On PO/PI interactions to steer the grant to the PI’s laboratory

June 18, 2018

There has been a working group of the Advisory Committee to the Director (of NIH, aka Francis Collins) which has been examining the Moderate Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health Trial in the wake of a hullabaloo that broke into public earlier this year. Background on this from Jocelyn Kaiser at Science, from the NYT, and the WaPo. (I took up the sleazy tactics of the alleged profession of journalism on this issue here.)

The working group’s report is available now [pdf].

Page 7 of that report:

There were sustained interactions (from at least 2013) between the eventual Principal Investigator (PI) of the MACH trial and three members of NIAAA leadership prior to, and during development of, FOAs for planning and main grants to fund the MACH trial

These interactions appear to have provided the eventual PI with a competitive advantage not available to other applicants, and effectively steered funding to this investigator

Page 11:

NIH Institutes, Centers, and Offices (ICOs) should ensure that program staff do not inappropriately provide non-public information, or engage in deliberations that either give the appearance of, or provide, an advantage to any single, or subset of, investigator(s)

The NIH should examine additional measures to assiduously avoid providing, or giving the appearance of providing, an advantage to any single, or subset of, investigator(s) (for example, in guiding the scientific substance of preparing grant applications or responding to reviewer comments)

The webcast of the meeting of the ACD on Day 2 covers the relevant territory but is not yet available in archived format. I was hoping to find the part where Collins apparently expressed himself on this topic, as described here.

In the wake of the decision, Collins said NIH officials would examine other industry-NIH ties to make sure proper procedures have been followed, and seek out even “subtle examples of cozy relationships” that might undermine research integrity.

When I saw all of this I could only wonder if Francis Collins is familiar with the RFA process at the NIH.

If you read RFAs and take the trouble to see what gets funded out of them you come to the firm belief that there are a LOT of “sustained interactions” between the PO(s) that are pushing the RFA and the PI that is highly desired to be the lucky awardee. The text of the RFAs in and of themselves often “giv(e) the appearance of providing, and advantage to any single, or subset of, investigator(s)”. And they sure as heck provide certain PIs with “a competitive advantage not available to other applicants”.

This is the way RFAs work. I am convinced. It is going to take on huge mountain of evidence to the contrary to counter this impression which can be reinforced by looking at some of the RFAs in your closest fields of interest and seeing who gets funded and for what. If Collins cares to include failed grant applications from those PIs that lead up to the RFA being generated (in some cases) I bet he finds that this also supports the impression.

I really wonder sometimes.

I wonder if NIH officialdom is really this clueless about how their system works?

…or do they just have zero compunction about dissembling when they know full well that these cozy little interactions between PO and favored PI working to define Funding Opportunity Announcements are fairly common?

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Disclaimer: As always, Dear Reader, I have related experiences. I’ve competed unsuccessfully on more than one occasion for a targeted FOA where the award went to the very obvious suspect lab. I’ve also competed successfully for funding on a topic for which I originally sought funding under those targeted FOAs- that takes the sting out. A little. I also suspect I have at least once received grant funding that could fairly be said to be the result of “sustained interactions” between me and Program staff that provided me “a competitive advantage” although I don’t know the extent to which this was not available to other PIs.

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