Rep Harris wants to help the “Young, Brilliant and Unfunded”. Allegedly.

October 3, 2014

In an Op-Ed in the NYT, Representative Andy Harris (R, Maryland) lays out three main issues that he would like to address regarding the functions of the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Harris [Wikipedia] was a Physician Scientist prior to running for Congress and was the PI of NIH Grant R01 GM036044-04. This grant ran from 1986-2007 and was competitively renewed three times. This, in my mind, gives us much more reason, than is usual for a Congress Critter, to hear the man out.

The Op-Ed proposes to alter the infamous age-of-first-R01 award. Even the NIH [see post at RockTalking] itself agrees that the age of 42 might be too old. Consequently, when Harris recommends:

Congress should also mandate that the median age of first research awards to new investigators be under 40 within five years, and under 38 within 10 years. Failure to meet these benchmarks would result in penalties for the N.I.H., including possible funding cuts.

I am in full agreement. I might even want more aggressive benchmarks. Telling NIH that they must address this is fine because pretty much all stakeholders have been agreeing this is ridiculous. There is very little that I have heard in the way of any serious argument that this increasing age of first-R01 award is a good thing. Now….what I really want to see is the inter-quartile range. What we see is the median and it simply doesn’t square with my seat of the pants estimate. It looks really old to me, meaning I know a lot of people that got their start in their early to mid thirties (yes, within the last 15 years, thanks) and very few that got their first R01 at 43 or older. It may be the case that the distribution is nearly Gaussian….or it could be really skewed. It would not surprise me in the least if the 25th percentile is age 36 and the 75th percentile is age 45, for example. I want to see the entire distribution, ideally, but the inter-quartile range would be a good substitute.

The next item is standard right winger, Republican fare when it comes to federally funded science and I oppose it. Strongly. Rep Harris’ version:

To make sure it meets those goals, we should insist on the development of an N.I.H.-wide strategic plan — not just for targeting younger researchers, but for prioritizing different avenues of research overall. Today we see too many grants going to things like creating a video game for moms to teach them how to get their kids to eat more vegetables, or studying the creation of a social security system in southern Mexico. Such projects may have value to some, but is creating a video game really more important than researching a cure for Alzheimer’s?

It is easy for anyone to point to some “ridiculous” grant award or study topic that revs up their base. Whether you are opposed to research into topics that are “solved” in the Republican mind with prohibition and moral tut-tutting (HIV/AIDS, drug abuse), in the Democratic mind with hippie veganism and anticorporatism (diabetes, heart diseasee) or in the waccaloon mind by denial (ban all animal research, for example) isn’t really important. I can show you how stupidly irrelevant some basic research is, Sarah Palin can dismiss drosophila models or PP and St. McKnight can insist that only “vertically ascending science” is relevant to real advance. We’re all wrong. The tremendous strength and success of the NIH-funded research enterprise relies intimately on the relative absence of top-down control. Investigator initiated science is the best way, of a myriad of options. Period. When we try to be “efficient” by picking winners in advance, we hinder scientific advance. It is really surprising Dr. Harris doesn’t realize this, even if Representative Harris feels compelled to advance the standard right wing attack against science that discomforts their constituencies of Big Business and Social Conservative Theocrats.

The final agenda item of Rep Harris is, I believe, the true agenda. The bone thrown to young investigators is only a sweetener, I would bet. He wants to end the “tap”.

For one thing, we need to eliminate a budget gimmick, known as the “tap,” that allows the Department of Health and Human Services to shift money out of the N.I.H. budget into other department efforts. The N.I.H. lost $700 million to the “tap” in 2013 alone. Instead, the money should be placed under the control of the N.I.H. director, with an explicit instruction that it go to young investigators as a supplement to money already being spent. If we don’t force the N.I.H. to spend it on young investigators, history has shown that the agency won’t.

And what is this, you ask? Datahound to the rescue:

DJMH: The HHS Secretary has the authority to transfer funds for Program Evaluation. This has been down routinely for more than a decade to fund AHRQ and other agencies and to support program evaluation at NIH.


