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Losing your lab

Losing your lab In 2007, more than 4,000 NIH-funded researchers were denied grant renewals. For some,that means they have to close upshop. By Alison McCook Article Extras Web Only: Weaned, via Whitaker Other labs lost For Alan Schneyer, everything changed in June, 2006. The scientist was running a lab in the reproductive endocrinology department at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston, and had recently logged some interesting result

By | May 1, 2008

Losing your lab

In 2007, more than
4,000 NIH-funded
researchers were
denied grant
renewals. For
some,that means
they have to close up
shop.

By Alison McCook

For Alan Schneyer, everything changed in June, 2006. The scientist was running a lab in the reproductive endocrinology department at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston, and had recently logged some interesting results from his knockout mice. The results suggested a protein with a suspected reproductive function could also have a significant effect on glucose metabolism - and, perhaps, diabetes.

However, one morning when he arrived at work and went online, he found that, to his surprise, the grant application he had submitted to explore this hypothesis had been returned, without review. For many scientists, this news would be discouraging. But for Schneyer, who was funded largely on soft money, it was much worse. It meant he had to close his lab.

The process was already slowly underway. One of Schneyer's technicians had decided to go back to school, and he didn't have the funds to replace her. His postdoc soon transferred to another institution. Another technician began to spend more of her time with other groups; she eventually moved to industry.

Alan Schneyer at his new home, PVLSI.
Courtesy of Shawn Henry

In the summer of 2006, Schneyer's lab was surviving off of "not much money" (he doesn't recall the exact number). He had hoped that this metabolism grant, which would replace a 2000 R01 that had run out, would enable him to continue the work. But without this grant, he had only a few months of funding left. His wife was vacationing in Hawaii, five hours behind him. He waited as long as he could to call, then finally woke her to break the news. "'Life's about to change here,'" he told her.

Every NIH-funded biologist can rattle off the story of the agency's budgetary rise and fall over the last 15 years. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton pledged to double the NIH budget within five years. He did, and the agency's R&D budget jumped from $13 billion in 1998 to $26 billion in 2003 - triggering a flood of scientists into the field, a burst of building activity at institutions, and the expectation that any well-respected scientist with a reasonable idea could receive federal funding.

That all ended in 2003, when the country was consumed by terrorism, a budget deficit, and a war. So in 2003, NIH's R&D budget began to, as many now say, flatline: tracking inflation and inching from $26.4 billion in 2003, to $27.2 billion in 2004, and $27.9 billion in 2005. The situation has not changed much since then: For fiscal year 2009, President George W. Bush requested $29.5 billion.

The trouble is, science doesn't shift as quickly as political focus does, and NIH grant applications continued to pour in, even when the amount of available money slowed to a trickle. In 1999, scientists submitted 8,957 applications for R01 grants classified as type 1, or new submissions (these figures include only original applications, not resubmissions). The agency awarded 1,761 applications, for a success rate of 19.7%. By 2005, the number of applications rose to 10,605, and only 970 were approved. That means only 9.1% were successful, and 9,635 were rejected - more than the total number of submissions only six years earlier.

Without this grant, Schneyer had only a few months of funding left.

For type 2 grant applications, which request to continue an already-awarded R01 grant, the numbers tell the same story. In 1999, 3,214 funded scientists requested renewals; 1,772 received them, for a success rate of more than 55%. By 2005, 3,896 needed renewals of their grants, but only 1,262 requests were awarded; the success rate had fallen below 33%. So among nearly 4,000 scientists who were working off NIH funds in 2005, more than 2,600 lost that support. In 2007, more than 4,100 scientists were denied renewals of their R01s.

Scientists always have the option to revise and resubmit their original applications, but that process puts funding on hold for approximately one year. For Schneyer and others who are supported by soft money, they might need that NIH grant funding for all their expenses: other researchers in their lab, supplies, their own salaries. Without it, how do they make it through the year?

A few years ago, things were looking good for Schneyer. He received an R01 in 1999, and another in 2000. He'd been at MGH for almost 20 years, paying people in his lab using grant money, since his institution contributed very little. It was a generally productive time: According to ISI, Schneyer's nearly 100 papers have accumulated more than 2,000 citations.

Schneyer with his new lab group at PVLSI, (L to R): Jessica Zina, Lara Bonomi, and Fuminori Kimura.
Courtesy of Shawn Henry

Lately, he'd been getting some interesting results: When he created mice that lacked follistatin-like-3 protein, which he thought played a role in reproduction, he was surprised to see that the mice appeared to reproduce just fine. Instead, he noticed metabolic changes, including larger islet cells, altered fat distribution, and fatty liver, a sign of insulin resistance -only, these mice weren't insulin resistant (Proc Natl Acad Sci, 104:1348-53, 2007).

In 2003, he began applying for a renewal of a 1999 R01 grant, which explored the role of three different types of follistatin made from the same gene. It was returned without review; so was his revised application. The same thing happened to his 2000 grant renewal request, which focused on the follistatin-like-3 knockouts. Schneyer had weathered funding dips before, avoiding severe belt tightening by postponing new hires until another grant came in. But this time, there was no money on the horizon for months, if not a year or more, given the amount of time resubmission would require.

