Wanted: Records of revoked grants

Deciding when to pull a grant for any reason is one of the most difficult tasks any funding agency faces. It is not a decision that is taken lightly, and is usually a last resort. But it happens. Scientists who falsify data or misuse funds or even fail to show satisfactory progress do, from time to time, lose their funding. Image: Wikimedia commonsThe National Institutes of Health (NIH) admits to the occasional termination of basic research grants, emphasizing the rarity of such a drastic measu

By | January 20, 2010

Deciding when to pull a grant for any reason is one of the most difficult tasks any funding agency faces. It is not a decision that is taken lightly, and is usually a last resort. But it happens. Scientists who falsify data or misuse funds or even fail to show satisfactory progress do, from time to time, lose their funding.
Image: Wikimedia commons
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) admits to the occasional termination of basic research grants, emphasizing the rarity of such a drastic measure. But how rare is rare? I wanted numbers. To my surprise, they don't seem to exist. I started with the obvious -- an email to a press officer with a simple question: How many grants had been terminated? The response (attributed to NIH's Office of Extramural Research, OER): "...enforcement actions are taken on a grant-by-grant basis and are not captured centrally in NIH's electronic systems; therefore, no aggregate data are available on revoked grants." Unsatisfied with this answer, I decided to do a little more digging. Three FOIA requests and several emails and phone calls later, I was finally convinced -- the NIH system simply does not consistently code this information in the database, and thus has no way of assessing, tracking or analyzing how often grants are pulled. "It's surprising" and "suspicious," said linkurl:David Kaplan;http://www.case.edu/med/pathology/faculty/kaplan.html of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. "Wouldn't they want to know for their own purposes -- to follow how many times is this happening, what are the circumstances, [and] what are the classifications of grants that get revoked?" Without tracking these statistics, the NIH would not be able to recognize shifts in the frequency of grant terminations, Kaplan said. If, for example, the number of revoked grants increased fivefold, from 10 one year to 50 the next, it might indicate "an unexpected consequence of a policy change," he said. Or it might be a good thing, if it is a result of the agency catching cases of malfeasance that had previously been overlooked. But to even spot such changes, "you've got to follow this stuff," he said. To complicate matters further, the lack of a consistent way to indicate in the system when a grant is pulled makes it nearly impossible to tell if a particular grant was carried through to completion. After a long series of emails with the OER trying to determine where in the grant file one might find such information, I finally got the unsettling response that "the depth and complexity of NIH's oversight and compliance activities and the variety of options and outcomes available to ensure compliance and effective project management of the projects NIH supports makes it very difficult to tell through the system what happened to a particular project with just a couple of data points." So basically, the information may or may not be there, but either way, the agency's case-by-case approach to handling incidents of grant revocation makes it extremely difficult to find. This is a serious concern when it comes to future funding, said linkurl:Nejat Düzgünes;http://dental.pacific.edu/Faculty_and_Research/Department_Chairs/Microbiology_Chair.html of the University of the Pacific, who argues that "previous productivity" should be considered when reviewing grant applications. "The application at hand might look outstanding, but if this person has a track record of proposing ideas and not following up on them [or having grants actually revoked], then it should raise some questions," he said. Additionally, the grant file should also indicate the reason that grant ended prematurely, Düzgünes added. If a grant was terminated for "legitimate reasons," reviewers should be able to see that information "so it's not held against a new project" put forth by the same investigator, he said. But beyond the issues of record keeping for the NIH's benefit is the more disconcerting issue of public disclosure. "This is a public institution -- I don't think there is any doubt [that this information] should be public," Kaplan said. "People should know." "You and I are both taxpayers, so that's our money," David Adams of the linkurl:Duke University School of Medicine;http://medicine.duke.edu/modules/dom_welcome/index.php?id=1 agreed. "I think like any other government [agency], where public disclosure is not going to impact national security, I think NIH should report" when a grant has been terminated. "I don't think they need to make a big announcement, but certainly it should be part of the database." Because the NIH is seemingly very open about cases of confirmed scientific misconduct, some researchers were surprised by this apparent hole in the NIH's system. "My experience is that NIH wouldn't be sweeping those [cases] under the carpet," said linkurl:Seth Kalichman;http://socialpsych.uconn.edu/sethckalichman.htm of the University of Connecticut, who attributes the lack of records on revoked grants to a lack of communication between the "two different huge bureaucracies" that manage NIH grantees -- the grants management office and the Center for Scientific Review. Furthermore, Kalichman said he would expect the NIH would want to make this information public, as an example to other researchers. "They don't want investigators thinking no one's watching," he said. Regardless of the reason the NIH does not keep track of grants that have been terminated, the need for doing so is clear. "It's not the most wonderful thing in the world to keep statistics on, but it is important," Kaplan said. "I certainly would advocate that that particular field be included," Adams agreed. "I'm curious myself as to how prevalent it is."
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:When does oversight overstep?;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/56148/
[16th November 2009]*linkurl:NIH finally takes on conflicts;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55685/
[11th May 2009]*linkurl:How to spend the NIH stimulus;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55413/
[11th February 2009]

