Your academic society is working for (or against?) you under the NIH Grant waterline
April 2, 2010
A recent blog entry from Pascale H. Lane discusses her reasons for belonging to academic societies. Our good blog friend Dr. Isis is frequently found to be going all fangrrl about the APS (no, not the real APS, these Physiological pretenders who are well down the GoogJuice list). Pascale touched on one Golden Thought about what academic societies can do that is, or should be, of general interest to my readership:
The society maintains several grant programs for research funding, and it leads advocacy efforts to maintain adequate federal funding for kidney disease research and treatment.
Grant $$$! Wooot!
Say I work on the mechanics of bunny-hopping. My papers get sent for review to colleague bunny-hoppers, my grants are reviewed by the bunny-hopping study section, and there is never really an opportunity (ESPECIALLY with the study section) for a non-bunny-hopper to stand up and say, “look, other than the bunny-hoppers, nobody really cares about bunny-hopping, and I think we already know all we need to know about bunny-hopping for now,” and close down the field.
Academic societies, of course, are bunny-hopper advocates. That’s the whole point. To enhance, support and promulgate science in a relatively specific domain of interest. It could be disease related, basic science theory-related, biological sub-system associatedor technique-dependent. It can involve a specific research species or human subpopulation. Perhaps the bigger societies seem very broad (“Neuroscience”) but that is only because you are not considering all of biology, health/medical science and/or all Federally supported research. Even these big ones are bunny hoppers by some accounting.
One of the things that academic societies are doing, or should be doing, on the behalf of the bunny-hopper scientists in their domain is to manipulate the NIH grant system. To work to ensure that as large a share of the NIH pie goes into their preferred topic domain as possible. We have seen some of this in the current (albeit waning) battle to merge the Alcohol-focused NIH Institute with the Drug-Abuse focused one. The Research Society on Alcoholism has been battling mightily to keep NIAAA intact and un-assimilated. Another way academic societies battle is by sticking their noses into the grant review process.
IFBH represent!Today’s topic comes from a long-term reader who sent me something that ties back to our prior discussion (original here) of what NIH terms “clustering” and “captive study sections”. The most extreme version of a captive CSR study section would be one that exclusively reviews grant proposals that would be assigned to a given NIH IC, say, NIAAA. But study sections might also be captive to a given topic domain. Conceptually we might think of this as captive to a specific academic society such as the International Fellowship of Bunny Hoppers. If we harken back to whimple’s original critique, this sort of topic insularity of a study section risks continued NIH funding of decreasingly relevant science which has long since passed it’s “drink by” date. Naturally, this is the concern of those who are not in the IFBH but are rather in the Society of Badger Diggers which, as we all know, work on much more relevant topics and publish more impactful research in journals of significantly higher prestige.
For the IFBH scientists, however, it is absolutely Right and Good that the relevant domain-captive NIH study section stay just like it is and has always been. The situation passed along by a reader, however, suggests otherwise. The NIH is apparently discussing the re-organization of a study section that is highly important to the IFBH scientists because many grants are reviewed there. The communication points out something you may not initially appreciate. Competition for funding, as we know, is tight. If you have 100 applications in a study section within a given round, then only about 10 of them (for argument’s sake) are going to get funded. If that study section is captive to Bunny Hopping scientists, then they are competing against each other for an essentially fixed pool allocated to that study section (this is not the way it works exactly but it is a decent way to think about it). If, however, those 100 applications are spread out across four study sections with a more general mission and the Bunny Hopper proposals are highly competitive against say the Badger Digger, Otter Slider and Squirrel Hoarder applications then the IFBH might end up with 20-30 proposals being scored within the top tenth percentile.
So while the line PIs who have been successful might fear study section re-organization, perhaps the academic society is saying “Stop panicking, we’ve got plenty of more broadly competitive proposals, so let’s go get some of that NIH $$ away from those other societies”.
The trick is, of course, that only some subset of the IFBH membership is going to benefit. Some other subset is going to lose out. The question for any society, or any kvetching PI, is whether these shifts are a good or bad thing.
Back to the individual PI level I advise, as always, that devising research proposals which span the interests of a range of study sections (and ICs) is absolutely essential. Sometimes you are going to have Bunny Hopper wheelhouse proposals that would get eaten up in a broader section- so it’s nice to have that internecine section available. Other times, you are going to bring new techniques and approaches to the Bunny Hopper field and it is easier to convince fans of those techniques/approaches of the importance of Bunny Hopping than it is to get the Bunny Hoppers on board with the HawtNewTechnique.