Most Provocative Post of 2011

Of all the blog posts I wrote last year, this one provoked by far the most feedback. Posted last June after a particularly disturbing trip to D.C., I got many emails and phone calls about it in the weeks following. While I wouldn’t call it controversial, it seemed to hit a nerve for a great many people:

The State if Despair Among Many NIH Grantees

I am on a flight returning from a trip to Washington DC. I was visiting friends and former colleagues from my days at NIH. Several of my friends are now running research labs at medical centers, one of whom has served on several study sections. Another former colleague has gone on to become a Program Officer at NIH. One person does public health education at NIH, and another is running a successful freelance business. Each of them was interested in discussing the state of NIH grantwriting, especially given that the preliminary summary statements from the previous grant cycle have just become available on eCommons. We are all disturbed by the pervasive feeling of despair that I hear among NIH grantees.

One concern I hear repeatedly from both grantees and NIH program staff is concern about the quality of the review process on study sections. There are those who feel that regardless of the quality of the proposal, the best scores tend to go to the big-name labs who already are flush with funding. (I have heard it suggested by more than one person that reviews would work better if proposals were submitted anonymously.) Some feel that while New and Early Stage Investigators are given better opportunities to obtain funding, mid-career researchers are left in the cold because of the tendency to dole out money for the big-name labs. Another concern I often hear is that there are “cliques” within a given field, and the power to award great scores rests in the hands of the “in group” in a study section, while those outside the clique remain unscored and unfunded. I sometimes hear grantees and even program staff at NIH complain that the Summary Statements are illogical or contradictory– or worse, unintelligent. (When I see Summary Statements that are illogical or contradictory, often it is because the grant was confusing. Poor writing is not always the cause of such reviewer responses. But you can decrease your odds of a confused or ill-informed reviewer by writing more clearly and concisely.)

Almost certainly, there is some element of truth to each of these concerns. But I hate to see such talk discourage promising researchers from entering or remaining in the field. One could speculate endlessly about how to game the system when it comes to NIH grantsmanship. I think a great deal of such speculation is wasted energy. I hear a lot of stories from people in the field about what has gone wrong with their career, their proposals, the myriad ways in which they have been screwed. Being a proposal writer is a bit like being a bartender at times. And I see grantees making a lot of poor choices that are directly within their control to change. Here are some suggestions based on the mistakes I see:

When it comes to interacting with your colleagues, do your level best not to make enemies. Areas of biomedical research expertise have become so narrow and esoteric that you cannot afford to antagonize anyone in the handful of researchers in your field. That said, given the level of desperation over the current funding climate, you probably also should play your cards close to the vest. Be careful with whom you discuss your ideas. Your draft Aims may be best discussed at departmental chalk talks, where you can elicit great feedback while also divulging your ideas to a larger group who may serve as witnesses later on that the ideas were indeed yours. (Yes, I hear lots of talk of researchers stealing each other’s ideas.) Be assertive. It pays to ask for everything and anything you need, as the worst you will hear is no. I have a client who requested funds for application writing support from everyone—her Chair, the Dean, anyone who would listen. She got a little money from each source that, together with a little money from her start-up, helped pay for help on a K01 and a Robert Wood Johnson proposal (she landed both.) Her colleagues have whined about the help she has gotten, and why haven’t they been offered such help? (The answer: They never asked.) More examples: If you have done the work, insist on being first or last author on the manuscript. Conversely, if you are not the PI on a grant, do not do all the work. You will get no recognition. Above all, behave with integrity– even when your colleagues do not.

I have a great deal of respect for researchers who remain in the trenches of biomedical research, continuing to apply for grants even in the current funding climate. Such work is much more difficult than what I do. Increasingly, medical research facilities are shifting toward the elimination of tenure while demanding that their faculty rely 100% on soft money. It is not for the faint of heart.

But if you choose to remain, you must work to develop an extraordinarily thick skin. Writing a grant application is an iterative process. With each submission, you use the Summary Statements to hone your grantsmanship. You work to find a great Program Officer in an institute that is a good fit for your work, and then you work with the PO to figure out how to tailor your research to fit the funding priorities and interests of the institute. If you are suspect of the quality of your study section, shift your focus and request a different one. There is little use in dwelling on your fears (real or not) about the inequities and injustices in the review process, at least not while you are putting together a grant application submission. Your energy is best spent on improving your application and your grantsmanship on that submission, to the best of your ability.

What Do We Know About The NIH Appropriation in the FY11 Budget?

The government shutdown has been averted for now, and it looks like we may finally have a budget soon for FY11 (now that we are more than 6 months into the federal year.) So what do we know so far about the NIH appropriation?

A brief funding history: Between FY98 and FY03, the NIH budget doubled (from roughly $15 billion to about $30 billion.) Of that budget amount, about 85% is distributed as extramural grants. As a point of comparison, the NSF budget is just over $7B and the EPA grew under the current Administration from over $7B to just over $10B, but they are in line for cuts this year. After the NIH five-year doubling period (i.e., since FY03), the NIH has experienced level funding (sometimes less), when adjusted for inflation.

The FY10 NIH Appropriation was $31.3B.  The current Administration favors a budget increase for NIH in FY11—their NIH FY11 Appropriation recommendation last February was $32.25B (Click here to see the President’s FY11 NIH Budget Request, broken down by Institute). Last summer, both the House and Senate HHS Appropriation Subcommittees approved a $1B increase for NIH for FY11 (i.e., the same as the Administration’s budget request to Congress.)

Hopefully, the budget will pass soon and those funding levels will be finalized and made available to NIH. Meanwhile, those who submitted grants during Cycle II last year wait. Those with the highest scores have received their funding decisions—I have a client who was awarded an R01 competing renewal in a timely fashion. Others who were notified of the award had to wait to find out the award amount—I have another client who learned unofficially last fall from the Program Officer that her K01, which received a wonderful score, would be funded, but she only recently learned that it would be funded for four years (we were delighted with that outcome.) Yet another client with an R21 that has a borderline score still awaits her funding decision for a grant submitted last spring.

And what about FY12, which begins Oct 1? In February, the Administration recommended a 3% increase in the NIH budget, which when adjusted for inflation would represent level funding. However, that funding recommendation is extremely unlikely to clear the House this summer.