Special consideration on NIH applications for “Unfunded Experienced Investigators”?

February 2, 2011

A lengthy comment on the new blog of the head of the Office of Extramural Research at the NIH is an absolute goldmine. One of the specific proposals is that the NIH should now have a special initiative to fund grants for investigators who have previously held NIH awards but do not currently hold NIH funding.

Create funding vehicles that emphasize funding of smaller research operations…As done with the New Investigators, create a category of “Unfunded Established Investigators” and fund this category in the 25-30% range.

No offense but this bloody well already exists.
1) When they were using the R56 Bridge mechanism liberally, I seemed to notice that it was going preferentially to established investigators. You know, the long time buddies of Program staff who just happened to be hitting a dry spot.
2) When the squeeze came down around 2006 or so, I had conversations (Hi Ed!) with more than one PO in which they made it overwhelmingly clear they were all about “saving” their established investigators who were (allegedly) “going to have to close their labs”. My point that these folks had hard money jobs with tenure and were not at the same risk as newly minted Assistant Professors fell on deaf ears, I can tell you. As did my points about so what if they can’t compete, what about those of us who ‘should’ be just hitting our stride who fully deserve the multiple awards if we can successfully compete for fundable scores.
3) We’ve talked several times about the psychology of the study section and the way people are biased in ways that do not follow the strictest assessment of the merits of an application. It is a human endeavor and it is simply ignorant to pretend human judges are ‘unbiased’, or ever could be. One of the biases is that experienced investigators are more like the reviewers and therefore the reviewer sympathies are going to be with their generational peers, not the n00bs.
So no, I don’t favor a creation of a special category of help for experienced investigators who run out of funding. Yes, even though that would in theory be to my own benefit some day.

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22 Responses to “Special consideration on NIH applications for “Unfunded Experienced Investigators”?”

  1. Syndrome Says:

    To Paraphrase:
    And when I’m old and I’ve had my fun…. *Everyone* can be special! And when everyone’s special…[chuckles evilly]- no one will be.

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  2. bsci Says:

    There seem to be a lot of the usual unsupported assumptions in that long comment, but the one that jumped out to me was The majority of the Nobel Laureates that we point to as our role models and true innovators of science did not get their start and interest in science at the Harvards and Stanfords of this country. Most came out of state funded universities and colleges. They aspired to be scientists because they received inspiration and early training from NIH funded investigators that typically ran small (1 grant) research operations that produced continuous high quality research on an assortment of subject areas.
    There are some famous examples of this, but that’s far from the rule. For the sheer pointlessness of it, I pulled one or two Laureates from 1991-2000. They almost all had training (pre-professorship) at a top place and most were directly linked to a past Nobel Laureate. Perhaps there was another golden age, but if anything, dynasties were probably bigger in earlier decades.
    1991 Erwin Neher – trained at Madison and Yale
    1991 Bert Sakmann trained at UCL worked with Bernhard Katz (Nobel 1970)
    1992 Edwin Krebs – trained at WashU with some mentorship from Carl & Gerty Cori (Nobel 1947)
    1993 Richard Roberts – trained at Harvard & Cold Spring Harbor & worked with James Watson (Nobel 1962)
    1994 Alfred Gilman – Yale and Case Western & worked with Earl Sutherland (Nobel 1971) and Marshall Nirenberg (Nobel 1968)
    1995 Edward Lewis – CalTech
    1997 Stanley Prusier – UPenn, UCSF, NIH worked with Britton Chance & Earl Stadtman
    1998 Robert Furchgott – Northwestern, Cold Spring Harbor, Cornell
    1999 Gunter BIobel – Rockefeller U working with George Palade (Nobel 1974)
    2000 Eric Kandel – Harvard, NYU, Columbia worked with Harry Grundfest who was linked to several other Laureates

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  3. How the fucken fucke did you even manage to read that fucken never-ending diatribe? It was like fucken War and Peace. Could you imagine having to be in a faculty meeting with that fucker?

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  4. Eli Rabett Says:

    Eli’s PO buddy talks about the need for FARTs (Final Award for Research and Teaching)

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  5. L. Says:

    Forgive my ignorance— I’ve been hearing about this persistent funding crisis for years now, but according to the NIH, the funding rates have gone from 30% to 20%.
    http://report.nih.gov/award/success/Success_ByIC.cfm
    Is this an incomplete picture?
    Obviously it’s bad, and going from 30% to 20% and only allowing 1 revision are harsh. But I’m having a hard time finding numbers indicating just how rough it is now. Some people have talked about single digit paylines, but according to that link, we’re a long ways from that. Does anyone have more complete data on this?

