Grant Reductions. Sigh.

May 20, 2011

I am not whinging.
ok. maybe a little. But not a lot. Because this has been the accepted deal for most of my NIH grant funded career in science. Grant awards get reduced from the amount that you have requested and the study section has approved as being appropriate for the work as described.
Notice OD-11-077 gives us the current version of the bad news.

Non-Competing Research Awards for All NIH Institutes and Centers (ICs) Except the National Cancer Institute (NCI): The FY 2011 appropriation level specified in P.L. 112-10 reduces funding from FY 2010 levels and thus warrants reductions in commitment levels for NIH research grants. Non-modular research grants, from all ICs, with the single exception of NCI, will be reduced to 1 percent below the FY 2010 award level. Future year commitments will be adjusted for inflation based on this revised FY 2011 level, taking into account the policy assumption in the FY 2012 President’s Budget. Modular grants will be reduced to 1 percent below the FY 2010 level and may be reduced by an inflationary adjustment level set by each Institute or Center (up to the level set by that Institute or Center for non-modular research grants). The adjusted FY2011 award level will also be the new base for future year commitments.

(NCI is starting with a 3% base hit, btw)
So…what does this mean?


Well, 1% is not so bad, really. If you had a $250,000 modular award, you’d only be losing $2,500. Chump change. But see that little bit about additional adjusters? Well, one of my favorite ICs seems to be handing out 3% “adjustments” to noncompeting continuation…so we’re talking $7,500. That’s the staff raises, right there.
And guess what? If you’ve been around the block awhile you will recognize that the odds are good that you already took a ~10% adjustment last year. So really you are down to $218,250 or nearly $32,000 off your original budget.
Not chump change at all. This is most of the cost of a tech, grad student or postdoc.
Which you may have hired, in your naivete, upon original funding of the award if you were so lucky as to get the full budget from the start. Or even if you took your 10% / 1-module cut originally, you probably still hired the person, after all the staff members are the engine of the research.
This has implications for my readers and their usual concerns. Postdocs, if you are wondering why your PI “has all those grants” and isn’t handing out generous raises to the tune of a few grand per person, this may be why. Small lab PIs if you are wondering why those “well funded” labs are ever submitting more grants…do the math. Sally Rockey put up some numbers showing a big majority of NIH funded PI’s have 2 or fewer grants and even the “well funded” category have 2-3 grants. Assume those are full modular R01s that have had the above mentioned reductions. Three grants, three reductions to the tune of $32,000 each and you are well into the territory of, you guessed it, another grant. Maybe an R21, but certainly larger than an R03. And the R21 is only for two years so….
“…ahh, screw it, we might as well just write another R01”
I can’t really argue against the way the NIH uses budget reductions so that they can fund more grants. And when you look at it 9 grants at a time, these minor nicks to established investigators so that you can fund that 10th award to some poor New Investigator does look pretty attractive.
But there is little doubt that it contributes to the psychological pressure for the better-funded labs to keep those grant applications going out and to keep seeking more and more awards. As with the decreasing odds of getting the competitive continuation application funded on time, at first submission, this contributes to the uncertainty and instability. Which leads to more submissions. And decreasing success rates. And, one assumes, more tyranny of the rich-getting-richer.
I don’t know how to break the cycle so I don’t have any brilliant advice for the NIH.
Instead, I’m going to sent in another grant proposal….

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17 Responses to “Grant Reductions. Sigh.”

  1. Eric Lund Says:

    I can’t really argue against the way the NIH uses budget reductions so that they can fund more grants.
    Up to a point. There must be some level of reduction, which may vary from lab to lab, beyond which actual work has to be cut off.
    NSF regularly hands out reduced budgets at award time. If they do that to you, you have to either justify that the cut will have minimal impact or state what part of the proposal you will have to omit due to reduced funding. Does NIH have any similar rule, or do they just assume that you can live with a reduced budget?
    In related news, some agencies that fund research in my field are demanding justification for carry-over of unused funds from one year to the next. In the circles where I work, it is often useful or even necessary to have some money around in case the next funding increment is delayed. Are you hearing anything of the sort from your funding agencies or peer labs?

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  2. becca Says:

    The social science data is pretty clear- people usually feel very differently about a ‘loss’ than they do about a ‘lesser gain’. NIH would probably keep its researchers happier if they had set the limit at 200,000- with a potential ‘bonus’ if your grant is ‘exemplary’ in some way.
    As an aside- wasn’t NCI’s funding rate also extremely low? That combined with higher reductions implies they have relatively less money than other institutes. Why is everybody and their grandmother applying to NCI these days? Is this where the most of the investigator bloat is concentrated for some reason? Is it a function of more center grants or something else gobbling up the budgets?

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  3. MRI Postdoc Says:

    I work in a lab which mostly sends grant proposals to NIBIB, which always cuts 1 fiscal year off of any awarded grant (5 year R01 is only funded for 4 years, etc.). Sometimes we’ll do a no-cost extension just to get 1 more year out of a grant to get a few extra papers credited to it, though doing experiments in the 5th year is problematic. The end result is that we have to write more grants to compensate.

