Berg posts data on NIH Intramural funding

February 5, 2014

Berg2014IntramuralChartJeremy Berg has a new column up at ASBMB Today which examines the distribution of NIH intramural funding. Among other things, he notes that you can play along at home via searching RePORTER using the ZIA activity code (i.e., in place of R01, R21, etc). At first blush you might think “WOWZA!”. The intramural lab is pretty dang flush. If you think about the direct costs of an extramural R01 grant – the full modular is only $250K per year. So you would need three awards (ok, the third one could be an R21) just to clear the first bin. But there are interesting caveats sprinkled throughout Berg’s comments and in the first comment to the piece. Note the “Total Costs”? Well, apparently there is an indirect costs rate within the IRPs and Berg comments that it is so variable that it is hard to issue anything similar to a negotiated extramural IDC rate for the entire NIH Intramural program. The comment from an ex-IRP investigator points to more issues. There may be some shared costs inserted into a given PI’s apparent budget that this PI has no control over. Whether this is part of the overhead or an overhead-like cost….or maybe a cost shard across one IC’s IRP…who knows?

We also don’t know what a given PI has to pay for out of his or her ZIA allocation. What are animal housing costs like? Are they subsidized for certain ICs’ IRPs? For certain labs? Who is a PI and who is a staff scientist of some sort within the IRPs? Do these status’ differ? Are they comparable to extramural lab operations? I know for certain sure that people who are more or less the equivalent of an extramural Assistant/Associate Professor in a soft money job category exist within the NIH IRPs without being considered a PI with their own ZIA allocation. So that means that a “PI” on the chart that Berg presents may in fact be equivalent to 2-3 PIs out here in extramural land. (And yes, I understand that some of the larger extramural labs similarly have several people who would otherwise be heading their own lab all subsumed within the grants awarded to one BigCheez PI.)

With that said, however, the IRP is supposed to be special. As Berg notes

The IRP mission statement asserts that the IRP should “conduct distinct, high-impact laboratory, clinical, and population-based research” and that it should support research that “cannot be readily funded or accomplished in traditional academia.”

So by one way of looking at it, we shouldn’t be comparing the IRP scientists to ourselves. They should be different.

Even if we think of IRP investigators as not much different from ourselves, I’m having difficulty making any sense of these numbers. It is nice to see them, but it is really hard to compare to what is going on with extramural grant funding.

Perhaps of greater value is the analysis Berg presents for whether NIH’s intramural research is feeling their fair share of the budgetary pain.

In 2003, when I became an NIH institute director, the overall NIH appropriation was $26.74 billion, while the overall intramural program consumed $2.56 billion, or 9.6 percent. In fiscal 2013, the overall NIH appropriation was $29.15 billion, and the intramural share had grown to $3.26 billion, or 11.2 percent.
 
Some of this growth is because of ongoing intramural activities, such as those involving the NIH Clinical Center, where, like at other hospitals, costs are very hard to contain below rates of inflation, or because of new activities, such as the NIH Chemical Genomics Center. The IRP is particularly expensive in terms of taxpayer dollars, because it is difficult to leverage the federal support to the IRP with funds from other sources as occurs in the extramural community.

So I guess that would be “no”. No the IRP, in aggregate, is not sharing the pain of the flatlined budget. There is no doubt that some of the individual components of the various IRPs are. It is inevitable. Previously flush budgets no doubt being reduced. Senior folk being pushed out. Mid and lower level employees being cashiered. I’m sure there are counter examples. But as a whole, it is clear that the IRP is being protected, inevitably at the expense of R-mech extramural awards.

 

 

Advertisements

34 Responses to “Berg posts data on NIH Intramural funding”

  1. Dave Says:

    But as a whole, it is clear that the IRP is being protected, inevitably at the expense of R-mech extramural awards.

    Well that doesn’t seem appropriate……

    Like

  2. drugmonkey Says:

    Well, given that an argument is advanced for why the IRP does things that cannot be accomplished extramurally, it isn’t inherently obvious that they should be under the same budget boom-lowering. But…that depends on making they case they are different *and* more deserving. Of course.

    Like

  3. bsci Says:

    I might look a bit more into this later & I’m not an RePORTER expert so I might be doing something wrong. I think that the total intramural budget includes some things that are worldwide resources. For example, the abstract text for: 1ZIHLM200888-05 seems to say that it is a $264million intramural grant for that National Library of Medicine that includes the funding for such things like Pubmed/MEDLINE & other major public databases.

