Falling below the line… is your proposal just not GOOD ENOUGH??

DrMrA pointed out this article (Research funding: Closing arguments, by Meredith Wadman) in the current issue of the journal Nature. The article details the career of two successful women scientists, who have recently been unable to renew their NIH grants and are whittling their labs down to the bare minimum…. and fighting to survive.  Their struggle breaks my heart, and I know highly qualified and productive scientists, who are excellent grant writers, are going through the same thing all over this country.

But what got me all riled was this statement…from a former assistant director of NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute… :

But others say that the system is working as it should: there has to be a line, and someone has to fall below it. “Sometimes there is a flaw in the review but usually the other proposals were just plain better,” says Kathy Hudson, director of the Genetics and Public Policy Center of Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC and a former assistant director of the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute. “We like to bemoan the limited NIH budget, and all of us who feed at the NIH trough see endless benefits to biomedical research, especially our own. But these are taxpayer dollars in hard economic times; it is not an entitlement.”

SAY WHAT???- I’m not sure what planet this is coming from… but the ‘usually the other proposals were just plain better’ talk in this environment of <10th percentile funding lines just seems like complete uninformed nonsense to me.  There is so much about the hallowed ‘system’- who gets assigned to review your grant, who’s even on the panel when your grant comes up, the dynamics between investigators in a particular field… who, by the way, are the ones that review the proposals, lack of continuity in the review process (i.e. different reviewers in different rounds), who is friends with who, whether you go against the dogma in a particular field… etc etc etc.- that’s just plain arbitrary.  It’s frightening that someone, especially someone who should be in the know if they have seen this up close and personal,  could even imagine that the 11th percentile grants that aren’t getting funded are ‘usually’ just plain worse than those in the 10th percentile. I MEAN HONESTLY.

Secondly, that part about feeding at the NIH trough- this just makes me UPSET. I’ve devoted, as have the dedicated scientists that I know, my education and my career to bettering public health. I’m offended that this comment makes me sound like a parasite on the public system for seeking public funding for research- which is “not an entitlement”. We’ve put a value in this country on public funding for basic biomedical research as an engine that drives (in whatever order you like) scientific and technical innovation, insight into basic mechanisms of and cures for human disease, and an economic engine from our labs to big pharma- and as a result we have a system that is second to none in the world. I’m disheartened that we would talk about this system as though it’s just another ‘entitlement’ that we can do without.

Next time I’ll remember to give up my idealism and work on less noble causes, then maybe I’ll get smart and be feeding at the military-industrial or the Wall-Street bailout troughs….

** There is also an editorial entitled ‘A crisis of confidence’ (Nature 457, 5 February 2009) in the same issue.. that’s worth a read. Furthermore, C PP has a post at Drugmonkey on the same article…

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14 thoughts on “Falling below the line… is your proposal just not GOOD ENOUGH??

  1. neurolover- Thanks a million (I don’t know why I couldn’t make that happen on my own). I know- I just saw the discussion over at Drugmonkey and was reading the comments. C’mon- we both know that doing everything right can’t help one avoid this. The difference between the 10th and 11th percentiles… is, well, just freaky.

  2. neurolover, the point is not that one can guarantee success by doing things “right” grants-wise. but you sure as heck can make things hard on yourself by doing things wrong. And from the limited evidence of the article, these two investigators made mistakes. Mistakes that many people are making. In the one case, the overconfidence of a very well-established investigator that they are immune to current reality in the NIH funding game. In the second case (possibly) a pigheaded adherence to cutting edge wowsa stuff without having a backup plan.

    doubledoc, you highlight just one of those comments I was pointedly ignoring to keep myself from ranting. A lot of NIH-dom really does seem to believe that the system is perfect. that grant score = objective merit. and that a 148 score is meaningfully different from a 150 score. The notice on the new 9pt grant scoring, and especially a linked report from the last go-round of bad funding, made some explicit points about designing in more tied scores precisely to break us all of the conceit of score order.

  3. DM — no question that doing things wrong can impair one’s chances. The question, though is whether knowing what’s right, grant-wise (for example, not missing a cycle) can change what one does (when one is 8 mo pregnant, for example). And, the lack of guarantee for doing things right, means, as a flip side, that failing does not necessarily mean one did things wrong.

    I liken it to an overweight person having a stroke — yeah, by being overweight, they increased their chances of a stroke. But being overweight did not cause their stroke. They might have had one anyway and people who are overweight don’t always have strokes.

    I think this is related to the arrogance of believing that 10% and 11% is a meaningful difference, on anyone’s part.

    I think you, DM, are usually pretty careful, but some people are very invested in believing that the system is infallible.

  4. I’m not “careful”, I’m VERY explicit with my views on the very large amount of variance in the system. I.e., the overall rankings are not “arbitrary” because there is a general correlation. But when you take a narrow slice of the distribution (say, around an funding cutoff) then you are left with noise and very little signal.