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  4. DrugMonkey Says:

    That is horrible MRI Postdoc. I’d definitely prefer a two module whack over five years over a one year trim.
    (Although I suppose there might be some specific cases in which preserving the per year $$ amount is preferred. I’d have to think about that though)

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  5. Geo Says:

    A 1% reduction is hardly worth commenting on. And using the “chump change” vernacular lowers the quality of your argument to being non-credible. Please stop whining about your situation when many others have much more to be worried about.

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  6. Geo Says:

    By the way, using that moronic “sigh” statement is simply stupid.

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  7. DrugMonkey Says:

    Please stop whining about your situation when many others have much more to be worried about.
    Such as?

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  8. Lamar Says:

    I’m more worried about not getting raptured.
    anyways, this cut was clearly foretold as one of the great tribulations. prepare to harden your hearts.

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  9. Canadian Brain Says:

    Duh, DrugMonkey, people ARE STARVING IN AFRICA and your crying about your grant! Jeez… have some, like, perspective man…

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  10. DrugMonkey Says:

    I hope you left your lab notebooks in order, Lamar.
    MRIPd- wait, why do you need a no-cost to attribute papers to the grant? Or do you mean the whole shebang will be completed in one year?
    EL- as far as I know the carryover rules don’t change in tight times. I’ve never actually heard of anyone getting denied, despite much paranoia about spending out funds that are subject to carryover refusal in theory.

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  11. I’d definitely prefer a two module whack over five years over a one year trim.

    Dude, what the fucke are you smoking? It makes absolutely *zero* difference whether you lose $250,000 from your total budget by whacking an entire single year, or whacking $50,000 per year for five years. You’ve got $1,000,000 to spend either way, and you can spend it over five years (or even six) either way. In fact, it’s better to get the year whacked off, as then if you spend it all in four years, you’re ok, while if you had a five year grant and spent it all in four years, you’d have a problem.

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  12. DrugMonkey Says:

    Your response displays a startling lack of understanding that other people’s employment and the nature of other people’s science may differ from your own, PP.
    Also, you leave the impression that you can carryforward an increasing amount without concern- not true.

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  13. Isis the Scientist Says:

    It makes me sad to see Mommy and Daddy fight.

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  14. DrugMonkey Says:

    Upon further review it emerges that there are significant cultural differences in the way people have been trained, the way local institutional contracts/grants folks handle things and, possibly, at the Program level.
    It is true that if you can get Program to continue to approve carryforwards of greater than 25% of your annual direct costs, you could in theory start year 4 with the 5th year of funding in hand.
    Me, I am risk averse, so if there is the slightest chance that Program *could* deny a carryforward or reduce the next year’s award because of your apparent burn rate then I’m going with the sure thing.
    note that this is a theoretical choice. It is not often* that one has an *actual* choice in this matter.
    __
    *yes, as with everything else that is an exception to the “rules”, it does come up now and again when you are negotiating with Program over some award

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  15. The NIH has been administratively docking 15-30% and/or one year off R01s since I started being a scientist, which is well nigh onto three decades by now. When they do, you can officially delete some of the proposed work (it usually boils down to cutting a specific aim). They also routinely grant all PI-centered grants under extended authority, which means the 25% carryforward is automatic and unchangeable. Plus they retain the right to further dock an already active grant, as they have been increasingly doing in the last decade or so.
    If you don’t factor all this into your hiring and experimental decisions, you’re leading with your chin. Last but not least, noticing something if/when it happens to you rings more than a tad solipsistic. If you want to feel real pain, have this happen to an R21 while on soft salary.

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  16. DrugMonkey Says:

    The NIH has been administratively docking 15-30% and/or one year off R01s since I started being a scientist, which is well nigh onto three decades by now.
    Yes. The doubling period certainly appears to me to be the only time when budget reductions were something less than the expected value. Of course, that coincided with the full roll-out of the modular budget in 1999. So there was an impression created about the modular process that was perhaps not justified, at least in the minds of those who came of age in the doubling period.
    Last but not least, noticing something if/when it happens to you rings more than a tad solipsistic.
    what part of “Because this has been the accepted deal for most of my NIH grant funded career in science.” was unclear? Also, just because a writer uses a stylistic element along the lines of “I’ve just been noticing….” this is no guarantee that this is the first time a given thought has occurred to the author.

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  17. Jason Monroe Says:

    Feels like your a lab rat running in a wheel and going nowhere most of the time. Understanding the system and exploiting its weaknesses seems to be the best way to deal with it sometimes.
    Hey, I run a medical news blog and was wondering if you might want to exchange links. On a better note, I know the owner of JRS Medical and believe he might be interested in advertising with you guys. You can contact his marketing consultant at dpatterson (at) elbrusconsulting.com for more info.
    Anyway, good luck with the second request for a grant.

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