    I think the Z awards go from ZIA to ZIK. I’m not sure what they all are, but, when I do a search for ZI% grants and go to the Data & Visualize tab, the total is $3.3 billion, which makes me think that all the ZI% awards are part of the $3.26 billion intramural budget that is cited by Berg. I don’t know how mechanisms have changed over time, but, if I’m doing the search correctly, the National Library of Medication didn’t have any Z awards before 2007 and suddenly had $238million in Z awards in 2008. This makes me think that part of the budget changes might have involved shifting the resources for some communal resources into the intramural budget. Just going by the intramural vs extramural topline budgets, doesn’t seem to be an ideal way to compare relative lab funding changes over time.

    Like

  4. dsks Says:

    “The IRP mission statement asserts that the IRP should “conduct distinct, high-impact laboratory, clinical, and population-based research” and that it should support research that “cannot be readily funded or accomplished in traditional academia.”

    How is this determined though? Do they assemble a panel that includes extramural academics who can vouch that, indeed, this particular research cannot be readily supported through the usual extramural mechanism? Because to have this sort of decision made in-house is a bit dodgy.

    Clearly not. Because one needn’t dig deep to find ample evidence of intramural labs generating and publishing data that, not only can be easily generated and published by extramural laboratories, but is actually in the process of being so. That’s not to criticize the quality of that intramural work, which is high, but is it cost effective to the tax payer to be funding extramural laboratories to do the same work that intramural labs are being funded for? The latter arguably doing that work at a fraction of the cost due to the much greater incentives that academics have, particularly in this funding environment, to get the most bang for the tax payer’s buck?

    Like


  5. Kill the intramural moochers!

    Like

  6. anon Says:

    dsks, Intramural labs undergo what is primarily a retrospective review. Every 4-5 years, they have to write a report that summarizes what they’ve done since their past review along with future research directions. The report is presented to a Board of Scientific Counselors (BSC) which is mostly prominent extramurally funded researchers. The BSC members attend a presentation from the PI in person and talk to every available member of the lab from the PI to trainees. The BSC provides feedback, which can affect the lab’s research direction (Including evaluating whether a sufficient amount of research in a lab is appropriate for an intramural lab) and funding for the next 5 years. Internal factors can also affect funding during the period between BSC reviews.

    So yes, there’s a fairly involved process to get extramural feedback. Is it less risky than extramural grant submissions? Probably. Generally, if a lab is meeting it’s goals and doing good work, it’s budget might be non-trivially cut, but, unlike extramural grant review, it’s not all-or-nothing.

    Like

  7. Anon@IRP Says:

    From the IRP side, I can tell you that there is clearly a budget pinch, and that many labs are indeed having to do more with less. I can also tell you that IRP scientists have operated under a distinct set of rules that don’t bind academia—-travel restrictions, limits on consulting/honoraria, etc. Not to mention living under the threat of government shutdowns. Senior PIs are typically underpaid, and remember that federal salaries have been frozen for several years.

    Obviously, this doesn’t mean those in the intramural programs don’t appreciate the freedom that comes with not having to write grants. Nor does it mean our mission shouldn’t receive fair scrutiny to ensure the taxpayer dollar is well spent. But I wouldn’t say the intramural program doesn’t provide any benefit. I’m not sure a 1.5% share of the budget boost in 10 years is evidence for “favoring” the IRP.

    Like

  8. Dave Says:

    Sounds alright to me anon.

    Like

  9. Grumble Says:

    “Senior PIs are typically underpaid, and remember that federal salaries have been frozen for several years.”

    I’ll take it, if it means I don’t have to worry about losing my job when I can’t renew my R01.

    (Here’s a funny story: I was recently promoted to Associate Prof, which came with a delightful increase in salary. Then the college took all that increase out of my grants, and I have hardly any money left to buy supplies after I pay my own salary and my lab staff’s. Hardy, har, har.)

    Like

  10. Eli Rabett Says:

    Eli works in the DC area, and takes part in the NIH Stevenson-Wylder donation program which provides surplus equipment and supplies to educational institutions. Things have definitely become leaner in NIH land over the past one or two years, a lot leaner.

    Like

  11. Eli Rabett Says:

    Grumble, give back and take it as a tax deduction. Best way is to set up an account at the uni that you control and contribute to it. That way you get to take the charity deduction which is not subject to the 2% employee business expense deduction.