His staff slowly began dripping out of the lab. One of his technicians moved to Genzyme, a Boston biotech. He helped his postdoc find a post at Brigham and Women's Hospital. When his grant was returned without review in June, 2006, Schneyer warned his research associate, Yisrael Sidis, who was still partly dependent on Schneyer for his salary, that he would also need to start looking for other work. "I said, 'we have enough money until October. After October, there's no money.'" It was a "depressing but also anxious moment, because I didn't know what was going to happen," Schneyer says. "But I think that was the point when I realized I was definitely going to have to leave."

"That was the point when I realized I was definitely going to have to leave." -Alan Schneyer

After the summer in 2006, Schneyer kept up his salary with bridge support from MGH, small grants from Pfizer, and collaborations with other scientists. He also received money from NIH to maintain special resources, such as his knockout mice. However, at only $14,000 per year, it was significantly less than the $20,000-$25,000 the mice typically cost.

In the fall of 2006, he began looking for new positions, and had some prospects in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Chicago. But with a home in Concord, Mass., and two teenagers in high school, Schneyer didn't want to uproot his family or shuttle between states. The only viable opportunity within commuting distance was Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute (PVLSI), where he would receive a stable salary not dependent on grants. But it was a long commute - a 90-minute drive from Boston, to Springfield, Mass. - and thus a major drawback that required much thought. "I guess it's one of those things that takes a while for you to accept." Eventually, he decided it was better than taking a job even farther away. Recalling that decision, he rocks back on his heels and folds his arms. "Everybody I know who's done that, the marriages didn't survive it. And that seemed like an awfully high price to pay."

In May, he left the facility where he had worked for 20 years. His boss threw a get-together for him a week or two before his last day. "It was really sad to leave MGH. It was a great place to work." He spent his last days sorting through old files, papers, and notes about experiments he now realized he would never finish - "mostly just clearing out the evidence of my existence there."

In the MGH's reproductive endocrinology unit on the fifth floor of a red brick building called Bartlett Hall, researcher Yisrael Sidis points to a narrow closed door with a glass panel. "Dr. Schneyer used to have this office," he says. Inside the office, piles of papers obscure the floor, and a scientist stirs. The sign on the door now reads "Nelly Pitteloud." (She declined to be interviewed for the article.)

Sidis, Schneyer's soft-spoken former research associate, points out two small lab benches, still unmanned at 8:30 A.M., where Schneyer's group previously worked. He quickly checks one of his gels before heading into a small office, which he shares with an officemate who sits less than 1 meter away. Currently, Sidis is working on the genetics of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) deficiency. He is hoping that clues from patients with disorders that cause the problem (which come with symptoms such as late sexual development or no puberty) will reveal basic information about reproduction. The genetics component of the lab has slowly expanded, and now occupies Schneyer's old benches.

Sidis says he doesn't recall the exact moment when Schneyer told him he was closing his lab, but he remembers how it felt. "Alan is a very strong person, he's very optimistic," Sidis says. "I'm not as strong a person, so it was harder for me," he jokes. Sidis had come to MGH 10 years before to work with Schneyer, and had never had his own grant. Fortunately, Pitteloud was applying for a new grant and needed a new person like Sidis. When Schneyer left, she moved into his office.

Schneyer was a very well-respected member of the unit, Sidis says. "When he left here, people felt like he was the basic scientist for the [reproductive endocrinology] unit. He was an important contributor to discussions in meetings." When Schneyer left, he took his mice, reagents, and equipment. "It was a bad time. For me, it was very hard," says Sidis. "It was ridiculous that such a large research institute didn't have support for such an established researcher. He was here for 20 years."

From 2006 to 2007, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute increased the money it set aside for researchers who lost funding from $1 million to $4 million per year.

Actually, MGH did provide Schneyer with support: two grants of $30,000 each in the late 1990s when he ran low on funds, and two $50,000 grants in 2005 and 2006, says Rick Bringhurst, vice president for research administration. "That's an unusually generous amount," he notes. Last year, the institution spent $3 million in interim funds for faculty who'd lost federal support, but with approximately 500 NIH-funded principal investigators, MGH can't keep everybody in business. "I don't doubt that we have" lost faculty who, like Schneyer, couldn't keep their labs open, he says. "This is a fact of life in an academic medical center like this."

Bringhurst says he, too, was sad to see Schneyer go, since they'd known each other for years. But PVLSI could offer Schneyer something MGH couldn't: A stable income. "I thought [Schneyer's departure] was a tremendous loss for the institution. But there wasn't much we could do. He had a good opportunity, and I think he chose wisely."

By 2006, Dana Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) president, Edward Benz, and his colleagues saw what was happening to the NIH budget, and they realized that the "contingency fund" they were setting aside wasn't going to be enough. The institute typically provided less than $1 million to keep researchers who lost funding afloat until they could resubmit their renewal applications. However, for fiscal year 2007, the institution increased that amount to $4 million (from discretionary accounts generated by fundraising). "We would, in a sense, substitute for the National Cancer Institute," says Benz.

DFCI researchers were eligible for so-called bridge funding if their NIH grant application score fell within the top 15% of applications, but was still not good enough to merit funding. The DFCI "arbitrarily" capped these awards at $200,000 per scientist, Benz says. Over the course of the year, the NCI became able to award a higher percentage of grants, so only four faculty members applied for the awards - all received them, Benz says. "There was virtually none we thought were under-performing. They were just in a bad environment." For FY2008, the institution has set aside "just under" $2 million for bridge funds, and Benz says he's hoping that amount will be enough. "We're holding our breath on this." Bridge funding ends up costing more than it seems, he adds: For every scientist who loses a grant, the DFCI loses the approximately 70% in indirect costs it would receive (more than $500,000 on an $800,000 grant).

At the University of Pittsburgh, the institution offers bridge funds to researchers who lost a grant but are likely to resecure NIH funding within a year, says the dean of the School of Medicine, Arthur Levine. The school also gives preference to researchers who will suffer most if they lose funds. For instance, if a clinical trial goes unfunded, is there a cohort of patients who would drop off, ending the study? Levine estimates that the university has received between 10 and 20 applications for bridge funds within the last six months, and all but one of the Pitt researchers who have received supplementary money eventually were funded by NIH. (He declined to say how much money he put aside for bridge funds.)

Both Levine and Benz say they believe in bridge funding because scientists, their labs, and their research are investments: Over the lifespan of a typical lab, its institution provides some funds to keep it running. "I'm not going to close any lab where the likelihood of resubmission [of an NIH grant] is high," says Levine. "I've made a big investment in that lab ... closing [it] is absolutely a last resort."

The NIH, too, makes efforts to save strong scientists from closing shop. In 2007, the agency announced the NIH Director's Bridge Award, in which NIH institutes can nominate applicants who score well but aren't funded, and have little additional support (less than $400,000), for a one-year grant of up to $500,000. In FY2007, NIH received $91 million to support these "vulnerable research programs," according to the agency. The program "basically buys the investigator time," says Norka Ruiz Bravo, deputy director of NIH's Extramural Research.

Like institutions, the agency sees top scientists as investments it doesn't want to lose, Ruiz Bravo adds. If a lab has to scale down operations, it will let go of highly trained people, which can severely set back a project, even if funding eventually returns. "It's hard to regain that momentum and regain those persons back in the laboratory."

After two tries, Schneyer submitted a grant as a new application, then revised it twice more, for a total of five submissions. Then, it was funded.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) has its own bridge-funding program, which began in the late 1990s. First-time renewal applications receiving a score that is within 10 percentage points of the payline (the score below which all applications are funded) can typically receive around one-third of the funding they would have received if renewed for one year, says director Jeremy Berg. Now, the agency is looking at how many scientists who receive bridge awards end up with successful applications, and it is figuring out how to coordinate the NIGMS awards with the NIH Director's Bridge Award (which is higher), he says. In FY2007, NIGMS issued 62 interim awards totaling nearly $7 million, and the NIH Director's Bridge Award gave 51 awards, or a total of $14 million, to NIGMS grantees. "The intent is really to keep labs in business," says Berg.

Alan Schneyer's new lab is surrounded by warehouses and parking lots. The region used to be rife with bustling manufacturing facilities, and local politicians, including Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, are trying to establish a biotech corridor that runs from Boston to Springfield. The five-year-old facility where Schneyer works is affiliated with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Baystate Medical Center, which sits across the street. The hope is that PVLSI will eventually attract other biotechs to fill the empty lots that now surround the facility.

On a foggy President's Day in February, the labs at PVLSI are also largely empty; most of the chairs are draped with the lab coats of people who have taken off for the holiday. However, tucked away in a corner, three people sit close together, plugging away at Schneyer's latest project. One scientist taps her pencil rhythmically against an image of wild-type mouse islet cells as she counts the insulin cells, to determine how that number changes in knockout mice. Another scientist flips through published papers. A gynecologist from Japan, Fuminori Kimura, turns from his computer to explain that he decided to come to PVLSI to work with Schneyer. Here, Kimura plans to spend a few years looking more deeply at the reproductive phenotype of knockout mice, to determine how follistatin affects ovarian function. (His wife and three children, 11, 9, and 3, moved to Amherst in September, and the oldest are in public school. When asked if they have learned to speak English yet, he shrugs, and says: "They cannot.") In the microscope room, Rong Shao smiles as Schneyer explains that he received his first R01 a few days ago, after two years and three tries.

Schneyer brought his knockout mice to his new post, along with some equipment he had bought with his grants. The rest remained at MGH. Only a couple of weeks after he started at PVLSI, he found out that his 1999 grant renewal application (which, after two tries, he submitted as a new application, then revised twice more, for a total of five submissions) had been accepted by the NIH. With that, he became the first full-time PVLSI scientist to receive an R01. (Shao was the second.)

In the end, Schneyer could have remained at MGH, since one of his grants eventually was funded (although at only two-thirds the requested level). He says he would have preferred to have stayed at MGH, but felt that the risk of holding out this long was too great. And there are many advantages of being at PVLSI, Schneyer says. He pulls out a small, waxy block that contains a yellow shadow within, roughly 1-cm long: "That's the pancreas." Here at PVLSI, there are two full-time histology experts in the pathology department who can help Schneyer section pancreatic tissue, a notoriously difficult process, producing 20 slices in around three hours. "When I was at MGH, I had to do this myself," sometimes taking all day, he says. Even if his grants were funded while at MGH, his research was moving in a metabolic direction, which would have been an issue in a reproductive unit. "I was already moving beyond MGH, in a way," he says. "I was trying to learn metabolism, and the people I was learning from weren't in my unit."

