NIH Funding: So What Qualifies As “Piddly Ass Little Chunks of Change”?

Over at DrugMonkey, ScienceBlogling PhysioProf comments on the lower funding rates for R03 (Small Grants) and R21 (Exploratory/Developmental Research Grants) NIH grants:

What the fuck is the deal with using the traditional study section peer review mechanism for piddly ass little chunks of change like R03s and R21s?? What a massive waste of reviewer and administrative time and effort to use study section panels to review these punky little turds. NIH program should make funding decisions on these things administratively using the same system as NSF uses for many of its grants. Two or three external written reviews, and program makes the decision whether to fund or not.

I realize I’m often in the minority when it comes to funding issues, but why not use the review procedure that PhysioProf suggests for modular R01 proposal? (Modular grants are $250,000 per year or less of direct costs, and have a simplified budget structure). At the very least, give applicants the option to use this mechanism, particular if it would mean that reviews would be quicker–NIH wouldn’t need to convene a meeting, so, in theory, this could chop months off of the process.
Before everyone jumps all over me for violating the sacrament that is the R01 review process, I don’t think this system would be any harder for applicants than it is now. For any R01 proposal, with the three primary reviewers, you need one who is very enthusiastic about the proposal, and to avoid having any reviewers that dislike the proposal. The panel meeting rarely pulls proposals ‘up’–if the three primary reviewers don’t like it (or even if only one doesn’t like it), the panel usually doesn’t contradict these opinions. So I don’t think ‘missing’ the meeting matters from the applicants’ perspective.
As I’ve noted before, most high-quality proposals are eliminated on rather minor points because there are too many good proposals. Combine that with the imprecision in the scoring system, and I just don’t see why relatively small R01s* shouldn’t have an expedited review process (or at least the option)–this would certain help younger faculty if the process were to move faster. It would also decrease the burden on reviewers.
For larger R01s (i.e., those with detailed budgets), I would keep the review process–after all, expensive proposals should be examined with more care.
*Any microbial genomic projects has a larger direct cost than 2-5 years of a modular R01, and the money is often spent in a fraction of the time (this is similar for other larger projects). Modular R01s just aren’t that much money.

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5 Responses to NIH Funding: So What Qualifies As “Piddly Ass Little Chunks of Change”?

  1. You know, you could run a pretty nice little lab on $250,000 a year. Not one of the current megalabs of ten people, and not with the massively wasteful technique in general use, but if you used glassware instead of plastic, raw chemicals instead of kits, avoided the “scientific” vendors and bought second hand or cobbled together stuff with hand tools and epoxy, you could probably do a lot of good biology.

  2. Zen Faulkes says:

    For $250,000, a lot of basic biology labs could run the better part of a decade.

  3. DrugMonkey says:

    For $250,000, a lot of basic biology labs could run the better part of a decade.
    Only if someone else is covering the salaries, Zen.

  4. Chad says:

    True, you could do some great biology with 250k a year, but DM is right as well; you can barely pay an intro tech position for 8 years with 250k here in Chicago.

  5. Mokele says:

    Drugmonkey, Chad – In my field (biomechanics), salaries for everything except post-docs and technicians are from the school, so that amount could really go very far, possibly even a decade.

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