jmz4 asks:

DM, what’s your reasoning behind advocating for reducing grad student numbers instead of just bottlenecking at the PD phase? I’d argue that grad students currently get a pretty good deal (free degree and reasonable stipend), and so are less exploited. Also, scientific training is useful in many other endeavors, and so the net benefit to society is to continue training grad students.

My short answer is that it is more humane.
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MillerLab noted on the twitters that the NIA has released it’s new paylines for FY2016. If your grant proposal scores within the 9%ile zone, congrats! Unless you happen to be an Early Stage Investigator in which case you only have to score within the top 19% of applications, woot!

I was just discussing the continuing nature of the ESI bias in a comment exchange with Ferric Fang on another thread. He thinks

The problem that new investigators have in obtaining funding is not necessarily a result of bias but rather that it is more challenging for new investigators to write applications that are competitive with those of established investigators because as newcomers, they have less data and fewer accomplishments to cite.

and I disagree, viewing this as assuredly a bias in review. The push to equalize success rates of ESI applicants with those of established investigators (generational screw-job that it is) started back in 2007 with prior NIH Director Elias Zerhouni. The mechanism to accomplish this goal was, and continues to be, naked quota based affirmative action. NIH will fund ESI applications out of the order of review until they reach approximately the same success percentages as is enjoyed by the established investigator applications. Some ICs are able to game this out predictively by using different paylines- the percentile ranks within which almost all grants will be funded.

NIA-fundingpolicyAs mentioned, NIA has to use a 19%ile cutoff for ESI applications to equal a 9%ile cutoff for established investigator applications. This got me thinking about the origin of the ESI policies in 2007 and the ensuing trends. Luckily, the NIA publishes its funding policy on the website here. The formal ESI policy at NIA apparently didn’t kick in until 2009, from what I can tell. What I am graphing here are the paylines used by NIA by fiscal year to select Exp(erienced), ESI and New Investigator (NI) applications for funding.

It’s pretty obvious that the review bias against ESI applications continues essentially unabated*. All the talk about “eating our seed corn”, the hand wringing about a lost generation, the clear signal that NIH wanted to fund the noobs at equivalent rates as the older folks….all fell on deaf ears as far as the reviewers are concerned. The quotas for the ESI affirmative action are still needed to accomplish the goal of equalizing success rates.

I find this interesting.

*Zerhouni noted right away [PDF] that study sections were fighting back against the affirmative action policy for ESI applications.

Told about the quotas, study sections began “punishing the young investigators with bad scores,” says Zerhouni.

Note: It is probably only a coincidence that CSR reduced the number of first time reviewers in FY2014, FY2015 relative to the three prior FYs.

Eric Hand reported in Science that one NSF pilot program found that allowing for any-time submission reduced applications numbers.

Assistant Director for Geosciences Roger Wakimoto revealed the preliminary results from a pilot program that got rid of grant proposal deadlines in favor of an anytime submission. The numbers were staggering. Across four grant programs, proposals dropped by 59% after deadlines were eliminated.

I have been bombarded with links to this article/finding and queries as to what I think.

Pretty much nothing.

I do know that NIH has been increasingly liberal with allowing past-deadline submissions from PIs who have served on study section. So there is probably a data source to draw upon inside CSR if they care to examine it.

I do not know if this would do anything similar if applied to the NIH.

The NSF pilot was for

geobiology and low-temperature geochemistry, geomorphology and land-use dynamics, hydrological sciences, and sedimentary geology and paleobiology.

According to the article these are fields in which

“many scientists do field work, having no deadline makes it easier for collaborators to schedule time when they can work on a proposal”.

This field work bit is not generally true of the NIH extramural community. I think it obvious that continual-submission helps to schedule time but I would note that it also eliminates a stick for the more proactive members of a collaboration to beat the slaggards into line. As a guy who hits his deadlines for grant submission, it’s probably in my interest to further lower the encouragements the lower-energy folks require.

According to a geologist familiar with reviewing these grants

The switch is “going to filter for the most highly motivated people, and the ideas for which you feel the most passion,” he predicts. When he sits on merit review panels, he finds that he can usually reject half of the proposals right away as being hasty or ill-considered. “My hope is that this has taken off the bottom 50%,” he says. “Those are the ones you read and say, ‘Did they have their heart in this?’”

Personally I see very few NIH grant proposals that appear to me to be “hasty or ill-considered” or cause me to doubt the PI has her heart in it. And you know how I feel about the proposition that the RealProblem with NIH grant success hinges on whether or not PIs refine and hone and polish their applications into some shining gem of a document. Applications are down so therefore success rates go up is the only thing we need to take away from this pilot, if you ask me. Any method by which you could decrease NIH applications would likewise seem to improve success rates.

Would it work for NIH types? I tend to doubt it. That program at NSF started with only two submission rounds per year. NIH has three rounds for funding per year, but this results from a multitude of deadlines including new R01, new R21/R03, two more for the revised apps, special ones for AIDS-related, RFAs and assorted other mechanisms. As I mentioned above, if you review for the NIH (including Advisory Council service) you get an extra extension to submit for a given decision round.

The pressure for most of us to hit any specific NIH deadline during the year is, I would argue, much lower at baseline. So if the theory is that NSF types were pressured to submit junky applications because their next opportunity was so far away….this doesn’t apply to NIH folks.