And there's the security of knowing his salary doesn't depend on a study section in Bethesda, Md. Only a few days earlier, he learned that his 2000 grant was not funded - his third attempt. "I was surprised at my reaction," says Schneyer in his PVLSI office over coffee. "It didn't bother me, because I knew that I had resources here already."

The application was returned, again unscored. "When I was at MGH, every time I looked at my computer to see what the score was, it was a very stressful day. And here, I just forgot all about it." He needs the extra funds, and will reapply, but it's no longer a matter of life or death. "We're already doing the work. Eventually, I have to get it funded by the NIH, but I don't have this, you know, guillotine coming down [as if to say] 'Okay, after this third submission, this grant's dead. You're dead. Goodbye'."

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Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 5

May 7, 2008

Some advice from one of the 4,000 scientists forced to close a lab after failing to renew a five-year R01: don't do "soft-money". In retrospect, I should have taken the newly awarded R01, run for the exit, and gotten a position with a salary.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

May 7, 2008

This article appears, to me, to suggest that NIH is at fault for the declining "paylines" that are threatening our current biomedical research structure. In fact, the doubling of the NIH budget resulted in a large increase in the number of soft money positions created by universities and institutes to "get their share" of this windfall. The number of PhDs granted far exceeds the number of faculty positions available. Existing tenured faculty are remaining active longer. These combine to mean that establishing an independent laboratory is difficult, unless one is willing to take the risk of a soft money position. This increase in the number of soft money positions, of course, had the predictable result that, when costs of inflation exceeded subsequent increases in budget, money becomes tight again. However, those in soft money positions (such as me) didn't have the security of a guaranteed salary. In addition, universities have reduced their salary support of tenured faculty, putting more burden on the NIH for the universities' staff. The ultimate source of the current tight funding line is the failure of the universities and institues to be responsible for their own growth plans. Another doubling of the NIH budget would cause the same cycle. That is not the answer. The universities need to accept that biomedical research has inherent value to them, and be willing to more actively support the recurring costs of research. Getting donors to construct buildings for more soft-money positions is not a long term solution.\n\nAlso, please note that the NIH rarely returns research grant applications "without review" (and then only for administrative reasons - e.g. multiple identical submissions, or submission of a revision as a new application). All other applications are reviewed. Applications judged to be in the lower half, in terms of scientific merit, are unscored - returned without discussion, but with full written critiques. With the current level of competition, many excellent applications fall in the lower half, and many outstanding applications have to compete for the limited funding available. Having an application unscored does not mean that the science, or the scientist, is poor; it just means that there are better applications out there.\n\nI have been unscored. I have lost my lab and my position. However, I don't fault the NIH for the circumstances.\n\n[Anonymous because I am not authorized to post an official comment in the name of my employer]
Avatar of: BRIAN SCHEPART

BRIAN SCHEPART

Posts: 2

May 7, 2008

The frustration of grantsmanship was a major reason for my transition from academia to an industrial setting. My ideas and preliminary results were not good enough for an RO1, but somehow a reviewer later used those ideas for many years of funding. This was repeated several times over a few years, so I took the opportunity to exit the arena. I have been very successful in all of my endeavors, and only regret leaving the critical mass of people who loved research as much as I. The goal to produce money-making products continues to control the private and public environs, so let us not fool ourselves to think we can get lost in our own world of the laboratory. I am so glad that many institutions take on the responsibility of nurturing fellow scientists - isn't that where most administrators started out? Good luck to all in this rediculously competitive field of learning.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 6

May 7, 2008

After spending over half trillion dollars else where, why shouldn't we blame the NIH and government? One year budget for NIH is less than 50 billion. The government spent more than 10yrs worth of NIH budget already and will likely spend more. NIH director didn't do a good job defending the budget. Current administration is destroying science. Why can we just be honest and plain? Soft money no more? You are very wrong. Research needs money in any form and in any shape. Our tax money need to be spend for science. How can we pay our taxes and have that money spent on wars and then tell our children to do well in science? This administration is destroying the future of science. Period.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 34

May 7, 2008

This is a very interesting article. As a young scientist in a clinical department (soft money) I understand this situation very keenly. However, what is to be done for the young PhDs? The K99 award is great, but with the number of postdocs it does not have the funding to help everybody. Additionally, there are many people, like me, that are now ?too old? for the K99, and are stuck trying to cobble together a career on little to no funding. Am I whining about funding? Yes. Am I concerned that we have created a situation that is dissuading postdocs, graduates, and even those finishing their bachelors from entering science? Yes. Thus, what can be done for the ?next generation?? Rumors abound about NIH capping the number of grants, and many European countries have mandatory retirement. However, are these options appropriate for the US scientific enterprise? There is always going to be a need for basic scientists; who else will teach in the first two years of medical or pharmacy school, doctors? To continue top notch studies we need a spectrum of ages in our profession; teaching (and grant writing) is a learning experience that is aided by both the old(er) professor that has ?done this hundreds of times? and the young(er) professor that brings ?new ideas and fresh energy?. Thus, again, what can be done for the young researchers in this time of budget tightening that is not a quick fix that would ?cause the same cycle? as stated earlier? Perhaps we do need a new way of dealing with research: from funding mechanisms to the responsibility of universities to research and their employees.
Avatar of: Shanthi Raam

