While I’m getting all irate about the pathetic non-response to the Ginther report, I have been neglecting to think about the intramural research at NIH.

From Biochemme Belle:

Berg2014IntramuralChartJeremy Berg has a new column up at ASBMB Today which examines the distribution of NIH intramural funding. Among other things, he notes that you can play along at home via searching RePORTER using the ZIA activity code (i.e., in place of R01, R21, etc). At first blush you might think “WOWZA!”. The intramural lab is pretty dang flush. If you think about the direct costs of an extramural R01 grant – the full modular is only $250K per year. So you would need three awards (ok, the third one could be an R21) just to clear the first bin. But there are interesting caveats sprinkled throughout Berg’s comments and in the first comment to the piece. Note the “Total Costs”? Well, apparently there is an indirect costs rate within the IRPs and Berg comments that it is so variable that it is hard to issue anything similar to a negotiated extramural IDC rate for the entire NIH Intramural program. The comment from an ex-IRP investigator points to more issues. There may be some shared costs inserted into a given PI’s apparent budget that this PI has no control over. Whether this is part of the overhead or an overhead-like cost….or maybe a cost shard across one IC’s IRP…who knows?

We also don’t know what a given PI has to pay for out of his or her ZIA allocation. What are animal housing costs like? Are they subsidized for certain ICs’ IRPs? For certain labs? Who is a PI and who is a staff scientist of some sort within the IRPs? Do these status’ differ? Are they comparable to extramural lab operations? I know for certain sure that people who are more or less the equivalent of an extramural Assistant/Associate Professor in a soft money job category exist within the NIH IRPs without being considered a PI with their own ZIA allocation. So that means that a “PI” on the chart that Berg presents may in fact be equivalent to 2-3 PIs out here in extramural land. (And yes, I understand that some of the larger extramural labs similarly have several people who would otherwise be heading their own lab all subsumed within the grants awarded to one BigCheez PI.)

With that said, however, the IRP is supposed to be special. As Berg notes

The IRP mission statement asserts that the IRP should “conduct distinct, high-impact laboratory, clinical, and population-based research” and that it should support research that “cannot be readily funded or accomplished in traditional academia.”

So by one way of looking at it, we shouldn’t be comparing the IRP scientists to ourselves. They should be different.

Even if we think of IRP investigators as not much different from ourselves, I’m having difficulty making any sense of these numbers. It is nice to see them, but it is really hard to compare to what is going on with extramural grant funding.

Perhaps of greater value is the analysis Berg presents for whether NIH’s intramural research is feeling their fair share of the budgetary pain.

In 2003, when I became an NIH institute director, the overall NIH appropriation was $26.74 billion, while the overall intramural program consumed $2.56 billion, or 9.6 percent. In fiscal 2013, the overall NIH appropriation was $29.15 billion, and the intramural share had grown to $3.26 billion, or 11.2 percent.
Some of this growth is because of ongoing intramural activities, such as those involving the NIH Clinical Center, where, like at other hospitals, costs are very hard to contain below rates of inflation, or because of new activities, such as the NIH Chemical Genomics Center. The IRP is particularly expensive in terms of taxpayer dollars, because it is difficult to leverage the federal support to the IRP with funds from other sources as occurs in the extramural community.

So I guess that would be “no”. No the IRP, in aggregate, is not sharing the pain of the flatlined budget. There is no doubt that some of the individual components of the various IRPs are. It is inevitable. Previously flush budgets no doubt being reduced. Senior folk being pushed out. Mid and lower level employees being cashiered. I’m sure there are counter examples. But as a whole, it is clear that the IRP is being protected, inevitably at the expense of R-mech extramural awards.



As you all know, the annual meetings of the academic scientific societies are a great place to interact with the Program Staff of your most relevant NIH Institutes and Centers. The past few years of budget flatlines, some concern over junketeering in other Government agencies and most painfully the sequester has already had an impact.

It isn’t only the Program Staff either. Many of you will have colleagues, as I do, that work at various federal research installations including the NIH Intramural Research programs of each IC. Their travel has been restricted as well.

The government shutdown comes at a bad time for the Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience which is scheduled for November 9-13, 2013.

@inbabyattachmode just alerted me to the first sign of doom.

A satellite meeting hosted by NIDA has been cancelled.

NIDA SfN Mini-Convention
Friday, November 8, 2013

Belt up, scientists. This ride is getting bumpy.

In your field, does it come with any particular value? Good or bad?

Is there something about the “NIH name on the CV” that advantages a trainee?

Are there critical connections of lasting worth? Or perhaps critical career opportunities- the K22 or the chance to stay intramural for ever?

Are there other Universities or research institutes that are more valuable?

Or are you best off just going lab by lab, with no particular concern for the host institution?

A letter to the blog wanted to know and I can’t offer more than anecdotes and a dose of “it depends”, both of which are not helpful. Any thoughts, Dear Reader?

In the latest round of “Do it to Julia!” we have the attention turning to the Intramural Research programs of the various ICs of the NIH. A comment over at RockTalk:

It is only fair that we apply the same rules to our intramural colleagues and administrators with large numbers of support staff/ budget. Are they being scrutinized by their peers for efficiency and non-overlap?

The impression in the extramural community is that a number of boondoggles exist in Bethesda and beyond.

triggered this response from Intramural PR flack Wanjek:

As you know, part of the mission of the intramural program is to conduct, in government laboratories, creative and innovative biomedical research that cannot easily be performed in academic research settings. Over the past 60 years, a rigorous, multi-level external peer review process has evolved to ensure that this intramural mission is fulfilled and it has been demonstrated repeatedly that this approach to review is competitive in assuring the highest quality research and training.

This triggered some skepticism in the comments including from Jeremy Berg who commented, in part:

Some extremely high-quality research is performed within the intramural program, but the notion that much of this research “is not being done or could not be done elsewhere” seems hard to support. In addition, intramural research budgets are, in general, quite generous.

And therein lies our discussion point for the day, people. For your fields of study, 1) do you know any Intramural players and 2) do you think their contributions represent any unique studies that “cannot easily” be done in the extramural setting? If you do see unique science being done, any specificity as to why it couldn’t be done extramurally is welcome.

As far as the cost goes, well, Jeremy Berg has a suggestion:

Information about the investigators in the intramural program is available through NIH Reporter (via Project Numbers containing “ZIA”).

Happy searching….