The Tweep known as @dr24hours made a comment on grant strategy:

which I have to admit makes a lot of sense. Get your mental health together by not worrying about yet another grant deadline…you’ve earned it! Take the time to do what your job really is about…looking at data, planning studies, bringing them to fruition. Publishing. Have some science fun and bask in the sunshine*.

In a different age of the NIH grant game, this would have been a fine strategy for your career as well.

It no longer is fine.

We are in an era of boom and bust instability when it comes to NIH funding. It is the very rare flower indeed, in my estimation, that will be completely free of the cycle in the coming decade or two.

As always, my view is quite possibly colored by my experiences. But I have seen the boom and bust cycle play out across a large number of labs. Some of my close acquaintance. Some labs that I know only through the grant review process. Some labs that happen to make it to the scuttlebutt news channel for some reason or other.

It usually plays out like this. “Yeah, Dr. So-and-so is really well funded…..what? What do you mean they are on the ropes? [checks RePORTER] in the hell did THAT happen”. ….Two years later “Oh phew, glad to see So-and-so got another grant. ….what? TWO grants? and an R21? how in the hell did THAT happen?”…


There are a couple of ways the current uncertainty amps up the gain on the boom and bust cycle of grant funding.

Getting back to Dr24hours’ assertion in the Twitt, yes, a lot of PIs do their grant submitting in bursts. If you have enough funding, why submit applications? And if you are approaching the end of your current funding, well, you are going to start shooting those applications out on full-auto fire. This makes a lot of sense and I think a lot of us, including YHN, do this by reflex.

If you apply the current grant success odds to more (down cycle) versus fewer (up cycle) applications, well, you can see that a PI is herself contributing to the amplitude of the cycle.

Then we get to the way grant reviewers look at a PI and the application that is in front of them. Yes, Virginia, perceptions of “too much funding” do contaminate the reviewer’s mind. It is inevitable. Just look at all the screaming over at RockTalking and on my posts about how the “real solution” is to limit the amount of funding any one PI can secure. And when a PI appears to be on the ropes, grant-wise, the reviewers are likely to feel….sympathy. I know, I know, this sentiment is thin stuff compared with the negative value of the perception of “too much funding” but it is most certainly a contributing factor.

What this means is that if you take a PI’s grant proposals as more-or-less equally deserving on objective grounds, the ones that are submitted when she has a few grants are less likely to get a fundable score. This accelerates the downfall after an interval of healthy funding. On the other side, when the PI looks like she is at the end of her funding, the sympathy cred will make an application relatively more likely to fund. And since there will be a lengthy interval of time in which the lab looks to be running on fumes, it could be that several applications (perhaps in different study sections) will be pushed over the funding line by sympathy.

Finally, your friendly Program Officer plays a role in this as well. As we’ve seen over the past few years they have been very overt and explicit about “saving” long-running programs that are on the ropes. They will perhaps not admit it, but you know damn well that when it comes to making out-of-order funding decisions, if there is a perception that PI Jones is “healthily funded” and PI Smith is on the skids, the Smith app will get picked up and the Jones app will not. Again, the down cycle is accelerated and the up-cycle can be inflated. In some perfect world where such considerations didn’t matter, the deflation of the labs on the up cycle would be attenuated by a Program pick up about as often as the rescue of labs on the down cycle would be accomplished. This should work against the boom-and-bust (albeit potentially at the risk of increasing lab-death).

As you are well aware, Dear Reader, I pursue a two-pronged approach when it comes to this stuff.

First is always my advice on how the individual PI is best to navigate the system. I see no solution to this phenomenon other than to keep a steady flow of apps, even when you are relatively well funded. Five years elapses VERY rapidly and the confidence that even a very productive project, or one that hits all the expectations laid out in the original application, will be continued is low. Very low. There is still a degree to which the revise-and-resubmit cycle improves your odds. That can take, what, two years from original submission to eventual funding of the A1? Well two years out from the end of your current award, you still look like you are healthily funded. But what can you do? You sure as heck can’t count on sympathy to push your A0 version over the funding line if you wait until the last six months of your current award.

Second, I continue to discuss ways to stabilize funding. It certainly is all the rage with Rockey and friends. (Sally Rockey showed up to a symposium on “Bridging Career Pathways for an Evolving Biomedical Workforce” at Experimental Biology this year, btw.) As always, it is a long slow slog to get the powers that be to even understand how to ask the right questions, nevermind how to arrive at the right answers. One of the problems is that official NIHdom never thinks about careers. It took a fair while for Rockey to blog about funding rates by PI (here) as opposed to by grant. And it was still hard for her / her data minions to grasp that the success rates of PIs had to look over longer intervals of time, five to ten years. Jeremy Berg has been doing a good job of starting the process of examining the career aspects, see here and here. I think understanding the PI dynamics is critical to achieving some sort of stabilization of the uncertainty of funding that is so paralytic to science right now.

Part of this understanding should be a recognition of the boom-and-bust cycle.

If it exists. My perceptions could be very skewed, I realize. There should be a way for Rockey to get her data miners to characterize periodicity of funding cycles versus relatively sustained funding. To see if the relative proportions of PIs enjoying sustained, relatively invariant levels of funding differ across time. My prediction is, of course, that Rockey would find that there is more variability in a given PI’s funding across time then in the past.

As far as fixes for the boom / bust cycle go, I think we can’t do much about the PIs’ behavior or the way that study sections bias their reviews on the perception of how much funding a person has at that particular moment. This leaves it in the hand of Program to try to stabilize matters. So far their attention seems mainly focused on saving labs as they are approaching “bust”. This is admirable from many perspectives.

But I suspect that if they focused on arresting the “bust” before it actually happens it would have the same overall effect on the PI population while avoiding so much inefficiency of production that attends a lab plummeting toward the funding abyss.

*because Winter is Coming.