Whoa! Now ESIs will get an extra bump on their competing renewal NIH grants?

July 14, 2011

Following some chatter at the Rock Talk blog I ran across some very interesting news from the NHLBI:

The NHLBI will continue a commitment to help ESIs by a policy of maintaining separate paylines for new competing (Type 1) R01 and First Renewal (Type 2) applications in accordance with NIH guidelines. Regardless of amendment status, the paylines for new competing (Type 1) and First Renewal (Type 2) ESI R01 applications will be 5 percentile points above the regular R01 paylines for unamended (A0) applications in FY 2011. In addition and also regardless of amendment status, new competing (Type 1) ESI R01 applications that are >5 but <=10 percentile points above the regular R01 paylines for unamended (A0) applications in FY 2011 may undergo an expedited review to resolve comments in the summary statement. The funding policies will apply to all new competing (Type 1) and First Renewal (Type 2) ESI R01 applications under special funding consideration regardless of the amendment status of the application. All awards to ESI applicants under this policy will be funded for all years recommended by the NHLBAC. Please note that the NHLBI considers both NI and ESI status to have been determined at the time of the initial A0 grant application submission.

This is going to really, really anger the late Assistant Prof folks out there who are looking down the barrel of tenure decisions. Decisions in which the ability to renew their first (very hard won) award looms large.
As well it should anger them.

When it comes to the hurdles placed in the way of getting a NIH grant funded, being a freshly minted n00b Assistant Professor is one of the highest. Or at least it has been the highest..and I would argue that we do not yet have enough data from the past ~3 year focus on giving a boost to Early Stage Investigator applications to claim that this hurdle has been removed. The reasons for the bias* against newly minted Asst. Profs are varied but I’d say the greatest ones revolve around lack of a prior track record in terms of grants and senior authored/independent papers. These are definitional characteristics of the n00b so they hit quite hard and nearly universally.
The slightly more defensible bias is tied in to the “requirement” for lots and lots of Preliminary Data to support the grant application. Especially for R01 applications but this issue permeates the failure of the R21 Exploratory/Developmental mechanism to live up to its potential as well. Obviously, the more established PI has more resources to start new projects up, play around with interesting scientific leads and more of a back catalog of bits of data that might be marshaled in support of different proposals.
Then we get to the bias of reviewers in favor of revised applications. This ties into the Preliminary Data issue but with the extra special feature that the clock is ticking on the Asst Professor much faster- an extra 9 mo to funding looms larger when you have no other concurrent research support.
I haven’t blogged much about the plight of the Assistant Professors who have managed to land a major award and are now seeking their second round of funding because my sympathies are no where near as engaged. They have their problems, I recognize. No more scoring bump associated with being a New Investigator. Less chance of sympathy from those reviewers that are appropriately calibrated to career status (they exist, I SWEAR!). And in some cases these late-Assistant-Profs are up for tenure in places where (or using referees for whom) the ability to competitively renew a given grant is a big deal**. They also have the reality that they sweated bullets to get the first grant, have laboriously built up their research capacity and a program of investigation and, dammit, they deserve to continue on their trajectory. I get it this latter bit. Really. I’ve been there. Maybe I’m there as we speak. I will, in all likelihood, be there later in my career.
So my question is, when does this stop? When do we stop the “special consideration”? My answer is that if you’ve had an interval of R01 funding (4-5 years), this is plenty for you to surmount most of the definitional biases that plague the genuine newly-minted Investigator. Sorry, but game on. You go into the general pool, in my thinking. Swim harder, my friends.
This is how I approach the new initiative from NHLBI*** to benefit the first competing renewal (Type 2) application of the ESI. They got their grant, great, good program and good effort NIH. But now they need to have an additional crutch? When does this end?
There is also the point that the NIH, by creating the ESI definition instead of merely differentiating genuine New Investigators from well established Investigators who technically qualified for the prior designation, screwed over a defined generation of scientists. Those who were actual n00bs but missed out on the time-post-degree cutoff by a year or three. The NIH ESI program is picking generational winners. I thought this was a flaw when they did it and if they boost these same folks through the first-renewal they are just doubling down on this error.
Finally, there is a good chance this isn’t going to work as planned. Right from the start of the latest initiative to pick up the grants of newer Investigators, Scarpa (or perhaps it was the Great Zerhouni) had an interview comment somewhere which indicated that study sections were further decreasing the scores of ESI/NI applications in response. Study sections have always been attuned to the perceived funding line and scored accordingly. When I was on a study section, we would occasionally see the entire distribution of score outcomes for prior rounds. Scores would pack up right around the number that was perceived as being the line that was defining funded/unfunded at the present time. This bulge in the distribution would move as that perceived/rumored minimum score moved. Despite prohibition of the “F-word”, somebody mentioned “fundable” at least once in just about every panel I’ve served on. It is almost inevitable when reviewing grants that you come to the opinion that “this needs to be funded” or “this shouldn’t be funded”. So I bet establishing a helper boost for Type2 of ESI investigators is going to be yet more tail-chasing on the part of the NIH. Reviewers are just going to downgrade the scores because they “know” there is going to be a Program boost, so why not slip that nonqualifying application in just ahead, eh?
*this is in the eye of the beholder. I think it a “bias” because I think that we should account for the fact that by definition a new Investigator cannot have an extensive track record of prior grant support, substantial paper productivity as an independent lab and history of managing a group of science trainees.
**This comes from people who lived in an era in which competitive renewals enjoyed about 37-45% success rates. Believe you me their thinking does not adjust to the current reality in a rapid manner.
***and according to the chatter at Rock Talk blog, other ICs? anyone know of any others?

