Who Gets Screwed By Funding Changes: RFAs and Anti-Conservatism

Last week, I detailed my problems with a report that provided a whole mess of inane recommendations on how to make science funding better. DrugMonkey makes a good point about how RFAs, requests for admissions, which call for proposals to investigate certain areas, increase, not decrease diversity in scientific topics (boldface mine):

I disagree with the notion that RFAs are poisonous to diversity and the notion that pure “investigator-initiated” leads to fewer intellectual constraints.

The NIH peer review process is an inherently conservative one because it tends to reinforce itself. Those who are successful within the system do the primary judging of who is next to be successful. Those who become successful have to, in large degree, adapt themselves to the thinking and expectations of those who have previously been successful.

When it comes to the role of Program Officers in selecting grants for pickups and saves, well, they too are influenced by the already-successful. This is in addition to the fact that POs have long term careers and thus their orientations and biases come into play across literally decades of grant applications. To the extent that POs are judged by the performance of their grant portfolios, you can see that they are no different than the rest of us. Higher JIF, higher citations, more press attention, more high-profile scientists….all of these things dictate them selecting grants that are going to be more of the same.

…it is a constantly reinforcing cycle of conservatism to select grants for funding that are very much like ones that have previously been funded. Alike in topic, alike in PI characteristics, alike in the University which is applying.

…In some of my general oversight of RFAs over the years from some of my favorite ICs I’ve noticed topics like sex-differences and less-usual experimental models are often at play. Adolescent/developmental studies as well. To take a shot at my much beloved NIDA— well, they have been, and continue to be, the National Institute on Cocaine and Heroin Abuse. Notice how whenever the current Director Nora Volkow gets interviewed on the general lay media she goes on and on about the threat of marijuana to our adolescents? Try a trip over to RePORTER to review NIDA’s respective portfolios on marijuana versus cocaine or heroin.

There have been several NIDA RFAs, PARs and PASs over the years which are really about “Gee, can’t we fund at least two grants on this other drug over here?“.

Here’s an example:

Is this because evil NIDA wants to force everyone to start working on these topics? Constraining their intellectual freedom? Hampering the merry progress on cocaine and heroin? You might ask the same about various sex-differences FOA that have been issued over the years.

Heck no. All that stuff has continued to be funded at high rates under NIDA’s normal operation. Why? well because tons and tons and tons of highly funded and highly productive researchers have focused on cocaine and heroin for their entire careers. And these are the grants that seem most important to them….the cocaine and heroin grants. They are the successful scientists who review other grants and who whisper in the ears of POs at every turn.

So the other drugs get short shrift in the funding race.

Every now and again a PO gets up the courage to mount an assault on this conservatism and get a few grants funded in his or her bee-in-the-bonnet interest.

I would add one other force for conservatism that DrugMonkey didn’t explicitly discuss: competitive renewals. When you receive a grant, let’s say for five years, during the grant, the PI (principal investigator) has non-competitive renewals. Every year the PI has to submit a record of her or his progress, after which the grant is renewed either at the same level of funding, is cut, or is, very rarely, terminated (also very rarely, previous cuts might be restored). However, these are non-competitive in that the PI isn’t competing against other researchers. At the end of the grant, the PI can, if he chooses, submit a competitive renewal. Rather than coming up with a whole new line of research out of thin air, the researcher argues that having accomplished A, B, and C, he should now receive funding to do D, E, and F.

These are competitive, however, they are funded at higher rates than brand new proposals–and these grants can often last for several rounds of funding–that is ten or fifteen years, sometimes more. There’s a logic to this: if the researcher has been productive, is working in an important area, and has interesting follow-on questions leading from the previous research, there should be a thumb put on the scale (to use DrugMonkey’s phrase).

But this is an inherently conservative force as well. Rather than beginning new lines of research, we are continuing older ones, which, in a zero-sum environment crowds out those new approaches or topics. Needless to say, if you’re an established R01 researcher, you don’t want resources that could be used to fund your competitive renewal being used somewhere else.

You just might, however, dress up your money grab in the false raiments of defending intellectual diversity–even if you’re doing the exact opposite.

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1 Response to Who Gets Screwed By Funding Changes: RFAs and Anti-Conservatism

  1. DM says:

    Another factor of grant conservatism, agreed. And now with all this talk of MIRA type “person not project” mechanisms it is going to get worse.

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