  5. whether knowing what’s right, grant-wise (for example, not missing a cycle) can change what one does (when one is 8 mo pregnant, for example)

    Look, life intrudes, I know. And there are only so many hours in the day. so for any given grant cycle you are going to be constrained, sure.

    The question is whether you have a plan across a two-three year interval that gives you your best shot, given your own individual constraints. Sometimes that means writing up a new proposal when your current one is in Year 2 and you are sitting pretty.

  6. “Sometimes that means writing up a new proposal when your current one is in Year 2 and you are sitting pretty.”

    Yeah, that’s a tough lesson to learn. When you track back from a deadline, you can find that you need to be doing something way way before you imagine.

    (but, let’s remember that pregnancy only intrudes for half the population, and it intrudes specifically in the times when they have to be writing those grants.)

  7. By careful, I meant careful not to imply that doing all the right things means success or that failure means that you didn’t do the right things, even while trying to tell people what the right things are.

  8. How do you KNOW what the right thing is going to be? I often feel as if there’s some special newsletter that I’m not on the circulation list for or something when people keep talking about how there are right things to do and people ‘made mistakes’. Advice is conflicting – blue skies, agenda-setting research or safe, incremental progress? I’ve had grants rejected for both types of the research on the grounds that the scheme was for the other, FROM THE SAME SCHEME. It’s NOT obvious.

  9. As most others have addressed the process, let me address my disgust with the “feeding at the trough” statement. Faculty salaries on federal research grants have underwritten the operation of universities for decades such that, in some places, faculty feel as if they are only renting laboratory space. Now that federal contributions to faculty salaries are drying up (due to lost grants) at the same time that state education budgets are also taking a hit, it is the faculty who are left in the middle (and out of work) because the universities were never pulling their fair load in the first place.

    While well-funded researchers don’t always carry the teaching load of a same-level SLAC faculty member, they nevertheless contribute to cutting-edge graduate education (and substantial undergraduate teaching in some places) and the all-important mentoring component of the graduate and post-graduate apprenticeship. These losses are not just losses of individual faculty whoa re being depicted as entitled or detached researchers. We are losing a crucial component of the national educational enterprise. I submit that the fault lies more with universities than with NIH, NSF, etc. – if any entity has been gorging at the trough or sucking at the teat, it has been those research universities and institutes being underwritten by federal dollars provided from faculty research efforts.

  10. Abel- Amen. In those places that you refer to- faculty don’t just feel like they are renting space- they actually are just renting space.

    Drugmonkey-

    The question is whether you have a plan across a two-three year interval that gives you your best shot, given your own individual constraints. Sometimes that means writing up a new proposal when your current one is in Year 2 and you are sitting pretty.

    Very precious few postdocs are mentored like this. Precious few Jr. Faculty are mentored like this- lots of people are going to learn this lesson the hard way now.

  11. I also give an amen to Abel Pharmboy. Research Universities need to change their business models so that if someone loses a grant they are not “let go.” The fact that extramural funds are essential for the success of faculty, Depts, Colleges and Schools greatly distorts the major purpose of Universities…education.

  12. PharmBoy, maybe this is worth a post on how universities could step up to do their part to change the system (you may have a longer view on that than many of us). Although it is reasonable to suggest that NIH could have stewarded their funds during the doubling more wisely, the universities rushed to exploit the windfall by hiring new faculty and incrementally decreasing their commitment to supporting research with their own money. Other than startup, as far as I can tell, most of us can expect 50% or less of our salary to be paid by the university. Although other types of support can vary, at my institution, there is absolutely no tuition remission, so we pay full (and extremely expensive) tuition, as well as stipend and fees for graduate students throughout the duration of their training in our labs. Of course these dollars primarily come from NIH grants, so that NIH is funding student training through training grants and R01 awards, and the university pays nothing except for the 1st yr. Despite the low investment by these institutions, the cutting edge research done by the students, postdocs and faculty contribute to the prestige of the university and materially increase the chances of bringing in direct and indirect grant dollars. I’ve heard many suggestions directed at how NIH should change its policies, but very little about how universities should take part in reforming the system.

  13. BugDoc,
    Actually, NIH did try to change the system a bit during the peer review revamping. One of the top suggestions was to limit the number of grants a PI could get by imposing a minimum % effort. This was shot down by the big school lobbyists under the rubric of…”this does not allow the flexibility necessary for the various business models that schools use.”

    The Administratiors of Big Universities see themsleves as businesses first and schools second. Anyone who tells you anything different is selling you a load of…..Labs and the scientists who run them are more like small biotech startups looking for the next round of funding.

    It won’t change until Deans and Presidents are no longer rewarded with bonuses by the amount of indirect $ they bring in. I assume that everyone knows that most Deans at research Universities get a small slice of the indirect costs brought in by their faculty into their paycheck.

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