Problems with the NIH – jr investigator of orphaned field version

Let’s move beyond the we are all snowflakes problem for a minute, I have a junior colleague who does have a problem. She has a strong research program, a small lab, lots of solid pubs, up for promotion in a year or so. She has had a K-award for jr. faculty and is busy submitting R-level awards for the next step. Her area, although of strong clinical significance, isn’t sexy. It doesn’t have a named IC, and has been battered about other IC’s for a while. Here is a highly edited, identifying information taken out, email she received about an R21 she’d like to do. She emailed 3-4 PO’s who didn’t answer for over 3-4 weeks. She emailed the PO from her K-award who spoke to someone who finally answered her. It turns out, no one is interested in this project.

Dear Jr. Faculty,

I have spoken with other PO at other IC and they have sent me your SA’s. I had thought this proposal had been assigned to other IC, but they are clearly feeling the crunch and can’t support this field.

I need to remind you that the IC I am at does not explicitly cover this area of research. We occasionally take proposals [PT note: they have been funding this stuff for 30 years]. Budget times are tight and I suggest you let CSR assign it or try OtherIC. Of course if it is assigned to my IC, I will do everything I can to support it.

I find this very depressing. This is another version of the lost generation problem. When the funding gets tight, if you are not curing cancer, or doing optogenetics, or sequencing something, you can get punted from  IC to IC to IC.

I have suggested that she try to and talk to the leadership in her field. I think that this is a case that the FIELD or subdiscipline need to do something. But I’m dreadfully afraid that they in the smugness of continued funding, or in the panic of non-continued funding, they won’t be able to look beyond themselves to what is going on in their field.

There are lots and lots of worthy diseases, or horrifying diseases, or problems that devastate young people, old people, etc etc. Money/energy/ resources towards solving or fixing these problems, as well as caring for people who have them is a function of politics not the burden to the individual or even to society that the disease bestows on people. It is not coincidence that prostate cancer, despite its relative epidemiologic status as one of the less horrible and killing cancers, gets a huge amount of funding. Diseases of middle-to older – aged white men do.

A disease/condition/public health issue needs a good PR team to get funding devoted to it.

So what is the bottom line for my jr friend? She is not going to, at this stage of her career, change the NIH funding priorities. She may be doing exquisite science, but it won’t matter. She needs to find a context for her work and shift it to something more relevant in the eyes of the PO’s of NIH.

I can already here the cries of “she’s selling out” and my favorite “if they don’t like me, its their problem, I do what I want”. This is a foolish attitude. This is the game, you don’t make the rules. You can play or not. A good researcher can be interested in a project that is outside of what they had originally wanted. A really good researcher can frame the important science they want to do in a project that NIH things is important.


3 thoughts on “Problems with the NIH – jr investigator of orphaned field version

  1. Try working outside the American system.

    I run a lab in the UK. We try to get funding from the Medical Research Council (basically NIH, with some differences around the edges) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (basically NSF BIO directorate, with strong emphasis on industrial applicability).

    In NIH terms, MRC has the equivalent of four standing study sections (Molecular and Cellular Medicine, Infections and Immunity, Populations and Systems Medicine [organism-level physiology, basically], and Neuroscience). BBSRC has four, also (which don’t really get names, but are basically Animal Science, Plants/Microbes/Food, Genes and Development, and Tech/Industrial Biotech). As you can imagine, many grants have no obvious home. The councils do try hard to make sure that everything fits somewhere, but this only means that your grant will likely be presented to the committee by someone who has no interest in your field (even very broadly construed).

    There are many diseases and areas of research that are very poorly served because nobody in the system has any particular interest in them.

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