Think it through all the way, "seasoned" reviewer….

October 20, 2011

The latest thread over at OER head Sally Rockey’s blog is a treasure trove of disgruntleprofness. I’d like to draw your attention to this comment from “seasoned reviewer”.

As a reviewer, I see grants all of the time with 400K budgets that are essentially paying a PI 180K, a postdoc 50K and a senior tech 75K that produce 1-2 papers per year. Yes, that is reasonable for the amount of staff, but it is WAY over priced in relationship to grants with 250K per year budgets that have a PI paid 25% of salary, a tech and some grad students that publish 2-3 papers per year. Further, the grad students end up paying back the US economy greatly since they then go to high paying jobs in industry, increase the tax base, and provide skilled workers for the biotech industry. Thus, the grant’s impact is greatly multiplied, great science is done and skilled workers are produced.

Easy fix, no? Well…no.

I’m not going to argue with the soft money versus hard money PI issue except to point out that in my grant reviewing experience, and general knowledge of how many grants a lot of hard- and soft-money colleagues maintain, it is rare that a PI who is at cap is devoting 100% effort to one R01.

One essential point is that this person seems to be objecting to the sort of living wage, career stability and anti-exploitation issues that often pop up on the other side of the equation. How can this person suggest prioritizing grad student labor over postdoc labor? Where are all those grad students supposed to go after they defend if we shrink back the postdoctoral support on funded grants? They are all going to just shuffle off into “high paying” jobs in industry and biotech, eh? This betrays fantastical thinking. Those jobs are drying up too! There is no guarantee that a steady stream of graduate student labor (and there is an argument that you are going to need even more warm bodies if you dispense with the expertise that is represented by the postdoc cadre of labor) is going to find a home in industry the minute they defend their PhD.

The comment objects to “senior techs” and presumably refers to more junior ones in the second sentence. Again, where are these junior techs supposed to go? Is this person recommending age discrimination as an industry (NIH funded science, that is) wide practice to save money? Really? This is morally reprehensible.

Then we come to this prediction that the single* grant lab is more productive on a per dollar basis. I used to share this bias but it needs to be placed in a bit of context. One of the things I have ranted on about in the past is the assessment of productivity of a PI. I’ve commented that it is unfair during grant review that the Gestalt impression of a lab’s productivity usually fails to account for the denominator. This can be because a reviewer has an impression based on reviewing manuscripts, seeing TOC feeds and PubMed alerts that this lab is really pumping out the papers. When it gets more objective, say on a competing renewal application, there can be a lot of papers listed which serve double duty. That is, a smart PI will list every plausible grant award as having contributed to each paper. That way each paper counts 2 or 3 times. The reviewer who looks at the Progress Report is not typically motivated to assign fractional publication credit by delving into the PIs other Awards, the Acknowledgement sections of each paper, etc. It is just too much work, there is no good, objective way to do the fractional crediting and it is unclear that such an analysis would do anything but irritate the rest of the panel anyway!

So far I’m sounding on the side of “seasoned reviewer” on the productivity front, no? But here’s the thing….the appearance of higher productivity is also the reality of higher productivity…over the long haul. Sometimes projects go into a rut. Sometimes the grant renewal cycle is painful and long….and can introduce funding gaps. You can’t always hire 1.5 staff members on one grant but you can hire 3 on two grants. Major equipment or other resources…ditto.

I am reluctant to admit this. I still believe that all else equal the starting out, n00b young lab with one grant is likely to be the best productivity bet. But this requires that things go well. That the person has startup to buy the equipment. That staff can be found when needed (i.e., day 1 of the award). That the scope of the science that is necessary (in a post-hoc sort of way) to good productivity has been proposed and funded by the award. That unforeseen holes are not stepped into.

The trouble is, things don’t always go perfectly in science. And the single-award, $250K direct costs laboratory is at greater risk for major productivity disturbance from hindrances that a multi-award lab can surmount.

*I’m assuming from context the person doesn’t really mean only $400K single-R01s but is probably referring to overall level of support…

No Responses Yet to “Think it through all the way, "seasoned" reviewer….”

  1. PhysioProf Says:

    The only commenter who made any sense at all over there was the one who noted that the only solution to long-term NIH budget stagnation is to shrink the denominator. The end-game of the NIH continuing to shrink budgets and durations of grants and capping the funding of individual PIs–which arises out of the faulty notion that it is a legitimate primary purpose of NIH to support as many labs as possible–is vast numbers of PIs supported to an extent that they can’t get any science done. HHMI supports small numbers of PIs but very well, and that enables scientific progress very effectively.


  2. namnezia Says:

    Not sure where this person gets the idea that supporting grad students is cheaper than supporting postdocs. At least where I am, the cost is about the same once you factor in tuition and fees.


  3. drugmonkey Says:

    Perhaps at a place where TA funds contribute significantly to graduate student support, Namnezia?


  4. whimple Says:

    This is easy. Stop paying PI salaries and make institutions do it instead. If the NIH really wants to pay a PI’s salary because they really are that good, hire the PI for the intramural program. Turn the intramural program into a publicly-funded version of Janelia Farms, since PP brings up the HHMI. That way the NIH doesn’t wind up paying freight on thousands of expensive associate vice-assistant deanlet parasites scattered around the country sucking out the NIH goodness through indirect costs.

    (I suppose this is the full-monty version of the “no soft money investigators” concept)


  5. drugmonkey Says:

    In these days of State coffers overflowing into the Sate University campuses and massive endowment returns for the private Universities, your plan sounds totally doable, whimple.


  6. Jonathan Says:

    WTF? Does the commenter not realize that those grad students are destined to spend several years as postdocs in labs? Cutting that funding is a great way to pour out more grad students with even fewer jobs!