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  6. DrugMonkey Says:

    Success rate and payline are not the same thing. They have different implications for the mental health of applicants.

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  7. Joe Says:

    OK, but we all know guys like this that ‘should be funded’, by which I mean that it would be good for science and good for society if they were sufficiently funded to keep their labs operating. They can still do good research, and they can still train students and contribute to education. I think it would be great if there were small pots of state money to keep such labs operating. The problem is that such loss of funding for experienced investigators facilitates the transition to deadwood. These guys become depressed and stop submitting applications. They stop showing up for anything but the classes they teach. So state and departmental funds are sucked into supporting the large salaries of these guys, and yet they cannot get the funds to do the work they were trained for.

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  8. Gruffi Gummi Says:

    A mechanism for “Unfunded Experienced Investigators”?
    Social Security. đŸ™‚

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  9. DrugMonkey Says:

    So state and departmental funds are sucked into supporting the large salaries of these guys,
    As a taxpaying supporter of the NIH, a future user of medical benefits of such research, a scientist competing for NIH funding….Not. My. Problem.

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  10. Pinko Punko Says:

    I have to disagree slightly here.
    We know that our system is a little bit broken- we have post-doc factories creating new sausage for the grinder constantly. If we want to have a class of researcher that is non-disposable, we might consider mechanisms that counteract the concentration of resources in a few places. Part of that is considering what it takes to fund existing investigators and how to judge their productivity. If only superstar productivity counts, and the grants are turning into a one-and-done mechanism, whereby new investigators recently budded from superstar lab receive funding and then are recycled onto the garbage heap, it seems we are just kicking the can down the road.

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  11. DrugMonkey Says:

    I am having trouble parsing your point here Punko, but I can say that if new investigators from super star labs can’t make a go out of it after landing their first award, maybe they really don’t need to continue in science.
    I had a recent comment about why I am more impressed by a person who struggles from an unsupportive scientific environment to achieve independent productivity than I am by someone who has the appearance of every benefit and flails on their own…..

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  12. Pinko Punko Says:

    My point is that in this climate, and with ESI status, the bar for renewal seems quite a bit higher than the first award, and that new investigators flying high out of a stud post-doc will always look more attractive than a decently productive former super star behaving more like a normal PI, with more modest achievements.
    And there will always be more freshly-minted post-docs. So how do you balance this? You can get in at a 20% as an ESI with all of your upside. You could write your renewal and come in at 25% and no dice, and rewrite your A1 for 20% and then you could be dead.

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  13. L. Says:

    I thought Pinko Punko was saying that it’s a waste to have the cull at the first R01-renewal stage because it’s too late to weed anyone out. Often people get tenure before their first renewal. So now there’s a person taking an FTE but not getting grants. I guess this is a bummer for the university, but maybe the rest of people working for competitive R01 renewals likes it. Or maybe I just made that up.

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  14. whimple Says:

    I guess this is a bummer for the university, but maybe the rest of people working for competitive R01 renewals likes it. Or maybe I just made that up.
    Someone submitting a non-competitive grant doesn’t increase the number of grants that get funded, so it really makes no difference, other than to increase the burden on reviewers. Every non-competitive grant submitted pushes the payline down.
    On the other hand, all those people writing non-competitive grants have zeroed out their productivity at their institution. The return on an unfunded grant is… zero. They could have been doing anything else other than writing grants and had an at least marginally higher return.
    I would have thought “people working for competitive R01 renewals” would be capable of at least this level of elementary analysis.

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  15. L. Says:

    whimple, I meant “competitive R01 renewals” in contrast to non-competing renewals, i.e., the first post-tenure R01 review.
    The idea I was trying to get across is, I think, the same thing you said in June: “Really, the NIH should make it HARDER for ESIs to get funded. Those that survive will then have it relatively easy to maintain funding throughout their career. There’s not much advantage in propping up people in their early years, only to pull the rug out from under them after they’re locked in as tenured permanent baggage.”
    http://scienceblogs.com/drugmonkey/2010/06/niehs_throws_down_for_early_st.php
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think it’s very common for universities to shrink their number of FTEs. So if PIs are culled pre-tenure, then that’s good for turnover and will ensure that people who get tenure are bona fide, top notch PIs. It also maximizes the number of good PIs competing for NIH support.
    Alternatively, if the cull comes post-tenure, then this effectively shrinks the pool of good PIs competing for NIH support. Since universities are reluctant to shrink their number of FTEs, a post-tenure cull is one way to shrink the pool. The bad side of this is that there are hotshot postdocs who would make awesome PIs who are shut out of FTEs by unfunded professors occupying the slots.

