Thought of the Day: The NIH Can't Win

April 18, 2014

A comment over at Rock Talk made a fairly traditional complaint about the NIH funding system. Dan C stated that: “NIH is to be criticized that it funds “usual suspects.

Today, I find this funny. Because after all, most of the people complaining about the NIH system want to become one of the usual suspects!

Right? They want to get a grant, one. They want to have some reasonable stability of that grant funding in a program-like sustained career. Most of them don’t want to have to struggle too hard to get that funding either….I doubt anyone would refuse the occasional Program pickup of their just-missed grant.

Once you cobble together a bit of success under the NIH extramural grant system, those who feel themselves to be on the outs call you a “usual suspect”. For any number of reasons it is just obvious to them that you are a total Insider (and couldn’t actually deserve what you’ve managed to accomplish, of course). This may be based on the mere fact that you’ve acquired a grant, because you work in a Department or University where a whole lot of other people are similarly successful. This may be because it appears that POs actually talk to the person in question. It may be because a FOA has appeared in a research domain that you work within.

Anyone sees the duck floating serenely on the water at a given point in time and it looks like this is one most usual suspect waterfowl indeed.

I used to be annoyed at my approximate lateral peers in science who appeared to be having an easier time of it than I did. I had my Insider attributes as a younger faculty member, make no mistake, but I also had considerable Outsider traits, considering where I was seeking funding and for what topics of research. Some of those folks, over there, well boy didn’t they get an easy ride because of being such Insiders to the subpart of the NIH system!

I still have those thoughts. Even though I’ve seen many of the people I thought had it made in the shade go through their dry spells and funding down-cycles. Despite the fact that as each year goes by and my lab remains funded, I become more and more one of the “usual suspects”.

I believe that if I ever feel like I am one of the usual suspects, if I feel like I deserve special treatment and stop fighting so hard to keep my lab going that this will be the end.

I advise you to try to retain the same feeling of “outsider” that you feel as a noob PI for as long as you can into your career.

Getting back to the point, however, the NIH simply cannot win with these criticisms. Those who are feeling unsuccessful will always carp about how the NIH just funds “their” people. And if the NIH does happen to fund one of these outsiders, this very act makes them a usual suspect to the next complainer.

The NIH can’t win.

14 Responses to “Thought of the Day: The NIH Can't Win”

  1. becca Says:

    See, this is the problem with Generation X. It’s not that their bad leaders of Teh Establishment. It’s that they will NEVER realize they have any power over anything, ever. Defining oneself as an outsider is all very well and good if you’ve internalized too many Disney Sport movies about underdogs, and it simply provides nice internal motivation for working you butt off. But the moment you start to think you will always and forever be an outsider, and that therefore by definition your attitude toward authority/power/influence MUST be that of an outsider… that’s the sure sign you’ve done lost your damned mind.


  2. Dave Says:

    Just admit it DM. You are the problem. You and your people. 🙂


  3. kevin. Says:

    I think everyone feels like an outsider with pay lines where they are, and that goes doubly so for those with no grants.


  4. Pinko Punko Says:

    There is just no money. This is compounded by the fact that we’ve had a bubble as well, but there is no money. I don’t generally see peer review as a problem, though I am annoyed at the occasional lazy or boilerplate review. This is also a catch-22. An ultra engaged somewhat critical review will be termed nit-picky. The insiders are those perceived as consistent winners. Maybe this is 3-5% of the applications. Normally that could be acceptable, but obviously not all applications can be in that pool, therefore everybody is hanging by fingernails or falling.


  5. On the other hand, complainers can’t win either. Either they are complaining because they aren’t funded and dismissed as incompetent/lazy, or they are well established and are dismissed as people who have the “luxury” of complaining because they have no fear.


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    becca, you may have a point there.


  7. “serene duck” == major metaphor fail exploshun.


  8. drugmonkey Says:

    Dude, I can’t help it that you are ignorant of most aphorisms and pretty much anything having to do with popular culture. look that shit up.


  9. Pinko Punko Says:

    should have gone with Doge


  10. drugmonkey Says:

    Doge is the stupidest thing I have ever heard of in a Internet full of stupid memes.


  11. Pinko Punko Says:


    Such high bar

    So nice


  12. anonymous postdoc Says:

    Very blogging


    Much NIH

    So grantsmanship


  13. myninacat Says:

    imho, the problem is that the NIH did not seriously examine ways to confront the MAJOR issue–not enough money to fund OUTSTANDING science–and in spite of the fact that many saw this coming, the NIH is still in denial. The NIH decided against the idea of keeping as many OUTSTANDING investigators afloat, and until recently, of limiting total dollars. And that leads to the issues in study section that make it appear as if NIH can’t win. There are many proposals getting 2s. A single 1 moves that proposal to the head of the pack, and a single 3 tanks it. So the outcome is totally random or, if there are “smart” reviewers, devious/brilliant strategy. In the last study section in which I participated–a phone conference after the shut down–not all reviewers were present for all grant reviews–which skews the outcome even more. Is there really a difference between a grant that got all 2s and one that got all 2s and a 1? Recognition that this is an academic tie–and spreading the money to keep everyone afloat until a real solution is in hand–has got to be a better strategy than this horrific cull that is driving outstanding people out of jobs/careers.


  14. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    “There are many proposals getting 2s. A single 1 moves that proposal to the head of the pack, and a single 3 tanks it.”

    This is only true for study sections that aren’t appropriately using the entire 1-9 range to spread their scores among the discussed half of applications.


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