  7. whimple Says:

    DM, it’s time to acknowledge that when you pay the PI’s salary, most of what you purchase with that is more grant applications, not science.


  8. becca Says:

    Do PIs need to be in the 93rd% of american household incomes (for one wage earner)?


  9. Pinko Punko Says:

    Yeah, Uncle Howard doesn’t skim off the top, so their plan is just the best.

    Also, Janelia Farms is not something to emulate, perhaps quite at this date.

    What sort of emulation do you suggest, Whimple?

    Also, 250K grants these days are actually 188K, so those labs are on the razor’s edge.


  10. Fred Says:

    Do PIs need to be in the 93rd% of american household incomes (for one wage earner)?

    if not, then maybe PIs should make as much as Postdocs?


  11. DrugMonkey Says:

    Yes, they do, becca. Are you nutz? What better thing do we do in this country, other than educate children? Unfortunately only a limited number of them do make enough to trigger the cap.


  12. Joe Says:

    Where can I get one of those $180K jobs? Where can I go where I am allowed to even give my senior tech a raise? My MRU state school already acts like they are paying the salary of my people (though they pay $0).

    @whimple – I think more state support for research and prof salaries is a great idea. When you come up with an argument that will convince the state legislature that we are job creators and creating the technology of the next century (rather than the ivory tower sitting, arugula eating, blood suckers they keep saying we are), then please let me know.

    I have been heavily involved in grad student training, but from reading these posts, I am starting to think that training fewer grad students may be better. Also, where do I find these grad students that produce 2-3 pubs a year or even more than 2-3 in 6 years?

    I’ve stopped submitting modular R01s. They don’t pay enough to do what is needed.


  13. Alex Says:

    If you want a job at a state university with salary support, that’s easy! In some cases you can get that sort of deal in a science department in the College of Arts and Sciences (you know, the part of the university where the biologists teach undergrads). Some R1 Biology departments still require you to raise part of your salary from grants, however. So a good Plan B is to go to a Regional State University, where your main task is teaching. 100% salary support, and you really are helping The Children, who are The Future. Only downside is that if you want time for research, yeah, you need to get a grant to buy out part of your salary.

    So, state university job with salary support = possible
    state university job with salary support for research = tough luck


  14. drugmonkey Says:


    You are only “starting to think” it is time to train fewer graduate students!??!!!?? Where have you been for the past three years, Pluto?


  15. Joe Says:

    At my MRU the grad students are very good, and most people run their labs on grad students. Also, there are many training grants for grad students, very few with post-doc slots. So from a money standpoint and from a getting the best work done standpoint, grad students are a great way to go. Also, my grad students get good jobs, so I don’t feel like I am harming them (other that the low wages, long hours, and weekly whippings). What I was trying to express (from my view here on Pluto) is that the larger picture issues are beginning to outweigh the “what is the best way to get the work done” consideration.


  16. drugmonkey Says:

    I understand Joe. I’m trying to point out that there is a serious contradiction in our business wherein our source of cheap labor all expects to reach management after 5-8 years. That very expectation is how we keep our cheap labor supply ready and willing to perform.

    Now we’re going to depend even more on these grad student laborers It is the worst sort of scam…at least in other exploitative industries they are reasonably willing to keep the cheap labor toiling away for a reasonably lengthy work-life-span.


  17. pablito Says:

    “I’ve stopped submitting modular R01s. They don’t pay enough to do what is needed.”

    Me too. The chances of getting multiple grants are not very good, so you might as well have enough money to do the work if you’re fortunate to get one.

    Besides, budgets that are good enough for an NIH intramural investigator should be good enough for an NIH-funded extramural PI. Based on NIH RePORT data, the average NIH intramural project gets $1,010,010 per year (the median is $500,685). And the typical intramural PI has more than one project.


  18. becca Says:

    “What better thing do we do in this country, other than educate children?”
    Save the helpless, feed the hungry, heal the sick…

    In short, when firefighters, farmers, nurses, and yes, teachers, make 180k/year, then scientists should too.

    Although within any profession there is a range. There are “farmers” working on sustainable approaches to feed the world’s hungry, and there are “farmers” who are Monsanto’s intellectual property enforcement team. (there are also small scale farmers, doing work that requires less formal education, but the old McDonald mental image of ‘farmer’ has almost nothing to do with where most food actually comes from these days)

    In my observation, the people who are most committed to actually eliminating human suffering from disease are not particularly correlated with those who receive the largest salaries funneled from NIH money.


  19. iGrrrl Says:

    “…our source of cheap labor all expects to reach management after 5-8 years.”

    Y’know, I don’t think I’ve seen that put so succinctly before. I read a lot of business-oriented publications, and there’s no other industry where that would be considered anything but laughable.

    Also, about the discussion of salary cap on NIH grants: That mostly affects MDs. I’ve rarely seen a PhD-level person who tripped the salary cap by much. OTOH, a full Professor in mathematics in A&S might make what an Assistant Professor in the medical school gets as starting salary.


  20. Joey Says:

    Another thing about those comments on the rock talk blog is that some people are talking about cutting indirect costs.

    At the University of California, the Arts and Humanities people are arguing that the University loses money with every research grant. They think that the biomedical research is stealing university resources from them. See the comments on this post:


  21. fish Says:

    Is this person recommending age discrimination as an industry (NIH funded science, that is) wide practice to save money?

    This is already the model for how it is done. Research expenses are kept low by flooding the market with low-wage workers (grad students and postdocs). When NIH budgets were on very steady growth curves, we could pretend this wasn’t the case. Now we are always one 1% congressional cut from a disaster.


  22. Drugmonkey Says:

    I am aware of this, fish. I was reacting to a comment at Rock Talk that suggested the way forward was to double-down on this workforce “strategy”.


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