Friday, January 28, 2011

Grant cycle woes

A close friend is in the down side of the grant cycle.  NIH R01 renewal just got scores that are not fundable and may or may not even be fundable in the revised version.  He went out on a limb by doing some really innovative work for the renewal and has preliminary data to back it up.  Still waiting for the reviews, so not sure why it wasn't loved yet, but likely too far from the original work.  It has me thinking about the downsides of being a PI.  If you are too conservative, it's incremental work that isn't worthy of another 3-5 years of funding.  If you are too innovative, it's too risky to be worthy of another million.

My observation of a year on study section is that it is so important to get the right reviewers but you have no control over this.  If you get the newbie ad-hoc who doesn't really know the field as your primary you could be in big trouble unless one of the other reviewers is willing to stick their neck out to correct this injustice.  It's a rough funding climate out there, especially with the current year's budget still not approved. I hate that I even know what CR (continuing resolution - when congress limps along approving a provisional budget for a few months).

The other part that is hard and in this case harder for this friend, is that to take this risk of innovation, he has put his eggs pretty much all in this basket.  Now without the renewal, he has to cobble together funding for students in the lab and his tech, well I'd rather not say what will happen, but soft money positions are the most vulnerable in tough time.  The friend will take a hit too, no summer salary.  You might think that doesn't sound so bad, but a 25% pay cut hurts no matter how much you make.  His spouse works too, so it won't be as bad but still not easy.  That's the ugly side of academia.  You might have tenure, so you can't be fired, but if you lose your grants your soft money salary disappears and you may have to up your teaching load if you can't pay for buyout of classes.  I guess he is lucky to be on 9 month appointment (75% hard money) for teaching.  Someone on 50-100% soft money would be out of a job.

The silly part is that in a year or two this PI will likely have funding again.  In the meantime the students will have been rushed to finish and the other lab personnel will have moved on to other jobs.  Now the PI is ready to roll again, but all the expertise he built up is gone and he has to start building it again.  It's really a huge waste of time. money and research that could be done instead of reinventing the wheel.  It happens all the time in academia today with funding for science and engineering being so tight.  There isn't any backstop (except maybe for students) for those rough times.  I watch the cycle happen in repetition this last year.  It hits the small to medium labs hardest.  They often operate off of 1-2 grants so they don't have any backup and these can often all end at the same time.  I was near the point about 18 months ago, but was lucky enough to get bridge funding and then a renewal.  It was scary and I worried most about the people.  What would happen to them and how would I rebuild?

We have to think about these issues both from the stand point of the people (students, post-docs, techs, PIs) but also the larger picture.  This is why so many people (especially women) don't want to go into science right now.  It feels so unstable.  Also, how does this affect us nationally and harm our scientific progress.  We lose so much expertise, time and money by operating in a short sighted boom and bust model.  We could make so much more progress if we had even funding.  I'm not suggesting funding for life (what would motivate us to work like dogs then?) but some backstop funds would be great.  NIH bridge funding is really helpful (thanks to my awesome Program Officer for helping secure this) but it doesn't fit every situation, and there are many who don't have NIH funding.   Not sure how to approach this from a structural standpoint, but it is an issue that seems to be getting worse in the last 4-5 years.

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