Views of an Unfunded Established Professor

Feb 09 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

The blogosphere has recently echoed with discussion of whiny experienced professors, like me, who suddenly cannot get their grants funded. Both Drugmonkey and Odyssey have rung in, the latter most recently:

In my experience, those who complain the most about being unfunded are also those whose work just isn’t fundable. Despite countless reviews telling them that what they’re doing is just not worth pursuing, these individuals persist. ‘Cos they know better. It’s always the reviewers who are wrong. Always. These PI’s know they are right, and they’re going to stay wedded to their ideas. Til death do they part.

Some (likely very, very few) of them may be right. But that doesn’t matter if the reviewers and funding agencies can’t be convinced.

I agree that some investigators get to attached to an idea, a particular hypothesis or technique. It can be ugly if they haven't considered other interpretations or alternative directions, especially if their pet project fails at the clinical level.

However, I have a particular peeve with competitive renewals. The new improved scoring system at NIH puts a premium on innovation and novelty. To get a project funded for the first submission, it must open new doors and present potential paradigm shifts. But after a few years of experiments, even though the questions aren't all answered, the idea may not seem as innovative. Yawn... same stuff you told us last time with a few new data points thrown in. Where is the novelty now? It seems that finding a good question and examining it in a systematic, incremental way over your career is no longer acceptable; as a PI you must be ready to jump on a new bandwagon with every renewal to keep those reviewers intrigued! Standard techniques and the next logical experiments in the same organ and cells? Why haven't you done that already?

A running target

Science advanced over the ages with baby steps. Only over time can the impact of any single study or experiment be determined. Yet we expect every project to provide that "Wow!" factor every funding period.

It would also be nice if study sections would provide a stationary target. Proposals get reviewed, get revised, and then get a completely different review the next time in, one that suggests undoing all the changes promoted by the first reviewers. No wonder scientists drink!

I recently heard an NIH study section member stand up at a national meeting and state that his own hypothesis was clearly the mechanism in a certain major kidney disease. Those of us with a different view of that disorder shuddered at the thought he might review our proposals. In the current funding climate, one mediocre reviewer is sufficient to drop you to the unfundable range, especially if the other reviewers have any reservations at all.

I have no issues with policies that favor new investigators. I want us all on a level playing field.

But the pressure to perform only science with a "Wow!" factor, rather than working on long-term systematic problem solving is wrong. Did my questions, felt to be important by the initial reviewers, really become outdated in a few years? They certainly weren't answered.

Lucky for me, I have other outlets for my career and energies.

10 responses so far

  • rknop says:

    Word. Sometimes stability is needed to do something real. Too often, funding things with "a high impact factor" really just means funding what's the trendy buzzword this year.

    The real problem is being resource starved. But, given that, there must be a better way than marketing to distribute what we've got.

  • odyssey says:

    Careful! You used "incremental." CPP is gonna go ape over that. 🙂

    There's a whole spectrum of stuff between the truly ho-hum kind of "incremental" that adds nothing of value to society and the "wow!" factor stuff. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. I would dispute that only the "wow!" factor stuff gets funded. Far from it. If I gave that impression it certainly wasn't my intent. And I absolutely would not advocate that people drop everything just to chase the "wow!" My point was simply that after numerous rejections perhaps "established investigators" should rethink what they're doing.

    • WhizBANG! says:

      Once a particular question is asked, most of the work that follows is incremental if the initial hypothesis proves true. If it doesn't, new techniques and directions are required, leading to a drop in productivity while those are developed.

      I would argue that a competitive renewal should, at its heart, be incremental, building stepwise on the findings of the the prior funding periods. If established techniques are adequate to answer a question, that should be acceptable as well. As long as appropriate progress is being made toward answering the question, the work should continue without the "Wow!" factor.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I agree with Odyssey. Despite NIH efforts for Innovation!!11!!, Berg's data showed that Approach and Significance were still more important in deciding score. . Likewise the evidence shows that established investigators still enjoy a substantial boost. Those data confirm my impressions on study section and as a recent applicant.

    To my eye it is still an open question whether newish initiatives for Innovation really change the face of research by much.

  • physioprof says:

    While I certainly don't question your own particular experience, in the aggregate competitive renewals receive *much* better scores than new grants. Take a look at the second graph of this blogge poste from Jeremy Berg:

    30% of competitive renewals are scored inside 10%ile and 50% are inside 20%ile. This suggests that rather than there being a study section bias *against* competitive renewals because they are continuations of projects and are, therefore, no longer innovative, there is actually a massive study section bias *in favor* of competitive renewals. Granted, however, there is a self-selection process going on: if your productivity in the prior project period sucked asse, you are probably not going to submit a competitive renewal.

    • WhizBANG! says:

      The bottom line is something you have said: the days of the single PI lab with 1 or 2 R01s are over. You cannot sustain productivity through times when project shifts directions and new techniques become necessary. You can't weather problems that arise as easily if you don't have big bucks. And there's no money for preliminary data generation, at least through NIdDK. AHA and ADA both cancelled established investigator programs when the economy went south. The well is dry.

      The real problem is that study sections must distinguish between excellent proposals that should all be funded. We can dick around with scoring systems and such all we want, but it won't change the lack of funding to support our system.

      • physioprof says:

        Two R01s is sufficient to sustain a research program in the long term, provided their budgets are not too far below modular maximum.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Proposals get reviewed, get revised, and then get a completely different review the next time in, one that suggests undoing all the changes promoted by the first reviewers.

    And I have to say that in my experience, now a bit outdated, reviewers had a great deal of respect for the prior reviews and the (erroneous, but still...) belief that the current review should be benchmarked to the prior review. There was a hesitation to raise "new" issues. So while this can certainly happen, and it is very frustrating, my experience has always been that it is relatively rare.

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