RFAs do not narrow the NIH portfolio, quite the opposite.

November 6, 2015

Mike the Mad Biologist has taken issue with the findings of a “cross-campus, cross-career stage and cross-disciplinary series of discussions at a large public university” which “has produced a series of recommendations for addressing the problems confronting the biomedical research community in the US“.

Mike the Mad has pulled out a number of the proposals and findings to address but I was struck by one on the role of “R&D contracts, Requests for Applications (RFAs) and intramural research”. From page 4 of the UW report:

Fourth, the NIH should increase the proportion of its budget directed to Research Project Grants, Center Grants and Training, and it should decrease the proportion directed to R&D contracts, Requests for Applications (RFAs) and intramural research. These changes would redirect funds towards investigator-initiated research and allow funding of a greater diversity of projects. R&D contracts and RFAs place limits on the topics and approaches that can be pursued, so a shift away from them will lead to fewer intellectual constraints being placed on researchers. We emphasize that this is not a recommendation to eliminate R&D contracts or RFAs, but rather to reduce their number, which will sharpen their quality and provide the funds needed to award more investigator-initiated grants.

I disagree with the notion that RFAs are poisonous to diversity and the notion that pure “investigator-initiated” leads to fewer intellectual constraints.

The NIH peer review process is an inherently conservative one because it tends to reinforce itself. Those who are successful within the system do the primary judging of who is next to be successful. Those who become successful have to, in large degree, adapt themselves to the thinking and expectations of those who have previously been successful.

When it comes to the role of Program Officers in selecting grants for pickups and saves, well, they too are influenced by the already-successful. This is in addition to the fact that POs have long term careers and thus their orientations and biases come into play across literally decades of grant applications. To the extent that POs are judged by the performance of their grant portfolios, you can see that they are no different than the rest of us. Higher JIF, higher citations, more press attention, more high-profile scientists….all of these things dictate them selecting grants that are going to be more of the same.

Sure, this is a thumb on the scale. Lots of scientists are open to new ideas. Lots of scientists can become enamoured of scientific proposals that are outside of their immediate interests. Peer reviewers and Program Officers alike.

But there more assuredly is a thumb on the scale. And it is a constantly reinforcing cycle of conservatism to select grants for funding that are very much like ones that have previously been funded. Alike in topic, alike in PI characteristics, alike in the University which is applying.

Request for Applications (RFAs) quite often serve to fight against the narrowing of topic diversity and in favor of getting grants funded in a new area of investigation. Trust me, if they already have copious amounts of grant funding on a topic, this does not result in additional RFAs!

In some of my general oversight of RFAs over the years from some of my favorite ICs I’ve noticed topics like sex-differences and less-usual experimental models are often at play. Adolescent/developmental studies as well. To take a shot at my much beloved NIDA— well, they have been, and continue to be, the National Institute on Cocaine and Heroin Abuse. Notice how whenever the current Director Nora Volkow gets interviewed on the general lay media she goes on and on about the threat of marijuana to our adolescents? Try a trip over to RePORTER to review NIDA’s respective portfolios on marijuana versus cocaine or heroin.

There have been several NIDA RFAs, PARs and PASs over the years which are really about “Gee, can’t we fund at least two grants on this other drug over here?”. There’s an old one begging for medications development for cannabis dependence (RFA-DA-04-014; 10 awards funded) and another asking for investigation of developmental effects of cannabis exposure (RFA-DA-04-016; 6 awards funded). Prenatal exposure to MDMA (RFA-DA-01-005). Etc.

The latest version of this is PAR-14-106 on synthetic drugs. You know, the bath salts and the fake weed. I’ve been chatting with you about these since what, 2010? The PAR was issued in 2014 (4 awards funded so far, 5 if you include R03/R21 versions).

Is this because evil NIDA wants to force everyone to start working on these topics? Constraining their intellectual freedom? Hampering the merry progress on cocaine and heroin? You might ask the same about various sex-differences FOA that have been issued over the years.

Heck no. All that stuff has continued to be funded at high rates under NIDA’s normal operation. Why? well because tons and tons and tons of highly funded and highly productive researchers have focused on cocaine and heroin for their entire careers. And these are the grants that seem most important to them….the cocaine and heroin grants. They are the successful scientists who review other grants and who whisper in the ears of POs at every turn.

So the other drugs get short shrift in the funding race.

Every now and again a PO gets up the courage to mount an assault on this conservatism and get a few grants funded in his or her bee-in-the-bonnet interest. Having watched one of these develop back in the good old days, it takes time. Two POs I observed at NIDA set up mini-symposia at NIH and at meetings for several years before lo and behold an RFA was issued on that topic. This was in the days when presumably they had the spare cash to do this sort of grooming of a topic domain.

The CRAN initiative initially side-stepped the review process altogether and issued supplements for combined-drug research (think “effects of alcohol drinking on smoking behavior and vice versa”).


I am sure that parallels exist at all of the other ICs.

And let me be emphatically clear on this. It isn’t as though there are not individual investigators out there independently initiating grant applications on these topics. OF COURSE there are.

They just haven’t been able to get funded.

I come back to this claim in the UW document that RFAs “place limits on the topics and approaches that can be pursued” and the suggestion that their diminishment will lead to “fewer intellectual constraints being placed on researchers”.

