The new normal

January 5, 2015

An interesting comment from Anonymous :

A friend of mine is getting his PhD this year. His mentor was awarded tenure last year. She had an RO1 and an R21 and enough pubs, reputation, etc., so that she was a “slam dunk,” according to some of her colleagues in the field, at least. When my friend joined her lab, she had 7 students — a mix of masters and doctoral students. When he graduates this year, there will be only 1 doctoral student left in the lab. His mentor hasn’t succeeded in getting more grants, so I guess she hasn’t hired anyone else because of that?

What I’m wondering is this: given the current climate, is this normal? Or is she really in trouble? Has she done it wrong? I always assumed that by the time you got tenure, your lab would be humming along.


I think this is pretty normal these days:

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?”…


Normal, but the PI is still in trouble. How could she not be? Has she done it wrong? Probably not. Most likely she’s just experiencing the variance of grant fortune as it currently exists.

This part is painful though: “ I always assumed that by the time you got tenure, your lab would be humming along.

Yeah, so did we. Because when people of my approximate scientific generation were coming up through postdoc we saw the generation of Assistant Professors just above us struggling. But then as we were finishing postdocs and starting our own Assistant Professor stints, we saw the next-older generation transition to a cruise mode. A time where they got their renewals without too much hassle*. They got their second or even third grants and maybe a few got an R37 extension. This made the struggles we went through as newbie applicants to the NIH a bit easier to stomach. Hazing ritual. Sure, we can stand this, and then we’ll REALLY get stuff cranking in the lab later.

Instead the budget went stagnant just as we were reaching that stage of our careers. And then the powers that be went and invented the ESI boost to give affirmative action to those juuuuuust behind us.

So….we ride the roller coaster. And as things keep going in the wrong direction with NIH funding, more and more of us from all scientific cohorts/generations will experience the thrill.


*Yes, I realize it is all relative. I certainly had it easier than the kids these days. And the next-older generation did plenty of complaining about how hard they had it compared to the really established folks.

This is a fascinating read.

Jon Lorsch, current NIGMS Director, spreads around so much total nonsense that I just can’t even deal.

And journals, professional societies and private funding organizations should examine the roles they can play in helping to rewire the unproductive incentive systems that encourage researchers to focus on getting more funding than they actually need.

Riiiight. We PIs out here in extramural land are focused on getting more grant money than we feel that we need. Because what? We enjoy grant writing? Is this guy nuts? When I feel like I have enough grant support to keep what is really a very modest operation afloat I quit writing grants! The problem is that Director Lorsch is really, really out of touch with what a PI in today’s climate actually needs. “Unproductive incentive systems”? Dude, when NIGMS stops giving grants to anyone who publishes in Science, Nature or Cell, and starts beancounting Supplementary Data for reduced publication output, and punishes PIs for failing to publish data that is “scooped” or “not hot enough” etc, then maybe I will take you seriously. Jeepers. LOOK IN THE MIRROR, NIH!!!!!!!

But to achieve this increase, we must all be willing to share the responsibility and focus on efficiency as much as we have always focused on efficacy. In the current zero-sum funding environment, the tradeoffs are stark: If one investigator gets a third R01, it means that another productive scientist loses his only grant or a promising new investigator can’t get her lab off the ground. Which outcome should we choose?

better to have everyone funded at $50K and sitting around doing nothing, right?

Although certain kinds of research projects—particularly those with an applied outcome, such as clinical trials—can require large teams, a 2010 analysis by NIGMS and a number of subsequent studies of other funding systems (Fortin and Currie, 2013; Gallo et al., 2014) have shown that, on average, large budgets do not give us the best returns on our investments in basic science.

The “2010 analysis” has been discussed here, I recall. It’s flawed. It fails to recognize the cost of a Glamour Pub- love or hate, we have to admit that it takes a rich lab to play in that arena. One pub to the accountants has like 6-10 pubs worth of time/effort and probably data (buried in the Supplemental Materials). It fails to recognize there are going to be some scientific advances that simply cannot be accomplished for less. It fails to recognize the “efficiencies” and lack thereof associated with continued funding versus the scary roller coaster of a funding gap.

and Lorsch does a little neat ju-jitsu with this post. Berg’s analysis concluded that $700K was the peak of productivity. That is three concurrent full modular R01s. Even with a traditional budget award the PI has to have two of them awarded at $350K per year (and we know it really means more than that because of cuts) to hit this level. So the finger pointing at the investigator who “gets a third R01” doesn’t even square with his own citation on “efficiency”, now does it?

Furthermore, the larger a lab gets, the more time the principal investigator must devote to writing grants and performing administrative tasks, further reducing the time available for actually doing science.

Good GRAVY man! Do you have any idea what the hell time it is on PI street? A one-grant lab PI is constantly on the edge of disaster and the PI is always writing furiously to increase that funding level to where she can finally breathe for six months. Protocols and registrations most often are one per lab, so that “administrative tasks” claim is also nonsense. It is the smaller PI who spends more effort per-grant on keeping the approvals in place.

These and other lines of evidence indicate that funding smaller, more efficient research groups will increase the net impact of fundamental biomedical research: valuable scientific output per taxpayer dollar invested.

[citation needed]

It may sound truthy but it is not at all obvious that this is the case. “More efficient” is tautological here but the smaller=efficient is not proven. At all. Especially when you are talking about the longer term- 30 years of a career. There is also the strong whiff of Magic Unicorn Leprechaun money about this comment.

My main motivation for writing this post is to ask the biomedical research community to think carefully about these issues.

You know what I would really like to ask? For the NIH to actually think carefully about these issues. Starting with Director Lorsch.

But reshaping the system will require everyone involved to share the responsibility.

Somehow I doubt he means this. Is there any evidence that NIGMS actually denies the super awesome PIs their extra R01s? Is there any evidence they do anything more than handwring about HHMI investigators with NIGMS grants? Is there any evidence they mean to face down the powerful first and make them equal to the rest of the drones before they take it out of the hide of the less-powerful? HA!

h/t: PhysioProf