Does the NIH support too many Principal Investigators?

February 16, 2011

Commenter Neuro-conservative pointed to a set of data slides on the NIH site. I was struck by the one showing the number of investigators supported on Research Project Grants by the NIH over time.


So obviously the ESI/NI pickups and preferential payline strategies enacted around Fiscal Year 2007 or so worked to significantly increase the number of first time awardees. I make this out to be something on the order of 1,000-1,200 newly funded investigators in FY2010 over a ~2,2000-2,500 baseline back in FY2004-6. (Although if you check the last slide on the website, you’ll see that if you limit it to R01 equivalents, the trend is a lot less impressive.)
Most interesting, however, is the uptick in experienced investigators that seems to be associated with the doubling. Since we know that inflation and Bush era flatlined budgets essentially un-doubled the budget, well, we can see the problem here pretty starkly, no?
The number of experienced investigators being supported on NIH dollars has not fallen back anywhere near fast enough.
Some 2,000-2,500 experienced investigators were added to the books during the great doubling. At best this has been pared back to the tune of 800-1,000 investigators. While the first time investigators are up by a good 1,800 since the start of the doubling period.
I’ve been taking the piss out of PhysioProf for his observation that he thinks the NIH is intentionally trying to pare back the number of funded labs. I may have to reconsider my skepticism. Not only that, but reconsider where I stand on the *need* to drop significant numbers of investigators off the books. Five to fifteen percent, maybe even 20 percent…these are the numbers that might be necessary if inflation and flat budgets have really erased the budget doubling.

29 Responses to “Does the NIH support too many Principal Investigators?”

  1. Lorax Says:

    OT But I just learned something interesting.
    Study sections now rank proposals from best to worst based on the preliminary scores and discuss them from the top to a cut off point (used to be 50% of proposals, but I believe that has dropped to 25-30%). Proposals below this cut off point are “Not Discussed”
    I have a “Not Discussed” A1, so the proposal is dead. What I wanted to know was where my proposal fell in relation to the cut off line. My Program Officer said that they cannot provide that information. This seems like a huge waste of useful/important information. As funding rates are so small a grant can go from funded to triaged within the standard error of study sections. Knowing a proposal was close to the cut off indicates that it is potentially viable. Obviously, the pink sheet scores will give some information, but not this kind of information. Im trying to come up with a rationale for why this information must be secret.


  2. whimple Says:

    The problem is worse than you picture. Universities went on a building spree when the doubling started with capital funds borrowed on the predicate that the resulting buildings would be able to be filled with funded investigators. These institutions are going to be financially destroyed.


  3. bacillus Says:

    It looks like a downward trend in # of experienced investigators supported did begin to decline between 07-09, only to uptick in 2010, possibly due to ARRA?


  4. DrugMonkey Says:

    Lorax, you actually get way more of an indication of this on a triaged app now that criterion scores for each reviewer are included. Sure it isn’t perfect, but if you see a bunch of 4s and 5s (versus 7s and 8s) then you have some clue as to how far off your app was.
    Likewise you might see two reviewers with 2s and 3s and a third with 6s and 7s and that might help you determine whether you just got a bad shake of the reviewer dice.


  5. mikka Says:

    What I don’t understand is why they don’t go ahead and say it. It actually sounds like a reasonable way to go.
    – Only with paylines of around 20-25% they can ensure that all good proposals, and a minimal amount of bad ones, will get funded, to avoid the shortcomings of peer review at properly ranking proposals in the very top percentiles.
    – Unless they get more money (unlikely for the next couple of lustra) the only way to get to those paylines is to reduce the number of applications. And the best way to do that is to reduce the number of applicants (limiting applications per applicant would not be efficient).
    – To ensure the efficiency (maximize stablished investigators) and sustainability (replacement by new investigators), they’ve decided to cull across the board. Support good candidates early, and cut dead weight by making it harder to live on the edge of mediocrity. You are either at the top, from the beginning, or you are not in the game at all.
    Even though I’m currently in the losing side of this plan, I have to admit that it has logic. There will be a lot of empty buildings at the end of this, but Republicans have to love this plan. It would eliminate bloat, and they can get back at those snotty elitist evolution-loving global-warming-proving tenured parasites that overwhelmingly vote democrat anyway. They’ll finally get to “stand up to the experts”.