Shanthi Raam

Posts: 43

May 7, 2008

When I read this story, tears rolled down my cheeks faster than I could rub them off. This was practically my story back in 1990s , a soft momey supported scientist at Tufts University, Department of Medicine, working on hormone therapy resistant breast cancer, solving the puzzle as to why 60 percent of estrogen receptor positive breast cancers fail to respond to hormone therapies. Functionally defective receptors were found, technology developed to detect them in cancer biopsies, a clinical pilot study completed to veify the significance of this test; all these made possible with support from ACS during initial stages and NIH at later stages. At a crucial time, when I was trying for newly introduced SPORE grant with long term support which would enable me to expand the clinical pilot study to a national large scale study, everything came to a halt. My project was not funded. I was also running a fee for service lab to bring in additional money (Oncology Lab at Tufts Medical cancer Unit at LSH Boston)which provided me lab space and research material (breast cancer biopsies)and that lab had to be closed. The similarity between the story told by The Scientist and mine stops here. I was unable to find another position to continue my work despite my attempts for almost six years. Only thing I could do to salvage my research findings was to file a patent ( which I wrote and and defended myself ) and I now hold a US patent for the technique I developed for detecting functionally defective estrogen receptors in tumor biopsies. \nI cannot fault either NIH or Tufts University for any of these. There were many scientists at that time in the same predicament. I just blame the lack of a systematic viable approach in our great nation of USA to nurture scientists and their clinically significant projects with permanent salary support. An extension of just three to five year support at that crucial time would have seen the project to completion; test results verified in large scale study, would have benefited the breast cancer patients, medical oncologists would have been able to find out whether or not the patient would benefit from hormone therapy before they decide on their therapeutic management; lives could have been saved.\nI still attend breast cancer conferences, to find out if there are new tests which could accomplish the same as the simple test developed by our team at Tufts; so far there are not any. The new genetic marker tests have yet a long way to go. \n\nNIH should be lauded for its efforts. There are new programs for long term support for the scientists; better support for translational research nearing completion. The government alone cannot and should not carry the full burden. Universities, research institutions and corporations in private sector should all be sharing this resposibility.
Avatar of: JOHN L MORTON

JOHN L MORTON

Posts: 2

May 8, 2008

Much the same thing happened to me in the UK. I've never for a moment regretted taking on a mainly-teaching job with a proper salary. Trying to be a post-doc AND mixing for your own salary at the same time can get to be soul-destroying. \nI think the most indefensible part of the whole process is that patronage can play such a part in the allocation of posts. When you put that with the last point made in the original article, namely that the faliure to get a grant can result in being considered incompetent, it's no wonder that people give up on a full-time science career.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 5

May 8, 2008

The article points out that 4000 R01's were not renewed in 2007. \nHow many scientists lost their labs? \nIf you did not lose your lab, what made a difference?\nDo you still have a salary despite losing an R01?\nWhat are your plans for continuing in basic research?\n\nThere is a dearth of information out there on how many scientists are now out of work. This is a chance to get some data on the effects of the flat NIH budget.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

May 8, 2008

We need to train more medical students so we can have more salaried positions. Perhaps, some senior researchers can spend more time teaching instead of writing more and more grants. \n\nCapping grants at 3-4 R01 appears to be reasonable. Giving more chance to younger scientists is a must. As a scientist, I have very hard time seeing people who are well trained but cannot find a job. It is wrong to spend some many years learning how to do things but then cannot do it. Spending an enormous amounts of money on a war that will not help our country in any way is just wrong.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

May 8, 2008

The article states that bridge funds are available at some institutions for grants that 'did not merit funding' by NIH. In fact, getting funded has become pretty much of a crapshoot and has little to do with merit. My guess is that most grants that are fundd are deserving, but some grants that are not funded are at least as deserving or more so. With scientists having to apply three times for the same grant, and budgetary and personnel cuts within NIH, it is a struggle to get grants reviewed well. Just as the government has 'cut' funding for grants, it has cut funding within NIH, and the process of reviewing grants has become unwieldy.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

May 8, 2008

While NIH is taking a beating here, we should be directing a little ire at our institutions who are happy to hire soft money faculty during good times but leave them to hang when times get tough - all while new buildings are going up all around them. Soft money research faculty do more than just their own research. They provide important institutional service, often taking on less-than-desirable committee assignments just to keep their jobs, and they teach and mentor students and fellows. Institutions are happy to take your ICRs when times are good but why can't they at least promise salary coverage while you try to scramble and keep your lab going (unless you are doing such expensive transgenic mouse expts.).\n\nI was in a particularly harsh soft-money situation where I still had a R01 but the annual budgetary erosion combined with the need to keep my people paid (with their annual 4-6% COLA). This situation required me to reduce my % effort, an unacceptable metric at my institution. I was asked to go to half-salary and would then be let go in 6-9 months if I did not get another grant - I only had one shot at a new R01 and, not surprisingly, it came back unscored. I was extremely lucky to find a 12-month appointment at a small college where I can do still do my research on a smaller scale and will be appreciated for having "only" one R01.\n\nPerhaps the glut of qualified PhDs allows biomedical institutions to treat research profs as transient labor who simply rent lab space, but the lack of institutional commitment to researchers will impede the next generation of scientific progress as much as the decline in NIH awards.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 3

