"..have to be ten times more charmin' than that Arnold on Green Acres, know what I'm saying?"

November 2, 2009

I’d seen some sort of press release on this before but for some reason there is a new NIH brag note out today. It informs us that the NIH will be investing $27 Million to build yet another useless failed attempt to create social networking and professional networking entities that are specific to scientists.
Charming and Loaded! [source]
Before into the specifics, let’s talk about opportunity cost. Thanks to a newfound tool to snoop Indirect Cost rates I feel more comfortable with my assertion that ~55% is a decent estimated IDC rate for the larger public Universities with heavy research focus. An IDC rate of ~90% applies to a number of the smaller, private research institutions that think very highly of themselves with a big reputation. This gives us our range for the full-modular R01 ($250,000 in direct costs for 5 years) as something between $387,500 / yr ($1.94M for 5 yrs) and $475,000 / yr ($2.38M / 5yrs). In rough numbers we are talking about anywhere from 11 to 14 full-modular R01 awards that are being poured into this project.
Of course, since this is the ARRA / stimulus funding, this amount of money is being poured in over a mere two years. Thus, 28-35 two-year intervals of full-modular R01 funding.
It better be one charming [muppethugging] pig*.

Let us focus on the goals of the social networking/semantic web project that the NIH press release notes is headed up by one Michael Conlon at the University of Florida (UF Press Release). Additional notes (and sources) are here. The project is U24RR029822, VIVO: ENABLING NATIONAL NETWORKING OF SCIENTISTS (CRISP hit, unfortunately I can’t figure out how to directly link RePORTER results yet) which runs for two years at a cost of just over $6M per year. This is part of the ARRA stimulus which is why it is so short, I imagine. Hard to translate this to R01s because they are typically for more than two years. Perhaps our cost marker should be the R21 which is generally a total of $275,000 direct cost over a two year period. This gives us a total cost range of $426,250-$522,500 or an opportunity cost of about 23-28 R21 awards. Well, how charmin’ is this pig?
The project Abstract notes:

The project will provide six deliverables: 1) A first release of the software to be used at the seven participating institutions focused on institutional resources. This release will be used to help establish internal support for the system and build understanding of system value; 2) A second release incorporating all national networking features which will be used by the seven participating institutions to demonstrate the viability and utility of national deployment; 3) A third release incorporating features requested by the NIH and the project’s Executive Advisory Board, fully integrated with the corresponding resource discovery solution, enabling full national networking capability; 4) a community support process to insure sustainability; 5) a sustainable, open product development process; and 6) a national, on-going governance process. The national networking of scientists enabled by VIVO will provide a fundamental new capability to improve biomedical research and human health.

VIVO is this thingy at Cornell if you want a sample. I ran a quick search for “drug abuse“. I am not impressed that applying this technology more broadly gets us much beyond Google, frankly. And this is the root of my objection. I’ve seen a number of these scientist-networking things get launched. Mostly to a resounding failure. Professional networks don’t beat LinkedIn because they don’t have the volume of people- networking is all about numbers and not, despite what these quixotic souls seem to think, about specificity of the coverage. Socio-professional networks are going to have a very hard time beating Facebook. You have to have users and lots of them to make these networks function. And scientists are a very conservative bunch when it comes to seeing how new technologies that appear to be a frivolous waste of time might become a functional part of their work. (For my young friends, you should have heard the kvetching about email when it first hit the streets in a serious way. Seriously. Ask your departmental graybeards if they think you should be Facebooking and blogging and Twittering science. Go ahead. Ask ’em. The response you get is identical to the approach the graybeards of 2-3 decades past viewed email and websites and the like when they first started getting pervasive. Identical.)
Well, perhaps there is something here that is new. That makes success more likely. Hard to tell what they are going to do just from the abstract of course. How about the grant structure and funding announcement, any clues there?
The mechanism of funding is the U or Cooperative Agreement mechanism- these are something between a normal grant and a contract in terms of the control exerted by Progam. Being vaguely familiar with the operation of at least one of these U projects, I will note that Program is very involved in the conduct of the research and can make various mid-course demands. Also, they tend to have a very (very) defined idea of what they are looking for in advance. The original announcement of the U was RFA-RR-09-009: Recovery Act 2009 Limited Competition: Enabling National Networking of Scientists and Resource Discovery (U24). The Objectives of the RFA were to:

develop and implement pilot or prototype tools and infrastructure that facilitate connection of basic, clinical, and translational investigators, students, and individuals with specific expertise and interests; facilitate access to information about available resources, including data, animal models, reagents, assays, cores, literature, materials, and tools; and encourage increased collaboration and scientific exchange nationally.
Communication and collaboration across disciplines and institutional cultures have been difficult but scientific expertise and resources exist broadly. Projects supported through this initiative will provide a test-bed for the development, implementation, and adoption of these new approaches to collaboration and communication that represents the diversity of biomedical scientists and institutions.
Although multiple approaches could be appropriate for these projects, the NCRR is interested in distributed or federated approaches to both research networking and resource discovery with local control of information sources. Applications that propose a centralized approach to information sources are not responsive to this FOA.
All projects must implement a working prototype or pilot in which all partner institutions participate prior to the end of the two-year project period. A plan for evaluation of the prototype should be included. Each project team must produce a final report which should include accomplishments, challenges, lessons learned (what did not work or could work better), and results of the evaluation.

Responsive Projects note:

Responsive projects should fall into one of the two following categories. It is expected that one application will be supported in each area. Applicants must specify which category they are addressing.
* Research Networking: Research networking tools that provide national visibility of human resources (scientists, investigators, physicians, clinicians, other experts) in all areas relevant to biomedical research to enhance collaboration and facilitate biomedical research. Examples of particular types of expertise include, but are not limited to: biomedical science, behavioral science, community-based research, computational sciences, veterinary science, basic discovery research, animal based research, clinical research, translational research, ethics, scientific management, informational sciences, social sciences, statistical and research design, physical and structural sciences, etc.
* Resource Discovery: Could include web portal that allows comprehensive querying of resources irrespective of source and type of resource. The types of resources should include the whole range of possible resources that scientists utilize in their work. These include, but are not limited to: materials, animals, publications, technologies, cores, instruments, tools, reagents, cell lines, and assays. The resources must be searchable from multiple perspectives such that users from various environments and scientific areas can easily locate useful information.

Meh3. Not one dang thing in there that I can see that is going ot make this any more successful than any of the other attempts moving forward either as privateer efforts or using available, commercial, ad-supported technologies. In short, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, WordPress and Blogspot. Possibly Scopus. Open Science wackaloons of various stripes. A very hard gang to beat.
The opportunity cost of 23-28 Exploratory/Developmental R21 awards to conduct actual research makes it seem like a very costly bet to me.
*Jules Winnfield

No Responses Yet to “"..have to be ten times more charmin' than that Arnold on Green Acres, know what I'm saying?"”

  1. andrew Says:

    I am not sure I understand this post but I am also sure that if you gave Seed $27m, they could role out a blog site for scientists-we could call it scienceblogs. Split the cash with Facebook and you could have a social media sit as well.


  2. becca Says:

    NIH should commission Google on this one. I bet they’d be up to the challenge.
    Does the pig have lipstick on it?


  3. …I am also sure that if you gave Seed $27m, they could role out a blog site for scientists-we could call it scienceblogs.

    This made me laugh so hard, I peed a little.


  4. I couldn’t agree with you more. I wrote a NIH Challenge Grant to develop a microbiology podcast network, for a order of magnitude less money, and for what I viewed as a much more worthy cause – and of course it was triaged.


  5. A Reader Says:

    Instead of fucking around with stupid crap like this, NIH should just put the full text of every funded proposal on the web, in a searchable database.


  6. becca Says:

    I wonder if certain classes of crazy ideas only succeed when you tell people they cost a lot with a straight face.


  7. A Reader Says:

    NIH should commission Google on this one. I bet they’d be up to the challenge.
    I know people at Google. If NIH had something useful to share — proposal texts, even the freaking abstracts that are in CRISP/Reporter, Google would do it for free. Google would love to have government documents available through its engine. I guaran-fucking-tee you.


  8. unfortunately I can’t figure out how to directly link RePORTER results yet

    I’m not sure you even can. This is because the fucking dipshits who designed RePORTER used Javascript for no reason that I can discern as the links to individual grant records.


  9. Bravo Says:

    Sounds like a waste of stimulus money to me and funding of somebody’s favorite nephew’s grand idea. Perhaps if that money was used to fund actual research grants (and as a result pay the salaries of technicians, postdocs and graduate students, and university support staff who in turn would buy products and equipment from biotech suppliers [i.e., create jobs and stimulate the economy]), the money would be more successfully used as economic stimulus, which is what it was supposed to be in the first place.


