According to a summary of a recent presentation from Francis Collins (NIH Director) to the SMRB on May 29 provided by the Research Society on Alcoholism. Key points:


“We are hearing from some of the lobbying organizations that are involved in the use and sale of alcoholic beverages – the wine, beer and liquor industry.
They are not particularly happy about this. We are going to have to see what response comes forward from them. They are very well connected from the political side of this. We are proceeding forward, but I want to give you a heads up that there could be some noise.”

Sol Snyder asked why and Collins had this to say:

“Their view is that alcoholic beverages are an acceptable, social, desirable thing. Consider it to be a food. Noted that it has health benefits. Notion that it will be lumped with drugs of abuse, many of which are illegal, rubs them the wrong way.”

Exactly what I’ve maintained all along. This proposal to merge the NIAAA with NIDA is, scientifically speaking, a no-brainer. It makes a lot of sense and if any ICs are to be merged, this is the first thing on the table. If this can’t be done…there doesn’t seem any point to discussing any other mergers.

However. I’ve also noted that the beverage industry has a HUGE amount of pull in Congress and and HUGE interest in not seeing alcohol defined as a drug like any other. They don’t want to be mentioned in the same sentence with drug cartels! They sure as hell don’t want people discussing, matter-of-factly, that their beloved product is really not substantially different* from cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin, save by historical accident.

So this whole proposal could come crashing down if the beverage interests can buy up enough support in Congress to quash this. Personally I think all this comes down to is the extent to which they care. I believe if they throw around enough cash in Washington DC they can halt this.

Question is, will they?

Will they be bought off by some careful wording** and policy statements that preserve the special status of alcohol within the new IC?
*by some ways of looking at things. First and foremost, addiction.
**Perhaps by keeping the word “Alcohol” in the title of the IC to distinguish it from “Drugs” and even “Substances”?

ps: as always, see Disclaimer. I’m an interested party in this process.

A brief dialog

May 30, 2012

“It seems like just about every time I manage to get up from the mat, the system punches me back down again”

“Yeah, doing science on the NIH extramural dime is like that. deal, dude”

DrKlapperich asked for input on the Twitts:

NIH grantees: Weigh in on the phenomenon of senior co-I’s piling onto an R01 with a PI who still has “new investigator” status.


I’ve noticed this with some jr colleagues in a couple of cases. Wondering if it was wide spread.

It would take some data mining from the NIH extramural office to determine whether there are any changes going on, of course. Hard to determine from the handful of colleagues that you happen to know and who happen to share their grant strategies with you.

There are at least three possibilities that spring to mind.

Number one, grant strategy from the more-junior investigator.
It has been a thing, since forever approximately, for junior investigators that they should involve a more-senior colleague to hold their hand. This was infuriating for me, certainly, when I started writing grants. The supposedly substantive reasons for this were vague and seemed to me to be very thin cover for an ill-considered StockCritique. A StockCritique of grants that, like so many others, appeared to me to be transmitted culturally down study sections without much examination. You can file it in the general category of “riskiness” that continually irritates me. It sounds good, right? “let’s not risk all this tax payer money on an untried investigator”. Sounds like due diligence. But when you think about the maturity of these people who have finally managed to land a faculty level job, start up their own program and (otherwise) put together a competitive grant application….risk?

No more so than for any applicant. That’s my view. However, there has always been an undercurrent of supposition that if a brand new Assistant Professor (or equivalent) has a senior colleague on their proposal for 5% somehow this make everything better.

So this may be one answer to the question in these much, much more competitive days for youngsters. They are larding their proposals up with senior collaborators to stave off the criticisms of “risk” associated with a junior PI.

Number two, more grant strategy from the more-junior investigator.
Science is becoming increasingly more collaborative and the most competitive applications are simply more likely to involve collaborative projects. Maybe….

Number three, grant strategy from the more-senior investigator.
The way the original Twitt phrased the question makes it sound like the impetus is coming from the more-senior person. The implication is that s/he is trying to take advantage of the ESI/ New Investigator policies at place in the NIH right about now. Policies that fund New or Early Stage Investigators applications preferentially. From the perspective of the senior investigator, it may not matter how the money comes into the lab, the major factor is that the money DOES arrive. Who cares who the PI is? Maybe this is good for everyone (see above) and maybe it is exploitative. That will come down to specifics.