    Like

  12. dsks Says:

    Anon,
    Thanks v. much for the info, but what you’re describing appears to be a review of the quality of the research. What I’m interested to know is who gets to determine that the research,

    “cannot be readily funded or accomplished in traditional academia.”

    Call me a cynic, but based on my experience within my own field, there is little evidence that related work going on in IRP labs, as high quality as it might be, could not just as easily be accomplished, to the same level of quality, by extramural labs.

    Now, maybe some people don’t think it should matter what intramural labs are studying. But if it doesn’t matter, then one has to ask bother with the extramural trip at all? Why not just invest all that indirect expense into expanding the NIH and keep the whole show in-house?

    Like

  13. drugmonkey Says:

    I suspect extramural experts hired to review IRP groups are going to be more reluctant to say “kill this program” compared with grant review. When you triage a grant it is easy to assume it is just *this grant* you are killing and not the entire research program.

    WRT frozen salaries, there are extramural Universities that have undergone salary freezes as well- don’t know if for the same intervals as Federal but it has happened. Underpaid? Compared with who? University faculty? I’d like to see some numbers on that.

    Like

  14. drugmonkey Says:

    dsks- concur that for the IRP work I pay closest attention to (dozen plus groups) it could easily be extramural.

    But I do like your suggestion for expanding the IRP. NIH Maui should be established immediately.

    Like

  15. Jonathan Says:

    First: NIH intramural isn’t homogenous, each IC runs their own slightly differently.

    Second: you cannot say, with a straight face, that intramural has escaped the budget realities. At our IC, before you factor in sequestration, our intramural division budget was down 2% last year, and was flat the year before (when extramural grants got a decent bump).

    Third: if you academics had to labor under the current restrictions facing NIH staff you’d have already stormed the chancellor’s office and undergraduates would be picking their way past the bodies of dead administrators and deans in the corridors. Want to attend a meeting? As long as you’ve got the money you just need to register and book your travel. Want to attend a meeting but you work for NIH? Hope no more than five people in total across the .gov want to attend, because if they do, that needs to be approved by NIH. What’s that? You think it’s more like 50, or 500? Sucks to be you. If you’re not presenting or chairing a session you might as well forget it. Even if you are, everyone going needs to be approved by at the department (HHS) level. Better pray the meeting isn’t somewhere warm or vaguely exotic-sounding. Oh, and you have to have applied for permission 6 months before the actual meeting, and your approval (if it comes) may only arrive a month (or as was the case recently, a week!) before the meeting; if it’s oversubscribed (Cold Spring Harbor/AGBT/Keystone/Dueul/etc) it’ll have sold out, otherwise it just means paying late registration and dealing with the fact that all the hotels have been booked. What’s more, these rules even apply to local meetings (ie Rockville, DC).

    Interacting with one’s peers at conferences is a fundamental component of being a scientist, and this is a pretty big impediment to that. What’s worse is that it’s being felt more acutely by the postdocs on campus.

    Needless to say the extra money that’s now being spent on more admin staff to handle the red tape, plus late registration fees, and last minute travel, means the .gov is almost certainly paying more for travel now than before these ‘cost-saving’ regulations were thrust upon us.

    Like

  16. drugmonkey Says:

    If extramural scientists don’t have a grant, Jonathan, it makes attending a meeting slightly difficult (impossible, in case you missed the dripping sarcasm) too.

    Like

  17. drugmonkey Says:

    How many people lost their jobs under this 2% cut? Do you realize that even when an extramural person manages to get a fundable score the budget is *still* cut 10% or more these days (6 yrs running by my count).

    Like

  18. Jonathan Says:

    Unless they have departmental funds for meetings, or they’ve been invited and the organizers are paying for their travel (can’t do that for a .gov employee), or they got a travel award…

    My point, dear pharmacologicalsimian, is not that things are tough out there in academe; I think there’s no doubt that the state of our industry is worse than it was back in 2008 when I was screaming from the rooftops to anyone who would listen. But NIH intramural isn’t some gilded cage whose inhabitants are completely sheltered from the realities of the biomedical research enterprise.

    Like

  19. dsks Says:

    Jonathan,
    Your comment was a pretty good answer to my question, “Why not just invest all that indirect expense into expanding the NIH and keep the whole show in-house?”.

    Because federal bureaucracy is a time and money expensive pain in the a$$. The obvious solution to all that federal bureaucracy is, of course, to shift all but the absolutely essential outside-labs-could-never-do-this-in-a-million-years research to extramural labs.

