I asked a poorly worded question on the Twitts

in which what I was trying to ask was this. From the perspective of awarding NIH grants, does it matter that a given proposal fits into a larger whole? If a brand new investigator, do we assume that he or she is applying for the first grant among many? For the greybeard for whom this might be a last-award, do we recognize that it is the capstone to a lengthy program? For the mid-career investigator do we assume this is only one of the many parts that will eventually form a large body of work?

Or is it all good if this is a singleton? One grant, awarded for 5 years and that is all.

The interesting thing is that nobody on the Twitts thought that I meant this. The answers went to various places- funding from non-NIH sources, relatively inexpensive research that didn’t actually require an R01 to be vibrant, the idea of a single R01 that was continued beyond a mere 5 year interval. Many people assumed that what I was really talking about was assessing the merits and qualities of the PI.

After I got done kicking myself for not asking the question properly, a simple thought struck me.

Perhaps the very fact that people assumed I meant just about anything other than a single 5 year award, period, for a given PI was my answer. We do tend to expect that a R01 award fits into a larger research program. It does not stand alone as a single project.

I was alerted on the Twitts

to a Perspective by Bruce Alberts (former Science EIC), Marc Kirschner (BSD), Shirley Tilghman (working tirelessly on “fix the NIH” committees) and Harold Varmus (former NIH Directior, current NCI Director). In Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws the authors recognize the current dismal state of affairs and issue several calls to action.

You will find nearly everything that has been put on the table here at this blog, at Rock Talking blog and, really, everywhere the discussions are serious about NIH-funded biomedical research. I find much to like in here and of course I disagree with several of their points and/or solutions.

Nevertheless, the overall goals are pretty good. They want to evolve to some more HHMI-like stability of funding, an equilibrium of participating scientists to the available budgets and to generally keep the grant process on improving scientific productivity rather than hampering it.

Overall there are good things being said here. But the specifics will be key. They argue for funding more graduate students on fellowships to give more control to the federal government. They phrase this in terms of “quality control” but they overlook using the bully pulpit to demand training programs actually reduce their output of PhDs! On the postdoctoral side of the over supply issue, they call for raising postdoctoral salaries until staff scientists are an attractive alternative. Then they call for increasing the ratio of staff scientist positions. I agree wholeheartedly but am not sure raising postdoc salaries is the way to go. There needs to be some additional mechanisms to provide a carrot to the expansion of the staff scientist category.

The Perspective also goes after the incentives local Universities, Med Schools and Research Institutes have to employ soft-money faculty. Proposals include going after soft-money job types, indirect cost recovery on faculty salary and some obscure but important stuff about including new construction costs in the IDC calculation.

Their recommendations for peer review changes are a mixed bag. They want to dismantle geographical diversity requirements for study section panels (O Rly?) and increase the number of oldsters on the panels. There is some of the usual blah-blah about risk taking, innovation, longer term outcome expectation and identifying the “strongest candidates for support”.

What I don’t like about these proposals is the stench of elitism that encircles them. As I have said repeatedly, one of the design virtues (even if imperfectly realized) of the NIH system is the respect for the democracy of ideas. In theory, anyone can propose a fundable study by coming up with a great idea that simply must be done. The alternative that is being proposed here is that we select good scientists at the beginnings of their careers and that is it. They get the money even if someone else has a better idea. Because that someone else may not have been selected in the beginning and will now never be able to get into the racket.

The racket will be dominated by pedigree, you better believe it. Not good.

There is one statement about peer review that I find hilarious:

Senior scientists with a wide appreciation for different fields can play important roles by counteracting the tendency of specialists to overvalue work in their own field.

…because “senior scientists” never “overvalue work” based on their biases, right? Please. I’ve said this many times in the context of grant review. Everyone has biases. EVERYONE! The only tried and true solution is the competition of biases which requires diversity. We need junior scientists in the mix. We need people from a diversity of institution types. We need people of diverse backgrounds and interests. We need a diversity of scientific approaches, orientations and interests. All competing on a more or less equal footing. It is the only way to minimize biases of review.

UPDATE/PostScript: I think these authors also fall into the usual trap of thinking that they know who the best scientists are and that if we could just get the money in their hands then the best science would result. It is the trap of thinking we can actually predict where the advances will come from. Read the history of optogenetics. Did it require Deisseroth? Would we have gotten there eventually? Would Deisseroth even have been funded under the New World Order envisioned by the Alberts et al Perspective piece? Has the infinitely more translatably useful DREADD technology been underdeveloped because of the shadow cast by optogenetics? In the New World Order might DREADD have been prevented entirely?

I know I have a few card carrying feminist types in my audience so I have a question for them.

