Just keep your postdocs supplied with DeerAntlerSpray.

Anyone out there ever reviewed SBIR or STTR grants for the NIH? Any thoughts on what seems to be most important, common pitfalls and the like? Any thoughts on how the review discussion tends to differ from standard R01 review?

I have essentially zero experience with these mechanisms and some reader was asking…..

Many years ago when I was a much younger scientist, reading through the literature was occasionally frustrating. I’d come across a lab working on some question of interest and wonder why they just…..stopped, almost before they got going. Often the authors in question never returned to the published literature and I would wonder what happened.

Later on, in a few cases I would run into them again…..maybe they went to Administration in their University, maybe became a NIH Program Officer, perhaps ended up in BigPharma or publishing. In other cases there was never much trace to explain what happened.

I think we can assume it was frequently grant money-related.

We’re facing another round of the phenomenon, I sense. The current economic climate for biomedical research scientists is very grim. You know this. News of 5%ile paylines posted by at least one NIH Institute is gripping. In the bad way.

The rumble of labs closed due to loss of grant support is swelling. No longer a FOAF, either, but someone you know. The degrees of separation will shrink. People will be lost from science.

This means that future bright eyed graduate students or postdocs will read and wonder.

“What happened to that lab”, they will ponder, “the papers were leading somewhere cool but they just stopped”.

Harvard has decided not to seek to renew NIH support for their New England National Primate Research Center, established by Congress in 1962. The Center has operated with a so-called “base grant” from the National Institutes of Health underpinning the not-inconsiderable costs of housing thousands of nonhuman primates and the usual grab bag of investigators’ independent sources of funding. The NENPRC site lists an impressive series of accomplishments.

First unambiguous evidence that AIDS is caused by a virus.
Discovery of Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) and development of first animal model of AIDS.
Original demonstration that vaccine protection against AIDS is theoretically possible.
Discovery that a gene product of the AIDS virus activates lymphocytes necessary for disease progression.
Identification of therapeutic genes that can prevent infection of cells by the AIDS virus.
First demonstration that protective genes introduced into blood stem cells can block HIV or SIV infection.
Discovery of primitive blood stem cells lacking CD34 and their implications for bone marrow transplantation
Isolation of type-D retroviruses as major causes of illness and death in macaques.
Discovery of the oncogenic herpesvirus, Herpesvirus saimiri.
Discovery of a nonhuman primate virus closely related to the human Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus.
First nonhuman primate models of colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease.
Evidence leading to the use of hydroxyurea to treat sickle cell anemia.
Discovery of stunned myocardium and its role in myocardial ischemia.
Discovery of cellular organization and critical period for development of the visual cortex.
First unambiguous evidence for the addictive properties of nicotine.
Identification of major risk factors in self-injurious behavior.
First animal model for progressive neurodegeneration in Parkinson’s disease.
Development of improved brain imaging techniques for early diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
Development of novel cellular and pharmacological strategies for treatment of Parkinson’s disease.
First survey of distribution of cocaine binding sites in primate brain.
Identification of the dopamine transporter as a principal target for cocaine in the brain.
First nonhuman primate model of drug relapse.
Development of novel drug classes to treat cocaine addiction and other brain dopamine disorders.

Most of the news reporting has focused on a series of lapses in the care of nonhuman primate subjects, leading to several deaths. I cannot comment on the degree to which this situation reflected lapses in the system, but clearly Harvard was undergoing major corrective measures. The news accounts describe situations which seem to me to be procedural lapses that have relatively straightforward fixes. Nothing appears to be systematically unfixable…again, going by the news accounts.

The Harvard Medical School press release is slightly more instructive, however.

The decision to conclude NEPRC operations follows a two-year period during which the Center leadership successfully addressed operating issues with input from the NIH and other governing agencies. The process resulted in new procedures that have significantly strengthened the Center’s day-to-day activities and that can serve as a model for other institutions throughout the country. Many of those changes carried additional costs, and HMS will continue to make investments in the Center to ensure ongoing compliance with all federal regulations.

Right? So the problems were fixable and they’d been investing in fixing them for two years. “Additional costs”, eh? Well, no biggie if the investment is good.

But what has happened in the past several months, hmm? The sequester. The Continuing Resolution for FY2013. Obama’s budget request for FY2014. None of this is good news. If you look at the NENPRC as effectively a small, soft-money research institute funded in large extent by federal grants (and let’s face it, partnering with for-profits isn’t going that well for academia right now either) then its prospects are pretty dim. Look at the situation through the lens of Return on Investment and everything becomes clear.

As they weighed whether to renew the base grant from the NIH, HMS leaders made a strategic decision based on a review of the long-term academic benefits and the financial cost of continuing to operate the NEPRC.

“Deciding how to best assign our limited resources is not unique to HMS,” said Jeffrey S. Flier, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine of Harvard University,


Driving the decision was the fact that the external funding environment for scientific research has become increasingly challenging over the past decade. Recent funding pressures have added uncertainty to this already-challenging fiscal context. As Harvard Medical School leadership evaluated the long-term need to use its resources in the most effective manner across all of its missions, they came to the conclusion that winding down the operations of the NEPRC was more beneficial to the School than investing further resources in maintaining and renewing the NEPRC grant.

