11 Grants, $24.1 Million, One PI

March 21, 2008

Writedit ponders a recent Nature piece on PIs who hold largish numbers of awards and dollars from the NIH. The post from writedit covers some recent policy proposals seeking to limit the total number of awards any one PI can hold.

My points of perspective are as follows. First, the “major research funding” target, the good old R01 is very typically $250K in direct costs ($385 with a fairly typical overhead rate). I think this is only the start and reasonably serious, yet small, labs probably need two of these concurrently to make a go of it. Let’s say half a million to a round million (depending on whether the Nature numbers include overhead or not). I am familiar with a program or two that exist in the $5 Million in direct costs range. These latter are big operations, no doubt.
A chap quoted in the Nature piece insists all is kosher:

“Different people can achieve different things in 20% of their time. You should always reward the best science,” says David Rawlings, the 51-year-old director of the Research Center for Immunity and Immunotherapies at the University of Washington in Seattle. He was supported last year by nine NIH grants worth $3 million.

From a certain perspective, perhaps. If you have a big team of very senior and accomplished postdocs and senior scientists you can do a lot of science that is by all appearances under the direction of one PI. My question is always that of opportunity cost. How much more would be accomplished by taking one of those highly trained individuals in the BigCheez’s domain and giving the grant to her to run with?
There is also the inevitable wastage when you don’t have to make every dollar count. And when you have $10Mil in NIH grants, well, not every dollar has to count! I will admit this is a double edged sword. Extra cash means you can hire more postdocs without being over-fussy about their capabilities. This means that you have a better chance of getting that diamond in the rough. Of taking advantage of “a hundred monkeys at a hundred lab benches”. But it also means waste. Extra cash means the PI gets to try out more and more harebrained ideas…which might be genius or complete crap.
The chances that one of these hugely funded labs competes snootily in the rarefied atmosphere of CNS publishing likewise decreases the ratio of data generated / data published.
So obviously it is a question of tradeoffs. But still. Extraordinary funding should require extraordinary justification. One wonders what the justifications for funding of this rogues gallery were.

15 Responses to “11 Grants, $24.1 Million, One PI”

  1. CC Says:

    But still. Extraordinary funding should require extraordinary justification.
    I dunno. If you were to explain to a layman that pretty much any functioning lab at those universities that you only hear about during basketball Conference Championship Week has one or two R01s, and that it’s A War On Science that everyone with a PhD and a pulse doesn’t have one, and that a handful of ultra-successful labs have eight, nine or even eleven — would that seem so extraordinary?
    And having been in a mega-lab, I can tell you that while your opportunity costs are plausible, the other side is that those PIs really are extraordinary, and that things happen in their labs that simply wouldn’t if they were cut down to size and their postdocs and techs scattered across four different labs. (And theirs kicked down the line, until 40 or 50 labs at the bottom get grants they hadn’t had.)
    That “hundred monkeys” line cuts both ways, you know.
    Anyway, reading “I don’t know many principal investigators at that level who have washboard abs” in Nature is worth $11 million right there.


  2. PhysioProf Says:

    I feel sorry for that fucking bajillion R01s dude. Who the fuck wants to wake up at 3:30 in the fucking morning?
    CC, what you are saying has merit, but I think when you get to, let’s say, five or six R01s, you are probably reaping all those economy-of-scale benefits available. More than that probably results in rapidly diminishing returns.


  3. Barn Owl Says:

    One wonders how many postdoctoral fellows end up at eye level with the PI’s abs, washboard or otherwise. Yuk.


  4. CC Says:

    CC, what you are saying has merit, but I think when you get to, let’s say, five or six R01s, you are probably reaping all those economy-of-scale benefits available.
    It’s not a question of economy-of-scale, it’s a question of them being able to do things (either because they’re on a whole other plane or because of synergies from the larger group) that lesser labs can’t do at all. Maybe that’s not the case, but what does it cost — 54 R01s (plus however many sevens didn’t make the list) that didn’t go to the people on the margin?
    One wonders how many postdoctoral fellows end up at eye level with the PI’s abs, washboard or otherwise.
    I figure the PI wears tight shirts, like Ed Hochule.


  5. juniorprof Says:

    We need more Ed Hochule references around here… too bad there’s not an emoticon of his flexing first down motion.


  6. Ewan Says:

    As it happens, my current mentor is one of the guys on that list.
    He’s worth every penny. And of the current crop of mentees, at least three now have our own R01s also as we move out and build our own labs; the ability to do the *science* we want rather than worry (too much) about money for a few years has in all cases been absolutely invaluable.
    Plus, in all honesty, I have seen the sacrifices made to get to this level (while still spending huge amounts of time on mentoring, service work, and so forth): I wouldn’t, and probably literally couldn’t, do it. That’s his life, and there are literally millions of folk alive and healthy (or at least healthier) because of it.
    So… even as a junior PI now competing in the same pools, I have to say that at least in tis case the system is working just fine.


  7. whimple Says:

    He’s worth every penny. And of the current crop of mentees, at least three now have our own R01s also as we move out and build our own labs; the ability to do the *science* we want rather than worry (too much) about money for a few years has in all cases been absolutely invaluable.
    I think you’re wrong: he’s not worth it. It looks like the NIH is coming around to this point of view too. I’m sure someone as capable as your mentor will be able to get by on 5 R01s instead of his (her?) usual 10 without anywhere close to a 50% drop in productivity.


  8. PhysioProf Says:

    What whimple said. And if it becomes clear that these super-duper geniuses really could be producing lots more incredible science with more funds, I have no doubt that private sources–such as HHMI–will step into the breach.


  9. Neuro-conservative Says:

    This conversation is proceeding from a false premise, instigated by poor reporting in the original Nature article and exacerbated over the course of this thread. None of these guys has 10 R01’s. They don’t even have 10 independent awards.
    The search performed by Nature, presumably run through CRISP, brings up multiple records for the same Center grant — and all of these dudes are Center heads. For example, a CRISP search on Harold Varmus for the year 2007 brings up 8 hits, as designated in the Nature table. But 6 of them are for separate components of P30CA008748, imaginatively titled “Cancer Center Support Grant.” He also has one R01 and one U01.
    Several other names on the list are PI’s of CTSAs, which seem to come up as 3 separate CRISP entries. Throw in a T32 and a regular Center (P30) grant, and your total can easily seem astronomic with only one or two R01s.
    In pointing this out, I’m neither defending nor attacking the “Big Science” Center system, just clarifying the underlying facts. I have seen both major advantages and major disadvantages to the way Centers are currently structured. Net-net, though, I think the Center construct is indispensible, and will necessitate some species of big kahuna to run them.


  10. DrugMonkey Says:

    A fair enough point Neuro-conservative and thanks for pointing this out. I should have added this caveat along with my frustration over whether the numbers included overhead or not.
    I think in the end, though, quibbling over the precise dollar figures and number of grants is a bit beside the point. I think a lot of the comments here on both sides “get” this. I think the arguments expressed by people like Ewan and CC could apply to a number of dollar thresholds.
    Specifically on Centers. I tend to agree with you…in theory. The whole synergy of multiple labs and multiple approaches is incredibly seductive. On paper the Center’s I’ve been around kick serious butt. They sound very exciting. The question is how productive they are, on the whole. This I have little objective way to judge. Too many “what-ifs”. A seat of the pants, however, suggests that synergizing collaborations are damn hard to really sustain and in most cases the reality fails to live up to the promise. Cores end up servicing the goals of only a limited part of the Center. Etc. It is no coincidence that one of the biggest fears on the part of the Center teams and the biggest obsession of the site visit reviewers (oh yes, did we mention the unique sweetheart reviewing deal?) is the “interaction” within the collaborative group.
    But perhaps the glass-half-full should be enough?
    Also, there is a question of how democratic Centers are in terms of the legitimate chance to acquire and retain Center level funding by competing solely on the scientific merits. On this scale, I’d say pretty much non-democratic. Although recent news from colleagues holds interesting promise in this regard, in the vast majority of cases I’ve seen, the Center people are pretty firmly in bed with Program. So why do they need the extra handout when the teams are already proven effective at acquiring funds from the given IC?
    [I’ve mentioned this before I think, but for new readers, my lab has benefited a lot from Big Mechanism (Centers, Program Project) funding, mostly as very minor pieces of the puzzle. So yes, I seek to latch on to these things when the chances arise, you betcha. One day, in my dreams, would I like to be high up in the hierarchy of such a beastie? damn straight. because the benefits are clear. I like the theory of BigMechanisms. my critique is mostly based on how I imagine I would feel if I was in the sort of location where Centers and other BigMech funding did not easily flow.]


  11. PhysioProf Says:

    There’s gotta be PIs with substantially more than 5 R01s. I personally know a handful of people just in my field and my geographical region–some at my institution and some at others–whom I know for a fact to have 5 R01s. That suggests that it is highly statistically likely that there are those with even more, and a handful of people with a lot more.


  12. writedit Says:

    Just noticed the dual discussions … distracted by eldercare. Here was my comment in reply to Neuro-conservative across the way:
    You are right, Neuro-conservative. I would point out, though, that projects on a Center award (& not all Center awards include separate CRISP listings for their affiliated projects) should be treated as the equivalent of an R01 in scope; during the submission of a Center/PPG grant application, the individual projects can be simultaneously submitted as separate R01s and funded individually if the Center/PPG isn’t awarded … the one exception to the no duplicate submission/review rule. Many institutions view the Center/PPG mechanisms as ways to get their promising junior investigators on the road to independence as the named project PIs (versus shadow PIs behind the big kahuna’s name).
    However, I see Harold’s cancer core center grant has 5 (five!) supplements appended. Not an effort issue probably, though I can’t imagine it hurt to have the Varmus name on all those supplemental requests. Ditto for Sten Vermund and his 6 (six!) supplements to a D43 program (international investigators come to US awardee, train, & go back home with some start-up $). Athlete-investigator John Reed, on the other hand, does need some scrutiny with how he can genuinely fulfill PI responsibility (while serving as President & CEO for his Institute) for 1 program project grant; 4 PPG projects (on 4 different P01s); a U54 molecular screening library (plus core & 2 supplements); 4 R01s (each from a different IC); 2 R03s; and a U19 (another multiproject research program mechanism, in this case a cooperative agreement). [So actually, he does essentially have 10+ R01s.] And I know he is not alone in wearing multiple institutional leadership hats while serving as PI on 4 or more R01-level or higher awards. {concur with PP on this} These people all work insane hours – but the question remains is this the best use of limited (& dwindling) NIH dollars, especially in view of the “broken pipeline” … which is the context in which the issue was raised by the peer review advisory committee et al. – writedit


  13. Ewan Says:

    Whimple and PP are of course entitled to disagree, despite probably not knowing the gent in question :).
    I should, probably, have noted explicitly the number issues, though: there’s a CTSA, a DERC, two training grants, and so on – and almost *all* of that money goes to _junior_ folk. The pilot data for my current R01 were obtained under exactly such a small award, and that’s true for many others around me also. [I was curious and checked: the actual direct lab funding per year is on the order of $1MM, and that’s for two entirely distinct labs with ~12 personnel.]


  14. DrugMonkey Says:

    Ewan: I think you are missing some essential points here. Sure, lot’s of BigMech money and BigCheez money devolves to junior people. This is a good thing about Centers and the like. It creates the opportunity for small stuff, more exploratory stuff and junior-scientist-transistion stuff to be accomplished. Sounds great. Except this is not putting the science in open competition! It subverts the competitive nature of the science/funding enterprise. Furthermore, it leverages the scientific approach of a single BigCheez because s/he is facilitated in scientific replication of clonal investigators.
    despite probably not knowing the gent in question 🙂
    and the fact that you do affiliate with one of the gents in question renders your judgment, well, influenced. for lack of a better neutral term. the bottom line is that there are certain physiological realities of life. One needs to sleep or go psychotic. There are only 24 hrs in the day. Etc. Your PI may amaze you with his brilliance, juggling and long hours. You may have extensive experience with the workload of many scientists all up and down the scale, I don’t know. All I can say is that with my perspective, which ranges from fairly lazy-ass PIs to the guy who is in the lab 7 days a week, 10 hrs most days, trying to micromanage just about every aspect, producing publication numbers at the CNS level that are in very select company indeed…..there is much greater waste in the unbelievably well-funded lab. and opportunity cost. Yes, even compared with a fairly tepid-pace lab which survives on one grant!
    and motivational and future investment consequences that would be alleviated simply by letting well-accomplished “senior scientists” be PIs in their own right, perhaps even within the BigCheez’s operation.


  15. Ewan Says:

    Thanks for the continued thoughtful and civil discussion.
    [And yes, of course, I accept that I may have drunk some Kool-Aid somewhere along the way. Don’t think so… but then I wouldn’t, would I?]
    True that the small grants built into Centers etc. have a built-in bias, although the reviewers of applications are all external to the center. One could argue that this approach leverages the scientific/personnel judgement of superb scientists, and I think that there’s some truth there despite the potential for nepotism and abuse – see above for appropriate caveats. I agree that the flipside is that some money is essentially taken out of the pot available for open competition (which was why I made my initial note that despite now having to fight in that same pool *against* folks including my mentor, I’m still of the opinion that the money is well spent); reasonable minds may vary.
    One comment requires addressing and correcting, though: the suggestion that such systems produce “clonal investigators.” Naah – this just is *not* so. Quite the opposite: I can certainly detect a preference for approaches and questions that are _different_ from those already underway. About the only element of overlap, often, is the disease state motivating the work – everything else (organ, level of analysis, etc.) varies widely.
    Waste I concede, for some values of waste. The number of animals run in ten less-funded labs might well be greater; the number of pipette tips used fewer. I’m just not convinced that the amount of scientific progress from those rats would be as high; and I think that the opportunity cost may be negative :). Anyway, I think we’re at the point of potential diminishing returns on our own exchange here – thanks again.


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