Rockey dispels "rumors" caused by her comments

November 15, 2013

An article in the CHE raises the spectre of the NIH limiting the number of grant applications that a given University may submit.

At a time of dwindling federal budgets, the National Institutes of Health is considering one sure-fire way to raise record-low grant-approval rates: Have researchers apply for fewer grants.

According to how it was written this thinking is due to comments from Sally Rockey, head of Extramural Research at the NIH.

One idea getting some internal study, said Sally J. Rockey, the NIH’s deputy director for extramural research, is to press universities—or perhaps even force them—to simply submit fewer grant applications.

“We have to think about it as a community, how we control demand,” Ms. Rockey told attendees at a conference held here by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. “Because writing applications, submitting applications, and reviewing applications is extraordinarily costly to the community.”

although the article backtracks a bit…

Either way, the NIH is not looking to push anything on universities that they don’t want, Ms. Rockey said. “We have to have a conversation together about how to do all this,” she said.

It tends to leave you with the impression the NIH is actively considering this as an option.

So Rockey clarified matters on her blog.

I have seen the very recent report and follow-on discussions that NIH is considering asking institutions to limit grant applications as a way to control demand. Let me present the facts. You may remember the dialogue we had back in October 2011 on how NIH should manage science in fiscally challenging times. The option of limiting applications was raised at that time but was discarded at the outset and we are not pursuing it now.

also…

The discussion of how to manage NIH funds that we had in October 2011 was engaging and informative, and did result in changes in policy. … The community offered lots of other ideas as well that we may decide to consider sometime in the future, but at the moment limiting applications by institution is not one of them.

Seems pretty clear.

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27 Responses to “Rockey dispels "rumors" caused by her comments”

  1. Ola Says:

    So are heads gonna roll at the chronicle, for scarin the frickin bejeebus out of everyone ?

    Like

  2. The Other Dave Says:

    I like that they have identified the problem (too many applicants), recognize that their budget is not going to increase significantly any time soon, and are trying to figure out solutions.

    I wonder if they have considered limiting the number of applications that each PI submits each year. This would encourage PIs to maybe do a little less throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks. But I don’t know what the submission rates per PI are. Maybe limiting applications wouldn’t significantly help.

    …which brings us back to The Cull.

    I still like the idea some commenter here floated a while back: grants designed to transition people out of federally-funded science.

    Related to that, maybe training grants designed to train *industry* scientists instead of produce more academics or other federally funded researchers. Or postdoctoral fellowships for industry.

    Like

  3. Mike_F Says:

    Limiting the number of applications each PI can submit is widely used in other parts of the world. For example in my own country the main research funding agency has ONE deadline per year, and each PI is limited to ONE submission for that deadline. The agency has an additional 2-3 targeted programs that one can also apply to, again de facto one submission per year for each program. In fact it gets even more draconian, since once one is funded one cannot submit another application until the last year of the running grant…

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  4. The Other Dave Says:

    Oh, yea… Mike’s comments remind me that many NSF directorates have recently moved to the preproposal system. There is one preproposal deadline, early in the year. Each PI can be on max two preproposals. The top preproposal applicants get to submit full proposals. Both preproposals and full proposals are peer reviewed, and applicants get comments. Basically: One deadline per year, 2 applications max per PI. I wonder how well it’s working out? I haven’t heard any sign that NSF is considering stopping it… In fact, they seem to be expanding it. So I guess it works. Anyone else have more insight?

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  5. Anonymous Coward Says:

    OER is absurdly fucken tone-deaf, and Rockey is a hapless buffoon. You’d think that the NIH director would put someone in charge of being the public interface to the extramural community who has some bare minimum of PR savvy, instead of a Peter Principle NIH lifer like Rockey.

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  6. joatmon Says:

    The NIH should try their best to fund the best research. The most efficient way to distribute NIH fund is to kill the intramural research!

    Like

  7. The Other Dave Says:

    Has anyone ever heard a good defense of the intramural program? I can see why some things might be best as steadily-funded intramural efforts, like vaccine development, or database development/curation, or reagent development. But I just took a look at the list of investigators in my field, and only recognized two names. One was a guy I knew from grad school, and the other was a person whose crappy paper I just reviewed. Other than those two, no names rang a bell. Which surprised me. And isn’t a good thing. Shouldn’t these people all be leaders in the field? How long are their appointments?

