Epic dumbassery at the RockTalk blog over the A2 revision of NIH Grants

Really. It is starting to boggle the mind how these people making comments could possibly string together enough logical thought to write a credible application in the first place.

Comradde PhysioProffe nails it:

Taking account of the laws of arithmetic–which as far as I am aware have still not been repealed–the only way that returning the A2 could “dramatically increase the amount of meritorious science funded” is if A2s are dramatically more scientifically meritorious than A1s with the same percentile rankings.

and I am soooooo tired of solutions that boil down to "do it to that guy over there, that rat bastige. He's the one who is ruining this for all of us. MEEEE!!!! Fund MEMEMEMEMEMMMEMemememeeeee! Cause I, like, deserve it. "

Get it together people. We can do better than this.

Readers? FFS get over there an make some half-intelligent remarks, would ya?

74 responses so far

  • Dave says:

    All this chat about "abandoning promising research" cracks me up. Even for me, who is not much more than a super-post-doc, I can see how it can be relatively easy to revise a "failed" application such that it looks pretty new even in the presence of relatively limited new preliminary data. If all of your ideas and data are laid out in one single app with three aims, then you should be concerned I think.

    And who "abandons" quality research just because some douches in an NIH study section think your work sucks? I think relying on reviewers to tell you whether your work is important/cool or whatever is a moronic strategy, unless you have zero confidence in your own ability and really awful colleagues/mentors.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I can see how it can be relatively easy to revise a "failed" application such that it looks pretty new even in the presence of relatively limited new preliminary data.

    exactly. It doesn't even take all that much creativity to pull it off. This bit of whining is really misplaced.

    I think relying on reviewers to tell you whether your work is important/cool or whatever is a moronic strategy,
    Particularly when the prospects of ever renewing a proposal is dimming rapidly....get the money and do what you want, eh?

  • eeke says:

    This:
    "1. Eliminate A1, and use the saved resources to eliminate the triage.
    2. Discuss every application, mark particularly substandard ones as “future submissions not allowed”.
    3. Any application not funded and not considered substandard can be submitted for subsequent cycles, and allowed to compete as a new one.
    4. Pay PARTICULAR ATTENTION to the quality of the peer review process. If review groups produce nonsensical or irrelevant summary statements, then PIs will keep resubmitting and contributing to the backlog."

    Just do away with tracking the resubmitted applications altogether. fuck it. The NSF does this - you can keep submitting as many times as you want, and every grant application gets discussed. If it's bad enough, the reviews should indicate that they will not accept a resubmission. Even though every grant application is treated as a new submission, responses to reviewers from a previous submission are still allowed, but must be within the same page limit. I think the science changes with each submission anyway, as there is presumably more data generated (and possibly a change in hypothesis) that are included within the application.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Eliminate A1, and use the saved resources to eliminate the triage.

    Your endorsement of this idiocy eeke shows that you are just as math challenged as they are.

  • drugmonkey says:

    eliminate the triage....Discuss every application, mark particularly substandard ones as “future submissions not allowed”.
    3. Any application not funded and not considered substandard can be submitted for subsequent cycles, and allowed to compete as a new one.

    Do you see the conflict ahead?

  • eeke says:

    DM - what's the fucken difference? You talk about using creativity to revise a previously failed application to look like a new one. How is this any more advantageous than eliminating A1? I am talking A1 here, not A2. Fuck the A2's. The NSF already has this system in place and they have 1/10th the budget of the NIH to work with - are you saying that that federal agency is run by idiots?

  • drugmonkey says:

    There can be no "saved resources". you'll just see more grants that are "A0" filling up the ranks. then this idiot wants no triage but a ban of 'substandard' apps. This is triage on steroids you morons!!!!!

    Whether a grant app is A0-A1-A0 or A0-A0-A0 makes no practical difference. Study sections will likely find the last A0 to look better than the first one. inevitable. *UNLESS* they fix this problem at the front end and prioritize fishing over cutting bait!

    The NSF system is designed for amateur, not professional, scientists. I realize many of you would prefer this but I find it asinine given that state and federal taxpayers are the same damn people.

  • DrivingBy says:

    The NSF system is designed for amateur, not professional, scientists.

    AHAHAHA! So only biomed folks are professional scientists,
    all the rest of us are just playing science in our spare time?
    Well fuck you.

  • iGrrrl says:

    The NSF system is designed for amateur, not professional, scientists.

    I'm struggling to understand this sentence. Do you make this statement based on the NSF standards for funding faculty salaries (generally not more than 2 summer months total across NSF grants)? They don't just work on research in the summer; that's a polite budgetary fiction, IME. NSF expects more of universities, with respect to supporting their faculty, and in no other field have I encountered the medical school model for faculty primarily engaged in research, and expected to support most of their salaries from external funding. Calling highly productive scientists who work in very different fields than yours "amateurs" (simply because their work and working environment does not look like yours?) seems rather more dismissive than I would expect from you.

    So how do you define a professional scientist, and why, exactly, do you consider most (all?) of the people funded by NSF to be amateurs?

  • AcademicLurker says:

    The NSF system is designed for amateur, not professional, scientists.

    As someone who's funded by both, I'm puzzled by this statement, DM.

    Is it a roundabout way of saying that NSF is designed for people with 9 months of hard salary from their institutions and not for folks on 75-100% soft money? If so I agree, but I'm not sure what this has to do with amateur vs professional.

  • zb says:

    DM is seems to be defining "professional scientists" as ones who rely completely on the NIH dime for their existence. And, its true that NSF relies on scientists who have jobs.

    I for one would start to limit the pie by requiring greater support of NIH-grant recipients from their institution -- something like 40% salary support of any individual who serves as a PI on a grant. I'd try to mitigate the loss of people by funding research scientist positions on grants.

    Now, to some extent this is a "do it to someone else", but the problems I see are 1) absent significant upturns in the economy, funding is not going up. When folks send me requests to support NIH funding, I'm struck that given the funding climate, I'm supposed to be supporting NIH funding, say, over IDEA funding (for K-12 schools), another for of do it to him, not me. 2) The current system is, I agree, relying on randomness as a means of restricting the pool. 3) requiring institutional support will shrink the pool of applicants and stop rewarding institutions for building non-sustainable programs on the backs of risks taken mostly by applicants.

  • qaz says:

    "The NSF system is designed for amateur, not professional, scientists. I realize many of you would prefer this but I find it asinine given that state and federal taxpayers are the same damn people."

    This is phrased badly, but I think entirely on the mark. The NSF system is designed for people whose primary job is at a university, paid for by the university, and who do federally-funded science when they can. The NIH system is designed for people whose primary job is research, paid for by NIH, and who do nothing but research (and write grants). [Note for conflict issues - I have been funded by both NSF and NIH and have reviewed for both.]

    A few data points to support these statements:

    1. NSF only funds "summer" salary. Yes, this is a fiction, but it means that NSF won't pay 100% of your salary. NIH is happy to support "soft-money" positions.

    2. NSF cares about teaching in your grants. NIH hates teaching, and doesn't want it identified in a research grant.

    3. NSF grants work on the "every grant is new" concept, which provides a rolling target of trying to satisfy reviewers you've never prepared for. What this means is that NSF is very much of a crap-shoot each time. NIH grants (at least used to) work on the "here's your next target" (this was actually an advantage of the wait-in-line queuing problem [NOTE: I'm not supporting it. Just saying that usually, you were coming back to the same reviewers. With NSF, you were almost never coming back to the same reviewers.])

    Both of these are entirely fucked up and do not serve the current research world well at all. Most research these days is done by people who are expected to dedicate large portions of their time and effort to research (research first, teaching second [NOTE: * I am not saying that teaching first, research second, is bad. Only that this does not accurately describe most of the research community in the US today, particularly the biomedical community.])

    The problem is that neither of these systems provide for stability. The NSF system assumes that you have salary support elsewhere and the NIH system requires one maintain a research paradigm that is satisfying to reviewers.

    Therein lies madness. (As can be seen by both DM, CPP, myself, and most of the other people commenting on this blog.)

    What we need is a new system - one that provides continued, reliable, support, that is backward-looking rather than forward looking. I have suggested a system in which one has a hard time getting into the system, but then renewal is pretty much guaranteed if one is doing basically good work, so that one would know years in advance that one was going to continue funding. (This is what my older colleagues describe the previous years as like - you get one R01 [hard to do], and then keep renewing it [easy to do].) Were these those long-gone Halcyon days DM was referring to?

    Will we ever get such a system again? Probably not, but arguing about the fucking A2 is just rearranging deckchairs on the titanic.

  • zb says:

    "The problem is that neither of these systems provide for stability. The NSF system assumes that you have salary support elsewhere and the NIH system requires one maintain a research paradigm that is satisfying to reviewers."

    Not seeing how the NSF system doesn't provide for stability, unless you're arguing that NSF funding is more random (because of the inconsistency of reviewers). Is that empirically the case? Are NSF-funded programs shorter term, with researchers having larger gaps in funding? I do get the impression that NSF-funded researchers rely more on alternate means of funding (i.e. programs are not purely NSF-funding derived), but instead rely on institutional support (of salaries), interdepartmental/inter university centers/programs, large scale projects, defense funding, . . . .

    Qaz's system seems like the NIH intramural program. Growing the intramural program + restricting university programs to ones the university supports is an idea I could get behind, if stability is a goal.

    The current system, which allows the risks to be borne mostly by the investigator (not the university or NIH, if the uni doesn't provide support, and if NIH doesn't fiddle to provide continuous support) is unstable, for the researcher. I'm not sure whether I also believe its unstable for science. I'm inclined to believe it is, because of concerns about fraud if everyone is a short-term operator and because of the infrastructure investments required, but, its a question that has to be answered with data.

  • Dave says:

    I for one would start to limit the pie by requiring greater support of NIH-grant recipients from their institution -- something like 40% salary support of any individual who serves as a PI on a grant.

    Never going to happen. Firstly, the NIH has stated/insinuated repeatedly that it has no power or desire to drive these kind of changes. Same applies to changes in indirects etc. We have been talking about this for ages. Second, admin are not suddenly going to cough up ANY money for soft-money salaries. Where will the money come from? Will they trim themselves? Will they cut their own salaries? Will they fuck!!!!

    Admin got high on the supply of NIH money during the boom years and are now royally fucked because its dwindling.....and fast. At my place, there was a 25% reduction in NIH revenue from last year, but they still expect us to pay 100% of our salary. It seems to be lost on them that with dwindling NIH money, it is simply a matter of time before they will either have to cover more salaries or let people go in large numbers. It is simply not sustainable to expect 100% salary coverage from NIH anymore. It's a model for outright bankruptcy, especially in medical schools and research institutes/centers that cannot pass increase costs onto the student body.

    Look, when you have mid-level admin with MSc's making >$200K/year you have a fucking problem. If you have personal assistants with BSc's making more than most Assistant Profs, you have a major fucking problem.

    Is this the fault of the NIH? Perhaps indirectly, yes, but even that is a stretch. It's a much bigger issue than that.

  • ecologist says:

    NSF is for amateurs? Bulls**t. For what it's worth, NSF does fund folks in soft money positions at primarily research institutions. And the fact the the idealized university faculty member gets 2 months of salary from NSF does not mean that she does only 2 months of research a year. And NIH does fund people in hard money positions at universities. And NIH does fund the training of individuals (anyone ever notice how the word "trainee" keeps coming up in these discussions). And NIH largely replaces the "broader impact" category in NSF considerations with the question about how this research will make people get better.

    The only difference between NSF and NIH funding of research is the subject of the work, and the fact that each institution has its own flavor of ways to make the process of evaluating and funding science frustrating, wasteful, and counterproductive.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    Are NSF-funded programs shorter term, with researchers having larger gaps in funding?

    My experience is that a standard NSF research grant is 3 years. My impression (no direct experience) is that renewal used to be a lot easier than NIH renewals are these days, but I wasn't around back in this supposed golden age.

    The real difference is that if you lose funding you're not out of the game entirely. You still have (most of) your salary and NSF doesn't tend to ask for absurd amounts of preliminary results. So if you have a good idea and some proof-of-concept data, you have a chance to get back in the game.

  • [...] Go comment. Share this:TwitterFacebookRedditEmailStumbleUpon [...]

  • MCA says:

    News Flash - new students (who eventually become new scientists) do not actually come from a cabbage patch, or storks, or whatever. They're high-school students who someone decided to TEACH. No teaching, no new recruits.

    Aside from that, as someone who hasn't yet gotten a job, soft money sounds like suicide to me. Why the hell would anyone with a brain agree to such a one-sided, exploitative situation? If you fail, even for a moment, you're fucked forever. With current funding rates, that failure is guaranteed.

    That's like saying that marathon runners aren't *real* runners like you, because you run while being chased over rough terrain by a dozen hungry wolves. Maybe that makes you more "hardcore", but it also means that you're so dumb that when offered the choice between wolves and no wolves, you picked the wolves.

  • Dave says:

    Why the hell would anyone with a brain agree to such a one-sided, exploitative situation?

    Because we love science, have spent our lives doing it and can't contemplate doing anything else. Plus we hope that it wont be this way forever. What is so complicated about that?

  • drugmonkey says:

    soft money sounds like suicide to me. Why the hell would anyone with a brain agree to such a one-sided, exploitative situation?

    1) b/c others who have had good careers have and are doing it at that point in time when you contemplate a job transition

    2) that job is on offer and hard money jobs are not

    3) you get to do research, mostly unfettered by such distractions as institutional service work or, god forbid, lecturing to ungrateful undergraduates.

    3a) you'd rather write grants (and complain about it) than grade papers (and complain about it)

  • Grumble says:

    Yeah, MCA, I picked the wolves. I often think it might have been a mistake. But I don't think it was quite as irrational a decision as you make it out to be. So far, half a decade in, funding has worked out reasonably well. I do keep hearing stories about people losing their funding and the dean breathing down their necks and ultimately, people being forced to leave. It's happening right now. But most of us are able to keep our noses above water, even if just barely.

    One thing to keep in mind is that the stability of a hard money position is actually the exception in the employment world as a whole. At biotech or pharma companies, for instance, if your project gets axed, most likely you get axed with it. Whammo, here's your pink slip. At least in the soft money world, you can usually feel the noose tightening for a couple of years of bridge funding, giving you ample time to activate your plan B.

    If you have one. I don't - and that is what is irrational, not the choice of a soft money position itself.

  • lurker says:

    Drugmonkey's blogosphere cited as primary source for Nature's most recent editorial:

    http://www.nature.com/news/an-unhealthy-obsession-1.11953

  • MCA says:

    So if I'm hearing right, the defense of the situation is that 1) it sucks but it's the only game in town, 2) it allows you to substitute an activity you dislike for another that you dislike slightly less, and 3) the other options also suck in similar ways. Not exactly ringing endorsements, eh?

    It seems slightly nonsensical to dismiss the NSFers with hard money as "amateurs" while simultaneously admitting that the NIH soft money positions are only desirable due to lack of alternatives (and some marginal benefits*).

    I think what really gets me is the lack of control over your own life. You've sunk decades of your life into this career, shed blood, sweat and tears, and now your ability to continue depends solely on your ability to beat the odds over and over and over again, with even a single loss knocking you out forever?

    It seems almost like NIH Stockholm Syndrome - "Yeah, it sucks, but we don't have any other options, and the whippings are only weekly. And our ability to perform under these conditions is proof of our higher ability for science, rather than our higher tolerance for misery."

    * - Maybe I'm mistaken, but you'd have to hate teaching a LOT to make that trade-off worthwhile.

  • Dave says:

    I think what really gets me is the lack of control over your own life. You've sunk decades of your life into this career, shed blood, sweat and tears, and now your ability to continue depends solely on your ability to beat the odds over and over and over again, with even a single loss knocking you out forever?

    Please enlighten us with an alternative here. Not sure if you have heard, but TT jobs are not exactly two-a-penny these days. Perhaps from the idealistic world you occupy things are very different. And in any case tenure is dying rapidly, so soon pretty much everyone will be just like us.

  • ecologist says:

    Would you people STOP ALREADY with the assumption that NSF supports hard money positions and NIH supports soft money positions. Neither of those assumptions are true.

  • ecologist says:

    Soft-money institutions are an interesting phenomenon. They arose and flourished in a period where it was possible to fund people to do research in this way with a lot --- but not an impossible amount --- of hard work writing proposals. Those days are coming to an uncomfortable end. NSF has an official policy that limits an investigator to 2 months of support, in aggregate, from all NSF grants. Exceptions are made to that policy, but it's the policy nonetheless. NIH hasn't gone that far, although in January 2010 Francis Collins himself said that universities were doing too much of the soft-money thing. The interview is here:

    http://chronicle.com/article/NIH-Will-Give-LessDemand/63537/

    and DM wrote about it here:

    http://scientopia.org/blogs/drugmonkey/2010/01/21/collins-warns-universities-to-roll-back-soft-money-jobs-sortof/

    My personal opinion, for what it's worth, is that these are both the sound of a first shoe dropping. I suspect there will be more of this kind of thing. This is one of those things that I will be happy to be wrong about.

    The ultimate issue, imho, is that as the competition for funds increases, it begins to hurt the progress of science, turning otherwise productive scientists into grant-writing machines (Collins' term).

  • drugmonkey says:

    Could also be a trial balloon ecologist. Which sometimes get shot down. Even the trial dirigible of the NIAAA/NIDA merger got shot down, you know.

    Hard to predict future of soft money support.

  • drugmonkey says:

    MCA-

    Sure. Perhaps the grass is greener somewhere. But perhaps it is not and is just changing one bit of suck for another. You imagine your balance and others imagine theirs.

  • One of the more sadde delusional arguments the NIH disgruntlecrowd make is that by capping or even refusing to pay indirect costs there would be plenty of extra money to fund their grant that was UNFAIRLY SCORED OUTSIDE THE PAYLINE DUE TO FACTUAL ERRORS AND BIASED REVIEWERS AND IT WOULD HAVE TOTALLY BEEN MORE MERITORIOUS THAN ALL THE A1s IF ONLY IT WAS ALLOWED TO BE SUBMITTED AS AN A2. What these poor fuckes seem to misunderstand is that the vast majority of them wouldn't even have fucken jobbes if the NIH didn't pay indirect costs.

  • Dave says:

    Dr. Collins also said he wanted universities to steer more money to younger researchers, to avoid letting their researchers rely solely on federal grants...

    All I'm seeing is the exact opposite.

    Some universities are also becoming too reliant on NIH money, allowing faculty members to obtain all of their income from federal research grants, Dr. Collins said.

    Just last week I sat through a faculty meeting where the dean emphasized the need to get more of us to pay absolutely 100% of our salary from grants. He also stressed that NIH grants are preferred because they "pay full overheads".

    So, who gives a shit what Collins says. Nothing is changing.

  • Dave says:

    CPP: I've heard people complain about indirect costs in terms of admin expansion, but never in the context of funding poorly scored grants.

  • MCA says:

    Dave - Honestly, I'm at a loss as to a mechanism of how to change things - such solutions are way above my pay grade. Mostly, I dislike being told that I am (or will be, assuming I can get a TT job) somehow forever an 'amateur' because I'm not suffering through the same sort of exploitative crap as NIH soft-money folks. (This totally ignores that my area has minimal health implications, so NIH money is rare for us).

    I'm sure I'll be desperate and depressed when it comes time for me to job-hunt, but I'll take a teaching-heavy, low-research position over soft-money - I actually really enjoy teaching and my research is cheap to do (others in my field have done this effectively before).

    But most importantly, I cannot imagine living with that Sword of Damocles hanging over my head, eliminating any ability to plan securely for the future. And I don't even want kids; I can't imagine how this must affect folks who want them.

    I may not be smart enough to have a solution, but I am smart enough to see that there's a problem, and I dislike being told that I'm somehow lesser because I won't suffer enough.

  • Grumble says:

    That Sword of Damocles doesn't prevent soft money position-holders from planning for the future any more than it prevents, say, a small business owner with enormous cash flow variability from planning for the future.

    The Sword is part of life for almost everyone. Grow up and get used to it.

  • Grumble says:

    But Back to A2s. Here's Robert Benezra:

    "...the whole point of the argument is that grants judged "meritorious" (with no study section being able to discriminate beyond the first quartile) should be able to submit at least 3 times (or as many times as they like, for as long as they can hold out) to improve their chances of eventually getting their best projects funded."

    OK, so, there's a proposal that would mean less spinning-in-place grantwriting, right? If the payline is 6% and your grant gets 24% and then 15%, and just putting lipstick on the pig and resubmitting has a good chance of bringing it down closer to 6%, why NOT allow the PI to continue to resubmit? What purpose does it serve to disallow resubmission of a grant that pretty much everyone (including the study section) agrees is very good, but it didn't get funded because paylines are so ridiculously low?

  • drugmonkey says:

    It is supposed to stop the holding pattern. To get review panels to hand out good scores to A0 apps by (presumably) ignoring minor problems and focusing on the big picture.

    I am one who is deeply suspicious that this had been accomplished.

  • whimple says:

    What purpose does it serve to disallow resubmission of a grant that pretty much everyone (including the study section) agrees is very good, but it didn't get funded because paylines are so ridiculously low?

    Because in the next review cycle there are just as many or more grants that are as good or better. There is no shortage of really good grants, the "problem" is that there is a surplus. I put "problem" in quotations because from the point of view of the NIH, that funds grants piecemeal on the basis of "funding the best science", this isn't a problem at all; it's exactly what they want. It doesn't matter what Program decides is or is not worth funding since everything even vaguely close to the fundable range is worthy science (at least as the NIH defines it).

    Look at it this way: suppose you're trying to sell me new car, a brand spanking new 2013 model. That's awesome and everything, but I already have two late model cars and I'm still making payments on them, and I don't have the money to buy your 2013 car no matter how much I want to, so I don't buy it. Now it's a year later and I've managed to free up some cash. Why would I buy your 2013 model when the 2014's have just come out?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Is it a Camaro?

  • whimple says:

    Yes, and it is bitchin'

  • CPP: I've heard people complain about indirect costs in terms of admin expansion, but never in the context of funding poorly scored grants.

    (1) You have obviously not been reading comments left at the OER Rock Talk blogge on a continuous basis over the last several years.

    (2) Do you think it is just a coincidence that the disgruntled people who have been screaming bloody murder about the elimination of the A2s are also constantly suggesting that NIH stop paying indirect costs? Like they have arrived at some socioeconomic theory of scientific research funding that leads them to these two independent conclusions?

    Or do you think it might be because MY "HIGHLY MERITORIOUS" A1 DIDN'T GET FUNDED AND IT WAS THIS CLOSE TO THE PAYLINE AND IF ONLY A2s WERE ALLOWED AGAIN IT WOULD HAVE MADE IT INSIDE THE PAYLINE AND ANYWAY IF NIH DIDN'T PAY INDIRECT COSTS THEN THE PAYLINES WOULD BE DEEPER AND IT WOULD HAVE BEEN AWARDED AS AN A1?

    You really are not perceiving the situation clearly if you do not see that all the screaming bloody murder about all of this is 99.999% delusional people who generalize the specific reason that they perceive their grant to have not been funded--factual errors of biased reviewers, no A2s, fat-cat administrators lighting cigars from indirect cost benjamins, fat-cat multi-R01 extramural investigators, lazy coddled intramural investigators, crony center grants, etc--into supposed systematic problems with the NIH that must be rectified to "fix the broken system" (i.e., the system that failed to fund my grant. While this is somewhat understandable behavior, the sad thing is that these people are so woefully inadequate at seeing that their self-serving assertions are not even consistent with simple logic or arithmetic.

  • qaz says:

    ecologist - it is definitely true that both NSF and NIH support both hard money and soft-money positions, but the proportions are very different. How many PIs are there that live on soft-money positions and are primarily supported by NSF?

    Let's not get worked up over the word "amateur". I suspect DM's choice of the word "amateur" was probably chosen to spark discussion and traffic. (Certainly that's not an accurate description of any of the NSF-funded scientists I know.) Maybe DM should have said that NIH soft-money people were "professionals" in the sense that they sell themselves for money... I suppose it wouldn't be the internet if people weren't picking words to insult each other - but maybe we can get beyond the name calling and get to the real questions which are (1) is soft-money helping or hurting the progress of science and (2) which of the funding models (NSF or NIH) is better or is there a third model which would be better still?

    * Here's an interesting question, to which I do not know the answer, but one could find out. How many nobel laureates are/were on soft-money positions? Might this be a way of measuring whether soft-money positions help/hurt science?

    What's more interesting is the different models for funding science, real science. What is true is that the NSF funding model (partnership with the university, "broader impacts" [usually meaning inclusion of undergraduates, teaching, etc.], target is salary augmentation, grants are generally not renewable) is fundamentally different from the NIH funding model (OK to be an effective independent contractor, don't mention teaching in an R01 [**], grants are renewable for 30+ years [***]).

    Personally, I think there are advantages to both. I wish NIH insisted on more university participation in their PIs, and I wish NSF grants were renewable.

    ** Yes, I know NIH does training grants, but that is a separate grant and is for the training of new research faculty to compete with us in trying to get NIH grants. NSF wants broader impacts in every grant, and includes outreach, teaching of undergraduates (who may or may not go into science), and other more "academia" concepts.

    *** Yes, I know renewing grants are harder and harder at NIH, but it is still true that a 2-R01 is more likely to get funded than a 1-R01. [See earlier DM posts complaining about bunny hopping.]

    PS. Grumble - It is not true at all that "The Sword is part of life for almost everyone. Grow up and get used to it." There is a very big difference between my friends in hard-money positions, for whom funding determines which experiment they get to run (expensive or cheap), and those in soft-money positions, for whom funding determines whether they get to do science at all.

  • odyssey says:

    I wish NSF grants were renewable.

    They are. I'm not sure why you think they aren't. There's even this little checkbox on the facepage to indicate it's a renewal.

  • u2604ab says:

    Seconding ecologist on this fallacy; I'm NIH funded and have a 9-month hard money (teaching) TT contract.

  • eeke says:

    odyssey - technically, proposals can qualify as renewals, but they COMPETE with new proposals and are treated as such.

  • odyssey says:

    eeke,
    Technically they compete with new proposals, but if you think they are treated as such you have much to learn.

  • qaz says:

    odyssey - I have sat on both NIH and NSF panels and I can say from experience that a "renewing" NSF grant is not treated similarly to a renewing NIH grant.

    u2604ab - There are lots of tenured 9 and 12 month TT faculty with NIH grants. (I am one of them.) The question is how many soft-money faculty survive on NSF grants. (I don't know any and suspect they are very few, whereas there are many soft-money faculty who survive on NIH grants.)

  • odyssey says:

    odyssey - I have sat on both NIH and NSF panels and I can say from experience that a "renewing" NSF grant is not treated similarly to a renewing NIH grant.

    I don't believe I said it was. I was responding to your assertion that NSF did not have a renewal process.

  • drugmonkey says:

    There is a big difference between what a system has been designed to accomplish and how that system is used in practice by various stakeholders within that system.

  • zb says:

    I agree with those that say that changing overhead/soft money requirements is pretty much politically intractable. The powerful stakeholders (i.e. universities, at the administrative level, rather than at the worker level) have an interest in keeping it the way it is. After all, they can ease out their soft money faculty when needed and grow their programs when the money is available. It's hard to see the upside of getting rid of the current system from the admin point of view (until people stop accepting soft money positions, and as Dave points out, not many people are in a position to chose other alternatives).

    The only stakeholder I see potentially manipulating the status quo away from the current state is taxpayer advocates who rely on a confused view of the system and start attacking the policy of people "lobbying" for money while being paid on the government dime. They could pursue qui tam type suits arguing that soft money faculty are spending too much time on disallowed activities (i.e. writing grants). These suits wouldn't really be fixing the system at large, but they are a means for attacking the system in which money can be made (with the right mix of people in the know and lawyers). Universities dealt with the last blows by these suits by "re-educating" faculty. But, the re-education mostly involved getting faculty to, oh, let me avoid mincing words, "lie." So, the next round of suits have to involve proof of the lies, and real money cost to the universities (which weren't huge in the last rounds, given the funding amounts). It could have an effect, but it would be in the form of setting of bombs and not "fixing" things.

  • Grumble says:

    qaz - What I meant was, the Sword hangs over pretty much everyone else, other than tenured hard-money faculty. The latter group is the exception. In industry, there is always the threat of losing your job for reasons completely out of your control. So, yes, a hard money position is nice if you can get it and if you like teaching, but those are two very, very big ifs.

    whimple - "Because in the next review cycle there are just as many or more grants that are as good or better. There is no shortage of really good grants, the "problem" is that there is a surplus." I get that from NIH's point of view, anything that reduces the pressure for funding is a good thing, in the current climate. But in reality, disallowing A2s really doesn't do anything other than force PIs to put more effort into re-writes to make them qualify as A0s. So the bottom line is more work for PIs, and I'd guess no real change in the total number of applications. Sounds counterproductive to me, if by "productive" we mean scientists doing science, not spending all their time begging.

  • Dave says:

    @CPP: I agree that the indirect cost complaints are perhaps misguided when it comes to the belief that indirect cost "savings" would go back into the grant funding pool, raise paylines and fund more grants. It is an understandable gripe, but it is probably not that straightforward. The money lost to the institutions would have to come from somewhere else, and that's where the problem is. Shit rolls downhill and even if the investigators you characterize did win that major grant, they would all of a sudden need to either bring in even more of them or get grants from somewhere that does pay indirect costs. It's a vicious cycle and it would never end.

    However, nobody can convince me that The Admin does not need major trimming/restructuring at most places. This is a whole different argument. My major complaint with indirect costs is how they are used by institutions. You talk about "fat-cat administrators lighting cigars from indirect cost benjamins" to mock this argument, but you know well enough that this misses the point entirely. It is the overwhelming and relentless expansion of low- and mid-level admin that is draining a lot of resources that I feel could be better spent on faculty and research.

  • miko says:

    Content of the arguments aside, I love that we should automatically discount the opinions of people who (we assume) didn't get grants, because - no doy - sour grapes. Meanwhile, accept as a given that those who the system rewards see things 20 fucking 20, with their Ann Romney-like confidence.

    As someone who has neither received nor not received a research grant from NIH or NSF, I give my neutral though poorly-informed impression that both at best reward grantsmanship (which is to science as horse dancing is to sport) and at worst are just noise, with occasional flashes of bias and cronyism. I've had some success at other kinds of science dressage, so I see no reason to think I'd be bad at grantery with a little practice, so this isn't pre-degruntling.

    These are chocolate factory bureaucracies with all the horrible qualities that characterize any institution that has something many people want. If you can squeeze, con, cajol, or beg lucre out of them, good for you, winner. If you fail to do so, better luck next time, and work on your horse dancing. It only ever seemed to work because slop:pig was higher. There is no wonky fix here.

  • zb says:

    There is no wonky perfect fix, but there are fixes that alter the system. A lot of kvetching on the blogs revolves around the individuals in the pursuit, and which of them succeeds and fails. But, ultimately, the success of the system is judged by how much good science it produces (with some dash--or more than a dash, depending on your point of view about the need to regulate the rights of labor-- of ethics about the exploitation of people mixed in).

  • AcademicLurker says:

    The Admin does not need major trimming/restructuring at most places. This is a whole different argument. My major complaint with indirect costs is how they are used by institutions.

    IMHO, the biggest downside of running things on soft money is that it encourages irresponsible growth. I've been employed both as a soft money PI at a Medical School and as an "everything but 2 months of summer salary" PI in a Biochem department in the A&S school of a university. In my experience, creating a new TT position is looked at much more carefully in A&S schools. I don't think we would have so much run away growth if there were fewer places operating on soft money.

    As it is, it doesn't even matter if congress votes to increase NIH's budget. If they did, new positions would immediately appear and we'd be back in the same spot we are now.

  • miko says:

    "judged by how much good science it produces"

    This is precisely what these places can NOT do by tweaking policy (and how do you measure it anyway)... it can only be improved with more money. Because at the heart of any process that's on the table is study sections guessing about the future based on a highly contrived document sent to them by the applicant and a clusterfuck of committee-think.

    It's pachinko. Any strategy other than "more BBs" is a fantasy.

  • zb says:

    Is the same true for every government-funded endeavor? Defense, police, K-12 schools, affordable health care, . . . .?

    I didn't mean the science in the grant being judged by the study section in my statement, but "Science" in the big sense of what is accomplished (and how public policy, including funding should be designed to produce the best outcome).

  • Dave says:

    IMHO, the biggest downside of running things on soft money is that it encourages irresponsible growth

    Completely agree.

    As it is, it doesn't even matter if congress votes to increase NIH's budget. If they did, new positions would immediately appear and we'd be back in the same spot we are now.

    Absolutely right. Without major changes in the way research as a business and career is administered, I think that asking the government for more money for the NIH is probably the worst thing that could happen now. In many ways a depression in the NIH budget needs to happen. As painful as that might be for all of us, long-term it's probably for the better.

  • miko says:

    But there is no way to assess how much "good science" the system is producing relative to alternatives. If you took all non-triaged grants and used 10 different methods + a dartboard to determine which ones to fund, it would be pretty hard to move me off the null hypothesis that you will get the same "science amount"/$ and "science goodness"/$ out the other end, by whatever mainstream or alternative metric you choose.

    Given, that, the only questions are what kind of system we want with respect to fairness, creating an attractive career path, competitiveness, security, etc. These are issues that we can't agree on because of varying interests related to position, career stage, institution type, etc, etc. But I don't think there is a place from grand arguments about "The Science" here.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I love that we should automatically discount the opinions of people who (we assume) didn't get grants, because - no doy - sour grapes.

    I don't think that is quite the point miko. The point is the clear illogic of ignoring the zero-sum nature of the NIH grant game.

    It's also that when people are on about "the solution" they hold a set of assumptions fixed that are not necessarily fixed in any reasonable scenario.

    Take the magic disappearance of soft-money jobs. All of those existing soft-money folks (and the theoretical pool of future soft-money folks) are going to go somewhere, not simply disappear. This is one reason behind the "what makes you think you'd even have a job" charge.

    Indirects- sure, lets credit that greedy Universities are only in it for the indirect swaggage. Take that away and what do you have? Lots of smaller institutions dropping what little support they have for research entirely. shaving away at your direct costs by inventing charges for things you get for free right now (see, internet lines). Increasing rodent housing as the costs are amortized across fewer grants (and can't be paid out of indirects anymore).

    The fantasy of "forcing Universities to pony up hard money jobs". WITH WHAT SOURCE OF FUNDING????? The state taxpayers, through state legislatures, are already pulling back. all the jobs would be in Texas....and private Universities. Except whoops, only that subset of private Universities that managed their endowments well or have very rich donors..who managed *their* investments well.

    So many existing jobs would go away, there would be increased competition for them. Therefore it is my contention that assuming that your job would be secure (if you happen to have one) or that you would be competitive for a hard money, well-supported job at a Deanlet-free University is deeply flawed.

    Finally....yeah. It IS tough to credit as a "fix" something which is all about "I'm unsuccessful, so lets change things so that I'm successful (and those other folks are less successful". it does sound like sour grapes. and it would be easier to credit if people had a clear and comprehensive description of what would be *fixed*. That is, what general benefit would the mission of the NIH get from such changes and what additional problems/hindrances would be inevitable.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Given, that, the only questions are what kind of system we want with respect to fairness, creating an attractive career path, competitiveness, security, etc.

    And the NIH cares about such things why?

  • qaz says:

    "Given, that, the only questions are what kind of system we want with respect to fairness, creating an attractive career path, competitiveness, security, etc. "

    Um... because many people think that this attracts the best people to the field and allows scientists to produce the best science. Instead of keeping them hungry and chasing the current study section-driven fads.

    Whether this is true or not is, of course, an empirical question. To which we do not know the answer.

  • qaz says:

    Sorry that was in answer to DM's answer to Miko - "And NIH cares about such things why?"

  • AcademicLurker says:

    So many existing jobs would go away...

    But as more and more labs close their doors because 12% on their A1 wasn't good enough aren't those jobs going away anyway? Are medical schools going to go on indefinitely hiring new assistant professors with new start up packages as the older folks get forced out?