The anti-slut-shaming issue is, to my understanding, a defense of women wearing whatever the hell they want without fear of randoms treating them in any particular way for those choices.

To the extent we are talking about public behavior and events…..I get that.

Ix-nay on the blaming of rape victims on the basis of their clothing choices. Yep.

No discrimination in the workplace for such matters that are irrelevant to job performance. Sure.

Dude, you need to control yourself“. Totally down with that.


If you react to the sartorial style of a woman with sexual interest, my friend, that is ALL about you and your perving. The person in question is not dressing that way to have any effect on random dudes. They are not doing this in the slightest, tiniest way to have an effect on anyone other then their own personal pleasure and entertainment.

Here is what is unclear to me, my feminist readers.

Do you REALLY believe this?

Or is this the kind of situation where you take an absurdly absolutist position so as to avoid the slightest toe-step down the slippery slope of victim blaming in the aforementioned public, vocational and/or criminal situations?

I wasn’t following the Twittscussion on academic nomadism closely, but one thing struck me.

There are those in academics who don’t realize why it would be a bad thing. To expect scientists to move around a fair number of times because their career demands it.

This is unfortunate.

I hope that some day they find a place to live that makes them realize there are many things that are more important than moving solely because of career opportunity.

Well, well, well.

The NIH limited applicants to a single revision (“amendment”, hence -01A1 version) of an unfunded “new” grant submission (the -01 version, sometimes called “A0”) in 2009.

This followed the action in 1997 to limit revisions to two (see RockTalk chart), which hurt PIs like Croce and Perrin. (Six revision? Wow, that is some serious persistence guys, my hat is off.)

I wasn’t really paying attention to such matters in 1997 but there was some screaming in 2009, let me tell you.
Delusional Biomedical Researchers Seek Repeal Of Arithmetic
More on the new NIH policy on grant application revisions

Initial outcome of limiting NIH apps to a single revision?

NIH re-evaluating ‘two strikes’ rule – Updated

Crocodile tears from experienced NIH investigators over the discontinued A2 revision

I don’t know how many people actually got stuck in the filter for submitting a A0 that was too similar to their prior, unfunded A1. I heard of a few, so it did happen. On the flip side of that, I’ve sure as heck been putting in more than two versions of a proposal which is designed to fund the same area of interest in my laboratory. I have not yet been flagged for it. My initial reaction that any PI who has an ounce of creativity ought to be able to come up with a credible alternative take on their project is still my current take.

Nevertheless, rumor has it that changes are in the wind.

Pinko Punko made an interesting comment on the blog:

DM, I heard the craziest thing today- the possibility of removing the “substantial revision” criterion for new A0 related to previous A1. Supposedly announcement soon- I was kind of surprised.

This was news to me but I have heard things from about five independent sources in the past few days that tend to confirm that changes are being considered.

The most consistent rumor is that new grants will no longer be checked for similarity to prior unfunded proposals. They will be called new grants, but there is no apparent reason for this. In all ways I can see, this is going to be a return to the days prior to 1997 where you could just endlessly revise until the study section relented.

The supposed benefit of reduced “time to award from original proposal” is now going totally by the wayside. I mean, the NIH will still be able to lie and say “look it was an A0!” if they want to but this is even less credible.

More dangerously, the will of study sections to endlessly queue applications will be released from whatever tepid effect the A1 limit has produced.

This is a very BadThing.

whoa. I found three A7 projects. All three are competing continuations. I can’t EVEN….five and six year apparent funding gaps for two of them. The other I can’t work out why there is no apparent gap in funding.

Over at Tenure, She Wrote today:

For although it is true that Amy is a bit of a conceited twit, I strongly object to the core messages in this little speech: don’t show off, even if that means no-one notices how awesome you are. It’s better to be overlooked than to be conceited.

Although I don’t remember Sister Bear being particularly braggy, a quick Google search turned up several hits for “Braggy Sister Bear,” including some actual pages of Berenstain Bear books.

As you may be aware, I have a nonzero number of mini-women in my household. As a parent who is around a fair number of both boys and girls in the elementary and secondary school ages I am constantly amazed. The level of organization, responsibility, on-task behavior….it is like they are different species. My wife or I remark to each other on at least a weekly basis “Why are men in charge again?”

The above mentioned blog entry may be relevant to the question so Go Read.

From the Boston Globe (of course):

Two dozen rural states stretching from Maine to Mississippi and Montana are clamoring to increase their share of federal research dollars now disproportionately awarded to Boston-area institutions and scientists.

Whaddaya mean, “disproportionately“? WE DESERVE IT!!!

“There’s a battle between merit and egalitarianism,” said Dr. David Page, director of the Whitehead Institute, a prestigious research institution in Cambridge affiliated with MIT.

