From the description in Nature.

On 5 December, agency director Francis Collins told an advisory committee that the NIH should consider supporting more individual researchers, as opposed to research proposals as it does now — an idea inspired in part by the success of the high-stakes Pioneer awards handed out by the NIH’s Common Fund.

Pioneer awards are described as follows:

The NIH Pioneer Award initiative complements NIH’s traditional, investigator-initiated grant programs by supporting individual scientists of exceptional creativity who propose pioneering and possibly transforming approaches to addressing major biomedical or behavioral challenges that have the potential to produce an unusually high impact on a broad area of biomedical or behavioral research. To be considered pioneering, the proposed research must reflect substantially different scientific directions from those already being pursued in the investigator’s research program or elsewhere.

Another report I saw on this quoted Francis Collins as referring to “superstars”.

I’m unimpressed by this whole business. By referring to “superstars”, the HHMI approach and the Pioneers program NIH Director Collins makes it clear that he is talking about picking a very limited number of winners. At best each IC will get one? Maybe? So this will not do very much to help with the large bulk of NIH supported (and those desiring future support) investigators who feel that the job of securing grant money is taking away from their ability to do great science. This will not be some wholesale conversion of the NIH from project-based proposals to person/lab support. That’s my prediction anyway.

And as such, this reflects no real change. The primary concern of those opposed to this would be that it cordons off a part of the NIH pot in a place that they cannot try to reach it. If these selected superstars have the money based on their genius, then your project cannot be funded by those dollars.

Moving slightly down the road, the selection of superstars also means that the vast majority of us know that we have no shot at those funds in any case.

But here’s the thing that leaves me unimpressed.

This whole line of attack is nothing but a recognition that the superstars have to grub for grant money in the trenches now, but that they never had to do so in the past.

The NIH system has been a hybrid system that incorporates both project-based and people-based approaches. The latter is not formal, but it is reality. Once upon a time if you had a fairly healthy scientific pulse, you could renew your core grant (which rapidly evolved into a lab-based funding reality, no matter what was on the page every 5 years for competing renewal) for 25+ years. “I just applied for money when I needed it” said a colleague to me within the last two years. These people could also pull in additional grants for just about whatever half-decent additional project struck their fancy. In nearly all ways that count, many, many of our respective subfield luminaries (not superstars, I’m talking the top 20-30%) in the past three decades enjoyed defacto person-based funding.

Because of this, there was a pool of money the rest of the plebes, and the noobs, could not realistically access. In theory, sure. But in practice, no.

The current Collins trial-balloon will very likely only turn back the clock a tiny bit. It will be incredibly unfair on paper, but in reality it is no less fair than what was going on during the 80s and 90s and yes, well into the 00s.

The sad part is that it is unlikely to work. The genius superstars are still doing okay when it comes to funding. And of them, there will be many who fail to produce the genius, superstar, pioneering breakthrough innovations that Francis Collins is intimating they will all produce. There will be many of them that, without Collins’ intervention, will indeed make amazing breakthroughs. Many of both categories that might perhaps be awarded grants under this new expansion of the Pioneers program would still manage to win an equivalent amount of project-based funding in the absence of Collins’ plan going through.

I’m just not a big believer in making bets on who is going to revolutionize science and give them all the grant money. I believe a more distributed, less directed, individual investigator initiated approach is the demonstrated success model. When we try to pick a few winners we do less well at creating innovation.

So my suggestion is to figure out a way to relieve far more of the extramural research team from the current tyranny of the grant game. Not just a handpicked few but many. 30%? 50%? More.

All of us are spending far too much time on grants. Spending far too much time on creative thinking about data and what-ifs for yet another application, instead of following up on those great ideas. Many, many of us just-folks in the system would do a lot better if we were able to “just apply for a new grant when we needed it”. The scientific product would be much better and the cost-ratio would be improved.

Streamline the process for more of the NIH extramural force and guess what? The “superstars” will also be relieved! They will likewise get to spend more time thinking about innovation and, since they are superstars (right?) their innovation will be amazing.

My best proposal for how they should do this is easy because it uses an existing mechanism. They could start this process….tomorrow.