    Like

  20. anon Says:

    @dsks, Part of the lab review isn’t just research quality, but asking whether it is stuff that is uniquely possible in intramural. If nothing is uniquely intramural research, the lab definitely hears about it in the report with recommendations of emphasis shifts that will be part of the next evaluation. Each institute’s entire intramural program also gets “blue ribbon panel” reviews by extramural researchers which can and do shift the focus on large resource allocations and new faculty hires.

    That said, part of the issue is that a lab can’t only do high risk or super long term projects. Research is still being done by postdocs et al who need publications to get a next job. Many labs I know have a combination of high risk projects and good research that can be done elsewhere. You might see more of the common stuff both because, it should be published more frequently and, um, high risk projects are high risk. If an intramural lab spent a lot of effort on a high risk high potential project that didn’t work, it might result in a “don’t do this” publication or two, but they won’t exactly stick in your mind. If all the high risk projects succeed, then they wouldn’t be high risk.

    I’ll also note that I’ve seen a lot of intramural research that I’d consider really import work on fundamental issues behind systems or methods. This type of work often isn’t flashy enough to get extramural funding, but is still vital for broader fields. In an ideal world, there should be lots of extramural funding mechanisms for this type of work, but in the actual world, I’m glad it’s happening somewhere.

    Like

  21. Joe Says:

    “Senior PIs are typically underpaid, and remember that federal salaries have been frozen for several years.”
    This is no better for those of us at universities. I can remember 2 years out of the last 15 when we got a pay increase. If you get a raise, it was because you were promoted or had an outside offer. Then there were the years we were furloughed or “asked” to pay more of our health care and pension contributions (read 10% salary cut in perpetuity).

    Also, the combination of sequestration cuts to funded projects and university rules for firing staff means that I’m paying a lot for salaries and no longer have the money for those people to do the promised experiments. Does anybody know if any of the restored money in the new budget will be used by NIH to bring the funded projects back closer to their budget amount?

    Sorry to complain, but I am not feeling sorry for the NIH intramural PIs.

    Like

  22. pinus Says:

    IRP labs don’t pay animal costs from their budget, as far as I know. that would free up maybe 40% of my budget.

    Like

  23. matrixule Says:

    @pinus

    They pay animal costs at my IRP IC, so you can scratch that as being a benefit. It’s also government workers that are looking after the animals, and they ain’t cheap.

    Like

  24. fjordmaster Says:

    drugmonkey and dsks,

    I think the ICs are becoming more vigilant about emphasizing the required “unique” criterion for IRP research. Most likely, because of an appreciation for the issues concerning the extramural funding climate. My lab’s last BSC review before I left praised the quality of our group’s work, but said some of it could have been done just as well through extramural grants. Those research areas were significantly reduced if not completely eliminated from that IRP lab. Previous BSC reviews really only focused on issues of quality and the PI had more autonomy in setting the research agenda.

    Like

  25. anon Says:

    One other cost worth highlighting is that training grants are few to nonexistent for intramural labs. If a medium sized extramural lab assumes 1-3 postdocs or grad students have a separate source of funding, that is money that doesn’t come out of an R01. Nearly all intramural postdocs and research assistants are paid from within the intramural budget. I don’t deny that there are many wonderful things about doing intramural research and it is very likely a more stable workplace than a soft money faculty position in a med school. That said, a dollars-to-dollars comparison of R01’s to ZIA’s is problematic.

    Like

  26. pinus Says:

    Oh, I agree it is not cheap, but that is not part of their awards via Reporter was more my point. I am surprised to hear that your IC makes PI’s pay…none of the ones I have been to do that. But it makes sense, different cultures.

    Like

  27. drugmonkey Says:

    But NIH intramural isn’t some gilded cage whose inhabitants are completely sheltered from the realities of the biomedical research enterprise.

    Understand entirely and thanks for making the particulars clearer. You did read the last paragraph of my post though, right?

    a lab can’t only do high risk or super long term projects. Research is still being done by postdocs et al who need publications to get a next job.

    So maybe the intramural labs shouldn’t have postdocs! Also, I’ve heard that JIF beancounting is taken seriously which, again, drives the IRP contingencies in a way that is closer to extramural and away from “unique” stuff.

    Does anybody know if any of the restored money in the new budget will be used by NIH to bring the funded projects back closer to their budget amount?

