NIGMS has been attempting to grapple with the problem of stability in research funding for its extramural awardees. Which is a great thing to focus on, given the instability in recent years and the wasted time and effort of PIs and their laboratories which is devoted to maintaining stable funding.

In January NIGMS launched the MIRA program (R35 mechanism) to issue 5 year awards (instead of current NIGMS average of 4) of up to $750,000 in direct costs. The idea is that current NIGMS awardees would consolidate their existing NIGMS awards into this one R35, promise to devote at least 51% of their research effort to this R35 and overall take less in NIGMS funding.

The immediate objections were severalfold but more or less focused on why the already privileged NIGMS stalwarts with three or more concurrent full-modular ($250,000 direct) awards’ worth of funding should now get this extra isolation from the review process. If the limited number of such individuals selected for MIRA now had research funds that were isolated from the grasp of peer review (the fifth year, the all-or-none nature of the $750,000 direct in one award) then obviously the unlucky would be further disadvantaged.

One such pool of the unlucky would be the ESI (and NI) investigators.

NIGMS assured us that they were planning to extend MIRA to ESI/NI in the very near future. Peter Preusch commented:

We plan to issue a MIRA funding opportunity for early stage investigators as quickly as possible. We hope the first application due date will be sometime this summer.

Well, RFA-GM-16-003 has arrived. And it is nothing like the real MIRA for the highly established insider club* of NIGMS extramural funding.

1) It is limited to $250,000 in direct costs
2) It will be for the duration of the “current average of R01 awards to new investigators”, read 4 years, I assume. Even if the current average is 5, this can change. Why not just write in 5 as for the main MIRA?
3) Competing renewals “may” be allowed to increase substantially. There is of course no guarantee of this and if they were serious they could have simply written in language such as “the second interval will increase the limit to $500K direct and the third to $750K direct”. They did not.

This is either ridiculously ill-considered or a cynical figleaf designed to give political cover for the excesses of the real target, the MIRA for the highly-established.

Here is what is so fundamentally foot-shooting about this, if you assume that NIGMS has any interest in shepherding the careers of their future stalwarts. The current stalwarts they are trying to protect are multi-grant awardees. Three full-modular and two-plus if you assume one of those awards is a traditional budget up to the $500K stiff (but not insurmountable) limit. Yet here they are trying to take what might be thought of as this same population at an earlier career stage and making sure they only get one full-modular worth of NIGMS funding from the start. This is insanely ill-considered.

And no ESI PI who thinks of herself as a future multi-grant NIGMS stalwart (and perhaps real-MIRA qualified) should have any interest in this baby MIRA whatsoever. All it comes with are limits for such a PI.

A secondary consideration is the review of such applications. Wisely, NIGMS has made this an RFA which means they get to design their own review panels.

This is wise because these special-flower-protection grants (real MIRA and baby-MIRA alike) stand a good risk of getting shredded in regular study sections. I’m thinking there is a good risk of them getting shredded in whatever SEPs they manage to convene too, unless they do a good job of selecting quid-pro-quo qualified reviewers.

Related Aside: BigMechs like Program Projects and Centers are very often reviewed by panels of other BigMech Program Directors and component PIs. This is consistent with the general requirement that grants should be reviewed by panels with like-experience. However, this lets in a great deal of quid-pro-quo reviewing in the sense that the reviewers know these applicants will be coming back to review their Boondoggles, sorry BigMechs when they are up for competing review. Thus, these mechanisms are very unlikely to face review of the kind that disagrees fundamentally with the concept of the BigMech. Unlikely to get anyone saying “none of this is worth the cost, these shouldn’t be funded and the money should be put back** in the R-mech pool”.

Regular R-mech study sections are disproportionally staffed by midcareer scientists. Given the likely number of MIRAs on offer, disproportionally staffed by scientists who will not feel like they have the slightest chance at a MIRA award. I predict a good deal of skepticism from the general reviewer about these R35 mechanisms and I predict very bad scores.

Which is why NIGMS will have to be careful to cherry pick a quid-pro-quo qualified reviewer pool. And, as is usually the case with BigMechs, be prepared to fund them with scores that would not be remotely competitive for regular R01 review.

*Remember, PIs with more than two concurrent RPGs are less than 9% of the entire NIH funded population (in FY2009, according to Rockey). How many can there be with three or more NIGMS awards?

**there are some technicalities with pools of $$ that make this slightly more complicated than this but you get the flavor