A comment over at writedit’s thread on NIH Paylines notes that one means by which the NIAID could respond to the Republican Congressional plan to return to 2008 budget levels is to slash all existing grants by 10%. In a seemingly disconnected prior post, Prof-like Substance was recently complaining abut the budgeting process when constructing a grant application. Yet a third source for my musings comes from Jeremy Berg’s overview of the final selection process for funding grants at NIGMS.

The other key factor for final funding decisions is, of course, the availability of funds…Paylists are then developed using the prioritized lists, with budget adjustments for each application based on NIH and NIGMS-wide policies as well as considerations specific to the application provided by the responsible program director. Applications are paid until the available funds are exhausted.

Emphasis added. These three sets of comments bring me around to a point that is not always made obvious to new NIH grant seekers.

Reductions to your proposed budget, should you be fortunate to be selected for funding, are routine.

Reductions are made for all kinds of reasons*, with essentially a single goal. That goal is for the IC in question, or the NIH as a whole, to fund more grant proposals for the same amount of money. Duh.

Not to insult your intelligence, but let us take up the R01 proposal that is at the modular limit, i.e., $250,000 in direct costs per year. Ten modules. If you trim 9 such proposals that you intend to fund by 10% then you end up with 10 projects funded instead of 9. Easy call, from the Program perspective.

There is a lot of upside for an IC, right? More science, slightly better looking success rate (because perhaps 100 applications were submitted to arrive at those 10 that were funded), more investigators funded (potentially adding one more Congressional District to the IC’s tally), etc.

This budget reduction, $25,000, is not chump change. Think about it. Even a relatively inexperienced technician might be making, what, about $30K so $36K with benefits. So that 10% reduction pretty much closes the door on hiring a new tech for the project. It’s a good chunk of grad student or postdoc costs as well. If this is a young investigator’s first award, this reduction may be the difference between being able to hire the tech they really need and not being able to do so because they have no other grants over which to spread the effort. Or what about major equipment? In the generic rodent substance abuse setting, this might be nearing the cost of 8 operant boxes for self-administration studies. So maybe you can afford to hire the technician….but her work efficiency in the first year has just been cut approximately in half because you don’t have that extra throughput capacity. Or perhaps that really tasty collaboration with another lab has to be dropped…compromising a longer term collaborative strategy, local politics, immediate throughput, etc. Suppose you do human studies- perhaps you have to cut the number of subjects you can reasonably get run…risking marginal power, losing that extra sub-analysis (for sex, age, ethnicity or whatever), compromising the number of assessments.

So the point is that reductions are almost inevitable…and they can really hurt your science**.

The only obvious answer, is to plan for this. Recognize that it is very likely that you will suffer a budgetary reduction on funding and make sure you can make the right moves in response. The right moves*** being the ones that cause the least damage to your plan of attack on the research and/or the development of your laboratory.

*NIH-wide responses to general appropriations reductions, broad policies adopted under continuing resolutions, individual IC’s adopting a general strategy of award reduction, hits aimed specifically at untried or more-junior investigators, hits aimed at senior investigators who are judged to have a healthy amount of funding, etc, etc..

**I’ve been there. I’ve had situations in which some project I was working under was severely compromised in eventual output by funding reductions****. Sometimes there is very little you can do if the proposal was already constrained by mechanism and/or your research plan only broke down in very large chunks. Or little you can do if Program decides to whack your budget an unusually large amount. Or lops an entire year of funding off of the proposal (yes, this can happen too).

***There is a second, and I believe absolutely critical, head’s up play that you need to take when you have suffered a reduction upon award. And that is to lay down the record in your progress reports that you have suffered a reduction and have consequently deleted or ignored a part of your original plan. It is going to have an effect on your work, so you might as well not take the double-hit of being judged as if you had the originally proposed level of funding. Program Officers need to be reminded of this with your annual progress reports, although this doesn’t have to be a big deal assuming you got something accomplished each year. But when it comes time for your competing continuation application to be reviewed, I suggest that a specific story works a lot better than a lot of nonspecific whinging about budget reductions. In short it plays a lot better to say “We cut X, Y and Z experiments out of the plan because of the reductions imposed upon funding”.

****Yeah, you’d think Program would be better able to see that some projects are more amenable to cuts without complete disaster than others. Some are more of an all-or-none thing. But of course everyone would try to make that claim, wouldn’t they? sigh.

