Thoughts on NOT-OD-12-110:

The threshold of $1.5 million total costs. How’s that break down? Well if you are in a consensus ~50% overhead state university, let’s see…Thats FOUR full-modular awards. But let’s be clear, odds are you got cut by at least a module per award so that’s only $900K get to be in a University with about 70% overhead and you are still clear. What bout the much-rumored 100% overhead small institutions? well, you get three R01s before you go under strict scrutiny.

I do wonder if this will satisfy all the “kill the rich” voices? Will they see this as the NIH taking them seriously or as a meaningless sop?

Next question, this is just identifying special Council level review…No guarantee that any grant will ever be blocked because the PI has too much $$. No guarantee that negotiations wouldn’t be made either. “Say, PI Jones, would you please put some more junior colleague on as titular head to one of your other awards so we can give you this one”?

new MultiPI awards won’t trigger the scrutiny unless all PIs trigger the threshold. Hello courtesy “multi”PIship!!!

It may possibly change some people’s strategy so that they work harder to distribute effort around to other people’s awards in small percentages. Like junior PI is going to screw BigCheeze over on the agreed upon part of the direct costs? No worries there.

How are study sections going to respond to this. Will they take this as the NIH saying “This is our threshold for being worried about too much money. Now shut up about this for anything below this amount.”? Or will they take this as encouragement to think about lab size even more when they are reviewing the grant in front of them?

The AAAS has a summary up which deals with NIH’s head of the Office of Extramural Research Sally Rockey’s comments on the FY13 budget for the NIH.

Sally J. Rockey, deputy director for extramural research at NIH, said that some changes in grants management already have been proposed as part of the president’s budget submission for the 2013 fiscal year.

and those solutions will be familiar to those following along at the RockTalk blog. It boils down to “kill the rich!!!”. If you already have it, or have too much of it, they are gunning for you.

These include an across-the-board funding cut of 1% for continuing grants; negotiating the budgets for new competitive grants to avoid growth in the average size of award; eliminating increases for inflation in multi-year grants; giving additional scrutiny to researchers who already receive in excess of $1.5 million a year; and continuing to fund early-stage investigators at the same rate as established investigators for new grant applications.

The alternative posed by Rockey is “Darwinian”.

“Many people thought we should keep the current system,” Rockey said. “Just keep the Darwinian approach. Don’t try to go in there and socially engineer anything.” Others weighed in on the merits of the various options for change, including some approaches beyond those discussed by Rockey. These could include limiting payment for indirect costs associated with grants, limiting large project grants, and providing more support to small labs and individuals by limiting grants to large labs.

Well it sure looks like this depiction to me.
Just about the only person who is not under potential attack under this scenario is the small town grocer. Otherwise known as Noonan. I have been reluctant*, I will admit, to even think very much about something that has been raised (identified?) by PhysioProf on numerous blog posts. It boils down to the suggestion that it is the Small Town Grocer scientists that are precisely who the NIH should be dropping from the system. Actually, PP tends to phrase this as a suspicion that this is just what the NIH is up to, rather than a suggestion that they should do so.

Since he’s been making this comment I’ve gradually noticed that this option is never raised. Rockey maybe touched on it a teensy bit in the AAAS piece.

Institutions also could help manage the demand for grant money by reducing the number of applications submitted by their faculty, Rockey said. And NIH can examine its research priorities, seeking to reduce support for less innovative ideas and eliminating some of the duplication of effort.

Oh yeah. You do it for us, University of State. Right. Like that is in their interest. Sorry but we’re in tragedy of the commons territory Dr. Rockey and you are going to have to do this yourself if you want it to happen. Take a hard run at the smaller, lesser and slower producing laboratories. Stop saving them with bridge funding, stop taking pity on your “long term funded investigators” and the like.

It is indubitably the case that we have too many investigators seeking too few grant dollars. All of the main solutions on the table are going to squeeze the most productive, best funded laboratories (not to mention the noobs who finally managed to land their first grant to find a cut that oblates a warm body). Just so that more awards can be made. To, presumably, the small timers.

And those more productive labs are going to fight back as best they can. Submit even MORE grant to make up for the cut funds. Work deals with their friends and junior colleagues to be collaborating investigators so to hide the amount of direct funds going into the laboratory. Pursue training grants, beg for supplements….whatever it takes. They are not going to go “hum, well, I’m just going to be happy with less”.

And, sad but true, these are likely going to be the people on study section stepping down hard on, guess who? Investigators who are not like them.

You want Darwinian, Deputy Director Rockey?

If a better-funded, more-active reviewer is really thinking, s/he is best off bashing the crap out of one-trick-pony PI’s grants. Why? Because you might just put them out of the game permanently! If you can do that, you’ve reduced the competition in a real way. Conversely if you stamp on a reasonably well funded and reasonably active PI, you haven’t put them out of business at all. Just ensured they will put in yet more grants.

Look, I’m still not sure I know the best path. I love the democratic nature of the ideal of the NIH pure Investigator Initiated system. Anyone with a good idea should be able to get funding.

But I also believe that little gets done on one full modular, cut to $200/yr, maybe reduced to 4 yr grant anymore**. Research programs may not be efficient after 5 grants but they sure as heck aren’t in the sweet spot with one either.

And I know for damn sure the insecurity and grant churning of the past 5-8 years has been hugely detrimental to the conduct of science.

Sadly, I don’t see that any of the proposals of the NIH do anything to decrease churning.

UPDATE: see NOT-OD-12-110, just published today:

This Notice announces NIH’s intent to pilot procedures for investigator-initiated grants and cooperative agreements in consideration of managing resources during austere times. During May 2012 NIH Institute and Center (IC) Advisory Council meetings, Councils will discuss and pilot-test procedures for the additional review of grant and cooperative agreement applications from Program Director(s)/Principal Investigator(s) [PD(s)/PI(s)] who already receive in excess of $1.5 million per year in total costs to determine if additional funds should be provided to already well-supported investigators. The feedback from this pilot will help NIH further refine policies for managing limited grant resources.

The cartoon, btw, is stolen with apologies from Dent. I, uh, altered it.

*anyone who thinks their relative position in the NIH world is predictable or static needs their head examined. I could be calling for an option that will end my lab’s viability here.

**Read this. It is short.