The factor that more concerns me is the drive at the NIH to kill the rich. We’ve been discussing this set of proposals that are targeted at making sure those who are successful at present don’t become too successful. or something. One clear response of the senior investigator is to hide the amount of NIH money that is supporting his/her lab by getting it through collaborations. Anything that keeps the senior investigator name off of the “PI” list would help. Sure, the NIH can always get down to the specifics of collaborative relationships but it is going to be hard to account for. Modular grants list percent effort for co-Investigators (as long as they are Key Personnel) but not specific dollar amounts. Who is to parse every grant application to try to figure out how many modules are going to be spent in the PI’s lab versus her close collaborator’s lab? How much percent to assign to the postdoc who is bridging the two labs?

So you are damn right that at present the smart senior PI will be looking to get onto as many other people’s grants as possible. A module here, a percent effort there….anything to keep the overall funding as hidden as possible. Driven 100% by all this discussion of capping the rich.

Sure, the current limits are unlikely to affect that many people and it is an unknown how many of those who trigger the special consideration will actually get denied. But why risk it? Who knows what the future holds? They may decide to get even stricter. So the smart money says to pile on to as many junior investigator grants as possible.

Sadly, this reverses a prior trend in which the more successful senior investigators in the departments went out of their way to try to bring the brand new people along under their coattails by writing them into the senior investigator’s proposals.


Just like I was sayin’

it is more reasonable for the NIH to stop wasting money on Profs who are all distracted with teaching and service and nonsense and just pay straight up for services rendered. If they want to leverage, put more research into the hands of soft money faculty since their salary doesn’t scale with projects. Full time attention on NIH’s biz is more verifiable and efficient.

The latest post at Rock Talk shows the data.

Read the rest of this entry »

In NIH land (and apparently at NSF) the annual Progress Report functions as the application for the next non-competing interval of support. The NIH ones are short, 2 pages, and you have to squeeze in comments about progress on the project goals and the significance of the findings. So there isn’t a lot of room for all the data you have generated.

Science Professor indicates that she involves trainees in the preparation of progress reports.

I was asked to do this when I was a postdoc and I have continued the tradition with my postdocs. As you will surmise, I always think it a good idea to train postdocs in the grant-game. How much were/are you involved with progress reporting as a postdoc, DearReader?

Prof-like Substance’s post was asking how seriously to take the NSF progress report. I have always taken my NIH ones pretty seriously and tried to summarize the grant progress as best I can. (Yes, I rewrite the drafts provided by the postdocs – thus is training after all.) One benefit is that when it comes time to write the competing renewal application you have a starting point all ready to go.

For the noob PIs… Don’t sweat it. I’ve only once had a PO so much as comment on the Progress Report. In that case this person was, IMO, clearly out of line since we were right on target with the grant plan. More so than usual for me. And the PO also was misunderstanding the science in a way that was a little concerning for that little subarea of the IC…but whatevs. I made a response, the PO backed down and the project went on without further kvetching from this person.

So how about it? Do you involve your trainees in writing Progress Reports? Have you had any responses from POs on these? How seriously do you take them?

case in point, michael b eisen, who we know as @mbeisen. He’s HHMI, UCB prof, of a certain age and publishing stature….basically your science 1%er.

He has no fucking clue about normal people.

still think people mostly use it as excuse; page charges for most nonOA society Js are higher

What is under discussion is the publication fee of some $1,350 required at PLoS ONE.

This came about because I have been idly speculating of late about the Impact Factor of PLoS’s about 4.4. This compares favorably with many run of the mill journals (tied to a society or otherwise) that publish huge amounts of general neuroscience stuff. Take initial modifier [American, European, Canuckian, International….etc], add “Journal of”, insert [Neuroscience, Pharmacology, Toxicology, Drug, Alcohol, Neurophysiology, Behavior, Cognition….blahdeblah] and you’ll get the corpus. Some variants such as “Neuroscience” or “Psychopharmacology” or “Neuropharmacology” or …. You get the point. Published by the usual suspects: Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Elsevier.

Most of these come in with IFs under 4.4…or at least as close as make no practical difference.

They also publish a LOT of the papers in the fields that I follow and participate in.

I happen to think this is where the real science exists. If you’ve ever cited a paper in one of these journals…..yeah.

I also protest, when people are talking about the level of peer review at the Glamour Mags and attempting to sidestep the outsized retraction rate at those journals (hi PP!), that oftentimes the review is harshest at these journals. The reviews are by more directly focused experts and the scope of the paper is lesser. So the review comments can be brutal.

They can also, at times, be pretty demanding. I, myself, have in recent memory been asked for essentially an Aims worth of data be added to an already not-insubstantial manuscript at one of these sub-PONE-IF journals. AYFK? If I added that, I’d be submitting UPWARD you dumbasses!!!

As you know, PLoS ONE promises to accept manuscripts that are SOUND. Not on the basis of all the extra stuff some reviewer “would like to see”. Not satisfying the nutty subjective “disappointment” of the reviewer that you didn’t do the study he would (in theory) have conducted. Most emphatically not on the prediction of “impact” and “influence”. Supposedly, not on the basis of even having a positive finding!

So with a higher IF and this promise….I’m all of a sudden having a hard time figuring out why people aren’t just putting all their stuff in PLoS ONE? What is keeping them back?

It appears to me from doing some harder thinking about what is IN this journal that subfields are either in or out. There are some cultural forces going on here which I touched on previously. People want to make assumptions that they are going to get “their” editors and “their” reviewers….not just whatever random fringe OpenAccess Wackaloon who signed on to the PLoS ONE train sort-of/kinda overlaps with their work.

The other huge problem is the cost. $1,350 to be exact. There’s a waiver….but it isn’t really clear how likely one is to GET that fee waived. They don’t make any promises before you submit the paper. And that’s where it counts! Why go through the hassle of review just to find out several weeks later that you have to pull it for the $$? Might as well not even try.

Part of the problem here is the 1%ers like mbeisen and @namnezia think “society journal” means: PNAS is $70/page, JNsci is about $950 total.

yeah, SOME journals that technically qualify as “society” journals have page charges or publication fees. But the ones I’m talking about, for the most part, do not. Not. ONE. dime. Not a $75 “submission fee”. Not a page charge.

They are FREE from start to finish.

JNeuro and PNAS are not normal, run of the mill society journals. This is not what we are discussing. It strikes me that this frame of reference is why mbeisen can’t grasp the problem I’m trying to explore. It makes me fear that PLoS ONE is falling short of what it could be because it was founded by Science 1%ers who are clueless and out of touch.

It’s like I’m blogging in the wind here.

Dario Maestripieri pointed to an Opinion by Fred Southwick in The Scientist over at The Creativity Post. Southwick’s point, in part:

The maladaptive insistence that research scientists obtain their financial support by continually writing federal, state, and private grants often prevents scientists from stepping outside the boundaries established by this grant process. Because the success rate is now down to 10 percent, academic scientists are forced to spend much of their time writing proposals, rather than performing creative research.

The balance of his remarks seem mostly directed at what University changes are needed.

Maestripieri adds a bit more finger-pointing at the NIH (and other major granting agencies):

Obtaining research grants has become an increasingly competitive business. Many more people apply for grants now than in the past while the amount of funds available has remained the same or decreased. Federal funding agencies fund only about 10% of the applications and grant review panels have become highly risk-averse. They tend to fund proposals by well established investigators, which often represent replications or minor extensions of previous work, while creative, original, and riskier proposals by young researchers are penalized. The funding issue has its origin outside of academia and its solution must also come from outside of academia: a political decision to allocate more funding to research.

More money, yes. But let us not take our eye off the ball.

Those of you* who have been with me for all these years should remember from whence this blog voice came.

One of the problems that I have always had in my head, driving my comments about fairness to young investigators, is that of the inherent conservatism of the NIH granting system. This comes from two major sources. First, the peer review by those who are already well-ensconced in the system. That means people who were selected by that system for success. You have to have been awarded an R01 to serve on a review panel, mostly speaking. This means you have to be able to at least fake writing the grants the way the established folks “expect” to see them. If you can’t….you are going to fail. It means that you have to propose science that those who are already on the inside “get” in some way. Sorry, but even in the 25 page days, that wasn’t necessarily long enough to get three people totally on board with your ideas. It helps a lot if the reviewers are already predisposed to see things your way.