    Every NGA that I’ve seen with a cut claims that the budget “may be” restored later in the FY. I now have one (and only one) verified instance of this happening. So accounting for all the verified cuts that were not ever restored my evidence suggests it is *possible* but vanishingly rare.

    It’s also government workers that are looking after the animals, and they ain’t cheap.
    Right, but where is the salary being accounted? Is it coming out of these ZIA numbers or not? Does the IRP PI pay it, thereby reducing the $$ available for other discretionary expenses? or is it nondiscretionary any way you slice it? etc.

    Those research areas were significantly reduced if not completely eliminated from that IRP lab. Previous BSC reviews really only focused on issues of quality and the PI had more autonomy in setting the research agenda.

    Very interesting. thanks for that observation.

    Like

  28. Dave Says:

    Does anybody know if any of the restored money in the new budget will be used by NIH to bring the funded projects back closer to their budget amount?

    Doubtful. The “extra” money will be used to increase the number of awards and improve success rates.

    Like

  29. dsks Says:

    “My lab’s last BSC review before I left praised the quality of our group’s work, but said some of it could have been done just as well through extramural grants. Those research areas were significantly reduced if not completely eliminated from that IRP lab.”

    Well, I’ll shut up then. Sounds like there’s a move to take the practical and equitable way forward, which is all good.

    Like

  30. anon Says:

    “So maybe the intramural labs shouldn’t have postdocs! Also, I’ve heard that JIF beancounting is taken seriously which, again, drives the IRP contingencies in a way that is closer to extramural and away from “unique” stuff.”

    It doesn’t make a difference what you call them, if you’re not a PI, you’ll want to be publishing things that keep open the option of getting a job elsewhere. I assume we’re both in favor of more respectable career staff positions everywhere, but publishing in peer reviewed journals is still an important metric for productivity and future employability in research. As for JIF, successful high risk projects should end up in journals with high JIF. I’m sure JIF matters more than it should in intramural, like extramural, but I’m not sure how much it skews the actual research people do. Should the less high risk projects intentionally be chosen to not end up in high JIF journals?

    Like

  31. drugmonkey Says:

    If there are only staff who expect to continue their entire career in the IRP, then this changes the contingencies at play on their careers. It takes them out of the extramural game which permits the science to be less similar to extramural.

    The JIF beancounting, if true, is a similar thing. It induces the IRP scientists to compete with the extramural scientists in the same game.

    Like

  32. fjordmaster Says:

    It will be interesting to see things play out in my former IC. The focus definitely moved toward studies that are difficult, if not impossible, to complete on an extramural grant because of both resource and time requirements. These studies will probably result in high JIF publications, but many fewer publications overall. This model will be less attractive to non-clinical postdocs and will require more reliance on “permanent” staff. Staff Scientists are a lot more expensive than fellows and cannot be ushered out of the lab at 5 years.

    To drugmonkey’s point about career IRP researchers: Staff may expect to spend their entire career in the IRP, but what happens if an IC wants to shift priorities again? Now it has a bunch of federal employees that it can’t fire and won’t be able to coax into the extramural world. This is a much larger version of the problem NIH has now with some IRP staff.

    Like

  33. zb Says:

    The PIs and Staff in the intramural program are tenured and are very, very difficult to get rid of. This makes intramural far more stable and that stability means that I’d expect the intramural program to shoulder less of the “cuts”. Program reviews are thorough, but even if they recommend shifting directions, the heads of those programs are still guaranteed their jobs. You could give them no money (the equivalent of taking away space from unfunded tenured faculty), but you’d still have to pay their salaries, which are substantial. This in turn means people have time to try to find new directions. The NIH has a sunk cost investment in the labor pool for their intramural programs. It doesn’t for the extramural program. When universities grant tenure, they have a sunk cost, but soft money positions have no protection from anyone and are, ultimately, going to bear the burden of the cuts most quickly (i.e. three equally successful programs, by any measure we chose, near the median of being cut, will survive longer at the intramural program, in a tenured faculty lab, and then finally in a soft money position).

    I’d expect the intramural program to weather NIH cuts more slowly — the intramural program will get cut, but it will be cut by not expanding/not hiring, rather than the quicker loss of jobs with grants.

    Like

  34. mobydick Says:

    I know intramural people who are at about the same stage of their career as me with similar CVs. I have one R01 and travel about once a year. My colleague at the IRP travels 4-5 times a year. It may be more difficult to obtain approvals, but they do travel more. Much more.

    Like


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: