How much $, is too much $$?

There is a discussion going on over at Drugmonkey– about the same article that I posted on just yesterday. I’ve been following the comment thread on that post- and it’s got some rather interesting nuggets in it that I imagine I’ll come back to off and on in the next few days. The first thing that caught my eye follows, when DM asked the question:

Now with that said, what is too much funding in your view?

While the simple no-brainer kind of answer to this is- more than I’ve got already, thanks…. It’s really a great question, I think.  Regular commenter Whimple follows with…

Who said anything about, “too much”? The issue is that well-funded superstar labs should be required to demonstrate economies of scale. Here’s a fun example featured recently in Nature’s “222 NIH grants: 22 researchers” blurb: http://www.nature.com/news/2008/080319/full/452258a/box/2.html:

JOHN TAINER:
5P01CA092584-08 Structural Cell Biology of DNA Repair Machines
5R01AI022160-20 Structure and Assembly of Type IV Pili & Related Systems
2R01CA097209-06A2 Structural Biochemistry of DNA Dealkylation
5R01CA104660-05 Structural Biochemistry of RecQ Helicase Interactions
5R01CA112093-03 Structural Biology of XPB and XPD Helicases
5R01CA117638-04 Mre11/Rad50 Structural Biology for DNA Damage Responses
5P01CA092584-089002 Structural Cell Biology Core

Now, John Tainer is a crystallographer, and a really excellent one. Obviously, he’s a superlative grant writer as well, since all his grants except one are funded on the first submission. That being said, does he need six different R01s for six different crystallography projects (plus a core facility)? The most difficult project of any of a series of related projects is always the FIRST one. Once you get all the equipment, techniques and a nucleus of competent people in place, you should be able to leverage these capabilities to subsequently do more with less.

Whimple, you read my mind. I’d like to add too- that big guys with lots of grants get great postdocs… great postdocs in the labs of big guys get NRSA awards to pay their salaries…  What are these big guys spending all that money on then??? Ya Ya, I know that there is big expensive science and all… but come on- just the other day we were laying out the budgets for Dr. J. and Mrs. H. (again, over at DM), and more than one person piped up to say that personnel is the largest single cost in these budgets…

Anyway- Whimple goes on:

There’s a diversity argument to be made too. While crystallography is an excellent thing, it’s still just one thing. It’s not smart to put so many dollars into one very specialized investigational niche, while letting three or four labs working on a diversity of topics fold up and die. How many John Tainer clones does the NIH really need to train anyway? Where are all the post-docs coming out of his lab going to go? (emphasis is mine)

This is kind of freaking me out now, because you are practically reading my thoughts. Last night I was having a discussion with DrMrA, and these exact words crossed my lips….( although I was using a different PI as an example). And that part about putting all our $$ into a few small specialized investigational niches- let’s add to that a few  specialized investigational niches with absolutely minimal risk.

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9 thoughts on “How much $, is too much $$?

  1. Good point about the NRSA’s. I hadn’t thought of that. No wonder these guys have an army of post-docs. Bleah. Remind me again why I went into this business? 🙂

  2. Drugmonkey- The threshold for what?And if that’s a threshold for something- that’s 2 R01s if you get the whole 250. Not 6.

    whimple- I’m asking myself that from time to time. And about the end of February we should have a virtual Kool-aid together.

  3. I was just throwing that out there because you weren’t getting any comments. look let’s be real. whatever we personally think would be just a little bit more than we’d like for our own operation..that’s the threshold. there is just no way to be objective about this question.

    i’m interested in hearing what people think though.

    maybe it is better to think about effort. i think 20% is plenty to run an R01, assuming you have the equivalent of a full time postdoc or grad student on it as well.

  4. that big guys with lots of grants get great postdocs… great postdocs in the labs of big guys get NRSA awards to pay their salaries…

    Just a thought- I work in one of these labs (my PI has maybe 6-7 NIH grants), and the postdocs here have been having terrible luck getting their NRSA awards. The common feedback is that our lab is “too big” without enough “training structure” for a proper NRSA experience.

    I won’t get into why I disagree with that here, but perhaps you could take heart knowing that only about 5% of the postdocs in my lab are further funded by the NIH.

  5. there is just no way to be objective about this question.

    This statement is flat-out wrong. Take your favorite measure of scientific productivity (# of papers, cumulative impact factors, whatever) and normalize to dollars. You want to know the shape of this curve with respect to dollars. The question is: at what funding level (if any) does dollar-normalized productivity start to fall off?

  6. Pingback: Your Grant in Review: Research Support | DrugMonkey

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