May 9, 2008

First, my empathy for all who were forced to close their labs.\nJudging from the success (or lack thereof) of all my colleagues in my department (OK, anecdotal, yet N > 100) I simply cannot see a pattern of a correlation between strength of a researcher and funding success. I think it is fair to say that after more than a decade of closely observing their work, I have a better feel for who is conducting strong research than a reviewer rushing through a dense 30 page document. It just seems that success of getting funded is almost purely stochastic, i.e. driven by chance. \n The abysmal ignorance manifest in the oftentimes kafkaesque reviewer comments supports this notion. People at least subconsciously notice this lack of correlation, and especially the young aggressive and desperate scientists who have never seen the days of fair reviews and high funding rate, respond by applying the law of mass action to increase the probability of getting funded. ("if he/she can get funded, so could I..."). As a consequence, the NIH review system is flooded by applications. This environment leads to the evolution among young investigators of sophisticated,streamlined grant writing machineries that involve lots of recycling. It becomes a skill in its own right, detached from actual research skill. And indeed, all my colleagues get their first funding after on average 20 trials. This number is well in line with the funding rate of ~5%.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

May 9, 2008

To echo the article and some comments, it's tragic to lose a lab after many successful, productive years, exciting collabortions, and dear friendships made with staff and trainees. \n\nOne major problem that has been mentioned by others is the building spree that research centers went on during flush times and the massive expansion of PhD training programs at many institutions. I have seen our own PhD program expand mindlessly by about 5-fold over 15 years, during the flush times, of course. Never once during any discussion of these proposed expansions have I heard a faculty member or an administrative person ask whether the expansion is in the best intersts of the students. Not once! \n\nMedical schools keep close tabs on how many MD's are minted each year. Not so with PhD's. PI's look for cheap grad student labor, grad schools get into a grad student salary bidding wars, schools dig depper into the pile of applications, thus decreasing the overall quality of the student pool - perhaps marginally in some cases, but pretty dramatically in others. \n\nI think the current administration is as anti-science as anything I have witnessed in my nearly 6 decades, and blame them for the current crisis specifically and the devaluation of science in general. But the institutions also need to share in the blame game.\n\nAnd to make a final point, some have commented that important clinical studies haven't been funded. True and regrettable. I would argue that basic science is even more important. Don't forget that RNAi, this year's Nobel Prize winner, came from the most basic genetic studies of C elegans. Now it has the promise of uses in gene therapy, not to mention its already ubiquitous use in studies of gene function. \n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

May 9, 2008

I am a Ph.D. faculty member in a clinical department at a university- naturally with a soft money position. So far, I've managed to survive, getting my R01s renewed after many tries, etc, but the whole exhausting, stochastic, drawn-out process drains away enthusiasm, time, and energy for research. Even though I love science, I think that if, when I was a young adult, I'd known anyone- family member or close friend- who had actually gotten a Ph.D. and tried to be an academic, I would have been able to make more informed career decisions, and probably wouldn't have gotten a Ph.D.\n\nBeing in such a soft money position can make faculty feel more like temp workers than appreciated long-term members of the academic community. Most likely, my university is only fond of me until the next time I have a funding gap of some sort. Just the understandable Darwinian way things are currently set up to operate, as money is necessary for accomplishing things, and universities, as well as companies, have limited resources and try to direct them to maximal financial effect.\n\nI have trouble now encouraging young people to get a Ph.D., even though I enjoy much of my day-to-day life as a scientist. The whole situation of having your ability to pay your mortgage and keep your job dependent upon the capricious, yet also very long (what a combo!) NIH grant review process, and a few anonymous reviewers in a room somewhere across the country, is very unsettling. \n\nI wonder how many people who are children of Ph.D. scientists (academic or otherwise) chose to get Ph.D.s? On the one hand, those children probably grow up with a greater appreciation of, and affinity for, science than the average person, but on the other hand, many of them watch their parents struggle constantly to get support for their work, work like maniacs, etc. I wouldn't be surprised if those amongst them who decide to pursue post-BA/BS training mostly decide to do things like get MBAs or MDs instead. A child of mine has decided only to do science as a hobby, after watching his parents and parents' friends have their lives and moods overly controlled and consumed by the process of writing, re-writing, and re-re-writing grants, and recovering from the sometimes devastating impact of less than ecstatic reviews.\n\nWasn't it Einstein who said something to the effect that science is great unless you need to earn a living at it? I whole-heartedly agree.\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