Yeah, pure merit versus affirmative action quotas for lame ass science from Universities we’ve never heard of maaaang. There couldn’t possibly be any bias in grant review and award that puts a finger on the scale could there?

In one of the efforts, Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican on the Appropriations Committee, is proposing that funding for the special program to benefit rural states, formally called the NIH’s Institutional Development Award, be raised to $310 million, up from the current $273 million. The current amount equals just 1 percent of the institute’s research grants — a drop in the bucket compared with what Boston researchers win each year.

Last time I checked Massachusetts Congressional District 8 for NIH funding (probably a number of FY ago), Brigham and Women’s Hospital was pulling in $253,333,482 in NIH grants. MIT? $172,184,305. Harvard Medical School? $168,648,847. The list goes on in this single Congressional district.

and while the Globe has this scare passage near the top:

The coalition of states that benefits from the NIH special program for rural states doubled the amount of money it spent on lobbying in the last decade, to $590,000 in 2013 from $300,000 in 2003. That number does not include direct lobbying by universities in those states.

this is going to barely manage to tread water against the combined might of the richest of “have” Universities and institutions:

Representative Michael Capuano, whose district encompassing the Boston-area research hospitals wins more NIH money than any other congressional district, said the Massachusetts delegation is playing defense right now.

“The system works reasonably well but it’s under attack in a serious way,” Capuano said.

Massachusetts is mobilizing. Hospital executives, university presidents, and Washington lobbyists make routine trips to the Capitol. Their not-so-subtle message: Boston is on top because its elite institutions offer the best chances of big scientific breakthroughs.

then there is classic misdirection and the usual conceit that the NIH award process is purely about merit, uncontaminated by self-reinforcing vicious cycles of the rich getting richer.

“There are people in Boston who deserve more than a million dollars in NIH money because that is the best use of those dollars,” said Dr. Barrett Rollins, chief scientific officer at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a top recipient of federal research funds. “Congress has a responsibility to spend taxpayer money in the best possible way, and to me, the most straightforward way to do that is to make sure the dollars are invested in the most meritorious work without regard to geographic distribution.”

Because the quality of science is not evenly distributed across the country, researchers should not expect federal dollars to be either, said Harry Orf, senior vice president for research at Massachusetts General Hospital, another top recipient of NIH grants.

“You have congressmen who can’t evaluate science sending money to places not rated for innovation,” Orf said. “As funds get more and more scarce, you want to make sure you’re betting on the best science.”

It is beyond asinine to pretend that the NIH grant money is distributed by geographic affirmative action to any extend that squeezes the elite coastal research institutions. The above numbers and any current search on RePORTER verifies that the kind of money that is being proposed to go into this geographical affirmative action is a drop in the bucket. One or two of the larger institutions funded by NIH (and keep in mind that a place such as “Harvard” is made up of multiple institutions which are named as independent awardees in the NIH records) account for the entire outlay in the the NIH’s Institutional Development Award program. Even if the increase to $310M goes through.

There is considerable debate about “the best science” and about the best way to hedge our scientific bets. The NIH works, haltingly, in a way by which the serendipity of chance discovery from a diversity of approaches is balanced against predictable brute-force progress from exceptionally well funded Universities, Medical Schools and research institutions. I find myself citing papers from the very biggest institutions, sure, but I have numerous critical findings that I cite in my work that have come from smaller research programs in smaller Universities and (gasp) Colleges. Don’t you? If you do not, I question your scholarship. Seriously.

I suggest a purely self-interested goal, for those of you who are elite-coastal-University die hards. Every Congress Critter gets a more or less equal vote. The ones from Maine (Susan Collins, see above), from Alabama….

“It’s hard to compete against MIT or Harvard. . . . They’ve had their share. A lot of state colleges and universities all over the country, from Idaho to Maine, have some ideas too, and I think we should give these people from smaller schools in other states an opportunity,” said Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. “It’s time to fix that.”

from West Virginia…

“The program stipulates that not everything goes to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford,” said Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat.

and from Oklahoma, among others.

Representative Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, said he’s simply interested in supporting research that occurs “outside the normal corridors of power.”

Rep Cole seems to understand why geographical affirmative action is necessary, doesn’t he?

“There is a network where you tend to reward peers and people you know, and I think the distribution of funds, not intentionally, is skewed a bit toward places like Boston,” Cole said. “We just want to make sure that the playing field is fair.”

We need all these Critters to be on board if we expect Congress to listen to our pleas on behalf of the NIH.

It is politically stupid to fail to understand this.

I have been experiencing a sharp uptick in high school projects that are apparently titled: “Email questions to some random expert on the internet” lately.

Is anyone else getting these?

Do you respond? In what depth?