  10. katydid13 Says:

    This would be the problem with most federal IT spending. People who don’t really understand it, but think its cool are sold on it by a handful of people who are true believers that this will solve all our problems. Anyone who says that this is crazy is smacked down as being out of it and not open to new technology.
    With social media, it’s become kind of “an emperor has no clothes” situation. For instance the agency I work for has the world’s lamest Twitter feed. It’s a list of reports issued that you can get in email form where the titles aren’t cut off because they are too long. But we are on Twitter.


  11. DrugMonkey Says:

    oh yes, I’ve been meaning to discuss the TwittFAIL of a certain rhymes-with HenEyeHaitchWide…


  12. katydid13 Says:

    I was refering to another agency’s TwittFAIL, but I’m sure there are many.
    I think there should be a rule that if you call people (who are not IT support) into your office on a regular basis with questions like “how do you get the little paragraph thingees to go away” or “how do I find this document, it’s not in my recently used documents anymore” that your thoughts on using computers or the internet should be considered suspect.


  13. sailor1031 Says:

    did someone cut & paste from the original arpanet proposal? did anybody realize all of this is already out there? but then of course they wouldn’t get that 27 million!


  14. BillJ Says:

    VIVO is meant to be an open-source alternative to Elsevier’s AuthorID, ISI’s ResearcherID, Community of Science and Collexis, the four name-brand scientist-profile resources. What each of these do that LinkedIn and Google don’t is unique identify researchers across all the variations of their name in different citation formats and distinguishing them from all the other scientists with the same or similar names.
    The second tricky bit that at least Collexis and VIVO are trying to do is to set up a standard hierarchical subject terminology to apply to articles, research grants and researcher interests. Collexis has the advantage that, since they’re currently limited to medical researchers, they can use the MedLine metadata. Expanding into other fields is going to be a challenge, but they’re partnering with societies like the American Institute of Physics to set things up.
    The third tricky bit is populating the databases with useful, accurate data. It’s a bit of a catch 22 since that requires the time and attention of the researchers who can’t see the value if everyone else hasn’t gone first. Here at U Miami, where I’m a science librarian, the medical school is using Collexis and we’ve just made a deal with Elsevier to sync our internal indentifications with AuthorID which looks promising.
    The upshot, once you’ve got a well-populated database, is the ability to use search and browsing features much more powerful than those in LinkedIn to find who you’re looking for, or better, someone you didn’t know existed who is working on just what you need to know about. Collexis is, by far, the most impressive program in this regard. VIVO is still kind of crude, which they want the money to work on. I like the idea of a viable open-source alternative in the field so I think it’s worth the investment.


  15. DrugMonkey Says:

    What each of these do that LinkedIn and Google don’t is unique identify researchers across all the variations of their name in different citation formats and distinguishing them from all the other scientists with the same or similar names….The third tricky bit is populating the databases with useful, accurate data. …I like the idea of a viable open-source alternative in the field so I think it’s worth the investment.
    Yeah, I get the idea and it is a decent one. There are existing problems. My concern is that I’ve seen grand attempts that never really take off and become useful. Some because they are proprietary, some because they lack coverage, etc. This is my main point that until these things are as generically available and have fantastic coverage, they are not going to work.
    In this case I am hugely suspicious that a 2yr plan will be funded, get only partway there technically, have only a glimmering of a user base and fail to obtain subsequent support.
    Why is the approach not simply to enhance / fix PubMed in terms of author tracking, subject terminology, extension to other fields, etc. wouldn’t that be a better use of the money?
    with respect to your LinkedIn comments, I can see where an involuntary system based on the public record does a little better in terms of scope, but it lacks the bizarre and invisible personal connection factor which is often so valuable in actual networking. Anyone can figure out who a specific person published with but not who their spouse / best buddy is who happens to be in a different field altogether.


  16. Pascale Says:

    I thought this was what academia.edu was trying to do, at least within the realm of, well, academia.
    Yes it would be nice to also connect sciencey types in industry, but LinkedIn accomplishes that.
    I guess I’m really just pissed cause I didn’t think about putting in a challenge grant about this, mostly cause it’s a lame idea.
    BTW, it takes a lot of money to put lipstick on a pig (Sarah Palin’s stylist got thousands for a few months’ work).


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