Volume 1: Challenges of the NIH system of support
As per my last post, the series begins.
1. Challenges of NIH System of Research Support
Please describe any specific challenges presented by NIH’s support of biomedical and behavioral research such as the current array of grant mechanisms, number of grants awarded per investigator, and the duration of grants."
Let me just describe my perception of this, since I'm only an NIH employee in the most indirect sense. Perhaps it will be useful to some to get the perspective of how much a random postdoc presumes to know about how these things work. Hopefully anything I get horribly wrong will be corrected by alert readers.
Hmm. Specific challenges. Let's see.
The overall goals of the NIH aren't really clear, but I presume one needs to know what those are to know what challenges are inherent in reaching those goals. I guess I always assumed that NIH has two goals:
(1) find treatments for current patients
(2) research future treatments and diagnostics for things we can't catch early enough/don't know how to treat right now
So the challenges of that are to fund both:
a) practical, applications-oriented clinical trials
b) riskier, investigative studies
That's already a tall order.
Problems inherent in all of this:
- A wide variety of research areas requires lots of 'experts'
- Really expensive to fund all this (though only about as much as 1 day of the Iraq war)
I think my favorite image of NIH is the one of the grants room where your printed grant application goes when you mail it in. An RO1 (not that I've written one myself) is a very tall stack when all the copies are put together, so there is literally a room at the NIH stacked wall-to-wall, to the ceiling, with paper.
Of course I'm hearing lately that the new online system is actually more time consuming and disaster-prone than the paper version, so there are inherent challenges just in the basic execution of the steps:
Step 1: receive grants
Step 2: sort grants
Step 3: don't lose anybody's grant or pieces thereof (have heard plenty of horror stories about these things happening with alarming frequency).
Obviously my big complaints, at this point in my career, about the current array of grant mechanisms has largely to do with two things:
1. Why are we funding companies, who can charge money for their products, and foreign labs, who have their own taxpayers, with American taxpayer money when we can't even afford to fund all our American academic scientists?
2. Oh yeah, and while I'm asking, why do we have to pay taxes on our pittance government fellowships in grad school and during postdocs? Do any voting laypeople realize how stupid that is??
3. Why aren't there genuinely independent grants available for young scientists? Why do I have to get bullshit recommendation letters just to get my research proposal reviewed??
As for number of grants awarded per investigator, this is a major point of contention between the Haves and the Have-Nots.
If you Have a lot of grants, you don't see why you shouldn't be allowed to Get More.
If you Have Not a grant, you don't see why the same people get all of them.
From a totally obective, scientificky point of view, you'd think that if grant reviews were anonymous, that would be best.
Then quality would matter most, and if your new grants are good, you'd get them funded, regardless of whether you already have too many or if you've never had one before.
Okay, fine. But. In reality, I'm told, most sub-specialities are so small that grant review sections usually can tell whose grant is whose, even if the names were blacked out, they would know who they were from.
So I think the central challenge of not just the NIH, but science in general, is: CORRUPTION.
There, I said it.
We'd all like the think that science is this inherently noble profession, that we're all honest and just want to get the right answer.
But thanks to the competition for funding and jobs, the NIH suffers from a general mafioso atmosphere.
That is to say, you pay Tony Soprano, and he takes care of you.
I'm not saying there's literally cash changing hands, but there are fancy dinners with lots of wine, and there's definitely an "I'll scratch your back you scratch mine" attitude.
Also true for publishing, of course.
Most people I know have gotten a grant funded (paper published) at one time or another because they knew someone on the committee (one of the reviewers), and vice-versa. Sometimes the same grant (paper) gets a crappy score in one study section, but gets high marks at another one, just because of who is on the committee (reviewers).
That's clearly not fair or objective or scientific at all!
But what are you going to do, have a computer review the grants? That won't happen anytime soon. So far as I know, machine learning hasn't come far enough to parse language and decipher logic at that level.
I still argue, as I always have, that grants should depend on one thing, and one thing only: the work proposed, and how well thought out that is.
It shouldn't matter what you've done before.
You might have gotten a Nobel prize: I DON'T CARE.
You should still have to do the same work as everybody else to prove that your ideas are supported by preliminary data.
Oh, and inherent in the funding challenge is that chicken and egg problem: how do people get preliminary data, if they don't have funding yet?
Simple: they get someone else to pay for it (for example, senior postdocs trying to get preliminary data for when they start their own labs), or they pay for it off one of their other grants.
Nobody really cares how you spend your grant money, so this is totally unregulated as far as I can tell. I know one PI who never, ever works on what she's funded to do, and yet she always gets more grants.
Why is that okay?
I have a friend, a cancer survivor, who asks me things like this a lot. She's an educated taxpayer, so she wants to know things like this. Why, she says, are we funding these people?
I guess this funnels nicely into the question of how long grants should last. Is it better to have short grants and reapply every year or two? Or these long career grants for 5-10 years.
I can firmly say with some conviction that funding anyone for 10 years is BAD. NIH stopped doing this, so far as I know, maybe because they figured this out for themselves the hard way.
Five years is maybe a little too long. I think 3-4 years is probably enough to keep the momentum going. Right now most PIs I know tend to wait around, thinking they've got 5 years, and that's a long time, right?
...And then end up scrambling the last few months to scrounge up enough data- I mean, hound their grad students, techs and postdocs to do last minute one-off, potentially unreproducible experiments just for grant figures.
Do people really do that, some of you might be asking?
YES, a resounding YES.
One of my favorite anecdotes is about the guy who crystallized a protein and put the pictures of the crystals in the grant, and got it funded, only to figure out later that he had purified a contaminant in his protein preps.
But hey, he got the grant, right? And he's under no obligation to tell NIH about his mistake, and no one will check up on him.
So preliminary data doesn't have to be right, it just has to look good.
Which is lame, really, but I guess I would rather that people at least try to come up with preliminary data, than not have any... except for the problem of how to pay for it.
Let me close by saying something I think I've said before, but I'll say it again:
I think writing grants, in principle, is a really useful and- dare I say it?- fun
part of the scientific enterprise, if only because it really is one of the only times we're given license- nay, we're paid!- to really think about what we're going to do next and what our current stock of data really imply.
But the room with paper stacked to the ceiling? The broken online submission systems? They need to fix those ASAP.