This is nonsense. Targeted FOAs very often address topics which have been “investigator-initiated” many, many times but these applications have not been successful in navigating the study section process. I would be shocked if there were more than a very small number of targeted funding announcements from the NIH that were on a topic that nobody had ever applied for funding to research. Shocked.

The pool of people applying for funding is just so large and so diverse that any half-way interesting idea has been proposed by somebody at some point in time. The idea that NIH Program have come up with something that nobody in the extramural community has ever thought about is just not that credible.

17 Responses to “RFAs do not narrow the NIH portfolio, quite the opposite.”

  1. When I was in the public policy world, I remember attending a small workshop/panel (~20 people) to which a NIH project officer was invited. The PO was asked why he wasn’t funding certain areas that were deemed critical by the participants, and he replied “I can only fund what you send me”–and people weren’t covering those areas because they didn’t think they would get funded at the expense of other ongoing areas.

    Excellent post.


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    Yes but “send me” to a PO often means “send me a non-triaged score post-review”. They can only reach down so far.


  3. Yes, the purpose of RFAs is to encourage applications in areas that program think are not getting enough attention. How anyone could think that RFAs would narrow the scope of NIH-funded research is beyond me. I mean yes, as a matter of pure logic, if everything was an RFA, then yeah, that would narrow. But as a practical matter as the system currently operates, RFAs broaden.


  4. qaz Says:

    I think these people may be getting RFAs confused with some of the newer mechanisms (ARRA, BRAIN) that were initiated by congress and for which NIH had to scramble to decide what to ask for. These other mechanisms often had surprisingly specific requests that must have been lab X saying “you could list my favorite question on bunny hopping…”

    RFAs are different. Like DM said, RFAs are program’s way of trying to stretch the funding across areas that they deem important but are not getting enough succesful requests. Remember, it’s hard to stretch even for scored, but not well-scored grants.


  5. jmz4 Says:

    Is there anything to his accusations of bias? These are UW-Madison peeps, so relatively high up on the food chain, right? RFAs are targeted, so they might spread the money around to niche groups a lot more, which relatively disadvantages schools that routinely take in a percentage of the untargeted RPGs disproportionate to the breadth of their research (e.g.. you’re less likely to have the specialist in bunny hopping vs 3-4 people in the field of bunnies generally). Which would, again, suggest that the mechanism actually does increase diversity of research.

    I tend to agree with Mike’s analysis of the paper. It’s the kind of self-serving, bloviating analysis that was bound to happen with their town-hall style, low information “series of workshops”.
    And it happens everywhere. In organizing local trainees for a similarly-themed symposium, the rank and file’s perception of the problem with research boiled down to “PIs are jerks and I should get paid more. Let’s unionize!” Meanwhile, the people actually looking for data to support that position came away with a message of “wow, we really need to collect better data on funding and career outcomes before we even have any idea what is going on.”


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    qaz- BRAINI, AIDS funding…even *contracts* are in a similar vein. There are several someone’s out there who have already proposed and aren’t getting funded (as much as someone thinks they should be).


  7. drugmonkey Says:

    When I see a targeted FOA that piques my interest I check to see what else is being done in the area. There are almost inevitably some labs that would be a good fit. I just don’t see how anything is being imposed or constrained. The area/topic is being *chosen* for more attention, is all.


  8. Grumble Says:

    “When I see a targeted FOA that piques my interest …”

    I guess what bugs me most about RFAs is that I very rarely see one that piques my interest – or that is even remotely within the technical capabilities of my lab, even if I had the interest. So I have this perception that Others are benefiting from them more than Me, which is why I don’t like them and think they should go away.


  9. drugmonkey Says:

    My interest is piqued by things that I cannot hope to compete for more often than highly relevant stuff. Sometimes I know someone who might be interested, sometimes not. It can just be that I think the topic is cool.


  10. odyssey Says:

    I can’t imagine how anyone who spends, oh, maybe 5 seconds thinking about it can think RFAs narrow the range of research funded. A couple of times I’ve seen RFAs and wondered why that particular area was not already reasonably well funded – a quick look through RePORTER generally reveals a paucity of related grants. I just wish, like everyone else, there more RFAs in topics I could tackle…


  11. […] about how RFAs, requests for admissions, which call for proposals to investigate certain areas, increase, not decrease diversity in scientific topics (boldface […]


  12. drugmonkey Says:

    I think one of the junior faculty DM Readers just landed an award from that.


  13. shrew Says:

    +1 to the final paragraph of the original post, since once upon a time I put together a proposal to a different IC (that wasn’t even discussed) that bore a striking similarity to item/s on the list of possible questions in that NIDA RFA. Perhaps it is time to dust it off and zhush it up. (Also maybe it wasn’t such a dumb idea after all, which is nice since I felt pretty dumb after it was ND.)


  14. drugmonkey Says:

    Getting triaged should not make you feel it was a dumb idea. Lots of great proposals getting triaged.


  15. Jonathan Says:

    “How anyone could think that RFAs would narrow the scope of NIH-funded research is beyond me. I mean yes, as a matter of pure logic, if everything was an RFA, then yeah, that would narrow. But as a practical matter as the system currently operates, RFAs broaden.”

    In my past life as a policy drone inside an NIH IC, we did hear this frequently from PIs but we were a bit of an outlier as 80% of our extramural portfolio was RFA as opposed to investigator-initiated.


  16. drugmonkey Says:

    Right but would you define the resulting projects as having been entirely top-down? Or did they reflect directions arising from the extramural community?


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