The second major driver is the review culture often expressed in words such as “risky”, “feasibility”, “fishing expedition”, “insufficient supporting preliminary data”, “untried investigator”….and “highly productive scientist can solve any problems that may arise”

It can sometimes** be appallingly conservative on panels.

Being something of a student of the past few decades of research supported in my areas of interest, mainly by NIDA, I’ve been bothered by all of this and the Street Lamp Problem***. The SLP is common in science, far too common. And before you get all huffy, yes we all suffer from this on occasion. It may not be such a bad thing for labs but it is death for a broad-based funding agency such as the individual ICs of the NIH.

To give you a flavor, that has trickled through my posts now and again, the preclinical drug abuse world has two theoretical poles that have driven much of the research modelling. One is the “feel good” or reinforcement side. The notion being that if we understand why drugs make us feel good and why they may stop making us feel quite as good (for a given dose) then we’re on to something. The other pole says, nonsense, this is about feeling bad. Everyone feels good on drugs but not all become addicted****. What really matters is that some people start to feel so crappy when they are not intoxicated that it drives them to take more just to feel normal.

For a very long period of time the reinforcement types ruled the day. They had the tools, the simplest models, the biological targets were obvious. Cocaine, meet dopamine transporter. easy peasy.Ditto heroin. Methamphetamine? No problem. And the current midcareer “reinforcement” butt kickers sucking up all the NIDA money are at least three scientific generations removed from the start of this.

umm, “feeling crappy”? where’s the target? how do you even define that in a mouse?.

Anything rats won’t readily self-administer intravenously (THC, nicotine) or where the targets weren’t known (THC, Alcohol)….well, shrug. The light isn’t very good over there. So they received short shrift. At NIDA. Luckily in the case of alcohol there was a whole ‘nother IC devoted to it. It is no coincidence that one of the the main drivers of the “feel bad” pole is dug in much more deeply at NIAAA than ever at NIDA.

Things eventually opened up. The CB1 receptor was cloned and the streetlight flickered into life above THC research. Some folks finally worked out what was UP with nicotine self-admin and that started rolling. People flogged the hell out of “reinstatement” and “escalation” models to try to get past a couple of problems with the straight-up acute “feel good” models.

Funding-wise, it took some heroic efforts, if you ask me. Remember, all the while the scientists were working through this, the Program staff was getting their best intel from those scientists. People made discoveries and published papers and kept getting high grant scores. So Program thought they must know what they are talking about. The fringe complainers? Bitching about their biased grant reviews? Failing to publish their ideas convincingly (because they can’t get the awards, of course)? Chalk them up to lunatic fringe, right? “Come back when you convince us all”, they are told.

But we haven’t learned our lesson, I have little doubt. In fact, we (as a whole enterprise- scientists and Program staff are doubling down. Kill the R21! Circle the wagons on feasible projects where the “significance” and “likely impact” is obvious to all. Demand more Preliminary Data. Save the Small Town Grocer and the Noonans. Just keep plodding along with your models, the same as half a dozen others, and you deserve “your piece of the pie”.

“Innovation” can only come from within a defined space of the “feasible”.

I could cry for wholesale changes. Dismantle everything. Break down the large, established groups, radically restructure grant review panels and turnover your entire Program Staff with their “established relationships”. But that’s not going to happen.

What we can push for is the restoration of the R21. The expansion of it, perhaps. With the very, very firm goal of making sure the ones getting high scores are “Exploratory”, “Developmental” or both. It can be done. The simplest way would be to give extra bennies on an R01 application that arose from a prior interval of R21 support. But you could get the right reviewers and instruct them properly as well. Some of us get R21s. Some of us can’t help but talk about supporting data and whether it is going to “work”. SROs know who is who.

*PP and maybe one or two others.

**often. Not always, often.

***Policeman comes across obviously drunk guy searching through gutter at night under a street lamp and inquires as to the problem.
“Lost m’ keys” slurs the drunkard.
“And where did you lose them”, queries our intrepid flatfoot.
“Up the block on my way home from the bar.” is the reply.
“So why on earth are you looking here, my friend?”, puzzles the copper.
“The light is better”, comes the response.

****Ok, in fairness while that is my take, it is only recently that people are coming around to this extent.