Archive for the 'NIH' category

Your Grant in Review: I Can't Work With This

Mar 14 2014 Published by under Grant Review, Grantsmanship, NIH, NIH Careerism

Reminder. You are going to have advocates and detractor reviewing your grant proposals. Your goal is to give the advocate what she needs to promote your proposal.

No matter how much the advocate might love the essential ideas in your application, nothing good is going to happen if you violate every rule of basic grantsmithing.

At the least you should be able to put together a proposal that gets it mostly right. Credible. Serious. Without huge gaping holes or obvious piles of StockCritique bait lying around everywhere.

It should not be hard to give the advocating reviewer something they can work with.

17 responses so far

Guest Post: BUILDing Diversity with Dollars: Can Grants Change Culture

This guest post is from @iGrrrl, a grant writing consultant. I think I first ran across her in the comments over at writedit's place, you may have as well. She brings a slightly different, and highly valuable, perspective to the table.


iGrrlCartoonThere was an old New Yorker cartoon of two people at a party, and one tells the other, "I'm a fiction writer in the grant-proposal genre." I hate putting fiction in grant applications, especially the type that will be due shortly in response to the Ginther report.

For those who have been worrying about their own grant applications, the Ginther report detailed the relationship of race and ethnicity to NIH grant funding at the R01 level, and NIH has created a few initiatives to try to change the pattern of lower success rates for African American applicants. In early April, the applications are due for the Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) Initiative, which would fund large-scale projects within individual institutions, and the NIH National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN), which is designed to build a network of mentors. In other words, diversity interventions writ large, with millions of dollars behind them.

The NSF ADVANCE program started in a similar way, and some of the early ADVANCE projects included programs with a limited evidence base. The successes of components of these programs were variable, and the recent RFA included a social science research component to complement the required evaluation of ADVANCE-funded activity. It started with good intentions, and eventually became clear that more than good intentions were needed. Part of the NRMN announcement calls for pilot programs, but I would argue that in the first year, the network should do the social science work to consolidate the anecdotes African Americans tell about their mentoring experiences into hard data, so that the pilot programs can be based upon addressing the needs identified by African Americans who have been through, or training right now in, the current system.

At the recent AAAS meeting in Chicago there were sessions on building diversity in science. At one I learned that explicit bias has reduced in the last 30 years, but implicit bias hasn't. We think we have made progress, and that our conscious intentions are enough. But they clearly are not. Expecting trainees to overcome biased behaviors (to which the actors are blind) places an undue burden on those who are discriminated against. There are studies showing that education about implicit bias helps to reduce such biased behavior, but education attempts can also be done badly and backfire. As pointed out in a recent piece in Science by Moss-Racusin, et al., there is an evidence base now for doing intervention well. If NIH is putting money into large-scale intervention, I hope the existing science will be part of the applications, and expected by the reviewers.

I've spent a lot of my professional life working on exactly the kind of large, infrastructure-based grant application represented by the BUILD and NRMN programs. It is easy for PIs to make assumptions that interventions that sound good on paper will actually have any impact. My concern is that what will be proposed by the applicants to BUILD and NRMN may miss the strong social science work that exists, and that still needs to be done. In fact, some of the best research on effective mentoring is the business literature, a place where few biomedical scientists would think to look.

Grant applications shouldn't be pure fiction, but based on solid evidence. Every grant application represents a possibility, a reality, that could come to pass if the funds are awarded. In the mentoring literature, practices that improve the success for African Americans are often shown to improve the climate for everyone. There is an opportunity here for those in biomedicine to learn from other fields, to consider an evidence base that is outside their usual ken, and to improve the entire biomedical enterprise by improving the overall environment. I hope that those applying for BUILD and the NRMN include the social sciences, and even more importantly, include the voices and ideas of the very people these programs are meant to serve.

NIH has a long history of using dollars to encourage cultural change, with mixed results, because applicants can have varying levels of commitment to the NIH vision while being happy to take NIH dollars. The ADVANCE program at NSF had some hiccups as they worked out what worked to improve the climate for women in STEM. The leadership teams for BUILD and NRMN should include people with a deep knowledge of the research and scholarship on bias and on mentoring, and who can do the rigorous analysis of the current state of affairs for African Americans in biomedical science. I hope I'm wrong here in worrying that such people won't be included, but I've seen fiction in grant applications a few too many times.

