NIH, Complaining, and the Iron Law of Institutions

There’s been a lot of craziness regarding NIH funding that I haven’t been properly able to slam (had a talk to prepare), but now I can. A recent rant left by D. Noonan about the problems with the NIH grant awarding system has led to a spate of responses in the science bloggysphere. I really don’t agree with Noonan at all, although I approve of the ranting style (doesn’t curse though). My basic disagreement with Noonan is what DrugMonkey highlighted from Noonan’s rant: “their piece of the [NIH] pie.” That statement arrogantly implies a claim on NIH resources regardless of outcomes.

Last week, I discussed my impression (for what that’s worth) that NIH, as well as NIH’s funders, are frustrated with the pace of translation from NIH funded-projects to cures and interventions. At the very least, there should be a shiny new gizmo with bells and whistles that offers the hope of fulfilling NIH’s missions of improving health and sponsoring innovative, medical-relevant research. Go to a cancer survivor and complain to her about how funding is allocated. Like she’s going to give a shit. She’s a little more concerned about not dying miserably from cancer.

The myopia is staggering–in a political climate where batshitloonitarian Senator Rand Paul openly talks about cutting NIH by nearly forty percent, maybe we should be a little more focused on providing the taxpayers clear, defined pathways to treatments, or, at the very least, cool basic research findings that seem promising. But Noonan and the rest of the whiners seem to be trapped by the Iron Law of Institutions (emphasis in original):

The Iron Law of Institutions is: the people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution “fail” while they remain in power within the institution than for the institution to “succeed” if that requires them to lose power within the institution.

This is true for all human institutions, from elementary schools up to the United States of America. If history shows anything, it’s that this cannot be changed. What can be done, sometimes, is to force the people running institutions to align their own interests with those of the institution itself and its members.

Given the prominent role PIs, especially senior ones, play in guiding NIH priorities as well as reviewing grants, I would argue the biomedical research community does control the institution (although some control it much more than others). If you’re a middle-aged faculty member who has fallen on lean times, it might just be that the institution’s priorities have reasserted themselves, if only temporarily. Maybe, somehow, the quality of the research, as subjective as that assessment often is, managed to supersede concerns about ‘maintaining continuity’ or ‘shares of pie.’
Having lived on both sides of the funding fence (i.e., funder and grantee), I can tell you the funders don’t give a shit about the things Noonan is worried about: they are paying you to solve their problems, not yours. Consider what Collins is doing as part of institutional backlash.

Like I said, the myopia is astonishing. In the long run, if research scientists don’t pick our heads up out of the sand and start to look at the big picture, things will get a lot worse.

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2 Responses to NIH, Complaining, and the Iron Law of Institutions

  1. becca says:

    The trouble is, whether you agree with him or not, Noonan and the like are probably going to see themselves as marketing what NIH *should* want- cures for diseases for years to come. The value of basic research is that it can pay off huge in the long run. It’s easy to assume that if his ideas were any good they’d be funded. Or even to be more moderate and say if his ideas were any *use* to the funding agency they’d be funded. But there’s no actual evidence that the NIH peer review system is an effective mechanism of getting the *taxpayers* what they want. And that’s true if we fund Noonan’s pet projects, or yours, or mine, or Francis Colins, or anyone else’s. The sad truth is, we just don’t know which science will pay off and which won’t.

  2. Onkel Bob says:

    My thought is “don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.” D. Noonan (Danny Noonan? Caddyshack?) has some good points, especially when he/she recommends reducing institutional support after the first R01.
    As I stated in DM’s post, the rant is getting traction, and from some influential professors at prestigious institutions. When MD/PhD students at a top 5 school are being told by Nobel laureate to carefully consider their future, somewhere along the way bells should be going off.

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