So yeah, this looks from the outside like a small, specialized research institute closing down due to the NIH funding situation to me.

Maybe I have NIH grant myopia but this is the way it looks.

I am reviewing some of the claims made about their listed accomplishments and going back to the original papers, where I can deduce them. In a few areas that I am familiar with….man. Straight up. These are valid claims, even if we recognize that no science breakthrough arrives entirely by itself. And more importantly, particularly when it came to the early days of AIDS, I am having trouble imagining how progress could have been made so rapidly without one of the National Primate Research Centers. They really do seem to serve a unique function in the NIH / US Federal extramural research enterprise and it would be a shame if this was merely the lead indicator in shuttering the whole program.
Disclaimer: I have professional acquaintances that work at NENPRC. I am disturbed that they are losing their jobs and I do hope that they get snapped up by some other University.

The ONDCP has been twittering up a storm about the release of the latest National Drug Control Strategy document [ PDF ].

The website touts five bullet points:

  • Prevent drug use before it ever begins through education
  • Expand access to treatment for Americans struggling with addiction
  • Reform our criminal justice system
  • Support Americans in recovery

Whether you think the Obama ONDCP has changed quickly enough for your liking or not, there has clearly been a change in the rhetoric compared with past…all the way back to the Reagan ONDCP. Rhetoric such as this….

While law enforcement will always play a vital role in protecting our communities from drug-related crime and violence, we simply cannot incarcerate our way out of the drug problem. Put simply, an enforcement-centric “war on drugs” approach to drug policy is counterproductive, inefficient, and costly. At the other extreme, drug legalization also runs counter to a public health and safety approach to drug policy. The more Americans use drugs, the higher the health, safety, productivity, and criminal justice costs we all have to bear.

…differs very clearly from the prior ONDCP approaches. Even McCaffrey, as conversant as he was with the science*, still leaned heavily toward the punitive side.

Naturally, I am best pleased that they have a section entitled “The Science”:

Throughout much of the last century, scientists studying drug abuse labored in the shadows of powerful myths and misconceptions about the nature of addiction. When science began to study addictive behavior in the 1930s, people addicted to drugs were thought to be morally flawed and lacking in willpower. Those views shaped society’s responses to drug abuse, treating it as a moral failing rather than a health problem, which led to an emphasis on punitive rather than preventative and therapeutic responses.

And I would say that we still labor under a great deal of resistance, even though the hard edges may have morphed. We hear people trying to parse “only psychological” addiction from “physiological” addiction…what is this if not more of the “moral failing” argument? We also have attempts to define some substances (and non-substance reinforcers) as being out of consideration for genuine addiction…..again, a similar discounting of the science related to addiction. If you grasp the fact that addictions are disruptions of reward pathways, and that there are a limited set of final-common-mechanisms for reward in the brain then it is no surprise that anything which trips the reward triggers has the potential to cause disruption.

Today, thanks to significant advances in neuroscience, our Nation’s responses to drug abuse have begun to change. Groundbreaking discoveries about the brain have revolutionized our understanding of drug addiction, enabling us to respond more effectively to the problem.

Science demonstrates that addiction is a disease of the brain—a disease that can be prevented and treated, and from which people can recover.

Well yes…buuuuuut. Our ability to prevent and treat still has a long way to go. And this, I recognize fully, contributes to public misunderstanding. After all, if it is a disease, surely we must have very specific and mechanistically coherent treatments, right? We don’t, for the most part, and so skepticism over the assertion of “a disease of the brain” will continue.

*He was the first Drug Czar I heard address a scientific audience. He was impressive. They guy that came after him during the Bush administration was…not.

NIAID is one of the NIH ICs that actually publishes a payline. According to their website, as of April 19 the R01s from experienced investigators will have a payline of 8 percentile. The payline for new investigators will be 12 percentile. By way of comparison these were 10%ile and 14%ile in the prior two Fiscal Years for NIAID.

Mechanisms such as the R03, R21 and R15 will have to get a 20 overall impact score, or better, to fund but these are still listed as “interim” criteria.

So from a statistical basis, you need to have put in 13 proposals to NIAID this year in order to have a fighting chance to get one.


Eve Marder has an opinion piece up in which she discusses the “luck” involved in career outcomes.

Our present world is filled with great angst. Our junior faculty are writing too many grant applications for not enough money. Our postdocs rightfully feel that they are in purgatory, not knowing when and if there will be an academic position for them, should they desire one. Our graduate students are watching the struggles of postdocs and faculty. For me, this era is especially frustrating, because it is a time of extraordinary opportunity for scientific discovery, and it is criminal that our young scientists can not experience the excitement and challenge of scientific discovery without being worried about their futures.
There is no right answer to the question of how long a talented scientist can or should remain in a ‘looking for a job’ limbo. Every individual must take into account their own ambitions and circumstances as they try to answer this question. And all of us should also be aware that we have the potential to be successful in many careers, in and out of science.

Go read (and comment).