The NIH and other Public Health Service agencies within HHS are subject to
a budget “tap” called the PHS Program Evaluation Transfer, authorized by section
241 of the PHS Act (42 U.S.C. § 238j). It is used to fund not only program
evaluation activities, but also functions that are seen as having benefits across the
Public Health Service, such as the National Center for Health Statistics in CDC and
the entire budget of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. These and
other uses of the evaluation tap by the appropriators have the effect of redistributing
appropriated funds among PHS agencies. The FY2005 and FY2006 L-HHS-ED
appropriations set the tap at 2.4%, as does the FY2007 Senate bill. The House bill
returns the maximum tap to 1.0%, the level specified in the PHS Act. Since NIH has
the largest budget among the PHS agencies, it becomes the largest “donor” of
program evaluation funds and is a relatively minor recipient.

Okay….you think to yourself, why would a Republican Congressman be so het up over this? Well, if you do some judicious googling about AHRQ you find things like this.

The U.S. House Committee on Appropriations released their draft 2013 Labor, Health and Human Services funding bill. In their summary, the number one stated intent is the following:
“Defunding ObamaCare – The legislation contains several provisions to stop the implementation of ObamaCare…

One extreme cut that was thrown in the draft was not just defunding, but total termination of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a tiny agency under the Department of Health and Human Services. AHRQ has a budget of $405 million.

That looks to be more than half of the “tap” that Rep Harris wants to close. And this brings us to wonder if Dr. / Rep Harris has any opinions on the ACA?

Looks as though he is not a fan. Nope, not a fan. At all.

So, Dear Reader, I confess I come away from Rep Harris’ Op-Ed with a feeling that the true agenda here is a very familiar right-wing Republican one that goes after part of the Affordable Care Act and attempts to gain additional direct say over what grants the NIH funds. The part about supporting younger scientists is merely a convenient ploy to sweeten the deal and attract the unwary. I don’t believe it is the true purpose here.

27 Responses to “Rep Harris wants to help the “Young, Brilliant and Unfunded”. Allegedly.”

  1. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Typical despicable right-wing filth.


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    I might be wrong on that grant…. Tip from sciencemag’s JKaiser


  3. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    “PP and St. McKnight can insist that only “vertically ascending science” is relevant to real advance.”

    Hey! What do *I* have to do with that vertically ascending science shittio??? There’s a difference between horizontally filling in important details in a field and squeezing out irrelevant little hard turds in sub-dump journals. You conflate the two at your peril.


  4. becca Says:

    We don’t need to study us no Obummercare, we already knows it don’t work. If it worked, it’d have been proposed by a Republican.

    In all seriousness, it’s gotta be frustrating to vote against funding stuff and then find it funded anyway, and robbing the NIH to pay for AHRQ is obviously political expediency, not how it ought to be done in a perfect world. Still, as a young scientist with a cure for Alzheimer’s or two in mind, I gotta say- not how I want to be pandered to. It’s such a pity, no one has ever tried to pander to me so personally, and I want to encourage him so much! *sigh* He’s no Arlen Specter.

    Also, I’m pretty sure if we could get kids to eat their vegetables, we’d cure Alzheimer’s. Cause I’ve participated in a fair amount of studies, and the only one that was a dismal failure and seemed to do the *opposite* of what was intended was the one designed to get my kid to eat more vegetables. Really, this is the cold-fusion of the health world.


  5. zb Says:

    I thought that op-ed was going to be gimicky, and i didn’t even know that Harris was a Republican. I think, fundamentally, that no congressman was really going to care about the plight of young scientists (though having actualy been an RO1 holder, if that were the case, might make a difference). Thanks for unpacking it.


  6. celtics237 Says:

    First, as an ESI, I appreciate Rep Harris’s concern and effort. Whether he is a R or D should not matter. Please do not bring partisanship into science. Do you really want a R or D next to your name every time you give a talk or serve on a study section?
    Second, I will advise him to revise his argument. Yes, most of the 2,000 Nobel Prize winners and the notable scientists in the 20th century were between 35 and 39 when they made the big discoveries. But most of those people were also white and male. So do we focus on funding white males between 35~39 year-old? Age, race and gender discrimination is still illegal here. In reality, nobody knows who, when and where the next big discovery will be. Peer-review is the closest thing we have next to a fortune-teller.


