a lot of work), whereas others were run of the mills, and then there are ones where I did not do anything other than providing a figure or so.

  • Jonathan says:

    Seems to be a lot of cake having-and-eating going on here. If we accept that we're training too many scientists for too few jobs, then we thin the herd and that means spending more of NIH's money at BSD locations. But that's not consistent with saying we need to spread NIH's money across the country and that each university and institute is a special snowflake and should still deserve funding.

  • drugmonkey says:

    then we thin the herd and that means spending more of NIH's money at BSD locations.

    Yeaaaah, that makes no sense at all. Why does thinning the herd mean further geographic accumulation? The calls to reduce the available overhead, to insist on minimum PI time per grant award, to cap total PI awards or directs, to ban soft-money faculty....all of these #fixtheNIH proposals are consistent with better geographical distribution.

  • Fe says:

    From gold standard to 'power standard'?

    maybe, and it would explain the money distribution, or allocations in time and space per groups. But the bottom line is that it does not have to be like that because it leading to devolution.

    If money is printed legally at no interest millions of 'jobs' can be made available in a short time, infraestructure can be upgraded, and a true civilization will emerge from the current ashes. There still is warmth under them.

  • dsks says:

    "If we accept that we're training too many scientists for too few jobs, then we thin the herd and that means spending more of NIH's money at BSD locations. "

    Thinning the herd in a manner that actually cuts costs meaningfully means going after grad and postdoc support, not PIs necessarily (The numbers might surprise me, but I doubt that trimming flyover country PIs would have a meaningful impact on the budget and available funds.). That would have to disproportionately affect BSD institutions where PI staff ratios are typically v. high.

  • […] Punko made an interesting comment on the […]

  • Jonathan says:

    dsks - wouldn't cutting grad students and postdocs have the same effect as cutting PIs in flyover country? After all, you'd be taking away their labor force.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I think the allegation is that smaller-time PIs spend more effort doing actual hands-on science and therefore require fewer minions. (Alternately, they have more freebie grad students and undergrads to exploit.)

  • Jonathan says:

    That's certainly an interesting allegation.

  • drugmonkey says:

    It often comes with the implicit (or occasionally explicit) claim that the science is somehow improved by the PI doing more hands-on work.

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