I pointed out some time ago that the full modular R01 grant from the NIH doesn’t actually pay for itself.

In the sense that there is a certain expectation of productivity, progress, etc on the part of study sections and Program that requires more contribution than can be afforded (especially when you put it in terms of 40 hr work weeks) within the budget. Trainees on individual fellowships or training grants, undergrads working for free or work study discount, cross pollination with other grants in the lab (which often leads to whinging like your comment), pilot awards for small bits, faculty hard money time…all of these sources of extra effort are frequently poured into a one-R01 project. I think they are, in essence, necessary.

I had some additional thoughts on this recently.

It’s getting worse.

Look, it has always been the case that reviewers want to see more in a grant proposal. More controls, usually. Extra groups to really nail down the full breadth of…whatever it is that you are studying. This really cool other line of converging evidence… anything is possible.

All I can reflect is my own experience in getting my proposals reviewed and in reviewing proposals that are somewhat in the same subfields.

What I see is a continuing spiral of both PI offerings and of reviewer demands.

It’s inevitable, really. If you see a proposal chock full of nuts that maybe doesn’t quite get over the line of funding because of whatever reason, how can you give a fundable score to a very awesome and tight proposal that is more limited?

Conversely, in the effort to put your best foot forward you, as applicant, are increasingly motivated to throw every possible tool at your disposal into the proposal, hoping to wow the reviewers into submission.

I have reviewed multiple proposals recently that cannot be done. Literally. They cannot be accomplished for the price of the budget proposed. Nobody blinks an eye about this. They might talk about “feasibility” in the sense of scientific outcomes or preliminary data or, occasionally, some perceived deficit of the investigators/environment. But I have not heard a reviewer say “nice but there is no way this can be accomplished for $250K direct”. Years ago people used to crab about “overambitious” proposals but I can’t say I’ve heard that in forever. In this day and age of tight NIH paylines, the promises of doing it all in one R01 full-modular 5 year interval are escalating.

These grants set a tone, btw. I’m here to tell you that I’ve seen subfield related proposals that do seem feasible, money-wise, get nailed because they are too limited in scope. In some cases there is enough study-section continuity involved for me to be certain that this is due to reviewer contamination from the aforementioned chock-full-o-nuts impossible proposals. Yes, some of this is due to SABV but not all of it. It ranges from “why you no include more co-investigators?” (a subtle spread-the-wealth knock on big labs? maybe) to “You really need to add X, Y and Z to be convincing” (mkay but… $250K dude) to “waaah, I just want to see more” (even though they don’t really have a reason to list).

Maybe this is just me being stuck in the rut I was trained in. In my formative years, grant review seemed to expect you would propose a set of studies that you could actually accomplish within the time frame and budget proposed. I seem to remember study section members curbing each other with “Dude, the PI can’t fit all that stuff into one proposal, back off.”. I used to see revisions get improved scores when the PI stripped a bloated proposal down to a minimalist streamlined version.

Maybe we are just experiencing a meaningless sea change in grant review to where we propose the sky and nobody cares on competing renewal if we managed to accomplish all of that stuff.