NIH Institutes played shenanigans with ARRA?

May 9, 2011

Back in the day, the Congress offered to throw a little Recovery and Reinvestment cashola at scientists via inclusion of the NIH in the ARRA. Yay!, right?

Of course, scientists being the idiots that they are, they immediately started crying and moaning. “Oh, the timeline for submission was too short”. “Hurry-up of the review process” was a problem. And above all else “We can’t do *anything* with only two years’ worth of funding, we need to shore up our regular R01 paylines! Aieee!”.

I thought this was stupid. More money into the research enterprise is a good thing, in my view. It displayed a shocking lack of can-do attitude and imagination on the part of scientists to react the way they did. Especially, since one heard a lot of pushback on the two things that Congress was trying to make people do (not just scientists, everyone) with the ARRA funds. 1) Create jobs. 2) Buy stuff. Yes, two years and then a cliff (really? a cliff?) is hard when it comes to hiring research techs but, you know what? I see research techs in my geographic location out of work now and again because yet another small biotech folded or got absorbed by BigPharma. It seemed to me that ARRA funds would have come in handy to hire some of those folks. I’m sure they wouldn’t have complained about the short-duration when they were otherwise unemployed. Or the undergrads who were graduating in an environment of pinched new hiring. Some of them would have thought two years a pretty decent deal- heck, half of the research tech applicant pool I see straight out of undergrad are “thinking about” grad or professional school anyway.

Also a good time to stock up on some fancy new (or run of the mill) science kit. Lord knows the usual science vendors were hammering my email box once the news of the NIH dole of ARRA funds hit the streets. (And, um, fighting with each other like small children.)


Don’t get me wrong, there were some problems. The variety of fast-distribution mechanisms meant that the rich (i.e., those institutions with lots of NIH funding already) made out like bandits from the ARRA. The investigators who were best know, had existing grants to supplement and/or could crank out the applications were best able to land the “new” dollars. And that was not so good, I’ll readily admit.

I didn’t follow a lot of the programs but I’m sure they were very uneven in terms of meeting Congress’ two golden intentions. Hire. Buy. No doubt a lot of the ARRA grant funding just went to the same-old. To pay the salary of people already on the books and to buy consumables rather than big-ticket equipment that, I assume, was the big interest of Congress. Still, money entered the system that would otherwise not have. Good deal.


Question is, were we prepared for the reality of the crash-back-to-bad-budget levels post-ARRA? Rumor has it that the National Cancer Institute (update: Varmus link; not a rumor  “NCI made a decision in 2009 to use appropriated dollars in FY2011 and FY2012 to extend some of the grants that were originally awarded with ARRA funds.“) was not.

Part of NCI’s added budget pain comes from their funding ARRA awards for 4 instead of 2 years, taking the latter 2 years out of future appropriations. Since the appropriation has not gone up since ARRA, NCI has had less $ available for new competing awards.

What? And another rumor I hear claims NIA has done the same thing…MADNESS. What in the heck were they thinking? We had just come past a similar episode of apparent lack of planning at the peak of the doubling interval when political will to continue substantial annual increases to the NIH budget evaporated. There was some similar IC pain in dealing with the tail of the out-years of 4-5 year grants funded right at the end of the doubling.


Why on earth would they turn right around and make the same mistake?


Sure this can’t be true, is it? Did some of the ICs really commit to four years on ARRA two-year proposals?



No Responses Yet to “NIH Institutes played shenanigans with ARRA?”

  1. If it is true, it represents unimaginably poor planning.


  2. ABCD Says:

    It is true. FY 09 paylines were bumped up to 25%tile with ARRA funds and established investigators were funded for 2 yrs and NI/ESI were funded for 4-5 yrs.


  3. Stork Says:

    Funny. The Previous NCI Director (Dr. John E. Niederhuber) didn’t mention that they were going to do this with the stimulus money.


  4. drugmonkey Says:

    I am gratified that NCI saw fit to reserve this for NI/ESIs…but still, not a great plan if they failed to account for the out years under a reasonable expectation of the budgets falling back to normal….


  5. St. Kern would find a way to cure cancer, even if his lab was unfunded. Sacke up bitches!


  6. New Asst. Prof. Says:

    ARRA funds picked up my R03 from just below the payline and as a n00b PI (I wasn’t quite yet independent when I was awarded that grant), I am grateful and can’t imagine bitching about it. I do think it is incredibly short-sighted to pick up grants with longer terms than those 2-year ARRA grants, forcing an IC to raid out-year budgets to cover their commitments. That said, other government agencies do this all the time. There’s a reason that the federal budgeting process is compared to sausage-making…


  7. anonymous Says:

    My PI got an ARRA grant with 3 co-PIs, and each of them hired a 1-2 year tech to get the work done. Gogo science job creation! Our tech has now finished and gone onto grad school, for the record.


  8. mark Says:

    As a senior researcher, I don’t find it pleasant or productive to make new hires for only a year or two. A lot of training is usually required, which is expensive of my time, and it’s lost when the person goes. 2 years is not enough time for a PhD, although it could certainly relieve other funds used to pay students already in a lab. Being outside the US, I don’t know whether funds could be used for significant infrastructure. But in general, it’s not so easy to spend really large amounts of cash in only two years, academic institutions slow everything down quite a lot. Instead of making this a completely open competition, which just inspired the whole country to try out, it would have made some sense to target the money, or at least restrict ways in which it could reasonably be spent on such a short time line. Even a one-time cash influx is useful, but it would be foolish to imagine that it can substitute for the general failure of NIH budgets to keep up with the number of applicants being added to the pool even now.


  9. anonymous Says:

    Really depends on the project. Surely you can come up with projects that involve lots of routine meat-grinding that would bore a grad-student or Post-Doc (or even permanent manager/tech) to death, but still provide great, scientifically interesting data? That’s what we got money to do, and there are lots of great undergrads looking for a 1-2 year job right now, and many of them are already trained in the basics. The best students will be begging you to hire them to do PCR all day.

    The point is to be flexible and design projects that are appropriate for a 1-2 year temporary employee rather than a graduate student.


  10. Late to this party but….
    If true, this would represent not just poor planning but an actual violation of the terms of the ARRA grants….from the ‘Requirements’ section of the RC2 announcement (and if I remember correctly RC1 has the same or a similar stipulation…sadly I do not have the link for the RC1 PA though), “Projects that would require funding beyond this timeframe should provide a detailed plan for maintaining the research efforts —AND THIS IS THE GOOD PART—without any expectation of further financial assistance from the sponsoring IC or other NIH components. Applicants are expected to provide a list of outcomes and include plans to obtain long-term support for research endeavors carried out with ”GO” grant funding. A detailed statement addressing the bullets above should be included as part of the application Research Plan and in summary form in the Letter of Intent.” Link here:
    As for shenanigans, I have a hilarious summary statement that quite clearly demonstrates what a colossal joke the entire exercise was…apparently our review panel felt that our proposal for a resource that would generate revenue to sustain itself was “highly unacceptable”. Apparently the stimulus was meant to stimulate more borrowing, not to stimulate revenue generation and job creation…according to the people who administered the thing, anyways…


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