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A NIH Grant Applicant's Calming Mantra

Mar 10 2014 Published by under Grant Review, Grantsmanship, NIH Careerism

"No matter how ridiculous the summary statement comment, it helps you to write better proposals in the future."

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Guest Post: The brightest and the most insightful people in the country?

Mar 08 2014 Published by under Academics, Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism, Public Health

bluebirdhappinessThis is a guest appearance of the bluebird of Twitter happiness known as My T Chondria. I am almost positive the bird does some sort of science at some sort of US institution of scientific research. The bird is normally exhausted by typing messages 140 characters at a time so I was skeptical but....well, see for yourself.


MDs and PhDs are considered to be some of the brightest and the most insightful people in the country. Indeed, look no further than the nearest MD or PhD and ask them; they will attest at great length to their exceptional smarts and individual importance in maintaining the sun orbiting the Earth. Yet for all the combined education there remains a fundamental lack of appreciation of how intertwined the fate of these two professions are - ranking right up there on the irony scale with Pakistan threatening to nuke India (they are geographic neighbors, so that’s ironic, you see).

For anyone who has ever worked at a major academic medical center, we are told ad nausea how important we are in understanding human health. Yet we do so almost exclusively in parallel universes. Asked what its like to try to work with an MD, a PhD will often tell you MDs are ‘erratic, ill informed and totally lacking in any understanding of what goes into doing real research’. Conversely, asked what PhDs do, MDs will likely reply ‘they like to present very complex diagrams, write grants and develop models of disease and pathology that have little to do with any case I’ve ever seen.

I get to surf between these groups; my primary appointment in a clinical department affords me a perspective that is unique in that I am able to pass as either an MD or a PhD on any given day. I spend the majority of my time running a research lab but I can scream “House! Put down the scalpel you jackass! All you have to do is order a chest x-ray and look for pulmonary infiltrates to know it’s not sarcoidosis!” with the best of interns.

Figure 1. “It’s a fan!” “It's a spear!” The hilarity of people in white coats looking at their own little microcosm of an elephant and being unable to appreciate it is actually a bloated endangered species that could kill them all. And by bloated endangered species, I mean academic medicine*.  *Author note: Am I going to have to explain all my jokes?

Figure 1. “It’s a fan!” “It's a spear!” The hilarity of people in white coats looking at their own little microcosm of an elephant and being unable to appreciate it is actually a bloated endangered species that could kill them all. And by bloated endangered species, I mean academic medicine*.
*Author note: Am I going to have to explain all my jokes?

In drifting between these lands, I noticed the rifts earlier between ‘researchers and doctors’ which seemed vaguely amusing not so much now as first but as the business of academic medical is getting the shitte kicked out of it and PhDs think it has little to do with them.

In previous faculty meetings, I would watch tenure track PhDs glaze over as our beloved leader discussed the ‘blah, blah’ of clinical revenue streams.

Conversely, the MDs would eagerly reengage a new level of Candy Crush Saga as our chair commiserated with PhDs about pay lines and sequestration. (So clueless were the MDs about the recent plight of scientists that the esteemed journal JAMA even had to run an article in their online edition earlier in the year explaining sequestration to the primarily MD audience.)

At our most recent faculty meeting, there seemed to be a moment of real illumination between both groups that everyone in the medical center was screwed and better start making more widgets faster. Our Fearless Leader informed faculty that our hospital budget shortfall was progressing more quickly than we had anticipated even three months ago and vacations were canceled for faculty, more clinical hours were going to need to be booked and the bergermeister was coming to take all our toys (only two of these three have happened so far).

Figure 2. Predoctoral kitten downed by lack of understand of the health care industry on academic medicine.

Figure 2. Predoctoral kitten downed by lack of understand of the health care industry on academic medicine.

Later that day, I took to on Twitter to vent and look for pictures of kittens doing cute things (see Fig 2 as evidence of my hard work). Many of my Twitter followers are porn bots, but at least 2 or 3 are PhD-types and aghast that my medical center was being so aggressive. There were many sad emoji’s sent my way and a flutter of ‘how could they’ and ‘oh, your poor little university’ that made me wonder what planet everyone is on and if donuts were as delicious there as they were here (see Storify by @mrhansaker here).

EVERY medical center in the US is getting carpet bombed into financial oblivion by the economy, Medicare reimbursements and Obamacare. And yes, I assured my Tweeps, the amount of our gross national product that goes to health care is stoopidly high. But, a startling number of my PhD buddies were taken aback by the idea that those pesky ‘high health are cost’ they glaze over in faculty meeting or when listening to NPR is also covering their academic PhD arses.

So, for my PhD pals, whom I shall refer to as ‘People who are doctors only when they book hotel rooms’ (I’m kidding, I’m a kidder!), I wanted to run this down a bit further. If you have a medical center as part of your university, you have been riding clinician’s financial coat tails for a long friggin time. The indirect rate charged to granting organizations in no way covers operating costs for research. That takes an endowment or an additional revenue stream. Endowments usually come from long dead old rich doods. These endowments don't just sit in Scrooge McDucks cave. They get invested in things like the stock market. And the stock market got the shitte kicked out of not too long ago. Billions in endowment money were lost in the economic collapse - most Universities took 25-50% hits on their Scrooge McDuck funds. So, if you’re a PhD, you can take endowments out of the equation as what’s been filling in those pesky financial gaps between costs and expenses. No worries, you’re at a medical center so you have a revenue stream- your clinical enterprise. Sick people. America is ALWAYS good for some damn unhealthy and foolish folks who will make the worst choices possible and rack up a small fortune in insured and uninsured care.

Thank God for stoopid and unhealthy people, amirite?? This is even better because our Commander-in-Chief got an electoral mandate to insure everyone’s (ish) stoopid arse. More money for medical centers has got to be a win, yes? Not so much. Show me a medical center meeting its financial goals, hell even one that isn’t heading for a hundreds of millions of dollars of deficit for 2014, and I will show you a for profit medical center (read here: “not academic, so no jobs for you PhDs”).

The proverbial sky has been falling for research scientists for some time now as well documented by my kind host Drug Monkey and others with inferior blogs and better shoes. And indeed, MDs have been hounded into appreciating the genius that is the bench scientist. So valued are the basic researchers that they are sought after to heap more prestige on the medical center and an even better training environment which increases numbers of trainees, blah, blah.
Unlike clinicians, scientists have known the economic sky was falling for some time and have been zealously advocating the importance of science research bracing for impact. To the outside world, that looks a lot like holding your collective sphincters together as tightly as humanly possible and waiting for things to improve. Well-done people. Actually, you sort of sucked at advocating for yourselves as evidenced by the two of you who actually sent @nparmalee letters to hand deliver to your Congress Critters a few weeks ago, but I will need another bottle of wine for that.

The first warning to those PhD types in the 35+-age bracket would have been when Scamp-in-Chief Bill Clinton never quite delivered on his ‘peace dividend’. The one where all those pesky defense dollars would go to building a bigger, better, smarter American work force with futures in STEM (Dumber Bombs! Smarter People!). We would turn in our tanks and churn out better-educated versions of ourselves with outstanding oral hygiene to lead us forth into the new millennium free of disease and with cats with laser vision. Not only did we forget to provide sustainable growth mechanisms for STEM, we also neglected to maintain world peace and not screw the interns. Bill, you lovable rascal, at least you didn’t shoot anyone in the face. Just in the foot. Or both feet.

Metaphorically.

In the parallel world of MDs, who kindly request you simply refer to them as ‘real doctors’ for the rest of this diatribe, the pesky business of health care in academia has always been a house of cards. About 7% of MDs practice in the rare air that is academic medicine. This affords prestige, time for clinical research, collegiality, security and none of the business hassles of private practice, but about half the salary. Which, to be honest, is still a metric shitte ton of money especially if you do a bit of consulting. But now, there’s no research time, Medicaid is squeezing out every reimbursable dime and you are keeping the same hours as your hapless residents.

My take home from today friends is that the party seems to be winding down. Rather than recognizing that our fates are intertwined, MDs and PhDs frantically see more patients and write more grants and wonder when the sun will shine on us once again and society will appreciate our true worth. I have yet to see any evidence that for all the brain power and letters after peoples names, PhDs are even aware of that medicine money is research money. So you go put your blinders on and find that spear, and I’ll put mine on and grab this rope and no one will call it an elephant.

34 responses so far

Berg requests your input on NIH data mining queries

This is important enough to elevate to an entry.

I had a recent post discussing some analysis Jeremy Berg posted at ASBMB Today ("The impact of the sequester: 1,000 fewer funded investigators") looking at some NIH data on the number of PIs who entered and exited the R-mech funded population across FY11-13.

 

He came by and left this comment:

I would welcome any suggestions about other longitudinal aspects of the NIH grantee pool that might be high priorities for analysis. Post here, at http://www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday/201403/PresidentsMessage/ or email me at jberg@pitt.edu.

So if you can clearly specify some sort of examination of the extramural PI population go to it! He's apparently the guy who can actually make it happen.

 

 

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Do you always get about the same score on your NIH grant?

Feb 11 2014 Published by under Grantsmanship, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

This question is mostly for the more experienced of the PItariat in my audience. I'm curious as to whether you see your grant scores as being very similar over the long haul?

That is, do you believe that a given PI and research program is going to be mostly a "X %ile" grant proposer? Do your good ones always seem to be right around 15%ile? Or for that matter in the same relative position vis a vis the presumed payline at a given time?

Or do you move around? Sometimes getting 1-2%ile, sometimes midway to the payline, sometimes at the payline, etc?

This latter describes my funded grants better. A lot of relative score (i.e., percentile) diversity.

It strikes me today that this very experience may be what reinforces much of my belief about the random nature of grant review. Naturally, I think I put up more or less the same strength of proposal each time. And naturally, I think each and every one should be funded.

So I wonder how many people experience more similarity in their scores, particularly for their funded or near-miss applications. Are you *always* coming in right at the payline? Or are you *always* at X %ile?

In a way this goes to the question of whether certain types of grant applications are under greater stress when the paylines tighten. The hypothesis being that perhaps a certain type of proposal is never going to do better than about 15%ile. So in times past, no problem, these would be funded right along with the 1%ile AMAZING proposals. But in the current environment, a change in payline makes certain types of grants struggle more.

42 responses so far

I just don't understand these "basic science eleventy" NIH funded people

Feb 10 2014 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism

I don't. I just don't. I cannot in anyway understand scientists who are offended that they have to some up with some thin veneer of health-relevance to justify the grant award they are seeking. The H in NIH stands for "Health". The mission statement reads:

NIH’s mission is to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.

Yeah, sure, if you end at the seventh word, you can convince yourself that the NIH is about basic research. Maybe you get to continue on to the fifteenth. But this is a highly selective reading. I just don't see where it is a burden to think for a minute or two about whether you are doing anything to address the second half of the statement.

After all, you are asking the taxpayers of the US to front you some serious cash. Millions of dollars for many of the PIs who are complaining about how hard it is to get basic research grants funded (BRAINI proponents, I'm looking at you). It really isn't that much of an insult to ask you to pay something back on the matter of public health.

50 responses so far

We need to encourage more of this

Feb 10 2014 Published by under Academics, Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

An RT Tweet from @betenoire1 was making the rounds of my Twitter feed today. It points to a Facebook polemic from a Leon Avery, Phd. (CV; RePORTER). He says that he is Leaving Science.

I have decided, after 40 years as a lab scientist and 24 years running my own lab, to shut it down and leave. I write this to explain why, for those of my friends and colleagues who’d like to know. The short answer is that I’m tired of being a professor.

Okay, no problem. No problem whatsoever. Dude was appointed in 1990 and has been working his tail off for 24 years at the NIH funded extramural grant game. He's burned out. I get this.