Comments

Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 6

January 20, 2010

I know of two grants that were terminated because the PI died and the lab closed. Until the system is set up to both capture all premature terminations and the reasons I don't think the question posed is very interesting.
Avatar of: David Harrison

David Harrison

Posts: 28

January 20, 2010

You are concerned "if this person has a track record of proposing ideas and not following up on them..."\nIn fact, the reviewers have the publication record, which shows that the investigator is capable of following up good ideas.\n With RO1 grants, at least, sometimes you should not follow up on exactly what you said you would do! The field changes a lot in 3-5 years. if you only follow up on the old ideas in your grant, you may not be doing your job of keeping up with the field and doing the most relevant meaningful research you can.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 3

January 20, 2010

Would the same apply to any government or private granting agency? NSF? Ford? Nature Conservancy? etc.? As the chair of a small foundation that gives research monies for environmental research, to my knowledge we have never in 50 years tracked, rejected or terminated proposals. Prior to the age of computers this would never been considered. An insignificant number?
Avatar of: ed goodwin

ed goodwin

Posts: 11

January 20, 2010

Who at the NIH would want the public to know how many grants\nwere revoked costing the taxpayer money with no benefit? \n\nThis data base could and should be maintained outside the NIH.
Avatar of: Gerry Smith

Gerry Smith

Posts: 9

January 20, 2010

I requested moderate funds to measure pH in acidic intracellular organels with a +ve flouresence response to [H+]concentration. I had world class research much needed referees. The problem of pK stability on labelling proteins still exists making the task impossible and thus the measurement of other cations also impossible by pH variation of the affinities. I had proposals to overcome this. The reason given for low grading and non granting was "we no longer fund that type of research" i.e. it did not have stem cell or omics in the application.
Avatar of: M Williams

M Williams

Posts: 15

January 20, 2010

While this pursuit of numbers appears helpful on "face-value" one needs to be very careful to stratify for and categorize reasons why a grant was pulled rather than a simple "name and shame" policy of public disclosure.\n\nFacts can be misrepresented. Should a grant be pulled for misconduct such as falsification or fraud, the Office or Research Integrity should hold and publish this finding and the NIH can use and disclose this information to reviewers should the "guilty" re-apply to the NIH as a PI or co-I. Holding such a data bank could add further costs to the NIH's dwindling funding pools to administer and keep up to date.\n\nI do not think a simple collection of the numbers of grant suspensions or revocations is that helpful unless specific reasons for doing so are also disclosed for some of the reasons made by others herein.\n\nIn any case what would the Scientist do with this data? Name and shame? Critically analyze and present the findings in a scientific format or simply shock and awe us with numbers of grants pulled, the years they were pulled, by whom and so on? If the editors at The Scientist could propose a mechanistic framework for such analyses perhaps the NIH could volunteer this data to you for publication in this magazine?\n
Avatar of: Caroline Wagner

Caroline Wagner

Posts: 2

January 20, 2010

The author and quoted experts are very generous in their assessment of the ability of government to track scientific data...people who work with the data would not be surprised that these data are not available!
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 3

January 20, 2010

I think this request doesn't go far enough. We also need an accounting on how often they are requesting a partial return of funds, even though they are not revoking the grant. As OLAW reporting mandates broaden and seemingly minor protocol deviations end up being reported to NIH, that number is going to go through the roof and NIH needs to be held accountable for erratic and inconsistent decisions that will affect huge numbers of investigators.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 77

