NIH Funding, Collaborative Mechanisms, and (Politically) Risky Research*

Oh my?

With the bugshitcrazytarian wing of the Republican Party gearing up for hearings on how Hunter Biden used the COVID vaccines to convert M&Ms to lesbianism COVID-19, including ‘exploring’ the hypothesis of a lab leak, we’re going to see many stories digging into how there was a lack of NIH oversight regarding the funded research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). While the hearings are all going to be about dinging Fauci et alia**, beating up on the libturds and so on, all along I’ve thought this is much more an issue of a particular class of funding mechanisms, which I’ll call collaborative mechanisms (they often get more precise names depending on the specific program and so forth, but this will do for a general discussion).

In terms of oversight, most extramural NIH research (research that doesn’t happen within NIH itself) is grant awarded and the principal investigator*** has to report progress directly to an NIH program officer. Of course, the reports can be falsified or incomplete, but if NIH finds out someone has done so, then there often are consequences. This is essentially a direct report to NIH by the investigator; in other words, there is direct oversight.

Collaborative mechanisms are different. Essentially, NIH gives a principal investigator (or group of investigators) a pot of money, and then the investigator acts as a mini-program officer, and doles out the award money to ‘sub-grantees’ (other researchers). This has some advantages in that there is more flexibility and speed: for example, if there is a good subproject that should be followed up on, the resources (money) can be allocated without an extremely lengthy grant review process (which most of the time will fail). Moreover, the principal investigator often will have far more expertise in a given sub-area than the program officers or grant reviewers.

The reality unfortunately can be quite different in my experience. On the science side, there’s the issue of herding cats: sub-grantees often have to be watched like hawks to ensure they’re providing the results the entire project needs to be successful (and doing so on time). But the key problem–and the one we’ll hear about over and over again–is most investigators lack the experience to adequately supervise and document what the sub-grantees are doing. They have no program officer experience, and many of the ‘little’ things, like, um, data deposition in public repositories or adequate documentation of activities, go by the wayside. If someone takes a hard look at the project because something ‘went wrong’ or is thought to have gone wrong, everything looks bad.

Leaving aside any political implications of the coming investigatory clusterfuck, I think NIH might have to take a hard look at collaborative mechanisms, and how (or even if) they can be supervised adequately by NIH personnel. Over the long term, it will be interesting to see if these mechanisms are less likely to be funded or used by NIH.

*Risky Research sounds like a pornstar name.

**But will anyone point out that these breaches happened under Trump’s watch? Of course not…

***Technically speaking, the award is to the investigator’s institution.

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