  6. Lorax Says:

    Thanks DM, I agree that the new scoring system does provides better feedback. However, to know how competitive your proposal actually is using these criteria, study section members actually have to spread out the scores. I haven’t served on study section since the new scoring system came online, but my prior experience is that scores were always clustered near the top. Do proposals actually get 7-9s?
    Sorry to attempt a thread highjack DM.


  7. DM Says:

    Always going to be score compression but sure, I’ve seen 7s and 8s as criterion scores.


  8. Always going to be score compression but sure, I’ve seen 7s and 8s as criterion scores.

    I’ve *gotten* 7s and 8s as criterion scores!


  9. DM Says:

    You? Clearly that Reviewer was incompetent. You appealed, right?


  10. Physician Scientist Says:

    The study section I was just on went from 1 to 8 on criterion scores.


  11. Neuro-conservative Says:

    /thread hijack off
    So, is the preferential ESI/NI policy a good idea going forward? Maybe everyone (including even the ESI’s) would be better off with fewer investigators entering this overstuffed arena.
    The only other policy change that might make a small difference is cutting off Type 2 applications, perhaps after Year 10 or something. This might encourage a few senior investigators at the margin to seek greener pastures elsewhere.
    Irrespective of NIH policy, I would say we are looking at a pretty grueling decade ahead. This is likely true for much of the rest of the country as well.
    P.S. bacillus #3 — the data in the slides do not include ARRA awards.


  12. DrugMonkey Says:

    Of course fresh blood is a good idea! FFS, N-c. What is more obviously in need here is a more rapid exit at the back of the career. A thinning of the Boomer horde. Perhaps we should start with mandatory retirement age. Like they do in Sweden (or the Karolinska, anyway; yes, that’s why you see all those old famous Swedish dudes haunting your spare offices and “working on grants” with someone in your department. Their own country cut them off. So I hear, anyway).
    I agree we should end Type 2s but why equivocate? get rid of them all. Every 5 years, a new proposals. Sure, you can continue the same line of work, why not. But if it was really so productive, shouldn’t be any trouble at all to keep it rolling.


  13. Neuro-conservative Says:

    I am no fan of the baby boomers, but mandatory retirement is an evil, lose-lose policy. I would rather strive to reduce existing biases that favor graybeards and bluehairs.
    For example, I can agree with eliminating Type 2 grants entirely. The logic behind them is less relevant to a faster-moving era.
    Yes, fresh blood is necessary for the scientific enterprise, but is it really doing anyone a favor to preferentially admit more and more young people into a free-fire zone? All that fresh blood splattered on the ground…


  14. anon Says:

    How many PIs is too many? Are you suggesting that there is too much academic research in the US? I think tremendous progress was made as a result of the doubling period. I know it’s a fantasy and the current economy doesn’t permit this, but I would be in favor of supporting climbing numbers of scientists.
    I’d be interested to know how these numbers compare to other countries – UK, Japan, Korea, etc.


  15. DrugMonkey Says:

    I can agree with eliminating Type 2 grants entirely. The logic behind them is less relevant to a faster-moving era.
    Now that’s some bipartisan agreement, right there.
    Thinking about it a little bit though, I might like to see it tweaked to do a little more social engineering of the grant process. One of the things this would do is to end anyone but an idiot proposing a 3yr or probably even a 4yr R01. I think there is some value in those and there probably should be even more of them encouraged.
    So maybe there could be a sliding scale where if you propose a 4 yr, you are allowed to come back with a single Type2 proposing 2 additional years. If you do a 3 year to start with, you get to propose 4 additional years.


  16. GAATTC Says:

    Howdy Drug Monkey,
    Long time reader, first time poster. Found out last week that my recent R01 application was not discussed, and so this topic, and the lack of an A2 submission, are of interest. I was talking with a colleague today about Indirect costs and how those keep going up. The rate at my place is 49%, which I know is low compared to other places. If NIH could figure out a way to cap these costs, that would certainly help. Any progress or movement on that front? Incidentally, I saw on the NIGMS blog that you and PhysioProf had the ear of Berg… Well done.