    Like

  8. DrLizzyMoore Says:

    I was a post-doc in an intramural lab, so I’m going to be biased in this discussion, as I have valued my training. However, the largest issue that I see in the intramural community is the expense of Administrative positions over research positions. At the lab where I worked, they kept growing Admin at baffling rates to where these folks were almost equal in numbers to the research folks (including post-docs and other trainees). You can’t tell me that that much Admin was required. Ultimately, it just meant more desks for paperwork to shuffle through in order to get a approvals…there was no real value to the Science. So if there are cuts in Intramural-land, let it be Admin.

    At least in my junior faculty status, I have submitted 1 internal and 3 external grants so far and plan to submit at least 2-3 in the spring. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to write these–I disagree with the notion that we’re just throwing shit in these applications to see what sticks. I’ve still got start-up, but I know it won’t last forever….I’m writing my ass off to keep the science going and the lights on. The more quality applications that I submit, the better my chances, right? Maybe…..just got back the dredded ‘Not Discussed’ on an R03 application…..so my Polyannaisms aren’t full proof.

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  9. Dave Says:

    At least the NIGMS is leading the way (as usual) and is starting to seriously cut back on large programs and focus much more on individual research. They have freed up some significant cash as a result and have actually raised their paylines substantially from 9% to 14% of grants funded.

    http://www.nature.com/news/large-nih-projects-cut-1.14147

    Quite impressive and this needs to happen NIH-wide.

    Like

  10. dsks Says:

    From Dave’s link:

    “But many of the structures produced by the PSI, which were based on theoretical models, turned out to be irrelevant to biological functions, counters Gregory Petsko, a crystallographer at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. If the PSI’s budget had instead funded a few hundred individual investigators, each competing to work on specific structures, they probably would have come up with more relevant proteins, he says. He is thrilled that the programme is shutting down. “Put a stake through its heart, bury it in a coffin filled with its native soil — do whatever you can do to keep it from rising again,””

    Ha! Tell ’em how you really feel!

    Like

  11. AcademicLurker Says:

    A lot of structural biologists were less than enthusiastic about the PSI from the beginning. It’s resulted in a lot of structures (mostly of small domains cut out from larger proteins), but my impression is that the ratio of $$ to useful science has been unusually low.

    Like

  12. miko Says:

    ” but my impression is that the ratio of $$ to useful science has been unusually low.”

    It is ever thus for all top-down, centrally-organized science.

    Like

  13. labrat Says:

    Why not starting with pre-applications. Yes, more screening and more work maybe, but down the road hopefully it saves time for the applicant and reviewers.

    In this current environment and with the quality of the reviewers and the importance of grants for promotions what else can you do then throwing one out every cycle? When the reviewer critics again something in the A1, which you have shown to be irrelevant (proven to be) you start to wonder about the quality of the reviewers. If we had top notch reviewers for the field then maybe things might change, but these top notch guys want to write their grants and do research and not review…

    Like

  14. Ola Says:

    @T.O.D. and others.

    Explain to me how “just cut the intramural programs” is any different from the cries of “hey cut that guy over there, not meeeeee!” which DM laments about so often?

    Like

  15. PY Says:

    Intramural Ola writes:

    ‘Explain to me how “just cut the intramural programs” is any different from the cries of “hey cut that guy over there, not meeeeee!” which DM laments about so often?’

    First it’s a strange system to have intramural doing the same science that can be done just as well if not better in the extramural program. Second it’s not public how much intramural programs cost but the numbers I heard were 10-15% of total budget for NIMH and costing 3x more per unit output. What’s the justification for this? What’s the science that’s coming out that couldn’t be done cheaper on the outside?

    Like

  16. drugmonkey Says:

    It is exactly the same Ola.

    Like

  17. pablito Says:

    It is public information how much the intramural program costs. More than $3 billion
    (about 10 percent of the NIH budget), enough to fund more than 6,000 R01’s at $500,000 per year. There is some really good science in the intramural program and you can check intramural PI budgets on the NIH RePORTER. Wild card (%z%) project numbers that begin with z to get the entire list of intramural projects.

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  19. DrugMonkey Says:

    Just remember that often intramural “PIs” are more like small department heads. One budget allocation covers several people that are the equivalent of associate and assistant professors

    Like

  20. pablito Says:

    Just remember that often intramural “PIs” are more like small department heads. One budget allocation covers several people that are the equivalent of associate and assistant professors

    The $3 billion intramural budget supports about 6,000 scientists according to the NIH website. Of that, there are around 1,200 PIs. That’s about $500,000 per scientist.

