NIH Weighs In On Delusional Extramural Whining

March 25, 2011

NIH officials Sally Rockey and Larry Tabak have weighed in on the delusional hullabaloo surrounding the wise decision to do away with so-called A2s, second grant resubmissions, and to only allow a single resubmission of a particular grant application. For a recap of what we are talking about, see this previous post.

Rockey and Tabak explain the clear impact of this policy change:

There is little doubt that some great science is not being funded because pay lines are decreasing, regardless of the number of permitted resubmissions. Restoring A2 applications will not change that picture and will increase the time and effort required for writing additional resubmissions.

The bottom line is that there are only so many competing awards that can be funded, due to budget constraints. The only question is which applications get funded. For every A2 that now gets funded, it means there is an A0 or an A1 that *doesn’t* get funded. And for every A2 that doesn’t get funded, it’s another A0 or A1 that *does* get funded.

So the Benezra argument that great science goes unfunded without the availability of A2s that *would* be funded if A2s were available is arithmetically incoherent, because it requires that there then be *other* great science that must go unfunded that otherwise wouldn’t have. This follows inexorably from the fixed number of awards that can be made.

The only non-delusional interpretation of the Benezra critique is that the real underlying complaint is about *which* applications are being funded and *who* the principal investigators are that have submitted them. I suppose it is possible to think of yourself as an outstanding scientist doing groundbreaking high-impact research, but for some reason to be at a competitive disadvantage compared to your peers in a regime where *all* grants are limited to a single resubmission.


15 Responses to “NIH Weighs In On Delusional Extramural Whining”

  1. anon Says:

    Do you think it would be useful to restrict A2 resubmissions to new investigators? One of the concerns is that at early stages, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to have a lot of different projects going.

  2. DrugMonkey Says:

    If you credit that the A1 limit is working, i.e., to put an end to the queuing behavior than it would be absolutely idiotic to let ESI/NI apps get put in the flight pattern that established PIs do not have to suffer.

    I suspect the fear that newbs don’t have enough prelim data to support new directions is more their lack of imagination / courage in using the prelim data to support multiple proposals than it is a valid concern.

  3. […] signatures in support.  However, the blogosphere was not unified behind the statement, with some applauding the NIH’s “wise decision” to sunset the A2 grant.  Benezra has given an initial response to […]

  4. I am one of the delusional whiners who signed that petition. And although I agree that the real problem is the low budget, the mechanics of peer review can easily throw excellent grants into triage. Those of us who have always had small labs cannot maintain continuity nor shift directions to suit the “different enough” criterion. I am happy that none of this seems to be a problem for you.

  5. DrugMonkey Says:

    AA: This is the $250,000 question, is it not? The *fear* of not hitting the “different enough” criterion is driving much of this angst. But we are only just barely seeing the first folks getting their proposals kicked back. And from what I’ve been seeing, it was because the PI didn’t satisfy what to me is the basic entry card, i.e., rewriting the Aims.

  6. DM, I plan to write a blog entry about this issue so I will be relatively brief here.

    You cannot shift research focus to satisfy the frankly bizarre criterion of “novelty”. If you have made a particular system your life’s work, that’s what you know well and can continue researching with legitimate cause for and hopes of getting funded — unless you are given copious exploratory funds to switch gears or have such a big lab that you can keep cycling through your projects without having to worry about unfunded periods.

    On the bigger picture, if you or Comrade PhysioProf think that the system is working well, I can only (again) congratulate you on your excellent job circumstances. And if you think that someone like me, who wrote a popular science book under my real name while untenured and on 100% soft money (and repeatedly cut my salary in half rather than fire lab members) lacks courage or imagination, perhaps you define terms differently than I.

  7. DrugMonkey Says:

    unless you are given copious exploratory funds to switch gears or have such a big lab that you can keep cycling through your projects without having to worry about unfunded periods.

    This is the *fear*, yes. I wonder about the reality. I know plenty of folks who managed to win multiple grant that funded more-or-less the same old direction of the research program. This says to me that you take a little wiggle left, you take a little wiggle right and over time you still do the same stuff you would have done with a continual 20 year line on the same grant number.

    I see no reason these principles cannot be adapted to the A1-and-out era. All it takes is imagination.

    The current size of my lab is irrelevant. When I started, I had one modest sized R01 and therefore one “program”. This did not dissuade me from trying to get the second program deriving from my postdoctoral work going ASAP and I managed to do so. Then within a few years the work we’d been doing was able to support proposals in any number of directions.

    I lack the imagination to see where any other research program cannot do the same.

  8. The current size of your lab is directly relevant to the issue, as is the year that you started. You know this as well as I do.

  9. Spiny Norman Says:

    See comments about indirects at public v. private institutions, especially.

  10. DrugMonkey Says:

    If anything, the era in which I got started just means it is more important now to take this strategy.

    The current size of my lab is perhaps relevant to the ability to take multiple approaches but does not change the wisdom of doing so…

  11. Submission of more than one non-overlapping grant is a universally accepted truism ever since the NIH paylines plummeted to single digits and the universities increasingly put faculty on soft money while making research the primary criterion for advancement (and using the indirect to build buildings and hire administrators).

    The ability to do so with good chances of success is another matter. It increases with lab size (no “perhaps” about it: more preliminary data, more papers — since the count is usually absolute, not per grant — and more leeway to pursue new avenues of inquiry). It decreases if you constantly lose personnel (both the hiatus itself and the lag time of hiring and training new people) and if you’re saddled with demands for “novelty” on top of all the other requirements.

  12. DrugMonkey Says:

    You are incorrect that everyone understands this first bit. And you are not explaining how the relative ease of multiple directions is affected by A1/A2. My point stands.

  13. beenthere Says:

    If the same number of grants is funded in two submissions rather than three, that is an advantage. We all think our work is worthy, but ultimately the extra submissions just focused on experimental details and not on the strength and novelty of the idea. For you young-ens out there with small labs – find a collaborator with the necessary skills and data and your next great idea can becomke an application.

  14. My view of the larger grant picture, as promised (threatened?):

    Of Federal Research Grants and Dancing Bears

  15. biologist Says:

    I received a 14% on the A1 of my R01 competitive renewal but the payline is 11%. I have gathered a lot of advice and the consensus is that I put back in a pared down version of the unfunded R01 as an R21. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around rationale and again, after talking it over with colleagues, it goes something like this:
    Submitting a failed R01 as an R21 is an expedient, possibly unwittingly provided by NIH, which, if the R21 is funded, provides 2 years of bridge funding for one to develop that new angle that the NIH requires in order for the so-called new R01 not to be kicked back as an unallowable resubmission.
    I would like to hear ya’lls views. Personally it doesn’t seem logical for NIH to allow this, but what do I know??

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