  7. theLaplaceDemon Says:

    The whole call for a NIH-wide strategic plan for research priorities is really bizarre. I agree that the simplest explanation seems to be the usual “Republican doesn’t want to fund any vaguely social science.” Harris certainly doesn’t give us a reason to think otherwise in his piece.


  8. Datahound Says:

    DM: You are definitely wrong about the grant. The R01 funded Andy Harris is a biophysicist who has studied gap junctions extensively. He had been in the Biophysics Department on the Homewood campus at Johns Hopkins for many years and moved to Rutgers about 15 years ago (see ).

    Congressman Andy Harris is an anesthesiologist who (to my knowledge) has never been the PI on an NIH grant although he may have participated in NIH funded research. He also has an MPH.


  9. Philapodia Says:

    It’s interesting to dig through who it funding Harris’ campaign. Lot’s of healthcare lobbyists (and Koch Industries, of course).

    Seems pretty clear this is a kind of lame political ploy to dupe those NY Times-reading lib academics into voting him back into office so he can covertly try to repeal part of the ACA.


  10. hpmcmf Says:

    The extent of hypocrisy of SenAsshole Harris is just appalling.


  11. rxnm Says:

    “The Op-Ed proposes to alter the infamous age-of-first-R01 award. Even the NIH [see post at RockTalking] itself agrees that the age of 42 might be too old. Consequently, when Harris recommends:”

    Increasing age of first R01 clearly correlates with problems, but focusing on that stat hides the causes. Are

    – people starting grad school later?
    – taking longer in grad school?
    – taking longer in postdocs?
    – doing multiple postdocs?
    – taking longer to get an R01 after on the TT?

    Probably the answer is yes to all, but because the NIH (outside the ignored Tilghman report) is singularly uninterested in any of these issues, choosing only the misguided “years since PhD” metric for ESIs, we have no idea of what policies might have the most beneficial effect.

    But we can guess–it’s training reform, the thing NIH wants to do least of all possible things.


  12. E rook Says:

    I think loosening the K99 eligibility restrictions would go a long way toward the stated goal with some money. I am more hesitant to mandate this sort of thing (median age of first R01) by law … It would be an extraordinary measure, in my opinion. But I could be convinced. Maybe a congressional set aside for ESI R01s (I’d advocate a mandate for topical diversity) would be a middle ground.


  13. drugmonkey Says:

    There already is a “set aside for ESI R01s”. It has topical diversity because it is a cross-IC set of policies. You realize this, yes?


  14. sk Says:

    One comment on that article from a NIH reviewer brings up the point that NIH reviewers are required to have had NIH support, and this perpetuates the suboptimality of system in a sense (i.e., reviewers are naturally, perhaps subconsciously, biased towards established PIs as they “know” them – also, many established PIs who are reviewers tend to guard their turf and nitpick to delay funding a proposal from a new PI. I have experienced this as a ESI investigator). I agree – this does make the NIH review process a bit like a country club. Once you get your foot in the door, other doors open up etc. Why should the NIH not actively try to increase the diversity of reviewers? Has the NIH opened up about who should be on study sections – have they ever justified their system/solicited feedback from the scientific community?


  15. Joe Says:

    – people starting grad school later?
    – taking longer in grad school?
    – taking longer in postdocs?
    – doing multiple postdocs?
    – taking longer to get an R01 after on the TT?

    I haven’t noticed grad students starting later or taking longer. If anything, I see programs like the one at my university pushing to make sure grad students finish on time.
    I would bet the problems are from lack of TT jobs so that people are stuck longer at the post-doc stage. Also, I do see new asst profs not getting R01s or equivalent in the expected time-frame. I’ve seen guys not get their positions renewed at 3-4 yrs from the start of the TT job, because they didn’t have an R01 and it didn’t look like they would anytime soon. I will note that start-up packages are very large now, and some asst profs can wait longer to submit applications.


  16. Dave Says:

    He represents Maryland. He has to talk about the NIH every now and then. Just like Mikulski does. It’s just talk to let everyone know that he ‘really cares’ about his local NIH. No need to over analyze it any further.


  17. AcademicLurker Says:

    He has to talk about the NIH every now and then. Just like Mikulski does.

