Regarding Senior Investigators "Piling Onto" the New Investigator NIH Applications

May 29, 2012

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.

No Responses Yet to “Regarding Senior Investigators "Piling Onto" the New Investigator NIH Applications”

  1. pinus Says:

    I am a junior investigator who put a senior investigator on a grant to diffuse the stock critique. Said senior investigator has not been terribly helpful since I got the grant..BUT…was helpful when I was writing it, and I do believe that it made a difference during review. I view it as a noob PI tax that you can pay to diffuse shitbag reviewers stock critique.


  2. drugmonkey Says:



  3. Dave Says:

    This happens alllllll the time in my division. The attitude right now is that it doesn’t matter how the money comes in or who gets credit for it; the most important thing is that we get it and that salaries are covered somehow. This is exaggerated when we get money from pharma because everybody and the kitchen sink gets a cut of the salary money on those grants, regardless of who writes the damn thing or who actually does the work.

    The strategy is becoming a bit of a sore point lately though, because it is clear that some very lazy senior (and not so senior) colleagues who have run out of money (and ideas) are being put on grants by the boss, often against the will of others, just to keep their lab/salary going. They usually contribute little to the writing and have little to nothing to offer if the grant does get funded.

    Is it a “rite of passage” of some sorts? Do us youngsters have to pay our dues or is it just a sign of the times?


  4. Pinko Punko Says:

    DM- I was reading a friend’s summary statements the other day, and one super negative critique was entirely created by the StockCritique™ algorithm- I thought about you because outside of maybe 3 specific protein names, there was almost no information in the critique that could have convinced you that the critique was written after reading the proposal than before. It was that generic. It seemed like it was written by a machine.


  5. It is essential to recognize that just because something is a “stock critique” doesn’t mean it fails to reflect a legitimate weakness of the grant.


  6. Meiopic Says:

    I was under the impression that adding a senior investigator to an R01 application eliminated the first or new investigator status. Am I wrong?


  7. drugmonkey Says:

    I don’t mean as CoPI or MultiPI. Just talking the “Investigator” designation.


  8. arrzey Says:

    This is, in some ways, just the newest pervision of the old game. When I started, the dept chair took a 10% tax out of your direct costs to run the dept. A complaint to the admin did nothing (they appreciated creative funding at its finest, as well as the boost to indirects). A complaint to NIH about the illegality of the arrangement usually only resulted in the wrath of the Chair. It’s where & when I learned what ‘pad the directs’ meant.

    But, the study section upon which I sit is also aware of the issue, and has called out such folks when they are inappropriate or obviously just added for money.


  9. slartibartfast Says:

    But, the study section upon which I sit is also aware of the issue, and has called out such folks when they are inappropriate or obviously just added for money.

    it’s clear to me how a reviewer could spot personnel on a grant proposal whose inclusion isn’t required to accomplish the proposed science.

    but how can a grant be written to make it obvious to a reviewer that personnel are “just added for money”? short of writing this explicitly in the budget justification?


  10. drugmonkey Says:

    Bonus question for pinus- so do you extend so-called courtesy middle authorships to this person? Why or why not?


  11. drugmonkey Says:

    Dave: in times past have the senior folks handled the P-mechs and training grants that trickled down to the younger folk?


  12. pinus Says:

    No courtesy authorships here. If said person provided expertise or resources for an experiment…that earns status as an author. but no free rides on papers from me.


  13. Virgil Says:

    As a senior investigator (Assoc Prof, 15 years post PhD, 2 RO1s) I get about 20% total effort (varies by year) from other people’s grants, and not one of them is a junior investigator. It takes some serious cajones to bully your way onto a grant against the wishes of the PI – I’ve thankfully never had it done to me, and I would not wish it on someone else. I did have someone senior try to pull this trick with an R-A-P in my group, and successfully fended them off. I guess for anyone junior, having mentors / Dept. Chairs who are willing to bat for you, is something good to look for when searching out your first faculty position.

    From the junior perspective of actually asking a senior person to be on board because you think it brings credibility to the proposal, all I would say is be VERY careful about the exact nature of the expertise you’re talking up. I’ve seen more than a few grants at study section get bashed with statements like “why the hell is Professor X on here, he doesn’t know shit about subject Y”. Remember also that old Professor X may have enemies on study section that you don’t know about. At the very least, look over the roster – if Professor X frowns or identifies anyone on the list as an asshole, they probably had a fight, and that person will look down on your grant because they don’t like Professor X.


  14. Dave Says:

    @DM: Not particularly. There are a few investigators who bring in the bulk of the money, and the rest just kind of sponge off of it. It sounds utterly ridiculous, but it really is the way our group is run. I don’t mind so much that faculty salary money is covered, but when unfunded investigators want to dip into the funds to pay for a tech/post-doc, or buy reagents, it creates huge financial problems for the rest of us. The more money we get from pharma vs. NIH, the worse this situation gets to be honest.


  15. arrzey Says:

    @slartibartfast – you got it. Are they contributing science to the project? Are they up to their eyeballs in their own work, and its a joke (independent of funding) that [they] will have time for the newby?

    Another thing study sections read are the letters of support from contributors – is it a stock letter, or does the letter actually betray some knowledge of the project and the specific contributions that the collaborator can make. Great give away of Problems Ahead- when the letter seems to be written for another grant than the one under review.


  16. NeuroGuy Says:

    Of course it happens. All the time. I’ve written grants and been on study sections. The system’s broken beyond repair. It’s an old boys club. It’s impossible to write a grant application as a new investigator so perfect that some ass somewhere won’t find some “criticism” that justifies triage, while had the same grant been submitted as an R01 renewal of a “big name” (one of his buddies), the “productivity” of the group would have been praised to the skies for getting a couple papers published of routine findings, none of which contribute one iota to improving patient outcome. Clearly study sections are more concerned with protecting their “turf” than actually funding science that advances the field and avoids “dead ends”.

    So screw it. I’m not going to put up with this shit for the next 20 or 30 years of my life. Congratulations, NIH, on wasting the taxpayer dollars you spent for my K award.


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