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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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December 16, 2013

NIH Taking on More RIsk?

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Posted by Derek

You'd have to think that this is at least a step in the right direction: "NIH to experiment with high-risk grants":

On 5 December, agency director Francis Collins told an advisory committee that the NIH should consider supporting more individual researchers, as opposed to research proposals as it does now — an idea inspired in part by the success of the high-stakes Pioneer awards handed out by the NIH's Common Fund.

“It’s time to look at balancing our portfolio,” says Collins, who plans to pitch the idea to NIH institute directors at a meeting on 6 January.

The NIH currently spends less than 5% of its US$30-billion budget on grants for individual researchers, including the annual Pioneer awards, which give seven people an average of $500,000 a year for five years. In contrast, the NIH’s most popular grant, the R01, typically awards researchers $250,000 per year for 3‒5 years, and requires a large amount of preliminary data to support grant applications.

They're not going to get rid of the R01 grant any time soon, but what Collins is talking about here is getting a bit more like the Howard Hughes funding model (HHMI grants run for five years as well, and tend to be awarded more towards the PI than towards the stated projects). One problem is that the NIH is evaluating the success of the Pioneer grants by noting that the awardees publish more highly-cited papers, and that may or may not be a good measure:

But critics say that there is little, if any, evidence that this approach is superior. “'People versus projects’ is the HHMI bumper sticker, but it’s a misreading of what makes the HHMI great,” says Pierre Azoulay, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Azoulay suggests that the findings of the NIH’s 2012 report may actually reflect factors such as the impact of the HHMI’s unusually lengthy funding windows, which allow a lot of time for innovation. In contrast, he says, “the Pioneer grants are freedom with an expiration date”.

Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University in Tempe, adds that funding individual researchers may well increase the number of publications they produce. “But that may or may not have anything to do with enhancing the NIH's potential to contribute to actual health outcomes”, such as translation of research into the clinic, he says.

I'd like for them to set aside some money for ideas that have a low chance of working, but which would be big news if they actually came through. The high-risk high-reward stuff would also have to be awarded more by evaluating the people involved, since none of them would look likely in the "Tell us exactly what results you expect" mode of grant funding. But I can say this, not having to the be the person who wades through the stacks of applications - sorting those out would probably be pretty painful.

Comments (9) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Who Discovers and Why


1. Virgil on December 16, 2013 9:27 AM writes...

Anyone who thinks an R01 "typically awards $250,000 per year for 3‒5 years" is delusional. First, there really is no such thing as a 5 year R01 any more. NIGMS cut them to 4 years a long time ago, and all the other institutes followed suit in the past couple of years.

Second, nobody gets a full budget any more, even modular 250. At one extreme, I had a proposal for which I requested a non-modular budget; the reviewers disagreed so I went modular on the A1 proposal. It scored very highly (2nd %ile) and they still cut the budget by 6%. On the other end of the spectrum, we had a multiple P.I. R01 funded at only 65% of the requested modular budget (~$160k/yr), leaving no money to do any science after salaries are covered. And of course that's before any of this sequestration/continuing resolution BS kicks in next year.

It wouldn't be so bad if modular budget actually meant what it says on the tin, but that's simply not the case any more. Fact is, the institutes are cutting the budgets of FUNDED grants, to artificially extend their paylines.

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2. Anon on December 16, 2013 11:02 AM writes...

"translation of research into the clinic"
As someone who used to work in this space I can say that one of the biggest roadblocks are physicians. If you want resected human tumor (something that was going to be thrown away) they demand you include them on your grants/papers, with absolutely no intellectual contribution. That is especially annoying when they have it on paraffin slides and have already demanded the same of someone else who needed a couple slides of that exact same tissue.
For those of us looking into the cancer stem cells area it is especially vital we get these right out of the OR...the same could be said of other things like left over therapeutic agents... the academic physicians know exactly what they are doing and IMO purposely set up toll booths around translational research.
If you want a scientist to produce more and better translational science, give them access to the tools. I don't think Collins would ever address something like this, though.

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3. Anonymous on December 16, 2013 1:58 PM writes...

@2: "one of the biggest roadblocks are physicians. If you want resected human tumor (something that was going to be thrown away) they demand you include them on your grants/papers, with absolutely no intellectual contribution".

Why is that a "roadblock"? Just include them on your paper, as they request. Unless your ego is the real roadblock?

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4. dearieme on December 16, 2013 5:16 PM writes...

“It’s time to look at balancing our portfolio”

Really? Why wasn't out time ten years ago, or twenty, or more? Why do people use that stupid, pompous phrase?

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5. Cellbio on December 16, 2013 5:35 PM writes...

@4, the phrase is a way for people to indicate that change is needed without making a clear statement about prior strategic choices. Maybe big biology awards like those Dr Collins himself benefited from were right, then, but no longer the best choice in part because of the harm of the prior choices. Maybe those choices were never right. Regardless, the current system favors the entrenched researcher who control editorial boards, grant committees and have the funds and status to hire the best talent and does not support career growth of the new hires on a broad enough scale, so make changes without a heavy political statement about prior choices.

The cynical side of me wonders what would change. Would one be able to predict the awards to individuals based upon their academic pedigree?

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6. DLIB on December 16, 2013 6:31 PM writes...

@3 Because authorship should cease to be the currency of acknowledgment is the appropriate level of recognition for helping someone with material but no intellectual contribution. It's intellectually dishonest to insist on authorship.

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7. Anonymous on December 16, 2013 8:25 PM writes...

@6: Agreed, but it's intellectually stupid to cut your nose off on principle. If a paper is worth publishing, then it's better to co-author with a freeloader than not publish at all.

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8. anon on December 16, 2013 9:21 PM writes...

@6: The problem isn't the authorship on the paper, it's the %effort you have to assign them on your grant where a modest %effort of the relatively enormous physician salary winds up being a lot of money.

@Virgil: "Second, nobody gets a full budget any more, even modular 250."
Totally wrong. Do an NIH Reporter search on %R01% as the funding mechanism and sort by budget. The largest R01 has $6M+ in direct costs per year.

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9. Mica on December 17, 2013 4:56 PM writes...

@8 -- Virgil was correct. Hardly anyone gets requested budget (I would almost dare say no-one, except for special programs like Pioneer), even if modular is submitted. Nothing to do with people getting 6M, which still happens (stated maxima for applications with RO1 code that I've seen were 20M ).

@6/2 Not really. MDs are, in my experiences, which is pretty broad (i.e., n > 10), very eager to help and intellectually curious, one just has to treat people with a respect. If you don't want to put them on paper, go to commercial sources, including foreign. Avoids IRB as well, but you loose valuable consults and samples could be iffy (depending on your applications).

Also, the NIH maximum applies for everyone, so, it's not that much worse than putting full professor of chemistry or biology for the same effort.

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