A new post from Director Jeremy Berg of NIGMS gives an overview of the process by which his Institute makes final funding decisions. The part about the gray zone decisions was particularly interesting:

For each application, the responsible program director presents the scientific topic as well as factors such as whether the applicant is an ESI or new investigator, how much other support the applicant has (particularly if the application represents the only support available to the investigator), whether the Council has given us specific advice on the application, whether the scientific area is perceived to be particularly exciting, and how much other research we already support in the general area of the application. The other members of the unit listen to these presentations, and the group then produces a prioritized list of applications.

Emphasis added. Note that? Program staff have to be strong advocates for your application during the selection process that occurs in the dim twilight of the gray / pickup zone. This means you have to write an application that trips their triggers and that they can understand. This is almost as important as speaking clearly to the people who are reviewing your grant at the study section level. This is also why I point out that schmoozing Program staff at scientific meetings is your opportunity to advocate in a general way for the things that you feel are important in science, not just your specific proposal at the current time. You want to educate them and bring them around to your way of seeing things as a gut-feeling or belief. If they understand the arguments even before they see your specific application, they are going to be more equipped, more interested and therefore a better advocate for your proposal.

Diversifying your laboratory

January 28, 2011

Cackle of Rad made an interesting comment in the discussion following his/her recent post on the woes of trying to get funded as a junior faculty member.

I think this means it is time to diversify a little, and that is what I am looking toward. Gotta follow the money at some level.

It can be difficult as a junior faculty member. You look in the mirror and say “I’m a ‘sub-sub-sub-field-ologist’ and I do X and I am interested in Y”. This can be very difficult to escape.

To be honest, I’m still working on it. I definitely had my blinders on as a grad student and well into post-doctoral training. Blinders of the usual entitled sort that caused me to think (not very explicitly, “assume” might be more accurate) that if I was interested in the topic and there was an existing literature, well, surely I must be able to forge my career with little change. I just would have to be good at what I was doing and all would be well. This was wrong.

[ As a bit of a sidebar, I have to look back on one of the subareas of my fields of interest that was pretty hott stuff when I was a graduate student. A couple or six labs bashing away at a topic and each other, lots of excitement, etc. Constant stream of publications for the labs and, more importantly, the trainees. In my naivete I thought the trainees in those labs were going to have it made, careerwise. I thought they were set up for nearly inevitable success. Didn’t work out that way. A number of them have reached professorial ranks but I can’t think of a single one that has reached the prominence of the labs in which they trained. Not even close. The fervor of that subarea has diminished tremendously. I don’t know that it was inevitable, there are related areas of modern interest that they could all easily have moved into. They just didn’t seem to do so. But I digress…. ]

Through the nervous days of late postdoc’ing wondering if I would ever land a RealJobTM and even when I became an independent investigator, I was still very much oriented to my own academic interests. I even had the relatively explicit thought that “Well, if I can’t make it working on subject Y using my existing skill set and models, perhaps I am not interested in being a scientist and I’d better do something else. Waaah.”*

At some point you have to say to your reflected image in the mirror “Do you really want a career or not?”. I did ask myself this question. On more than one occasion. Gradually, over time I came to the realization that yes, I did indeed want a career as an independent investigator in biomedical science. I like my job as a career fairly well. Despite the headaches and tradeoffs and fantasies about how it would have gone down in some other career path. It is a pretty good gig. But it is a career, make no mistake, and you have to reach an acceptable level of performance on the career-related aspects of the job.

And that means, particularly in tough times, following the money as Cackle of Rad said.

One of the good things for younger investigators is that they ofttimes have skill sets that are not broadly applied in a different topic domain. So yes, you may work on System A in Disease Penumbra B but you have skills that would revolutionize work with System C in Disease Penumbra D. Might be time to look for funding from a different disease-focused funding organization or institution.

Or maybe it is just taking the leap to another aspect of the -ology you already inhabit. It may shock you but within the general substance abuse domains there are certainly people who focus narrowly on one abused substance of interest such as cocaine or nicotine or alcohol. And what do you know, they have funding from NIDA or the NCI or NIAAA, respectively. Now yes, we are facing a consolidation of these portfolios under one merged NIH Institute in the future, but this has been the situation for the past 30 years at least. Some folks have managed to stick like a tick to their single drug of interest but when times are tough, this is one thing to abandon.

The key here is that you should be thinking about how to expand your interests and lab directions in a way that make you interesting to different funding agencies. Either a different entity altogether or at minimum a different IC within the NIH.