    The key difference being that Mikulski was an actual advocate for science and the NIH, whereas this guy appears to be just another GOP anti-science creep, his crocodile tears for unfunded young investigators notwithstanding.


  18. drugmonkey Says:

    I am deeply suspicious of Rep Harris’ true motivations, *however* NIH support has traditionally crossed the aisle. There is no reason it cannot still be an issue on which the right and left agree. So I am waiting to hear more and see what is actually put forward as legislation.


  19. AcademicLurker Says:

    NIH support has traditionally crossed the aisle.

    “Traditionally” being a key word. The GOP has certainly traveled far towards adopting reflexive hostility to science as a core value since I started graduate school back in the day. As just one example, check this out.


  20. Datahound Says:

    Congressman Harris’ district (Maryland 1st) is primarily on the Eastern Shore. He is the only Republican in the Maryland delegation. I do not think his interest in NIH has much to do with his state affiliation.

    He is a physician with some academic experience. I believe his concerns about young investigators is sincere to some degree (although as DM notes this is hardly a controversial position). I also believe that DM is correct that the defunding of AHRQ is a primary goal of this legislation. He is one the Appropriations subcommittee so that if he really felt that the situation with young investigators was a crisis, he does have some influence to address this through other means.

    There still are potential champions for NIH and science on both sides of the aisle, but Congress is so tied up in knots over larger partisan issues, that it is hard for them to get much traction. Furthermore, there is no one who is willing to “go to the mat” for NIH the way that individuals like Arlen Spector and John Porter (both Republicans) were. However, we all need to keep reaching out and trying to find interested members and encouraging them to make this a priority.


  21. Dave Says:

    I can’t see a way in which any significant funding increase for NIH gets a bipartisan vote, at least for the next 4 – 8 years. If anything, I can see a gradual eating away at the NIH budget during the same period. We are still stuck in this ‘revenue neutral’ spending/austerity/sequester cycle, and that won’t change any time soon, particularly given the gains the baggers will make in the mid-terms. We may as well get used to it and it is affecting a lot more than just the NIH.

    The only exception will be if the baggers need something from the Dems, war authorization and spending being the big one. There are rumors that some Dems are using this new position to re-negotiate the NIH budget with the baggers before giving the hawks a green light. But, then again, seems votes are optional for wars these days.


  22. E rook Says:

    Maybe I am missing something but the ESI policy is NIH’s policy to distribute funds authorized by congress, not specified by congress to use it that way. The policy is “New Investigators: NIH will continue to support new investigators on Type 1 (new), R01 equivalent awards at success rates comparable to that of established investigators submitting Type 1 applications.” The operative word being Comparable, not Equivalent like the 2010 policy. Again — I might be wrong, haven’t researched this thoroughly because I would have assumed the ESI policy would cite the bill, but I am talking about congress appropriating money for ESI, not NIH creating a policy that can be messed with. Will research more, just read summary of HHS section of appropriations bill.


  23. E rook Says:

    And if you don’t think it would matter, I would cite that the congressional set aside for aids research (which is enumerated on HHS appropriations summary) made a world of difference.


  24. E rook Says:

    The NIH can’t take up lobbying for this sort of thing but the AAAS and other Societies should do better at lobbying teh Congress. Maybe instead of writing to our congress members, we should write to our society leadership and tell them to hire better lobbyists. I just realized my rambling were ESI then I quoted the NI policy, I think you get my point that a congressional mandate for funding (like the office of aids research) would carry more weight than NIH making up its own policies for fitting younger investigators into the budget. If you look at the success rate trends of NI for R01s, I think 2010 was the only year that type 1 R01s awarded per application was equal for established vs NI. So the policy was starting to work then they changed Equivalent to Comparable, then Shutdown, then Sequester. (You illustrated that well here).


  25. louis Says:


    we keep hearing excellent news ( other side of the pond) about the american teenager, Jack Andraka, who has come up with a sensor to detect pancreatic cancer. What are the feelings over there?. thanks
    (sorry if this somewhat off topic)


  26. Dave Says:

    ^not been published. Apparently his claims are a little bit over-blown, to say the least.


  27. […] we last discussed Representative Andy Harris it was in the wake of an editorial he published in the NYT. It consisted of a call to put hard […]


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