January 20, 2010

...to forget, or want to forget - especially our errors, is also human. \n\nHowever, institutions are not humans. They enable us to distill the best of our knowledge and rules and apply them consistently. If they were no better, we'd have no use for them. We'd just pick good humans, follow their judgments, and be done with it. If it is not obvious, institutions have interests in "forgetting" their errors - and make no mistake, grading the work of others, dispensing geld on that basis, then having to retract on the basis of mis- or malfeasance of the recipient are errors of judgment and action - and intentional forgetting, for an institution, requires no more than passively failing to remember by simply not recording. \n\nNow, if we were all gullible school children, their "reason" for failing to account for (forgetting) the efforts, judgments, spending of others money, and results, when things go bad, might sound plausible, but we're not and it's not. \n\nThe absence of full accountability (recognizing the concern of others, here, for over-simple succeed-or-fail criteria), is an institutional failure. Regardless of how far back in time it goes, it was wrong, it is wrong, and holding the current administrators accountable for not fixing their shortcomings outright is right, proper and necessary for the continued credibility and support of the institution in the future.
Avatar of: ed goodwin

ed goodwin

Posts: 11

January 21, 2010

Adolph Hitler would agree with you
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 16

January 21, 2010

..is contacting individual Institutes. Although NIH as a whole might not aggregate the data I wonder if the Major ICs (NCI, NIAID, NIGMS, NHLBI) do track this? This data would be more useful anyway since the individual ICs are very independent of each other.
Avatar of: Jef Akst

Jef Akst

Posts: 28

January 21, 2010

In researching this story, I was spoke extensively with an associate director of one NIH institute as well as four project directors there, and from what they told me (or found out from their grants management office and relayed to me), it seems that while grants are overseen and managed by a particular institute, records are not kept independent of the entire NIH system. Unfortunately, revoking grants is such a rare occurrence that no one could remember a specific example of a grant termination, and they were thus unable to give me any details regarding the process. When I asked questions specifically regarding how things were coded in the system, they simply directed me to the OER, which gave the responses quoted above. It is possible that other NIH institutes handle things slightly differently than the one I was in contact with, but it is my understanding that everything that takes place in these institutes is fed into the main NIH system.\n\n\n
Avatar of: REENA RAI

REENA RAI

Posts: 2

January 21, 2010

Like someone above said, to err is human - you could be one of that list too someday; think about the consequences. And then scientifically weigh the pros and cons of this suggestion and you will find that the cons are much higher than the pros. So, why waste resources, time and energy on something like this when there are much more significant issues facing NIH. I think they are doing fine on this issue; particularly when it comes to determining whether or not the money has been used wisely - if someone can come up with preliminary data that might make a difference in even 1 person's life, that life could be worth a million to someone else and thus the money has made all the difference. I also think that it is particularly pointless to make such records public; ergo you should not get it! :) Sorry
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 77

January 24, 2010

ed... Do you see Hitler behind every tree? My post was decidedly anti-Hitlerian in calling for the enforcement of clearly stated standards and not the whims of individuals.\n\nREENA... "So, why waste resources, time and energy on something like this when there are much more significant issues facing NIH. I think they are doing fine on this issue; particularly when it comes to determining whether or not the money has been used wisely -" .\n\nI disagree. How is anyone to know how well they are doing "on this issue" if there are no records kept on "this issue"? As for an individual "erring" and being blackballed for it, I noted allowance for due consideration of that concern and we are, for the most part, talking about mal- not misfeasance.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

February 17, 2010

It is a common occurrence for NASA to terminate grants in the life sciences, and this is a practice they have carried out for years. At the whim of various program project chiefs and managers, program directions change and grants that are deemed not relevant to the new direction are terminated. Perhaps someone should ask the managers in life sciences and the human research program for written evidence of this, as these are federal dollars just like those granted by NIH.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

February 18, 2010

I would love to see Mr. Akst saddled with the responsibility of being accountable to a capricious and uninformed Congress for how NIH grants are managed. It?s easy to sit back and criticize from a myopic viewpoint and demand information that is not so straightforward to track and compile. Mr Akst?s comments appear to be based on the assumption that the NIH executives and program staff who make decisions about terminating funding don?t know what they?re doing. This is called micro-managing and it?s disheartening and destructive.

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