May 9, 2008

I would never recommend a soft money position now to new scientists. The article is somewhat comical in that the MGH official states that Schneyer was supported four times (for a grand total of $160,000 over twenty years) while they raked in at least about 1.12 million in indirect funding (at a rate of 72% and assuming two four year RO1s at 200K/year). This is why soft-money positions should disappear. Most major academic medical institutes are happy to take indirects at top dollar (70-80%), but are unwilling to provide more than minimal institutional commitment. Most often the commitment comes in the form of "space" that is given to the department as a function of indirect cost density. Space is important and expensive, but obviously doesn't pay any bills. Indirect cost accounting is also a somewhat arbitrary and bogus shell game. NIH should increase its budget, but there has to be a matching effort on the part of the institutions. Heck Harvard has its multi-billion endowment. Partners in Boston (MGH and the Brigham and McLean Hospital) collect about 25% of their total revenue from Federally supported research.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 5

May 10, 2008

Soft money is bad for American science and will continue to discourage any rational person from pursuing a career in basic research. When a scientist has a mortgage, children to support, and family health insurance depending on some arbitrary, most likely negative, decision made by a study section in Bethesda, this scientist is taking a BIG chance on his/her career by accepting a soft money position.\n\nThe NIH must make changes to reduce the incentives for creating "soft-money" positions. A built-in incentive for research institutes to create soft money positions is that administrators (often very eager for money to expand their activities) get $70,000 to $80,000 "overhead" for every $100,000 the PI is awarded. There is everything to gain and almost nothing to lose from an institutional standpoint. If a PI loses his/her grant, the institution has no incentive to keep him or her. They can just fire the "loser" and hire another sucker to bring in the big overheads. However, it is very clear that many or most scientists who lose their grants are not losers, but are victims of bad NIH strategy. One can be very good and still lose a grant, depending on how many grants are ahead of yours in the queue.\n\nTo keep scientists from dropping out of basic research, every institution that signs off on an NIH grant should commit their own funds to pay 100% of a PI's salary and health-care benefits. The NIH should also either award funds to be put into reserve by the institution, or create their own savings reserve to help PI's survive the inevitable dry spells in funding. Saving for dry spells is currently not consistent with NIH fiscal policy, but it should be.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

May 12, 2008

It appears to me that both the NIH and the Universities are to blame for the funding mess we are in and I cuncur with the blogs posted. One issue mentioned, but not discussed, has been the overhead taken by universities. 60-80% is a lot of money. If a university has only a small number of researchers pulling in grants, then I can understand the need for these large overheads. However, there are large research centers with dozens, or even hundreds of scientists pulling in R01s. It seems to me that, above a certain amount of overhead brought in, a university can reduce the overhead requested to something like 25%. When the 101st scientist is awarded an R01, how much more is the university really doing to support him above and beyond the support given to the first 100 scientists? Let's face it, $72000 per year is high rent for a 1000 sq. foot lab and with no support. The actual granting of overhead was initiated during World War II so as to encourage war-related research efforts and to help the universities develop the necessary facilities. Who would want to give that up?\nAnother financial point is the direct costs that are also claimed by the universities, usually 30-35%. Is every scientist entitled to all of the benefits being paid for? How many scientists on soft-money are on so-called tenure track positions? Those that aren't might be contributing to the sabbatical fund which they are not entitled to use.\nThe savings to NIH from inappropriately distributed indirect and direct costs could go back into the pie and release more funds for actual research.
Avatar of: Shanthi Raam

Shanthi Raam

Posts: 43

May 12, 2008

I totally agree with all the comments which profess to do do away with soft money positions. \nThere may be a way to accomplish this by restricting soft money positions only to new post-docs who are getting established in their career. Even at this stage these soft money positions must be a five year contract with peformance review on the third year. If a post doc has been successful in obtaining a grant, establishing collaborations, developing a viable project with significant goals, he/she should be promoted to a perment position, on a ten year contract postion with performance review in the fifth year. Granting agencies must award grants with 60-70% indirect costs to the institutions only to investigators in permanent positions . Post-docs in soft money positions should be awarded grants with a maximum of 30% indirect costs. This might encourage the universities and the institutions to move the post-docs to permanet salaried positions.Within five years, the scientist will be able to evaluate whether or not he/she is suited for this career path; the institutions will be able to determine whether or not the scientist will qualify for a permanent position at their institution.
Avatar of: GORAN HELLEKANT