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  16. mikka Says:

    Although I have to agree that culling at the early stage to produce generations of battle-hardened sardaukar elite superPIs sounds attractive from a darwinian point of view, I can’t shake the feeling that that is already the situation in the postdoc-faculty transition. The ESI system only attempts to even the field so as to pick up promising people that don’t have a hope and a prayer of competing against stablished labs with lots of preliminary data and friends/brand recognition in the study sections.
    I think that an unfunded prof glut will simply accelerate the transition to rolling tenure systems everywhere, at which point the problem will gradually solve itself.

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  17. Odyssey Says:

    So if PIs are culled pre-tenure, then that’s good for turnover and will ensure that people who get tenure are bona fide, top notch PIs. It also maximizes the number of good PIs competing for NIH support.
    There are at least two problems with this. First is that institutions sink a lot of money into start up packages for new investigators (as whimple often points out). A pre-tenure culling system would be outrageously expensive for universities and therefore simply won’t happen.
    Secondly, what evidence is there that the NIH NI/ESI system has increased the number of unfunded tenured PIs? Most of the whining about lack of funding I’m hearing is coming from people who made tenure prior to the NI/ESI system.
    And for anyone who’s thinking D. Noonan is the poster boy for a stellar scientist done wrong by the NIH, do a little internet sleuthing. He’s not.

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  18. Yeah, Googling up his stated last name and his assertion that he is director of the whatthefuckever program indicates this dude is Daniel Noonan at University of Kentucky. He has two competitively awarded R01s in his entire career. One from 1993-1996 that never got renewed and one from 2002-2005 that also never got renewed. According to Pubmed, his publication productivity over this nearly two-decade period has been abysmal.

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  19. whimple Says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think it’s very common for universities to shrink their number of FTEs.
    They don’t enjoy doing that, but I think it’s coming, particularly for schools at least partially dependent on state government financing.
    Secondly, what evidence is there that the NIH NI/ESI system has increased the number of unfunded tenured PIs?
    Too early to tell, but the data from the old R29 program is not encouraging. The NI/ESI extended payline is pretty much a doubling-down on that old bet.

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  20. Too early to tell, but the data from the old R29 program is not encouraging. The NI/ESI extended payline is pretty much a doubling-down on that old bet.

    Totally false. The problem with R29 is that the amount of money was substantially smaller than a typical R01, yet it precluded contemporaneous R01 funding (I forget if this was by rule, but it certianly was true as a matter of practice). This put the R29 awardees at competitive disadvantage relative to those whose first grant was an R01.

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  21. Anonymous Says:

    Maybe its time for the NIH to become more socialistic, i.e., fund scientists from poor and less fortunate institutions and let the rich ones fund their own scientists. It appears many agree that there is a bias in favor of funding the rich and famous and when they cry foul upon losing their funding, the NIH exhibits a selective hearing for those cries.

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  22. DrugMonkey Says:

    Totally false. The problem with R29 is that the amount of money was substantially smaller than a typical R01, yet it precluded contemporaneous R01 funding (I forget if this was by rule, but it certianly was true as a matter of practice). This put the R29 awardees at competitive disadvantage relative to those whose first grant was an R01.
    This. Plus the “matter of practice” in which some study section members seemed to think a n00b “had” to get an R29 before deserving the R01. Plus the current situation is better because of the fact that even if it is someone’s first grant award, one cannot be sure that they needed any special ESI consideration (just like you can’t tell that ol’ graybeard was picked up at 29th percentile)
    R29 policy:
    An individual may submit only one FIRST award application to the NIH for any one receipt date and may not submit any other type of research grant application, including research career applications, amended applications, and responses to a Request For Applications (RFA), during that same review cycle. However, applications for an R03, R15, and R21 may be submitted for the same review cycle as a FIRST application, provided the applications are on different topics. Persons holding FIRST awards may submit applications for other projects during the FIRST award project period, if they have committed less than 100 percent time and effort on the FIRST award.
    I don’t recall if you could negotiate your effort downward to permit another R01 application but you can see where it might be a roadblock for a soft money PI back in the day. If you had to propose 100% support on the R29 because you had no other support….
    FIRST award applications must propose a five-year project plan and request five years of research support.
    That must have been interesting, especially given that:
    Total direct costs for the five-year period may not exceed $350,000. The direct cost award in any budget year should not exceed $100,000.
    So in practice it was $70,000 per year. Given inflation and all, we have to recognize this isn’t as bad as it looks compared with current $250K full mod limits but I did run across a reference that this amount was about half of the usual R01 back then. Seems roughly reasonable.
    NIH stopped accepting R29 applications in June of 1998
    Good riddance.

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