Fixing the NIH, the perennial fight

April 22, 2020

In the wake of NIH’s announcement of their advice to reviewers to ignore any corona shutdown effects on the generation of preliminary data (blog post) there was a discussion on Science Twitter about fixing the NIH.

As per usual it eventually devolved into me shouting at people about how solutions that derive from their own personal interest are unlikely to be actual solutions. As is usually the case when I piss people off enough, they eventually do the full reveal, totally validating what I am saying. In this case, the person said in tweets that it is okay to ask people “who can afford it to tighten their belts for a year” and that they personally believe that they “have enough money” right now and therefore it would be okay if they happen to get a good score on another grant in the near future it would be just peachy if NIH skipped over it.

It is not news that PIs who feel that they have sufficient grant funding for the near future are totally okay not getting any more, for awhile. Yay for you that you feel all generous ONCE YOU HAVE BEEN SERVED.

This is what I’ve been saying in this particular kerfuffle and online for years. Yeah, we come first. Everything about our views on NIH and fixing perceived problems derives from our own personal selfish interests. It has limits, sure. We know we don’t need ALL of the NIH money. We just “need” what we want, we come first and anything that is left over can support our virtue-blasting prescriptions to help everyone else. Sometimes the “we” is a little broader than our own personal lab. Maybe it is people we feel are categorically like ourselves in some way. Maybe it is our friends. Maybe it is members of our field that we really like (work product-wise). It’s still essentially selfish.

But those other guys. The ones we don’t know. The veiled ‘Others’. Well it is totally okay that they be forced to take a haircut. After all, they can just “tighten their belt”.

It’s almost funny how impenetrable the cognitive defenses are. We NIH-dependent types cannot fathom that for every other person or category of person that we deem to have unwarranted funding or deem able to “tighten their belt”… there are just as many people pointing the finger at us for similar disadvantage. Those people have roughly the same arguments for why they “need” the money as we do (it is almost inevitably some version of “my lab will close down”). And in every case there are numerous somebodies out there pointing the finger and saying, cold-heartedly, “so what, fuck off, you aren’t needed here”.

I don’t know how you can get as far as some people have in this career and not grasp this. Unless you are extremely fortunate in the NIH grant getting game (and there are still some who are) then you have been told regularly, by a panel of your peers, that you and your work are not needed here. That you can take your series of ND grant outcomes and piss off. This should give you pause about your personal entitlement relative to a lot of other people. Relatedly, the NIH at one point started doing what I think they should have been doing since forever- considering the per-investigator success rate. Well, in a rolling 5 year interval some 87 thousand unique PIs submit RPG applications to the NIH and only 32 thousand are awarded grants. Sixty percent of applicants over five years are disappointed. That is peer review telling them they are unworthy.

Then we come to the chatter boxes and opinion havers about who is the Real Problem. We talk about this endlessly. In the current discussion it was the RICH MED SCHOOLS that were screwing everything up. For years we’ve had the discussions where the fingers are pointed at soft money job categories (blaming Universities for creating them and desiring to punish PIs for taking them), jobs at high overhead institutions (ditto) and perceived too-well-funded individuals. We’ve had the kerfuffle over riff-raff. The September 2019 Advisory Council for the Center for Scientific Review included one Councilor stating essentially that if someone hadn’t been funded after a few years of trying this proved they didn’t deserve funding ever. There was not general pushback from the rest of the panel, I will note. We’ve had allusions to a species of angry BSD who, upon getting a disappointing grant score, rails about “associate professors I’ve never heard of from East Jerkoff State University killing my grant” with the subtext that such individuals do not deserve any sort of NIH funding themselves. We have the discussion of “independence” and how those PIs who are clearly subordinate in BSD’s lab don’t deserve a fair chance because it is “really just the BSD trying to get more cash”.

I just don’t think we can move forward by ignoring math and funding facts, on the one hand, nor by attacking all those other people and suggesting they should bear the brunt of any pain because we have decided in our own personal wisdom that they “can afford” belt tightening.

The specific proposal on the table was bridge funding. A suggestion that NIH should pump out R56 awards to anyone who has a grant review criticized for a lack of preliminary data, tied to the notion that we cannot generate any more data from our closed labs in the Time of Corona. Of course this is zero change because this is exactly what the R56 program is for in good times and in bad. I guess this person wants a greater share of the NIH pie devoted to R56 right now. Which means fewer grants being awarded in full. Which is more or less in the space of putting in cuts to new awards (and existing awards) to prop up success rates which, again, is what NIH has done regularly in recent memory (aka my entire career as a PI). This is all fine. I actually support the idea of having this stop-gap.

What I don’t like about it is that it is totally random and hugely biased with respect to how cosy one is with Program. And like just about everyone, I’d love to have a PO throwing a R56 my way when I need it and I would resent them throwing one to someone I think undeserving when it is at the price of them not being able to pick up my payline+3%ile application. You can feel free to go RePORTERing for your favorite ICs decisions on R56 awards. You can see what the PI in question has been up to in terms of prior awards and make some inferences about their successes at peer review. Are these people uniquely special? Not at my favorite ICs they aren’t. There are tons of investigators just as worthy and just as struggling and, presumably just as “screwed” by peer review, that are not getting bridge funding. Maybe look into that before you think doubling or even quadrupling the number of R56 awards is any sort of general improvement.

Strategically, the NIH should do this, with great fanfare. They should claim they are quadrupling the number of R56 bridge awards and they should do so. They should yell that this is all so that people who can’t generate data during the Time of Corona aren’t disadvantaged. Because it will be years before anyone realizes that they are just going to the same old usual suspects. Entrenching the program biases that already exist. Disproportionately awarded to BIG MED SCHOOLS and all the above categories of Undeserving Bad People. Years before anyone who just loves this idea realizes that Peter was robbed to pay Paul.

Years before anyone cottons on to the fact that those with slightly more preliminary data, perhaps generated by their labs in the time everyone else was shut down, or who worked harder to submit more applications will still be advantaged.

This goes beyond opinionating at the NIH during times of crisis.

It speaks to how we, the peers doing the reviewing, are behaving at study section. Implicitly or explicitly, we bring our little opinions about who “deserves” funding. And it contaminates our review of merit. It makes us protect our own and run down the Others. Implicitly or explicitly, this is absolutely indisputable.

Now I would argue that the less that one examines and interrogates one’s own biases, the more likely one is to let them be expressed in grant scoring. The more one acknowledges the arbitrary and selfish nature of one’s preferences, the more likely one is to be aware of, and counter, them. And the more one doubles down to “prove” to someone else that one’s little biases are in fact right and just and entirely awesome….the more one is likely to let these matters contaminate one’s review.

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