Remember, o ye NIH grant seeking Readers, that your peers are supposed to be reviewing the grants you submitted in the June/July interval right about now. And thanks to the House of GOP shuttering the Federal government, the study sections are being cancelled.


You see, maybe a Continuing Resolution will be passed….tonight? or tomorrow morning? or Friday at 2?

And then the study section meetings for next week will be back on.

So the reviewers have to struggle along and finish up their jobs as best they can, not knowing if it will be for the meeting that is scheduled….or if it will be some sort of replacement meeting later in the month or year.

From what I am hearing, your friendly peers are stepping up to the damn plate and getting their grants reviewed.

Even without access to eRA Commons (where all the grants are stored, hardly anyone bothers to get a CD anymore). So the “read phase” that is supposed to take place the week before a study section meeting is going to be difficult. Hard to read the other reviewers’ comments on the grants you are assigned because you don’t know who they are! All that is supposed to be automatic on Commons you see. Well, from what I hear around the campfire, the sections are doing what they can, no doubt with heroic work from the Chairs and a little illegal subterranean rogue work from the government employee SROs.

I thank you all.

this comment is bylined from Francis Collins and Sally Rockey:

There have been concerns expressed that NIH is not doing anything to limit the number of Ph.D.s being produced. It’s important to remember that NIH does not control graduate enrollments. We are, however, firmly committed to the premise that bioscience Ph.D.s provide invaluable contributions to a whole variety of fields. Furthermore, there is no definitive evidence that Ph.D. production exceeds current employment opportunities.
Emphasis added.
This is why we can’t have nice things. Because the two most important administrative persons at the NIH are fully committed to pretending that they do not understand that their enterprise depends on the exploitation of doctoral “trainees”. They simply cannot acknowledge that a constantly turning-over stream of doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows generates more work for less money and therefore is essential to the system as they know it.
Yes. It is true that PhD holding individuals have vanishingly low unemployment rates in these times of economic downturn. It is also true that even graduate students (under the NIH extramural umbrella*)  make far, far more than minimum wage.
But we need to have a discussion about timeline, the years spent in various uncertain “trainee” job descriptions, the hours of work and the carrots that are being extended, never to be eaten. We also have to have a discussion about what job people enter graduate school thinking they are in training for. And what their chances are of obtaining those jobs. And what balance of “cheap labor” versus “training” is really being accomplished under the broad auspices of the NIH extramural system of support for science.
We also need to have a discussion about motivations of individual behavior under the increasingly competitive system and whether it has reached a tipping point in which the labor exploitation is no longer worth it.
If competition leads to faking and fraud, this costs an awful lot of NIH money when other people have to unpack why their experiments based on a prior finding are not working. If the competition leads to secretive, noncollaborative, scoop-laden dicing for Glamour publications, at some point this is costing the NIH money and progress. Duplication of work, if motivated only by secrecy, costs the NIH money. It costs progress.
If people feel betrayed by the system, they may just…..slack. Phone it in. Spend all day playing Candy Crush instead of working because they have to just put in their 3-5 years of postdoctoral work before schlepping off to an industry job. Or trying to be a NIH SRO or Program Officer. Or Glamour Mag editor. Or whatever your “alt career” du jour happens to be.
Leadership is not just keeping the leaking ship on course, Drs Collins and Rockey.
Sometimes it requires patching some holes, painting the hull and tuning up a balky engine room.
Sometimes it requires thinking harder about the before-the-mast swabbies who are keeping your vessel afloat.
*most of the broadly-defined biomedical programs

Every good grant application boils down to one or more of a couple of key statements.

  • “The field is totally doing it WRONG!”
  • “That which all those idiots think is true….ISN’T!”
  • “These people are totally missing the boat by working on that instead of working on THIS!”
  • “How can they possible have missed the implications of THIS amazing THING??!!??”

Good grant applications also have a single goal and conclusion.

  • “….and I am here to FIX EVERYTHING!”


The trouble is that you can’t say this in so many words. First, because you sound insane. Second, because some of those self-same people you are calling blind, stupid fools are the ones reviewing your grant. Third, because people reviewing your grant might have some respect for those other people you are calling fools. Fourth, because you may stray into calling your friendly Program Officers at the NIH fools for funding all that other stuff instead of you.

The most acceptable compromise seems to be to focus very heavily on the fact that you are here to “fix everything”. To focus especially on the “everything” and less on the “fix” if I am being totally honest. This puts the focus more on the potential amazing outcome of what you intend to do and much less emphasis on why you need to do it. It has a more positive feel and avoids insulting too many of your reviewers. And avoids telling your PO that they are doing everything wrong themselves.

So I tend to do this in my grant applications.

This occasionally feels like I am battling with one hand tied behind my back since I  am pulling my punches about how ridiculous it is to fund anything other than my current proposal. You can talk about gaps in the literature. You can go on about synthesis of approaches and your amazing discoveries ahead. And you should do so.


But ultimately there are an awful lot of scientists with big promises. And even more with highly refined skills and effective laboratory operations. And to my eye it is less effective to argue that my own proposals are just more-good-than-thou. It is essential to argue why I am proposing work that is much better. And for something to be substantially better, well, that sort of implies that the status quo is lacking in a significant way.

I hate having to make those arguments. I mean, don’t get me wrong….it IS my native behavior. Which I am sure is no surprise to my readers.


It is just that I’ve worked hard to stamp that out of my grant writing due to my considered view that FWDAOSS is not a really useful strategy.


And now I have to reconsider the wisdom of this approach.


Better to burn out than to fade away?