Genomic Repairman relates the not-uncommon tale of a lab head who negotiates for a new job and then springs his decision on his trainees and technicians with ~ 2 months notice.
The PI was then wondering why his staff was not jumping for joy at the opportunity to join him in his move to a new city and new University.

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Boot camp for grant writers?

November 22, 2010

This is hilarious.

Andrews: well, it’s in my proposal. Pthalates are a suspected mutagen, and I am suggesting that…

Proposal Sergeant: I DID NOT ask you about the content of your proposal, you nematode! Who gives an airborne copulation about that! I asked you why you wrote this as a response to an FOA and not an RFA!!

Book these guys for #sfn12 in New Orleans. The lead singer Woodie can let his postdocs take care of the posters..


Direct Link


COI notification: He may have bought me a beer or three now and again…

This is amazing. Strike that, AMAZING!

A paper published in PLoS ONE by Martin and colleagues examines the fate of R01 applications reviewed in 61 of the 172 standing study sections convened by the Center for Scientific Review of the NIH in a single round (the January 2009 Council one- submitted Jun-Jul 2008 and reviewed in Oct-Nov 2008).

It is going to take me a bit to go through all the data but lets start with Figure 1. This plots the preliminary scores (average of ~3 assigned reviewers) against the final priority score voted by the entire panel.

Figure 1. Average Preliminary Score versus SRG Final Priority Score. Preliminary Scores represent the average of the independent R01 priority scores given by the three assigned reviewers; the final priority score is the average of all the scores given by the voting members of the panel. Each data point represents the outcome for one R01 application. The difference between preliminary and final priority scores represents the change between the two values. Applications with differences displayed on the left declined after discussion; those on the right improved. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0013526.g001

The first and most obvious feature is the tendency for discussion to make the best scores (lowest in the NIH scoring system) more extreme. I would suggest that this results from two factors. First, reviewers are reluctant (in my experience) to assign the best possible score prior to discussion. I don’t understand this personally, but I guess I can grasp the psychology. People have the idea that perfection exists out there in some application and they want to reserve some room so that they can avoid having ever awarded a perfect score to a lesser application. Silly, but whatever. Once discussion starts and everyone is nodding along approvingly it is easier to drift to a more perfect score.

Second, there is a bit of the old “Fund that puppy NOW!” going on. Particularly, I would estimate, for applications that were near misses on a prior version and have come back in review. There can be a tendency to want to over-emphasize to Program staff that the study section found the application to be in the must-fund category.

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Martin MR, Kopstein A, Janice JM, 2010 An Analysis of Preliminary and Post-Discussion Priority Scores for Grant Applications Peer Reviewed by the Center for Scientific Review at the NIH. PLoS ONE 5(11): e13526. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0013526

Looks as though the NIH Director has accepted the recommendation of the Scientific Management Review Board (videocast; jump to minute 192 or so) and will move forward on integrating the current National Institute on Drug Abuse and National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism into a new National Institute on “substance use, abuse, and addiction research and related public health initiatives”.

At least one person communicating with me about this today has intimated that Collins is in favor of the merger and that this is a done deal. However, a memo that I’ve received, which purports to be one Collins sent to the NIDA staff, doesn’t actually say this. It says, rather, that he wants a more-detailed plan put on his desk for final consideration.

I recognize that such a major organizational change will require a great deal of analysis, coordination, and effort. I also appreciate that this proposal has prompted many questions and concerns among staff and outside stakeholders. We will make certain that this process is carried out thoughtfully, with careful consideration of not only the science, but also of the staff in NIDA and NIAAA, and others at NIH who may be affected by these changes. Consequently, I have asked NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence A. Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D., and National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Director Stephen I. Katz, M.D., Ph.D., to pull together a task force of experts from within NIH to look carefully across all of NIH’s 27 Institutes and Centers to determine where substance use, abuse, and addiction research programs currently exist and make recommendations about what programs should be moved into the proposed new Institute. An important component of this effort will be to take a careful look at the intramural programs of NIDA and NIAAA, and consider how best to build on the excellent science represented there. In addition, the task force will survey NIDA and NIAAA for programs that are not related to substance use, abuse, and addiction research and make recommendations about where such programs will go. The task force will also include expertise on organizational change. Final recommendations to the NIH Director will be informed by consultation with relevant internal and external stakeholders…I anticipate that the task force will produce a detailed reorganization plan for my consideration sometime in the summer of 2011.

Director Collins also made the awkward attempt to keep people from panicking.

In the interim, all existing substance use, abuse, and addiction research programs at NIH will continue status quo. It is imperative we keep these important lines of research moving forward with all due speed for the benefit of the nation’s health.

Nice try, anyway.

Now admittedly, I am one that does not understand the panicked reaction which is coming for the most part from the NIAAA direction. Both extramural grant holders and NIAAA program staff have been strikingly more nervous about merger than have people on the NIDA side. I do not understand this. If, as the occasional commenter around here asserts, the therapeutic efforts of NIAAA have put those of NIDA to shame over the past two-three decades then it is the NIDA folks that should be nervous, if you ask me. Also, the constituency on the alcohol side is one hell of a lot less twitchy-less morality nonsense involved, more broad spread acceptance of dependence and abuse as a reality (compared with cannabis, say) and one heck of a lot bigger affected population. Then there is the perception factor (and perhaps that is what all the whining is about) that NIAAA will be the aggrieved party in this merger- it strikes me that this would help to preserve NIAAA jobs / research portfolio over that of NIDA as well.