My proposal for making the system more person-based and less subject to the vagaries of review is to expand the R37/MERIT program. This is the program that awards an occasional highly-meritorious competing award an extended non-competing interval. So instead of having to think about renewal in 5 yrs, you have 10. There is still noncompeting review and rumor has it that some ICs have been willing to cancel R37s midstream for lack of production. Rumor also has it that many ICs take an extra hard look during year 5. But regardless, the structure is there.

A five year proposal that is now given 10 years? That should make almost any PI feel a lot more free to pursue blind alleys and risky new directions.

An article in the CHE by Paul Basken was brought to my attention because of the comments of Francis Collins regarding an emphasis on the “people, not projects” side of the equation. But something else drew my eye, way down the page, because I hadn’t heard of it before.

One panel member, Shirley M. Tilghman, a molecular biologist who is a former president of Princeton University, said one way to clear NIH resources for younger researchers would be a grant that would pay senior researchers to wind down their labs and distribute their resources to others in return for a commitment to seek no more NIH money.

She referred to it as a “terminal grant,” though conceded a different term would likely be necessary to make it more palatable.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has a similar program, in which it phases out grantees over a five-year period. The program is too new for a deep analysis, though it appears well received by scientists, said Robert T. Tjian, president of Hughes. It’s “a graceful and productive way for scientists to plan their future involvement in research and teaching as they approach the end of a natural cycle in a scientific life,” said Mr. Tjian, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Wow. Seems okay on the face of it. I see a fair number of people grumbling about how they are going to retire but they still keep putting in the proposals. From a psychological perspective it might work to have them commit to an end date five years away, rather than, saying “Pack it in RIGHT NOW”. Over the next five years maybe that would have a net effect? Seems worth a try, maybe?

I do wonder how this could possibly work in the NIH system on a practical basis. I mean, how can you hold the PI to his or her commitment to stop submitting any grants? How can you keep them from being a significant Investigator on a project for which they are not the PI? The University submits the grants, after all.

But if we suppose it *can* work, is this the best solution? Wouldn’t it be better to just stop funding them? To stop extending any Programmatic pickups to PIs over a certain age? Or to, say, throw down a policy refusing any applications for anything beyond year 20 of a given project? Wouldn’t this, in the end, get rid of more people than offering all of them a Parachute Grant?

And if the plan is to “wind down” a person’s career…..doesn’t this totally fly in the face of the formal structure of the NIH, i.e. that the grant is based on a project, not a person? Are we talking a reverse K99/R00 that starts off with an independent research phase and then ends up as an emeritus fellowship that pays the salary and nothing else for a few years*? Or perhaps we’re talking a project that has to be taken over by a younger PI in years 2-5?

I doubt this will get much traction but if it does, it will be fascinating to see all the proposals for how it should work. I’m sure a few of you will have a go at it in the comments…..
*Paying the salary of an Emeritus Professor to sort of wander around the Department helping out has some resonance with my proposal for Staff Scientist Fellowships, I note. I am not entirely dismissing it as valueless.

RIP Nelson Mandela

December 5, 2013

If you had any political awareness during the 80s and into the 90s this is your eternal earbug for one of the greatest statesmen and political leaders we’ve seen in our lifetimes.

Defunding the NIH

December 4, 2013

A article in the Pacific Standard magazine by Michael White provides an update on my prior post on The NIH Un-Doubling. The primary point in that post was a graph published in 2007 in

Heinig SJ, Krakower JY, Dickler HB, Korn D. Sustaining the engine of U.S. biomedical discovery. N Engl J Med. 2007 Sep 6;357(10):1042-7. [Publisher Link]

which presented the NIH budget allocations in dollar amounts adjusted for inflation* (expressed in 1998 dollars). The “undoubling” part reflected the 2007 allocation and 2008 Bush administration request in comparison with a trendline established from the early 1970s until the beginning of the doubling. It’s worth revisiting the graph from that article

Figure 1. NIH Appropriations (Adjusted for Inflation in Biomedical Research) from 1965 through 2007, the President’s Request for 2008, and Projected Historical Trends through 2010.
All values have been adjusted according to the Biomedical Research and Development Price Index on the basis of a standard set of relevant goods and services (with 1998 as the base year). The trend line indicates average real annual growth between fiscal years 1971 and 1998 (3.34%), with projected growth (dashed line) at the same rate. The red square indicates the president’s proposed NIH budget for fiscal year 2008, also adjusted for inflation in biomedical research.

because the updated one, below, only starts in 1990.