GORAN HELLEKANT

Posts: 10

May 12, 2008

The present system does not work when 1 out of 8 or 10 applications is funded. The amount of labor to produce a proposal that has a chance of being funded is out of proportions. My proposals have gone from a simple application to a Page Maker color printed publication which with all mandated additions is close to 100 pages. And among all the things I write, it is a waste, because its readership is limited to some 20 people. If it is funded it goes in the waste basket, if it is not funded it goes into the same basket! \nFurthermore, looking back on 30 years in the business and a few NIH grants, my best ideas were never funded (they may have been ?borrowed? though). So here are my suggestions. Each PhD who aspires a scientific career, e.g., an assistant professor is assured a block grant $50-100k each year as long as sufficient publication output is maintained. Proof of that is the only thing needed to submit to NIH each year. The initial selection is based on a PhD, thesis grades and post doctoral performance. At each seven year interval, he/she submits a list of publication, the copy of the publications produced over the 7 years and other evidences the candidates want to include showing an active research program to NIH. If approved, another sequence of block grants will begin. The revised system should include the possibility of applying for more money along the lines of the present system. \n However, fading federal funding is only part of the problem and the solution, as with many other problems in our society, has to address other factors. One contributing is the fading state support for public university. For example both University of Minnesota and University of Wisconsin receive today just over 15% of their support from respective state, a decrease from some 50% some 20 years ago. If one couples this with a more than 100% increase of administrative staff, which brings in no extramural grants and a tripling of their salary compared with that of faculty over the same period and we have a recipe for research disaster. Add to this the fact that the number of people who bring in most federal grants the tenured professors grew with only 17% over the same period, then it is clear that the system is braking down. Finally let us not forget the indirect costs, negotiated by the very same administrators, deduct at least 50% and at many institutions close to 100% from the total federal money, and we have a system that is impossible to maintain. The result is without question that USA is rapidly falling behind Europe and the rest of the world that invest its resources in peace dividends.\nG Hellekant\nProfessor\n\n\n \n\n\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 4

May 20, 2008

We were recently told that we should increase graduate student salaries and apply for training grants to attract students to the institution. I however question the importance of attracting more graduate students into the trap of soft money positions supported by temporary funding. Indeed all these training grants should exclusively support MD-PhD or PharmD-PhD positions to ensure that the trainees can be gainfully employed at the end of their training period. NIH should recognize training programs by the percentage of students who ultimately (within 10 years) receive NIH funding to support their research and fail those programs with less than 50% success. Indeed, few people get the opportunity to truly follow their interest in academic science. Minimum publishable units currently litter the literature for all to sift through in the practice of safe science to show productivity. To be successful at developing new ideas, the system cannot demand success from each applicant. Given that Mendel's work remained unappreciated for 30 years after his death, the field of genetics could not have been funded in the current environment. Indeed, the best projects should have a high chance of failure given that research attempts to break new ground. NIH needs to force institutions to cover at least 50% of faculty salaries and to provide a small continuous research fund with guaranteed shared space and equipment to qualify for RO1 application. This will ensure that high risk projects can flourish. Moreover, these highly trained individuals who start with high grades after their undergrad degrees and train for an additional 15 years on average can continue to progress after loss of funding, albeit slowly, rather than waste their time unproductively submitting grants that are going to be unscored 60% of the time and funded less that 10% of the time with little opportunity to test their novel ideas. Indeed name recognition and recent high profile productivity remains the most important requirements for funding. Since funding is required for productivity, this is a catch 22. Providing continuous research support makes good business sense to achieve the funding goal. Institutions do not appear to care, as there is an oversupply of post-docs waiting for faculty positions. Little do these post-docs recognize that once they are faculty, they will spend most of their time writing grants and mediocre papers till they finally get a break for 3-5 years when the cycle begins once again.
Avatar of: Nejat Duzgunes

Nejat Duzgunes

Posts: 10

May 31, 2008

I am saddened by the plight of highly successful and dedicated scientists like Alan Schneyer. The situation is also a disservice to the many Ph.D. students and Post-doctoral Fellows who are being trained to leap into this struggle.\n\nAfter extensive discussions and 3 meetings around the country to try to improve the NIH peer review of grant applications, NIH came up with a "solution" that is more complicated than the problem it is trying to solve. This "solution" has an incredible array of connections between factors like review and reviewer quality, different types of science, rating system, stress on the support system, different career stages, administrative burden, continuous review, shorter applications, shorter reviews, editorial board model, transformative research, explicit ranking, matrix rating, MERIT award mechanism, early career support, no amendment, prebuttals, reduce review errors, focus on ideas/impact, attract best reviewers, seek/support boldest ideas/support clinical & basic research, more focus on PI, focus on merits of science. Unfortunately, I could not upload the amazingly complicated figure from the NIH report with numerous gray and red arrows between these numerous factors.\n\nThe solution to our granting system is not supposedly better peer review, because peer review, as it stands now, will always be fraught with ignorance, jealousy, severe competition, and simply bad decisions that will affect the lives and productivity of biomedical scientists. When there are 80,000 applications per year, partly because multiple applications are necessary to have at least one success, when some scientists have managed to obtain multiple grants, and when some grants are very large, many scientists will lose their grants and their jobs. And we will all lose the potential benefits of their individual insights, dreams and creativity that revolve around a single modest NIH grant.\n\nI have argued in the August 2007 issue of The Scientist (1) that NIH must shift its paradigms and enable young and established scientists do their science with stable funding. The current system, no matter how much NIH tries to refine it, is going to be more of the same.\n\n1. N. Düzgünes (2007) ?A new paradigm for NIH grants?. The Scientist 21 (August), p. 24.\n\n\n\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 8

January 1, 2009

- THOSE BRILLIANT YOUNGSTERS MAY SELECT NOT TO ENTER THE PI CAREER AFTER READING THIS ARTICLE. A SURVEY CAN TELL HOW MANY WILL GIVE UP.\n- 4,000 DECLINATIONS MAY MEAN LOSE OF >8,000 JOBS AS A GRANT SUPPORTS MORE THAN ONE PI.\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 3

September 3, 2009

Dr. Schneyer thank you so much for being open and willing to share your story with us.

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