I am interested in the idea that this merger will be an opportunity to enforce scientific orthodoxy..at least at the start. The task force will be looking to strip anything that smells of substance dependence out of other Institutes and strip anything that is too distant from substance abuse out of NIAAA’s and NIDA’s existing portfolios. So at least from the launch of the new substance abuse Institute (whatever it is to be named) there may be a rather unique demarcation of territory. Of course this will evolve over time to the kind of occasional overlap we see at present…unless additional IC mergers are accomplished with similar enforcement of strict topic boundaries.

This is more of a curiosity than anything. I don’t see any particular landmines ahead, but then I suppose I’m not one who does work in an uncertain grey area of overlap between the current NIDA/NIAAA portfolios and those of another IC.

Now, let us turn to our favorite interest, that of what specific moves we individuals in the extramural research community should be making to maximize the chances of keeping our labs funded. This is mere speculation at this point since everything is still very hazy and out of focus.

I would say first, if you are an alcohol-only researcher this is a good time to start thinking about broadening your appeal. Start looking for Divisions and Branches at NIDA and elsewhere that might be interested in your research. Take a look at the things of interest to you that lean toward the general substance abuse side of the equation and poke through RePORTER to find out if anyone else is funded on the most obviously related topics.

Second, if you are a NIDA-only person, take a look at alcohol, even if you don’t plan to do any specific studies. Whut? Well sure, NIDA is bigger than NIAAA but many of the NIAAA program officers are going to end up in the integrated institute. If you are talking with them down the line and you evince complete ignorance of alcohol research and ignorance of the overlaps vs dissimilarities with your own favorite drug of abuse..well, this will not endear you to them.

Third, training moves. If you are a PI, consider recruiting a postdoc from the other side of the fence in the next year or two. This will give you some expertise and “voice” when you start writing new grants in a couple of years. Similarly if you are a postdoc in a NIDA-focused or NIAAA-focused laboratory, this may be a good time to give the other side some serious consideration for you next training stop.

Fourth, departmental breadth. There are some departments or SuperResearchGroups that perhaps are a little too exclusive to alcohol or not-alcohol at present. This is a great time to get some breadth with your next Assistant Professor hire, is it not?

UPDATE 11/19/10: See additional links in the comments, Collins has a public press release that seems about the same. One thing that I forgot to take up is the fact that this fact-finding process is critical for determining the size of the budget of the new Institute. There is no reason to think it will simply be an addition of NIDA’s and NIAAA’s current slices of the NIH pie. The addiction-related research focused on nicotine/tobacco that is currently in the NCI might represent a considerable portfolio.
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as always, see Disclaimer. I’m an interested party in this process.

Posters, FTW!

November 15, 2010

Just two days in and already I’ve had a ton of useful chats at posters during the SfN Annual Meeting. Most of the useful conversations are about matters other than what is on the poster the person is presenting at this time.

  • Reminders of what people did in the past, that I had forgotten or never knew about.
  • Exchange of info about the reality behind the polished papers.
  • Talks about the data not yet published because a slightly unexpected finding (we share) makes tradition-minded reviewers get the collywobbles.
  • Collegial sharing about the current directions and progress for a topic of interest.
  • Revelations about just who is breathing down our neck on which project.

The poster floor at a meeting is where it is AT. I can talk to people I know really well anytime via phone or email. If you are upstairs outside of the platform presentation rooms glad handing your best buds you see everywhere you are missing out.

Some person named Buds is fretting about the recent NIH policy which only permits a single revision of an unfunded application.

I have recently been through the “new” submission protocol at NIH. Its an extremely frustrating process. It almost seems that a requirement for “new submission” is that you change your line of investigation…….that you cannot do really, and that what sinks many. My grant (initially not funded at 18th percentile, last attempt) was administratively withdrawn and it seems that once they make up their mind, they wont change it does not matter how you try and point out the differences between the new grant and the old one. Seems like someone else knows your grant better than you do.

So have new sp aims which basically means a new direction of research.

Emphasis added. To point out that this is nonsense. Time to revisit, first of all, NOT-OD-10-080.

A new application is expected to be substantially different in content and scope with more significant differences than are normally encountered in a resubmitted application. A new application should include substantial changes in all sections of the Research Plan, particularly in the Specific Aims and the Research Strategy sections. There should be fundamental changes in the questions being asked and/or the outcomes examined. Changes to the Research Plan should produce a significant change in direction and approach for the research project.

Emphasis added. “More significant differences” in comparison with the original application. Nowhere is this calling for you to do a wholesale revision of your entire direction of research in your laboratory. If you see it this way, perhaps you are writing your Specific Aims too broadly, and your approach reads more like the laboratory program description than a specific project.

So knock that shit off. Now.

The DM and CPP are constantly going on about how you should have multiple grant applications going in at the same time. The only way to do this that I can see is if you manage to describe projects narrowly enough so as to permit breathing room for the other proposals.

And to do that, requires a simple trick in the mind of the PI. Stop thinking of a grant as a contract. The purpose of the grant application is to get funded for a general area of investigation. It is not to dictate your every scientific move for 5 years. Get the money and work on the topic as best you see fit. Given that, it should not be too hard to write up some new Aims and then, if you get lucky, go right ahead and work on what you see fit to work on.

Publish some cool papers and nobody is going to say boo.

After all, the days of competing continuation applications are just about finished.