PAR-16-025 invites applications for the R50 Research Specialist award.

The Research Specialist Award is designed to encourage the development of stable research career opportunities for exceptional scientists who want to pursue research within the context of an existing cancer research program, but not serve as independent investigators. These scientists, such as researchers within a research program, core facility managers, and data scientists, are vital to sustaining the biomedical research enterprise. The Research Specialist Award is intended to provide desirable salaries and sufficient autonomy so that individuals are not solely dependent on grants held by Principal Investigators for career continuity.

This mechanism is for salary support up to 100% and for travel up to $5,000 per year. Maximum duration is 5 years. It is interesting that they chose to make this an R mech instead of a K mech. I like that. A lot.

This idea was discussed by NCI a little bit ago, as discussed in this blog post, in the wake of a hint from Varmus when he left the NCI Director office. The devil will be in the detail but this new mechanism appears to leave some wiggle room for the Research Specialist to avoid some deficits I identified in the original discussion (start at 2:20).

I was most concerned about all the discussion focusing on the original PI and how this proposed new mechanism was to his or her benefit more than the Research Specialist themselves.

2:29 -the research proposal is to be written jointly by the applicant and the sponsoring PI, describing the research.

[DM- I think this is workable even though my eye started to twitch. There is going to be some slippage here with respect to the goals of making this award portable and not tied to the fate of one lab’s research grant]

2:29:55 -Initially the Research Specialist to apply while supported on an existing research grant. Once the K05 is awarded, it would be expected to be 50/50 support with the grant and then continuing on the K05 100% once the grant ended.

2:30:30 – Review criteria. Accomplishment of applicant individually and within the nominating lab’s program. Accomplishment of the PI and Uni. Importance of the applicant to the research program of the PI.

[DM- Welp. This is certainly going down a road of contributing to the rich getting richer which is not something I support. Unless “importance to the research program of the PI” means helping to stabilize the science of a have-not type of PI who struggles to maintain consistent funding.]

and

2:32: slide on portability of the award – possible but requires PO approval if PI and K05 move together, if the PI leaves and K05 stays, if the grant is lost, etc.

if K05 Specialist chooses on her/his own hook to leave old lab, it will require a new PI, approval, etc. The old PI is eligible for 2 year administrative supplement because they are “suddenly missing a critical support component”.

[DM- ugh, this last part. Why should the original grant be compensated for the K05 person deciding to leave? It will already have benefited from that 50% free effort. Rich get richer, one. and a reward for that scenario where the PI is such a jerkface that the K05 leaves him/her? no. and regarding “critical support component”, dude, what about when any postdoc chooses to leave? happens all the time. can I get some free money for suddenly missing an awesome postdoc?]

2:36 on assessment of the pilot. “critical to get input from the PI about how well their needs have been served”

[DM- well sure. but…… grrrr. this should be about the K05 awardee’s perspective. The whole point is that the existing system puts these people’s careers into the hands of the big cheese PI. That is what the focus should be on here. The K05 Research Specialist. Not on whether the PI’s loss of control has allowed him or her to continue to exploit or whether this is just a way to shield the haves of the world from the grant game a little bit more.]

Two interesting parts of note in the section on Award Administration from this new PAR:

5) Funds freed up through the R50 will be restricted from any other personnel use, but may be rebudgeted for other research costs with NCI prior approval.

6) Research Specialists would have the option, with prior NCI approval, to move to other research programs or institutions (e.g. if the Unit Director’s laboratory is closed, if the institution closes a core, etc.).

Number 5 is a bit weird. Why not be able to hire another person to work on the project? And re-budgeting is allowed only with prior approval? For a salary? This is unusual.

But everything about this rests on what Number 6 turns out to be in practice. It echos another part in the FOA scope part that reads:

The proposed new research support is intended to provide desirable salaries and sufficient autonomy so that individuals are not solely dependent on grants held by Principal Investigators for career continuity. Research Specialists would have the option, with prior NCI approval, to move to other research programs or institutions while maintaining funding from this award (e.g., if the Principal Investigator’s laboratory is closed, if the institution closes a core, etc.).

This is the part that gives the Research Specialist the true “sufficient autonomy” and “not solely dependent” business that is written all throughout the PAR. It is essential how broadly this “e.g.” is interpreted, particularly with respect to who makes the decisions about permitting a change. Obviously, the one major thing missing from these examples is the autonomous choice of the Research Specialist. What if she or he simply wants to join a different lab or university? How easily can it be moved to another city when the person’s spouse gets a new job? How easily can they detach themselves from a toxic PI? etc.

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h/t: @superkash