    “…about 6,000 scientists work in NIH’s own Intramural Research laboratories, most of which are on the NIH main campus in Bethesda, Md.”

    http://www.nih.gov/news/health/jun2013/nih-03.htm

    “Approximately 1,200 Principal Investigators (PIs) conduct biomedical or behavioral research within the Intramural Research Program (IRP).”

    http://irp.nih.gov/our-research/principal-investigators

    Like

  21. drugmonkey Says:

    Yes, but the nonPI “scientist” category includes what sort of folks?

    Like

  22. pablito Says:

    I am not certain, but assume “scientist” includes postdocs and staff scientists. When I reviewed intramural basic science programs in the past, there is a laboratory chief (akin to a department head), and several investigators, each with their own lab space, personnel, and budgets. I looked up one laboratory group that has 5 investigators (including the chief), 31 postdocs, 12 special volunteers, 8 staff scientists, 2 managers, and several summer students.

    Like

  23. pablito Says:

    I am not certain, but assume “scientist” includes postdocs and staff scientists. When I reviewed intramural basic science programs in the past, there is a laboratory chief (akin to a department head), and several investigators, each with their own lab space, personnel, and budgets. I looked up one laboratory group that has 5 investigators (including the chief), 31 postdocs, 12 special volunteers, 8 staff scientists 3 staff scientists, 2 managers, and several summer students.

    Like


  24. @pablito

    In my book, “scientist” is anyone who can replicate the Experimental section.

    I’m an experimentalist though. It’s quite a bit different in theoretical fields. When a physicists says “scientists”, they mean “someone who can manipulate the physical model in their head and translate this into math and translate the math into computer code”.

    A lot of the labs the USA is already funding *actually* work with having one PI to do grants, and several Senior Scientists (past postdocs, I mean- more like Research Assistant Profs) managing the labs with the postdocs, grad students, etc. I feel these labs should just be given permanent funding for the Senior Scientists and the PI, with a separate funding pool for the trainees- for the really big, interdisciplinary stuff; it’s simply what is required to get the work done. Perhaps even divorce them from the universities and just call ’em institutes; like the Germans do (well, used to).

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  25. pablito Says:

    In my book, “scientist” is anyone who can replicate the Experimental section.

    I agree, and might even be more generous in the definition of a “scientist.” The uncertainty is how the NIH counts their personnel to state there are about 6,000 scientists in the intramural program.

    Like

  26. DrugMonkey Says:

    pablito- and everyone you consider investigator-level, akin to extramural PI rank, has their own Z allocation? B/c I know of cases where it is more like only the Full or Chair level that has the Z line attached to their name.

    Like

  27. pablito Says:

    and everyone you consider investigator-level, akin to extramural PI rank, has their own Z allocation?

    Yes, as far as I can tell.

    I randomly checked more than ten Investigators (not including Laboratory Chiefs) in several basic science laboratories at the NCI, and all of them had one or more “Z” projects under their name. For all but one Investigator the funding was greater than $1M.

    http://ccr.cancer.gov/research/branch_lab_index.asp

    On a note related to a prior discussion about volunteers, some of the NCI lab organization webpages list a surprising number of “Special Volunteers” (in some cases more than 10 per lab).

    They might have outside funding, but I wonder if they all do?

    The NIH defines Special Volunteers in the following way:

    Special Volunteers are not paid by NIH but nevertheless provide a service for NIH. Special Volunteers are entitled to compensation for injuries, to protection under the Federal Tort Claims Act, and to receive royalties for inventions. Training for Special Volunteers may be supported by NIH. The ICs have flexibility to give professional designations to Special Volunteers as they wish.

    The Volunteer authority may be used to appoint postdoctoral investigators who are supported by outside grants. Another use of the volunteer authority would include the appointment of a citizen with leisure time who volunteers for service at NIH without compensation, such as a retired Federal employee who volunteers for service without compensation, or a Federal employee who volunteers in off-hours for service not associated with normal assigned duties. Also covered is an employee of a for-profit company on sabbatical or leave of absence, who works at NIH under a formal agreement with the employer (as long as the agreement specifies that the volunteer is not carrying out obligations for the employer).

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