I have never liked being a boss. My happiest years as a scientist were when I was a student and then a postdoc. I knew I wouldn’t like running a lab, and I didn’t like it. This has always been true.
...
My immediate plans are to go back to school and get a degree in Mathematics. This too has been a passion of mine ever since high-school sophomore Geometry, when I first learned what math is really about. And my love of it has increased in recent years as I have learned more. It will be tremendous fun to go back and learn those things that I didn’t have the time or the money to study as an undergrad.

GREAT! This is awesome. You do one thing until you tire of it and then, apparently, you have the ability to retire into a life of the mind. This is FANTASTIC!

So what's the problem? Well, he can't resist taking a few swipes at NIH funded extramural science, even as he admits he was never cut out for this PI stuff from the beginning. And after a long and easy gig (more on that below) he is distressed by the NIH funding situation. And feels like his way of doing science is under specific attack.

For many years NIH was interested in funding basic research as well as research aimed directly at curing diseases. With the tightening funding has come a focus on so-called “translational research”. Now when we apply for funding we have to explain what diseases our work is going to cure.

Ok, actually, this is the "truthy" part that is launching a thousand discussions of the "real problem" at NIH. So I'm going to address this part to make it very clear to his fans and back thumpers what we are talking about. On RePORTER (link above) we find that Dr Avery had one grant for 22 years. Awarded in April of 1991 and his CV lists 1990 as his first appointment. So within 15 mo (but likely 9 mo given typical academic start dates from about July through Sept) he had R01 support that he maintained through his career. In the final 5 years, he was awarded the R37 which means he has ten years of non-competing renewal. I see another R21 and one more R01. This latter was awarded on the A1. So as far as we can tell, Professor Avery never had to work too hard for his NIH grant funding. I mean sure, maybe he was putting in three grants a round for 20 years and never managed to land anything more than what I have reviewed. Somehow I doubt this. I bet his difficulties getting the necessary grant funding to run his laboratory were not all that steep compared to most of the rest of us plebes.

And actually, his Facebook post backs it up a tiny bit.

And I’ve been lucky that the world was willing to pay me to do it. Now it is hard for me to explain the diseases my work will cure. It feels like selling snake oil. I don’t want to do it any more.

I think the people enthusiastically passing along this Fb post of his maybe should focus on the key bits about his personal desires and tolerance for the job. Instead of turning this into yet another round of: "successful scientist bashes the NIH system now that finally, after all this time of a sweet, sweet ride s/he experiences a bare minimal taster of what the rest of us have faced our entire careers".

Final note on the title: Dude, by all means. Anyone who has had a nice little run with NIH funding and is no longer entused....LEAVE. We'll keep citing you, don't worry. Leave the grants to those of us who still give a crap, though, eh?

UPDATE (comment from @boehninglab):

22 responses so far

Berg posts data on NIH Intramural funding

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.

 

 

34 responses so far

New Grant Snooping

Feb 04 2014 Published by under NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics, NIH funding

As usual, I like to keep and eye on RePORTER and SILK to see what the various ICs of my own dearest interest are up to with regard to grants that were supposed to fund Dec 1, 2013. Per usual, there was no budget and the more conservative ICs wait around to do anything. Some of the less-conservative ones do tend to start funding new grant awards in December and Jan so there is always something to see on SILK.

I noticed something interesting. NIAID has 44 new R01s listed that were on the A1 revision and 19 that were funded on the "first" submission. RePORTER notes that 30 funded in Dec, 12 of these funded in Jan and  17 on or after 2/1/2014 (not sure if I miscounted totals on SILK or RePORTER hasn't caught up or what).

My ICs of dearest concern are still waiting, only a bare handful of new R01s are listed.

NCI has 36 new R01 apps funded on A1, 21 on the A0. DK is running 15/13.

Scanning down the rest of the list of ICs, it looks like DK is about as close to even as it gets and that a 2:1 ratio of A1 to A0 being funded is not too far off the mean.

 

I still think we'd be a lot better off if something like 2/3rd of grants were awarded on first submission and the A1s were only about a third.

11 responses so far

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