On PO/PI interactions to steer the grant to the PI's laboratory

Jun 18 2018 Published by under Alcohol, NIH, NIH funding

There has been a working group of the Advisory Committee to the Director (of NIH, aka Francis Collins) which has been examining the Moderate Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health Trial in the wake of a hullabaloo that broke into public earlier this year. Background on this from Jocelyn Kaiser at Science, from the NYT, and the WaPo. (I took up the sleazy tactics of the alleged profession of journalism on this issue here.)

The working group's report is available now [pdf].

Page 7 of that report:

There were sustained interactions (from at least 2013) between the eventual Principal Investigator (PI) of the MACH trial and three members of NIAAA leadership prior to, and during development of, FOAs for planning and main grants to fund the MACH trial

These interactions appear to have provided the eventual PI with a competitive advantage not available to other applicants, and effectively steered funding to this investigator

Page 11:

NIH Institutes, Centers, and Offices (ICOs) should ensure that program staff do not inappropriately provide non-public information, or engage in deliberations that either give the appearance of, or provide, an advantage to any single, or subset of, investigator(s)

The NIH should examine additional measures to assiduously avoid providing, or giving the appearance of providing, an advantage to any single, or subset of, investigator(s) (for example, in guiding the scientific substance of preparing grant applications or responding to reviewer comments)

The webcast of the meeting of the ACD on Day 2 covers the relevant territory but is not yet available in archived format. I was hoping to find the part where Collins apparently expressed himself on this topic, as described here.

In the wake of the decision, Collins said NIH officials would examine other industry-NIH ties to make sure proper procedures have been followed, and seek out even “subtle examples of cozy relationships” that might undermine research integrity.

When I saw all of this I could only wonder if Francis Collins is familiar with the RFA process at the NIH.

If you read RFAs and take the trouble to see what gets funded out of them you come to the firm belief that there are a LOT of "sustained interactions" between the PO(s) that are pushing the RFA and the PI that is highly desired to be the lucky awardee. The text of the RFAs in and of themselves often "giv(e) the appearance of providing, and advantage to any single, or subset of, investigator(s)". And they sure as heck provide certain PIs with "a competitive advantage not available to other applicants".

This is the way RFAs work. I am convinced. It is going to take on huge mountain of evidence to the contrary to counter this impression which can be reinforced by looking at some of the RFAs in your closest fields of interest and seeing who gets funded and for what. If Collins cares to include failed grant applications from those PIs that lead up to the RFA being generated (in some cases) I bet he finds that this also supports the impression.

I really wonder sometimes.

I wonder if NIH officialdom is really this clueless about how their system works?

...or do they just have zero compunction about dissembling when they know full well that these cozy little interactions between PO and favored PI working to define Funding Opportunity Announcements are fairly common?

Disclaimer: As always, Dear Reader, I have related experiences. I've competed unsuccessfully on more than one occasion for a targeted FOA where the award went to the very obvious suspect lab. I've also competed successfully for funding on a topic for which I originally sought funding under those targeted FOAs- that takes the sting out. A little. I also suspect I have at least once received grant funding that could fairly be said to be the result of "sustained interactions" between me and Program staff that provided me "a competitive advantage" although I don't know the extent to which this was not available to other PIs.

10 responses so far

  • Grumpy says:

    This is basically how all DoD and DARPA funding in my field works.

    I didn't realize NIH was guilty of the same, all my interactions through the standard FOAs had left me impressed with how even the playing field is.

    I suppose these sorts of special arrangements make the PO's job easier/more predictable.

  • SidVic says:

    Yeah i sorta wondered about this. One time a RFA came out that was *exactly* suited to my work. I called up my buddy the PO. Her advice was not waste my time applying for it. I was surprised.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I’ve seen at least two situations where a non-favored PI did manage to outcompete the suspected insider PI. So maybe try anyway? PO discouragement could also be viewered as preparing the ground for their favorite PI.

  • bacillus says:

    All of the RFAs I've ever applied for had a requirement for significant industry involvement This was disadvantageous to applicants who didn't already have a significant relationship with an appropriate company. It was always easy to co-opt a company for the proposals based on necessity, but I never thought that such marriages of convenience were looked upon as favorably as preexisting academic-industry collaborations. My record was applied for six, all got scored, one was funded.

  • SidVic says:

    I did send in an application. Couldn't help myself, heh. No dice. The PO in question was a pretty reliable friend. Good to know that you have of examples where the outsider slipped in...

  • drugmonkey says:

    I also have examples, see footnote, of turning that sucker back around for a regular submission and getting the grant funded. I figure that if they like a topic enough for the RFA, there must be some general interest there and if you give em a pretty decent score, they aren't going to spike you for duplication. They will feel like their intellectual stimulus is bearing additional fruit. or so I hope.

  • baltogirl says:

    My PO called me yesterday to tell me about new institute interest in a field relevant to my work. However, I have learned from past experience that program interest has nothing to do with how the study section ranks a grant. It is only relevant if your grant is on the funding borderline. RFAs also fall into this category- what the POs want and the study section thinks are often two different animals.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Absolutely. But with respect to the topic of the post, we assume that the suspect PI can write a half-way decent grant. We assume that the whole point is that the RFA is crafted to make the PI's application rise to the top on the basis of prior publications, expertise and/or preliminary data that are in hand. Have you ever noticed that the first public announcement on the RFA is like a month before the receipt date? A month. Clearly in such cases anyone who has already been thinking along the lines of the topic and has relevant preliminary data in hand is going to score at least half-way decently.

  • baltogirl says:

    You can write the best grant in the world; if the RFA is not in line with the study section's views of what is good for the field, it won't be scored well. Example: I saw a proteomics grant- written in response to a specific RFA put out for proteomics - fail at study section because it was not hypothesis-based.

    Long ago, I went to a special study section for program projects- each one a massive tome!- put out in response to an RFA (yes, they also got a month. This is due to intrinsic organizational problems, I think). *Not one* was given a good enough score for funding. (In their defense, putting something that complex together in a month is probably impossible.)

  • A Salty Scientist says:

    RFA that looked like a good fit on paper just got a ND today. Maybe not a good fit for the study section, but it’s hard for junior people to know that when we have very limited opportunities to serve.

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