  • miko says:

    "The fantasy of "forcing Universities to pony up hard money jobs". WITH WHAT SOURCE OF FUNDING????? The state taxpayers, through state legislatures, are already pulling back. all the jobs would be in Texas....and private Universities. Except whoops, only that subset of private Universities that managed their endowments well or have very rich donors..who managed *their* investments well."

    UConn pres going to the wall to commit to massive expansion of TT, hard money faculty jobs concurrent with budget cuts. Seems she is willing to cut into admin & operations, even syphon some off athletic profits. Let's see how far this gets.

    http://chronicle.com/article/UConn-Will-Stick-With-Plan-to/136167

  • Grumble says:

    "Are medical schools going to go on indefinitely hiring new assistant professors with new start up packages as the older , folks get forced out?"

    Yes. One of the most painful things I've observed at my med school is that faculty in the old guard, who used to bop along with around one 5 year grant every 5 to 8 years, are being hounded out. "Hounded" is not too strong a term. They are given X amount of time to get a grant, and if no grant by then, they are forced to become "temporary" employees with huge loss of salary and benefits, while being encouraged to look for jobs elsewhere. And then they are fired.

    At the same time, we built a new building and are renovating existing labs to give to new hires with generous start-up packages. Why? Because the idea is to have a youthful, cutting-edge facultariat, each member of which is able to cover nearly 100% of his/her salary.

    Sometimes I wonder whether the new hires stop and think what's going to happen to them should they ever enter a period of "dotage", during which they can only cover about 50-70% of salary. This mistreatment of senior faculty is a relatively new thing, and to be honest I would have thought twice about taking a soft money position here if this sort of thing were going on when I was hired.

  • Dave says:

    Sometimes I wonder whether the new hires stop and think what's going to happen to them should they ever enter a period of "dotage", during which they can only cover about 50-70% of salary

    I don't think many consider it all because it wont happen to them. ;)

    This mistreatment of senior faculty is a relatively new thing,

    Exactly. This is what we were debating earlier in this thread. It's fine to suggest that this is a smart strategy to remove "dead wood" and keep things "young and fresh", but it sets a precedent for worsening treatment of the rest of us down the road if it is simply tolerated and allowed to continue unchecked.

  • [...] all of the necessary steps because they’re computationally intensive; that’s important) Epic dumbassery at the RockTalk blog over the A2 revision of NIH Grants The rise and rise of the science [...]

  • drugmonkey says:

    waaaaaah. Waaaaaaahhhh!!! Politicians! Smooth talkers!! Waaah. Bullshitters! Waaaaahhh.

    Dudes, it's a social enterprise like most other human endeavors. Get over it.

    The tolerance for the socially maladept is pretty high so whinging that the very tippy-top may require some non-spectrum skills seems a bit ungrateful.

  • he who cannot be named says:

    "And this creates an enormous risk, because there’s a danger that those who’ve mastered the politics of science that delivers massive grants have lost the scientific ability to know what’s best to use them on."

    And US science will decline, just "Get over it".

  • drugmonkey says:

    The assertion is only that, not proved. Also, these folks don't seem to understand politics and ability to operate half competently in social structures has always been part of the picture.

  • Re: The NSF system is designed for amateur, nor professional, scientists.

    I completely agree with DrugMonkey’s comment here. I mean, how does the old adage go “Those who can’t do… teach…. And those who can’t teach, teach pharmacology.”

    DrugMonkey is right. If you do not make your living (100% effort) by doing science, you are NOT a professional scientist. Come on people! If you simply look up the definition of the word professional in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, you see that it means “participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs ”. It is simple English, for all of those amateur English speakers out there. Bloggers, parents, you are all amateurs! The nannies of the word are the true professionals! HELLO!... Ever hear of Andrew Sullivan!?! I mean, this site, by DrugMonkey’s definition, isn’t even a professional Blog!! But I digress.

    While I'm not married to the following idea, I’ll put it forward to start the discussion. I propose doing the equivalent of a “civil union” to distinguish between amateur scientists and professional Scientists (capital S). You see, I think that DrugMonkey takes issue with the title of “Scientist”. If you earn your living by doing science 100%, hello Scientist. Similarly, if you earn your living by teaching/mentoring 100%, hello Professor. Hey, all you wannabe “Professors” out there in medical schools, time to give up that professorial title. You are now Assistant, Associate, or Full Scientists! Congratulations. You see, it is the Title that is important here, not the actual work. Mentoring graduate students or (heaven forbid) undergraduates takes away from your valuable research time…and you are not getting paid to do that anyway. In fact, we could put disclaimers on peer reviewed publications and grant applications when submitted by amateur scientists, and we could also put disclaimers in classes when taught by amateur professors. Think of the transparency associated with this approach!

    Amateur or professional, these are the important discussions for modern science. Other amateurs like Darwin, Mendel, Morgan, Spemann, Fleming, and the like often debated this very issue. Because the title IS important. Without amateur and professional to help illustrate the seriousness and significance of one’s work or words, DrugMonkey might be considered a professional asshole, instead of just an amateur one.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Get that all out of your system did you?

  • When someone writes an piece of writing he/she maintains the image of a user in his/her mind that how a user
    can understand it. So that's why this post is great. Thanks!

Leave a Reply