NIHBudget-MAW-edit-497x400This new article How We’re Unintentionally Defunding the NIH provides the update, now represented in 2011 dollars. I’m not immediately seeing whether Michael White made this graph himself or sourced it from somewhere else but he does cite a Congressional Research Services report by John F. Sargent Jr which is worth a read.

This is fascinating. We’ve discussed historical funding trends and success rates under NIH extramural grant awards in the past. One post I wrote is highly pertinent:

The red trace depicts success rates from 1962 to 2008 for R01 equivalents (R01, R23, R29, R37). Note that they are not broken down by experienced/new investigators status, nor are new applications distinguished from competing continuation applications*. The blue line shows total number of applications reviewed…which may or may not be of interest to you. [update 7/12/12: I forgot to mention that the data in the 60s are listed as “estimated” success rates.]

The bottom line here is that looking at the actual numbers can be handy when playing the latest round of “We had it tougher than you did” at the w(h)ine and cheese hour after departmental seminar…Things are worse than they’ve ever been and these dismal patterns have bee sustained for much longer. … Anyone who tries to tell you they had it as hard or harder at any time in the past versus now is high as a kite. Period.

One key takeaway from this new graph is a consideration for those who insist that the NIH doubling interval was a poisoned gift. There are those that claim that our current woes are because research Universities and Medical Schools built up tremendous amounts of new infrastructure and personnel during the doubling, with the expectation that that rate of NIH budget escalation would continue. The thinking is that we experienced a bubble and the only reason we have problems now (during this extended interval of budget flatlining and therefore slipping purchasing power**) with dismal success rates. Too many mouths at the trough, is the way I put the situation, even if I don’t specifically blame the doubling interval for this.

This new graph makes it very clear that we have not just returned to the 3.3% growth trendline for the NIH budget. We have fallen off that line. Furthermore, the stimulus funding and the modest increases the Obama Administration have bruited as an initial budget offering are insufficient to change this divergence. It is absolutely clear that the NIH purchasing power is shrinking. Shrinking below the trends established from 1971 to 1998.

This is not a contraction relative to the doubling interval anymore! We’re way beyond that. We look to be as far below the historical trendline as we were above the line at the peak (end) of the doubling interval. We’re something on the order of $8-$10 Billion in the hole, something around 75% of where the historical trendline would have taken us. That seems like a lot of money until you realize

*from here:

**using BRDPI (Biomedical Research and Development Price Index)

Thought of the day

December 4, 2013

Namnezia has initiated an interesting conversation on the criteria for awarding a PhD in the sciences. A commenter over there alleged a set of rules that is nearly impossible for me to believe is true. RX claims:

No official requirements for my PhD program, it’s up to the PI.
My lab is crazy. Here’s the requirement: total first author impact factor: 30, total pages of paper: 20. The first graduate of my lab got 1 Neuron and 1 Nature Neuroscience paper. All the rest graduates tend to follow this pattern.

This is one reason it shouldn’t be left up to the PI, there is a reason doctoral committees and doctoral program rules exist.

Go Play at the Take it to the Bridge blog.

Another legendary figure of substance abuse research has passed away.

Nancy K. Mello was a Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at McLean Hospital. Her work spanned across a broad range of psychoactive and/or addictive substances with a focus on treatment medications in the recent years [PubMed].

According to the Obituary in the Boston Globe:

With her husband, Dr. Jack H. Mendelson, she cofounded the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Center at McLean Hospital in 1974, and they became leading researchers in the field of substance abuse.

“Their findings on loss of control and mood dysfunction as a result of drinking by alcoholics not only revolutionized scientific understanding of alcoholic drinking behavior, it also stimulated a new generation of behavioral and psychological researchers to apply experimental models to the study of alcoholism,” Dr. Roger Weiss, chief of McLean’s division of alcohol and drug abuse, said in a prepared statement.

Dr. Mello, who was director of McLean’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Center and also taught at Harvard Medical School, died Monday, the hospital said. She was 78; other details, such as the cause of death, were not immediately available.