Ways NOT to reform NIH

Yesterday there was a short (relatively) discussion  on twitter about what would happen if NIH limited the number of applications researchers can submit.

Sci Curious I wonder how it would work logicstically, office of res at unis would have to have a first pass filter?

I replied:

lots of non-NIH funds stipulate one per institution. Res. off. decides and it is a DISASTER for jr faculty.

If you are at a large MRU, with over 2000 active R01 grants, this gets dicey. Here’s how I have seen it work. This is empirical, but only one medical school.  At my MRU, you don’t have to do the full application, usually some equivalent of the SA’s and a biosketch. The latter is important, because I doubt the deciders know who everyone is, which is not so good. I have over the years tried to determine who the decider is or deciders are. For major things, there is a “awards” committee, and the less said about those BSDs the better. For minor things, the Vice-Dean of Research does, one assumes with help from his “cabinet”. For post-doc level things, its the Vice-Dean of Education. But, I never get a straight answer to inquiries about the process. I suspect there are times that the professional bureaucrats in our Office of Sponsored Research are in a hurry and they chose by whatever criteria they think is important. Scary.

The scheme to do a first sort at the University or School level, bothers me. A lot. This is giving more power to those that have it. The people who have the positions have more control, and more goodies to award. It will also induce subdiscipline bias. This system will favor the rich, the sexy, the well connected. It will favor the slick young BSD’s who are out there doing self-promo. It will favor disease of the month (which is a problem at NIH now, but not as bad as it could be).

More power to dept chairs, some of whom are not chairs because they are good mentors? Don’t like a faculty member? Have one that is being a pain in the butt? Have one that doesn’t want to do the crap you ask? Well, let’s just keep them from even submitting. I can hear it at annual faculty review time “You couldn’t even get a proposal past the in-house committee”. A good chair won’t do this. A stupid chair would let the real power do this, and a vicious chair would think this is appropriate personnel management.

Let’s look at the Dean level. Even with the best of intentions, MRUs will want to push forward those proposals most likely to get funded. Their interest (incentive) is to bring in the overhead dollars. Not necessarily support any particular class of faculty. If it helps people of color, physically challenged or women, it will be those who are acceptable to the powers that be. Those who can pass.

Letting university level administrators into the review process will be in the end a disaster particularly for junior faculty, but also for struggling mid-career types. It will add criteria to the process that are not the content of the proposal, the feasibility of the work, the potential of the science. It will add politics.

One of the strengths of NIH is that proposals are judged far more on content than who you are. And who you are tends to be assessed on what you have done, not so much on who you know. I know there are people who would disagree. And there are probably lots of reviewers who have all kinds of hidden-to-them biases about glamour pubs and schools. But, I am hard pressed to come up with a system that would remove those.

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10 thoughts on “Ways NOT to reform NIH

  1. Amen. This is a total disaster for the junior faculty wannabes. One example – an RAP affiliated with my group wrote a grant for a small foundation, for which the University was only allowed to nominate two applications. First time out he was “lucky” and was allowed to apply, but it didn’t get funded (competition was very stiff). Next year rolls around, and RAP was told by the senior associate vice dean for the chair of research academics (or whatever the f*** he’s called now) “sorry, you had your chance, we have to go with more promising applicants”. Naturally, the selected applicants were from BSD groups.

    • this is exactly what I mean. The incentives/priorities of the Dean’s office do not line up with supporting junior faculty. This is one aspect of MRUs thinking of young faculty as disposal employees, who are lucky to “get the chance to prove themselves”.

  2. fwiw, in the (paywalled) CHE article that sparked the Twitter discussion, the idea received at least some pushback from upper level univ administration. It seems several ideas were floated – including a shift to model where grants are judged predominantly on strength of PI rather than proposed research.

    But I wonder – would limiting the number of applications per institution have a shot of working if there were also requirements for the proportion of junior, established, and funded faculty? (NB, not saying it’s a good solution – just a thought.)

    • No. Anything that puts control over what goes out the door in the hands of deanlets, is just plain stupid. Any scientist who lets this happen is blind to their first amendment rights.

      • I do not know for sure, but would be this has nothing to do with 1rst amendment rights. Proposals are submitted by the uni (on behalf of the PI). Grants are made to the uni. Individuals do not have the right to submit grants (go read the “who can submit a grant” part of an RFA).

    • A quota for junior faculty still leaves the problem of encouraging submissions by those doing sexy things, or at least sexy to the eyes of the people picking who submits.

      If the system is implemented it may have the frightening effect of giving the impression that it helped improve success rates. Now the “chosen ones”, i.e. those favorites allowed to submit, will have more lines for their CVs and more awards ,further separating the haves from the have-nots.

      • exactly. makes NIH look better. Some people stand on the shoulders of giants, others push the hoi polloi down to get a higher vantage point.

    • Strength of the PI is also problematic, even with stringent controls and bumps for younger investigators. These are all treating the symptoms. NOT the problem (too many mouths at too small of a trough).

      • Maybe it doesn’t need to be from NIH, but some stable funding for accomplished investigators would eliminate some of the inefficiencies in our current system. I’ve had to fire extremely good technicians because the money temporarily ran out. I have some colleagues who are very good scientists and were doing cutting edge stuff but missed the payline a couple of times in a row and gave up. Those labs are dark, and the inability of the US or the state or the university to figure out a decent way to use these scientists and the great lab facilities to do the research we need done is ridiculous.

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