Long term investment in a scientific program, as opposed to supporting short-duration projects.

January 26, 2012

Commenter Adriana suggests something very interesting on a prior post addressing NIH grant funding policies, the change to only a single revision, etc.

Some of this seems counter productive. People that have spent maybe 15 or so years setting up model systems and generating hypotheses (paid for by NIH) are getting cut off right at the time their projects are starting to produce high yields. In a lot of cases the funds are diverted to new investigators with worse priority scores to set up more new models systems. Just when they get going they will probably get cut off too.

My first reaction was “whoa!” Bad optics, homes! Telling the grant funders that “well, give me 15 years of full funding and then see what I really produce!” sounds a bit like vapor ware. A confidence racket of some sort.

But I’ve also mentioned something about the trendlines of scientific careers. And sure, I’ve often seen PIs experience a huge surge in productivity during the middle career years after an initial interval of struggle. The grants come in, the postdocs come buzzing around and all of a sudden the lab is a serious player. It can take 5-8 years, easy. Several of my most salient examples match this sort of timeline. Fifteen years though? Fifteen years from the start of the lab to the acceleration phase?

That is a little more unusual to me. I”m not saying there are not people that have ups and downs throughout their careers, sure there are. I know plenty. So a downturn in year 10 is not necessarily predicting a lasting decline and yes, when grants come back the lab starts roaring again. But usually, this is not from a lab that has been in the doldrums for the prior 10 year interval. Usually, from what I see, that lab has had prior indications of the potential.

Let us leave specific predictors of timeline aside for a moment however. It doesn’t really matter if we’re talking early-mid or mid-mid career, some of the implications of the current NIH policy-making still apply.

I think I’ve tried a time or two to get into the “cry me a river” post for people like…..well, me. I don’t feel sorry for me. Okay, that’s a lie, I do feel very selfishly sorry for myself if I cannot obtain the grant funding that I desire and think that I, in some way, deserve.

“I saw the generation just prior to me hit the sigmoidal acceleration phase when I was a late postdoc and early faculty member. That is my model of expected value in the NIH-funded career path. If I do as well as they did in the early phase, dammit, I deserve my chance to shine. I’ve struggled to build not just a lab, not just a few projects but a scientific program. And now, just as I’m getting to the point where things should be relatively comfortable and highly productive..this. The NIH budget goes south, those extra grants are harder to come by, the renewals much, much less certain and I’m still struggling. Dammit.”

Sound familiar my mid-career friends?

Of course, our “struggle” much of the time is not the struggle just to stay alive. We have a grant or two to last us through the bad times. When things get really rough, heck, we can finally get around to writing up old papers to keep productivity smooth. We have endless amounts of technical preliminary data on which to base new applications, maybe even some pilot data that supports a hypothesis. We know a lot of folks on study sections personally and some of them are, at last, kinda junior to us. Junior enough that they might, gasp, actually see our applications as coming from “a well established and accomplished scientist”.

Things could be worse.

This is why my sympathies for people like me continue to be muted when it comes to different policy points over there in NIH land. Yes, I would for sure like to see the next generation ahead of me suffering the same conditions that I seem to experience. See the old guard be treated as harshly as everyone else in the granting system. You know what? It may be happening, much as we think the grass is greener. How will we know until after the fact? After all the data emerge in 8-15 years showing what happened in this time of stress.

Will the NIH system really experience investigator dropout in serious numbers? Will we come to find that the major effect was on the amount of funding over 10yrs of PI time, but not on the number of total investigators? Will we find that my generation, the mid-career types, pay a specific toll….as is being hypothesized by Adriana?

I will say that the NIH ignores the winy, selfish complaints of the current crop of mid-career investigators at their peril. These are the very people who are putting in the long hours on study sections reviewing grants. If they feel that ESI folks are getting too much in the way of assistance, regardless of whether they are or not on some objective measure, they are going to push back. And continue to punish ESI applications. Subconsciously perhaps, but it will be there. Actually, it has always been there.

Mid-career folks have probably always been tremendously to blame for the fact that every initiative of the NIH to help the newly independent secure grant funding has fallen short. Because NIH is in a reinforcing cycle of pecking order.

Driven by the nearly inescapable, hindbrain driven, emotional, fierce belief of mid career scientists that dammit, they deserve their chance for an explosive phase in their labs.

I don’t have any answers for the NIH.

I feel this way about my own laboratory and research program.

I bet a million dollars you do too.

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No Responses Yet to “Long term investment in a scientific program, as opposed to supporting short-duration projects.”


  1. The recognition of the bias against junior investigators in study section is exactly why NIH has finally mandated *outcomes* for junior PI R01s in terms of success rates instead of *processes* that can always be gamed by reviewers.

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  2. drugmonkey Says:

    Right but outcomes can be gamed right back if the reviewers are operating from a perceived payline/score relationship.

    Which I assert they always do, have done and will forever do.

    My possibly naive suggestion has usually been to better inform study sections about the outcome of their micro behavior on the macro outcome. in terms of scoring distributions round by round, etc. Making them face directly that they are consistently saying “newbies grants suck worse”. It is my belief, again, possibly naive, that some of this behavior is unexamined, almost unintentional on the part of reviewers.

    at the very least, if csr were to review the ESI/oldster bias on a section by section basis the brass could pin point trouble spots for extra special attention (read: reconstituting the section with some younger folks).

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  3. My possibly naive suggestion has usually been to better inform study sections about the outcome of their micro behavior on the macro outcome. in terms of scoring distributions round by round, etc. Making them face directly that they are consistently saying “newbies grants suck worse”.

    Some, but not all, of the study sections I serve on do this. On the first day, before we start reviewing apps, the SRO gives us the score histogram of our study section for the last several cycles–with ESI/Ni apps shown separately–as well as the all-CSR histogram.

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  4. drugmonkey Says:

    Do you feel that this section treats ESI applications fairly?

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