9 Responses to “Whoa! Now ESIs will get an extra bump on their competing renewal NIH grants?”

  1. I’m lost – are they planning to do this for n00bs who were ESIs at the time of the A0 of the Type 1 submission or only those who are still in ESI status at the time of the A0 submission for renewal? If the latter, there probably won’t be too many people who will qualify as 10 years post-PhD isn’t long when you’re talking about 3-6 years as a postdoc, maybe 1-2 years to get the R01 and then 4+ years before the Type 2 submission. Are my maths screwed up or am I looking at this wrong?


  2. Onlooker Says:

    If you look back at the previous NHLBI policies, they’ve been giving a break to type 2 renewals from ESIs since 2008. In other words, this is not a new policy.


  3. DrugMonkey Says:

    The boost will be for people who were ESIs at the time of the A0 submission for their original ESI-qualifying award. I suspect it has to be the Type 2 for that specific award, but that isn’t made clear


  4. qaz Says:

    “screwed over a defined generation of scientists.” Wasn’t it ever thus? If you look at the aging of the NIH pool, it has always been completely and simply explainable as the baby boom. When they started, there was a bulge of young investigators. (How exciting!) When they were in their prime, young investigators couldn’t get traction. (But there’s lots of good science happening, so who cares?) Now that they’re retiring, it’s time to help the next generation. And of course, there was no help for the n00bs caught in the middle.
    “So my question is, when does this stop?” I suggest never. But I also suggest we be fair to the generation caught in the middle. I suggest that we give everybody a 5% boost in the likelihood of getting funding.


  5. BikeMonkey Says:

    The next generation that just happens (completely coincidentally) to be the children of Boomers, qaz?


  6. matt Says:

    I think they are pretty much saying its time for the old schoolers to go into retirement and let the new Profs get a chance to play. Should be an interesting showdown.


  7. DrugMonkey Says:

    The trouble is, matt, that the early-mid/late-early scientists have a point that they are the ones being left behind. We’ve yet to see any hint in the funding stats to suggest the late-career Investigators are being sloughed off. Well, apart from Noonan’s complaint at the Rockey blog, that is…


  8. TeaHag Says:

    I’ll play… I lucked out at the ESI stage (although folks weren’t designated thusly at the time), and got an R01 based on what tuned out to be (probably) an artifact! Consequently, my pub record was sparse and I didn’t have the likes of PP and others to advise me on how to deal when the data turned into sand trickling through my fingers!
    So now, I’m an ancient “Assistant professor”, who in the intervening time period has managed to hang on by my fingernails and via a fortuitous relocation on the back of a colleague moving on up to the big time managed to achieve a re-start on the tenure clock. I’m hanging on by my fingernails with an R21 from ARRA funding.
    I meet people everyday who are busting their butts to get NIH funding and who see my failure to capitalize on my funding opportunities as clear and incontrovertible evidence of the inadequacy of the system that should have washed me out long ago.
    So, I say, bring it on. Of course the bar should be higher. I take that into account with every grant and paper I write. I’m well aware that having been lucky enough to have been given an opportunity to build a research program that I have an obligation to answer for what I did with it. If you have been successful then you should be well past the stage of needing “a leg up” and if you haven’t, then the onus is on you to explain why you should be given additional monies.
    It’s not comfortable, as they say, there’s no second act in politics and there may not be a second act in science either.


  9. DrugMonkey Says:

    You have a refreshingly unwhiny viewpoint TeaHag. Best of luck with your future efforts to win funding.


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