How critical is the "Environment" in the NIH grant application?

December 1, 2009

Just how critical is a supportive “Environment” to the successful conduct of a research project supported by the NIH? As construed in the current review criteria, this criterion comes at the end of the list. In my own experiences reviewing so far (mostly under the old criteria; the new scheme has only been in place for two standard rounds of review) the Environment is almost always found to be “highly supportive” or some such. The only consistent variation from this has to do with investigators who are more transitioning than established. In those cases I have had reviewers tell me at times they mean criticism to be a help to the applicant, a prod to the institution to support the PI a little better. Every once in awhile, however, there can be issues in a specific proposal that put the focus on the Environment and the support of the University for the PI.
A provocative comment and my own response triggered these musings.

Now before we got too far down the road, let us review. Despite the way we talk about things in this business, including here on this blog, the NIH grant is not submitted by the PI nor is it awarded to the PI. It is submitted by, and awarded to, the local Institution (University, Research Institute, company, etc).
[ Sidebar: This notion is reinforced by the Conflict of Interest rules in grant review which appear strange to new reviewers. The most hard line conflict is with the University/Institution- if you or your family members work at the place the application has been submitted from you are in conflict. It doesn’t matter that it is a huge University, you don’t even know the PI in question, the field is pretty far from your own…nor that you kid works on the groundscrew and can’t possibly have any real benefit from your positive evaluation of that grant. In contrast you are not in automatic conflict with your best science buddies who work halfway across the country. ]
Given the technical definition, one might think that in reviewing we would be very much focused on the University/Institution. I find this not to be so and in fact the focus is very much on the PI. On the face of things anyway, see below for more. There is a natural bias to this, of course. The reviewers ARE PIs and they operate in this convenient fiction in which they think of the grants are “their” award. They think of themselves as a representative of their owndamnself first and as a member of their University second (if at all) when it comes to grant matters- so why should they view an application any differently?
Commenter David appears to be suggesting that it is time to shift that review balance back toward the “Environment”,

Any institution that prostitutes its research program to the highest bidder should be ashamed of itself, and the NIH should consider whether to review future funding to such institutions in light of these unfortunate choices. Put differently, if an institution is not willing to support NIH-funded projects carried out in accord with the academic freedom of its researchers, its participation in future funded research projects should be viewed critically. I hope that every study section member who reviews an OSU grant considers their rating of the “Environment” a little more thoroughly in future years. While ones wants to avoid punishing the hard-working scientists at OSU for their institution’s behavior, a clear and unambiguous message must be sent.

particularly in cases where the University has pulled some shenanigans that we (as a scientific community) don’t like very much.
I should point out that this is not theoretical, I can remember maybe 3-4 grants that I’ve seen come through study sections I’ve attended where something like this arose. Details differed but the essential component of “do we punish this PI for the clearly adverse moves of the University” was present.
This is also not theoretical because we already overtly or covertly punish some PIs for selecting the wrong institution to hire them. Right? PIs who come from smaller, less research-intensive Universities are less likely to submit the larger and more ambitious proposals. If they do, they start to take fire for feasibility (which in these cases depends on the type of Environment, even if not directly stated). One way or another the support Environment shapes the grant destiny of the PI.
So is it any different to criticize an application because of a recently changed attitude on the part of the University?

No Responses Yet to “How critical is the "Environment" in the NIH grant application?”

  1. A Reader Says:

    So if an institution provides little salary support, it should be viewed as ‘nonsupportive’ and the environment poor?
    That’s pretty much every research institute and medical school these days. Particularly the ‘high profile’ ones.
    Fine with me. I’m happy to penalize these scams. I feel bad for the PI. But hey, like you suggest: they should move to a more supportive environment. It’s a waste of taxpayer money to fund institutional graft.


  2. David Says:

    I think it’s very important to make the University acutely aware of its deficiencies in professional support using this review criterion.
    I understand “Environment” as indicating the degree of campus support for the investigator – in the form of facilities/resources, intellectual collaboration AND professional development. We would all express concern if a University closed its library and online journal availability, for example. That’s pretty straightforward. Same if it closed its research vivaria. Why not consider carefully the less “concrete” forms of investigator support?
    For example, I reviewed a challenge grant where the investigator – a junior person – was promised a “lab bench” in someone else’s research suite should s/he be awarded the grant. The grant was not criticized for this reason alone, but maybe it would have been more competitive if the Chair had offered the investigator that lab bench BEFORE the grant submission (for preliminary studies, perhaps?). For that reason, I thought it was crucial to be very explicit about the pathetic nature of University/Department support for this investigator. Perhaps I am being naive, but my idea was that the investigator would be able to take his/her summary sheets to the Department and evoke some support. I think that study sections need to continue to point clearly to issues like this, and the OSU debacle, in their summary statements. That is not to say that people at these Universities should not get grants – merely that it should be a factor and that the Environment blank gets used for its intended purpose.


  3. … the Environment is almost always found to be “highly supportive” or some such.


  4. DrugMonkey Says:

    Naive question from the postdoc in the back, but what exactly does that mean?
    IME, it means that so long as the PI in question has generated at least minimally reasonable data commensurate with academic stage, there are no glaring novel / expensive equipment or facilities demands and nothing weird, reviewers are just going to say “looks fine”.
    Occasionally if you really like the app and want to goose it as hard as possible up the charts you throw in “rare and uniquely supportive” kind of BS language.
    I think most people don’t work this evaluation too hard because if you criticize environment, in most cases you are talking about things the PI can’t do much about. So you are just using it to kick ’em in the teeth some more.
    Perhaps I am being naive, but my idea was that the investigator would be able to take his/her summary sheets to the Department and evoke some support.
    I have heard people offer this rationale, particularly in the context of new/young investigators. I understand where it is coming from and on occasion I have heard of this actually working- at least to the extent of generating a Chair’s letter with more promises. Still, I tend to believe that the best tool for extracting space/resources is a funded R01 award so I’m not a believer in this theory of Environment review… YMMV


  5. After my recent but limited experiences I am guessing that this stuff matters mostly if there has been a big change. For example, you’ve moved to a new placed that is more uniquely suited to help you acheive your aims or you university has engaged in some dumbfuckery that makes it more likely that you won’t acheive your aims. I am really interested to see how this OSU business will play out.


  6. cervantes Says:

    “Criteria” is plural. “Criterion” is singular.
    While you are unlikely to get dinged on R&E coming from a research university or academic medical center, reviewers are definitely snobs about it and will ding applications from community based organizations. This is actually a problem for people doing community based participatory research — lots of reviewers don’t understand how university/community partnerships are supposed to work, nor do they give any positive cred to it. Sometimes basing an application outside of the ivory tower is an advantage.


  7. DrugMonkey Says:

    “Criteria” is plural. “Criterion” is singular.
    and they were deployed correctly in the OP. What’s your point?


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