John Carey opines in a recent commentary that the current NIH funding situation is one of biomedical scientist’s own making.What a crock. This is like telling the veteran complaining about care in Walter Reed that this is all the fault of the military for so successfully engaging in a 4 year long war…

The commentary does raise a good issue for biomedical scientists, however, which is the behavior of the universities (and research institutes to a lesser degree). It is a fair point that universities used the easy money days of the NIH doubling to build scientific infrastructure. This was essentially the intent of Congress in doubling the budget so they can hardly be blamed for this. Universities are, however, at fault for some things. First, unheard in most discussions has been the abdication of the traditional role of the university in supporting research science, the most essential component of which is to provide base salaried jobs for independent researchers. FTEs. Professorships in which if times get hard the salary is covered by teaching undergraduates. Universities have, however, shifted in recent decades to teaching more and more classroom hours with temporary employees (instructors) and also generating more and more research data with temporary employees (grad students, postdocs). Often these roles are filled by the same individuals trying to make ends meet to pursue the career they love.

Discussion of the abysmal “funding line” among researchers is common these days. There are many related topics worthy of discussion but one issue that seems to be universal is a suspicion over the behavior of Program in funding grants that scored outside of the funding line. First, some definitions. “Program” here means the decision apparatus within individual Institutes (NIH is plural) such as NIDA, NIMH, NCI, NIAID, etc, which ranges from the professional administrative staff (Program Official) through the Institute Director advised by a peer group of senior scientists called the Advisory Council (“Council”). There are many ways to define the “funding line” but in most cases people refer to what I call the “hard” line meaning a proportion of grants that Institutes state they intend to fund each round. There are three general submission dates and three Council meetings per year which make up a “round” for funding. At present the line is somewhere around 7-10%ile (Institutes vary, there are changes each submission round), in recent history during the budget “doubling” this number has trended more toward 15%ile or higher. Yet the NIH publishes grant award data which indicate that success rates are much higher, 20% now, around 30% during the “doubling”. So what gives? Some of this, of course, is that the NIH stats refer to per-year success meaning that a project which is submitted and revised two rounds later counts as one application. But the real reason is the “soft line” behavior of Program in “reaching down” to “pick up” grants that did not make the hard funding percentile. WHAAAATTTT?? How can a grant which scores worse than mine get funded while mine is passed over?

Programmatic priorities dictate something other than the “best possible science” gets funded all the time. An Institute may decide that any of a whole host of issues are underrepresented in their portfolio for various reasons both internally scientific (i.e., Council recommendations, meeting or symposium discussions (Program attends meetings!), influential reviews, etc) or external (i.e., big media splash on some issue, Congressional “interest” via inquiry, Congressional mandate, etc). The Institute may decide that their portfolio is underrepresented with PIs of various gender, ethnic and geographic descriptions, under/overrepresented with grant mechanisms, New Investigators, etc. The Institute may decide that they “have an investment” in a given research program or resource and choose to keep it running. This really outrages people who fall just off the funding line and don’t get their applications “picked up” as you can imagine.

Grow up. This is why the Institutes exist. The notion of pure investigator-initiated science is a good one, but much like “democracy” can’t be carried to the extreme. Scientists, and the scientific enterprise, exhibit well discussed conservatism in many ways, see Nature editorial about Nobel-Prize-destined work being passed over. This is unsurprising given that we are human. We have a tendency to understand scientific models and domains that relate to our own work the best. We have a tendency to stick to these models and domains, particularly as our scientific careers mature. This is natural. But it means that the funding of science by the priorities of those doing the science leads to a suppression of innovation and novelty. Not to mention health domain coverage, the interest of the National Institutes of Health.
With that said, there is a problem with Program’s behavior in that it is almost perfectly opaque. There is very little way to determine how many grants have been “picked up” at all. Imprecision in the budgeting/prediction/scoreoutcome process means that the number of grants funded in perfect line with the priority scores can vary due to unexpectedly low numbers of high scoring grants per round (percentiling is across three rounds), high scoring grants that meet Program priorities, etc. In any case, Program is very loathe to explain their “pick up” reasoning in specific terms no doubt hoping to avoid lengthy debates, Congressional inquiry and even lawsuits from someone who didn’t get funded. On the balance this seems silly. If Program is going to assert a priority, do so honestly and forthrightly. Just say, we picked up X number of women PIs and Y number of New Investigators and Z grants between the Mississippi and the Sierra Nevada! And then explain why. If the reason is good enough to use, it is good enough to defend, no?

UPDATE: Apparently NASA funded scientists have similar issues.