  17. You appealed, right?

    I gave that fucken fucke Scarpa a piece of my mind!
    Dude, never in a million years will they do away with competing renewals. You think this squawking about doing away with A2s is bad? This is just a small subset of deluded whiner PIs. Try to fucke with competing renewals, and there’ll be university presidents on the phone with their lobbyists in DC. Never gonna happen.


  18. DrugMonkey Says:

    If NIH could figure out a way to cap these costs, that would certainly help. Any progress or movement on that front?
    Ha. One of the things I understand the least about NIH matters is how indirect costs are negotiated. I mean, you can tell that state supported Universities tend to get less than private Universities which tend to get less than dinky little Research Institutes. Sure. But as to how and why different places are able to hit those numbers, which can vary so tremendously? I don’t know.
    In some senses, this is obvious. The bills gotta get paid. So if you have a state investing in capital infrastructure, student tuition partially offsetting salaries and utility costs, etc…that’s different from places that have no other visible means of support. Amortize your costs across 1,000 investigators and it is cheaper per-PI than if you have 50.
    If you wanna get some blood back from this stone, it is kinda like what PP was pointing out about the people lighting the torches for 4+ R01 labs. (If you look at the all-PI chart (xls) you can see the skew.) Not as much to be gained from the super-well-funded as from the huge population of, say 2 R01 labs. Similar logic. Even cutting certain research institutes with eyepopping IDC rates totally out of the picture may represent minimal room for gain compared with dropping the consensus public University rates by 10, 15%.


  19. Any of you fuckeasses know how to use excel to make a histogram of total funding?


  20. DrugMonkey Says:

    know how to use excel to make a histogram of total funding?
    Why don’t you try this?


  21. Anonymous Says:

    Any of you fuckeasses know how to use excel to make a histogram of total funding?
    FREQUENCY function is what you want.


  22. becca Says:

    1) “Does the NIH support too many Principle Investigators?”
    For their budget size, yes (though I’m all for raising my taxes and funding more research). However, it’s easy for you to say that, right DM? I mean as *number redacted* /36,000 on the PI list.
    2) Why don’t they give a payline bonus to PIs that find matching funds, or to those from institutions that decrease their indirect rates/give higher startups for assistant profs/have lower teaching or admin loads/ect.? It’d make more sense than % effort shenanigans…


  23. BTW, something is wrong with the numbers on that list. Mine is off by about $200,000.


  24. GAATTC Says:

    “Even cutting certain research institutes with eyepopping IDC rates totally out of the picture may represent minimal room for gain compared with dropping the consensus public University rates by 10, 15%.”
    Thanks for your input DM. Something about this whole IDC deal makes me uneasy. Negotiated rates with the NIH are jut that – negotiated. To me, that means that some places may be able to negotiate better (or worse) than other places. I think the NIH should do what other foundational organizations do and have a flat rate for all who do research regardless of location. Why should the NIH supplement operation costs that should be covered? Where does it end? My second post-doc tenure was at a private University and my PI had to pay for local phone calls. Crazy. When explaining NIH grant funding to friends and family, most people get a glazed look when I bring up indirects costs. With the House of Representatives trying to put NIH funding levels back to 2008, I would rather those costs come from indirects rather than directs. The Universities can find other ways of closing the costs of operations rather than rely on the NIH. Perhaps a bake sale.


  25. DrugMonkey Says:

    “find other ways”? Um, are you not following along with State level budget woes!?!?!?!??


  26. GAATTC Says:

    That’s why I suggested a bake sale.


  27. Devin Says:

    Would you buy cookies made by a research lab? Trust me, these things don’t work.


  28. becca Says:

    By a research lab as a collective? Hells no. However by individual scientists? Sure. Dude, I just made cookies that if they could be mass produced would have redoubled the NIH budget. They were *THAT* good.


  29. Eli Rabett Says:

    The base issue is the number of research faculty in the US. Factor into this the size of labs (it’s not that Big Cheese has 10 RO1s, but that she has 15 grad students and 10 postdocs and throw in a tech or two). You gotta feed the army.


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