It may take good mentoring from someone in your field, but slightly more senior, to work through these issues. Obviously an young faculty member will be worried about the effort expended versus the odds of a hit. Elbowing into another set of Bunny Hoppers can be hard to do, maybe even harder than working your way into good graces with the grey beards and blue hairs of your own sub-sub-sub-discipline. HOWEVER, there is also the chance that the Bunny Hoppers will see you as the kewl new shiny penny and bend over to pick you up…

You will also, eventually, be judged on things related to “makes a seminal contribution to the field” and “internationally recognized expert in X”. If you are viewed as a Jill of all trades it may be assumed that you are a mistress of none (that doesn’t work, does it. Master of none. dammit). At tenure time and at Full Professor time. So you want to be a little bit careful. But let’s face it. In this day and age these considerations fade into the background behind the need to get one grant, any grant, that provides major research support to your laboratory.

*It turns out that you can be interested in all kinds of stuff if you just give it a chance. Really. Trust me on that.

Related Reading: One of Odyssey‘s most brilliant posts was on mid-career changes in research focus. I should re-read that at least once every six months.


January 27, 2011

Idle thought of the day:

The science blogs really lose their hilarity for awhile after that damn meeting of Bora’s and Anton’s in NC. It’s all that kumbayah bonoboing and taking themselves seriously crap.

In a recent comment thread Comrade PhysioProf revisited a claim or insinuation he’s made before.

These changes–like almost all of the enhancing peer review changes–are really designed to hasten attrition of substantial numbers of marginal PIs/insitutions that were attracted into the system during the budget doubling of the late 90s/early 00s. These people/institutions need to be flushed from the system so that success rates can normalize.
Of course, this kind of plan cannot be openly sold to Congress, so it is packaged as “enhancing peer review” and “funding grants sooner”, but it is really all about making it easier for quality investigators to get their grants and more difficult for marginal investigators. If you were the kind of investigator who could never get a grant funded until you had been beaten to an A2 by study section, or who needed 25 full pages of preliminary data to convince a study section to fund your boring/incremental science, now you’re never gonna get a grant and you’re gonna be flushed.

He’s talking about me, so naturally I take umbrage at this assertion.

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after a whopping 4 months on the job, Engineering Professor says:

I think my lab is finally running out of things that can go wrong.


[ wipes eyes ]


[ clasps stomach ]


The Hermitage has a post up entitled The Academia Ghetto that bemoans:

…the state of mind that awards, programmes, initiatives, etc are pointless unless a white dude can win it, serve on it, or vote in it.

You will also note that the D-List Monktress anticipates my opinion, perhaps having previously read the repost I’m serving up, I don’t know.

I realize many senior monks’ responses are ‘get yours and tell everyone who thinks otherwise to fuck themselves’, but the reality of the situation is that Everyone Who Thinks Otherwise comprises a substantial amount of my academic peerage.

Yeah, no crap. Majority is majority. And bigots are bigots. There is very little you can do about it in this scenario, save to punish yourself in a vain attempt to change the idiots’ minds about you.

I want to re-emphasize a point I made before. People in Hermitage’s situation vis a vis fellowships, funding and platform presentations have a simple reality to face. What is the alternative? Are you telling me you are going to not apply to some fellowship just because it says “Minority” or “Women’s” in the title? Don’t get me wrong, I think you should be applying to regular awards as well. For certain. But to avoid applying to a nice program just because it is going to somehow look bad to certain people if you do win the award? This seems very, very stupid to me.

The following originally appeared Dec 7, 2008.

In a recent episode of “Ask Dr. Isis“, the domestic and laboratory goddess fielded a question from a person underrepresented in her field of endeavor:

I’m a black female graduate student … I’ve been very careful in choosing schools and advisors that seem to value my ideas and potential, not just the diversity I can bring to a brochure photo. At the same time, I recognize that there are doors open to me that are unavailable to the vast majority of people in my field- fellowships that seem tailor-made for my circumstances. I’m not one to turn down free money, but at the same time it makes me feel as if I’m something of a novelty item, a token, or in the worstcase, a fraud who’s only there because of her skin color and reproductive system. It can be hard to tell if this stems from my own insecurities, or if this is something I should be genuinely concerned about.

I absolutely hate it that people are made to feel this way. Unsurprisingly, as with most academic one-upsmanship and tear-downsmanship it is based on the underconfidence and personal failings of the one doing the tearing, not the limitations of the one being dismissed. Nevertheless, I hear questions related to grant/fellowship seeking and I perk right up.

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