Mike the Mad Biologist

About That Limiting NIH Applications Post…

First, thanks to everyone who commented. I think DrugMonkey hit the nail on the head:

Nevertheless, MtM seems to be calling for a greater proportion of grants to be funded through the Request for Applications mechanism. The key parts of the RFA which distinguish it from the Program Announcement is that the RFA is usually a closely described set of scientific goals, has a single nonstandard receipt deadline and supposedly has a commitment to fund a minimum number of proposals. I say “supposedly” because I am familiar with one case in which no funded grants resulted from an RFA call. I should note that it appears to me that RFAs have (by intention) broader downstream effects. Many of the PIs who did not happen to receive funding from their initial submission to an RFA turn right around and send a revised version of their proposal right back in at a normal submission deadline. Some of these end up with funding. So additional awards do get funded which are directly motivated by the RFA even if not funded through the RFA itself.

That’s precisely what I’m calling for. The other thing I would like to see would be a shift from R grants to U grants. U grants have specific milestones that have to met, or else the grant can be pulled–the renewal process is more stringent than the R01 renewal process. Anyway, here are some other tangentially related thoughts:

  1. Of course, we need R grants, but I think less money should be allocated to that particular funding mechanism.
  2. No, I am not opposed to basic research, any more than Obama is a socialist.
  3. R01 grants are the wellspout of science creativity, part I. Sure, some R01 grants are, but many are ongoing extensions of existing lines of research–that’s why they’re referred to as competitive renewals.
  4. R01 grants are the wellspout of science creativity, part deux. The R01 mechanism often doesn’t provide enough funding for novel ideas to be adequately explored, whereas other funding mechanisms, particularly those that parcel out funding to different groups or that allow for much larger grants, can do so (all that cross-discipline synergizing hooey).
  5. R01 grants are the wellspout of science creativity, part III. Given the importance placed on all of the aspects of grantsmanship, how can one argue this? Even with programs that favor younger investigators (although older investigators are perfectly good at coming up with novel ideas too….), lots of perfectly good grants are disqualified for relatively trivial reasons (I thought I made that clear in the previous post). This makes the whole process inherently conservative. Granted, if you throw enough money around something will stick, but still.
  6. What I proposed would not mean that a handful of people would be deciding what NIH does. Many RFAs are often developed from ideas submitted by researchers, and are open calls.
  7. What I propose does force NIH program officers to take more responsibility for programmatic gaps in their portfolios.

Given that we’ve now had several generations of scientists trained under this system, it seems kind of scary to move slightly away from it (again, I’m talking about shifting resources, not abolishing the R01 grants). But I’m not convinced that R01s are the highpoint of the system. At some point, resources need to marshalled into certain areas. Since resources are finite, obviously that means some people lose (at least a little). But right now, I think the grant award process isn’t awarding resources on merit nearly as much as people claim it does.

Comments

  1. #1 DrugMonkey
    October 27, 2008

    I think the grant award process isn’t awarding resources on merit nearly as much as people claim it does.

    Word.

    I think we’re basically coming from the same perspective on all of this. I will say, however, that I’m not a big fan of the U mechanism and I think they end up being even bigger wastes of money at times.

    The benefits are that they can really push through to answer the question without being distracted by what is likely to lead to a better publication, the next bit of preliminary data, etc.

    Drawback is that ICs are more…credulous, shall we say, about scientific support for what absolutely, positively must get done next. One sees this in many RFAs in which the ICs present a clear focus down the road, assuming that X, Y and Z are the case- whereas frequently my response is, yes but the support for X, Y and Z is pretty tenuous and what you really need to do is find out if those are true before you jump to eleventy on the mechanism or interaction or whathaveyou.