Getting Funded -thoughts on the Nature Article

Dec 28 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

There is a new piece up in Nature's N&V about getting funded. I'm irritated by the figure, which breaks the old/young distribution in a way that makes their point, but is not defensible on data analysis grounds (let's not even talk about breaking continuous distributions into discreet categories).

But there are some nice little gems tucked into the article.

Taking a modular budget, especially in light of the yearly budget-slimming cuts that the NIH applies to all awards, might hurt a young lab’s research. And the data suggest that it won’t improve the chances of winning a grant.

One of the things to keep in mind is that the budget, modular or not, is a minor, very minor part of the review, and technically not something that gets included in the scoring.

Separate out the scope of the work from the budget requested to do the work. Scope is a legitimate criterion: can the PI do the work proposed? Is it reasonable for the time requested? One of the big flaws I see is that a young PI is proposing to do a 30 year study, and not a 5 year one. But the money? Unless you are asking for Millions a year and a 20M$ overall budget, don't sweat this. Ask for what you need to do the research.

19 responses so far

  • Ola says:

    "Just ask for what you need" Nope nope nope, so much nope!

    EVERY time I've asked for non-modular I've been shot down at study section - and no it's not because we do cheap science, I spend at least 50k a year on mice.

    even if you go modular, you don't get what you request. Take NIGMS, where budget cuts of 40% are routine. I have yet to meet a single person who got an intact full modular 250k budget from NIGMS. My own R01 got cut 41% (despite a sub 5%ile score). A colleague's got a 1% score but was not picked up for over 2 years after study section because the program officer said they already had too much of that kind of stuff in their portfolio.

    In short, you can ask for what you want and maybe it won't make a difference in getting a FUNDABLE SCORE at study section. BUT we all know a fundable score is half of the equation, the other half being a solid program officer who understands and supports your science. That's where real-world FUNDING decisions are made, and no amount of good study section comments can help you if the program officer is an ass or their hands are tied behind their back.

    Back on topic of the Nature article, I'd argue that budget slimming and going modular affecting a young lab is no more of a problem than for established labs. Often young labs have startup funds to mkae up a shortfall, whereas older labs have no such buffer. Often young labs have young/new technicians whereas older labs have lab managers or older tech's who command higher salaries. A modular budget with a mbig cut can be a major problem for an established lab, versus a minor blip for a new lab where any funding at all is seen as good.

  • potnia theron says:

    Ola, I beg to differ. Funding level is NOT a scorable criterion. They can say "budget too high", but that, by rule, cannot change the score.

    Scope of work, appropriateness of time of work are things that can be discussed. But budget? no.

    • qaz says:

      Funding level may not be a scorable criterion, but we all know that reviewers can find a way to make it such. Maybe they don't say "this kid is asking for too much money", but they can say "this grant is too ambitious" or "this scope is too large" when what they mean is "this kid is asking for too much money". I have *definitely* seen this in some study sections.

      The real issue is that this varies from study section to study section. I have seen study sections where modular grants by junior people sail though while non-modular get the Sherlock Holmes scrutiny (with the magnifying glass looking at every expenditure and the implications for scope). (I have also seen study sections where budget is never discussed unless it is truly egregious (like the junior professor asking for $499,999/yr).

      • potnia theron says:

        This is just not my experience. When people say "scope it to big" usually that is exactly what it means. In my last few sets of reviews, there wasn't a single discussion of budget in any form, overt or coded. I recognize that culture varies among study sections, but in when I've been on a "bad" one, there are always a few good guys who call out the idiots: "so what about the scope is too big?".

        • drugmonkey says:

          It is dangerously naive to think of budget as an unimportant side issue. Budget *and* scope require substantial grantsmithing attention just like any other aspect of a proposal.

          The fact that one study section may ignore it is no different than fact some ignore a lack of timeline or future directions or consideration of potential pitfalls.

          Get to know your study sections.

    • drugmonkey says:

      that, by rule, cannot change the score.

      Also dangerously naive. If you rely on the supposed “rules” guiding the reviewers, instead of a good understanding of the psychology of review, you will struggle more than otherwise.

      • potnia theron says:

        yes, indeed. But to say "I got hammered because of non-modular budget" is naïve about the review process.

        Everything requires grantsmanship, and one ignores it at one's peril.

  • potnia theron says:

    also: everyone gets cut, and most IC's are upfront about it. I know that GMS is only doing 4 years now, so if you ask for 5 that's 20% off the top. My money comes from Peds now (CHD) and they say the minimum is 17%. This is the reality of 1) shrinking budgets 2) too many mouths at the trough.

    But I know that you know, and most of the readers know and what you say:
    there is a BIG difference between score at Study Section and funding (yes/no and level) from the IC's.

    The point of the article was young people go modular because they are afraid non-modular will keep them from being funded.

    I repeat: Budget is not a score0-able criterion.

  • Disagree says:

    Rule #1 for grant writing is "don't irritate your reviewers." Being greedy has a subconscious effect on the study section whether we admit it or not. Nonmodular budgets come off as greedy and as a riskier-than-necessary bet for brand new PIs. The same rule applies to established PIs who pad their grants with 10% salary for all their buddies.

    There are exceptions to every rule, but in this instance, I would play it safe.

    Also note that NIAID does not cut budgets of ESIs.

    • potnia theron says:

      Interesting perspective. And of course, not irritating the reviewers/making them your ally is THE metarule. I think if the project truly justifies the amount it doesn't come off as greedy.

      • qaz says:

        I do think a lot of the problem is that junior people often think of "funding their lab" and ask for enough money to keep them going on the kinds of projects they want to do, rather than thinking of each proposal as "funding a project". In my experience, the largest budget problems are from junior people asking for enough money to fund the whole lab rather than the project itself.

        • wally says:

          I have an F32 and part of the application required me and my mentor to demonstrate that she is very well-funded. The idea being that her funding would provide research support and travel funds for me. However, although she has a large R01, I wasn't her postdoc when she applied, so I wasn't written into the budget. Also, her budget was cut by like 15% or something, so money was already tight before I came along. I'm curious how and why NIH thinks a postdoc could just be covered by existing funds when they are already lean and budgets already created.

          • qaz says:

            Wally - an F32 only pays the postdoc's salary. This means that there has to be enough money from elsewhere to pay for the actual project supplies (animals, human subjects, chemicals, time on the fMRI, whatever). There is a myth that the sponsor/mentor has to have an R01 to cover this, but that's not correct. The sponsor/mentor has to demonstrate that the project will be able to be done. The easiest way is to say "I have an appropriate R01", but it is definitely possible to use other means (such as start-up funds or internal chairs/awards). I remember one study section where the project was computational and the mentor (who had no external funding) said "we need a computer, which we have".

            Presumably your project is within the scope of your mentor's R01. (If it's not, then it's not appropriate for your mentor to use her R01 on your project....) So, you getting an F32 actually helps the R01 do more. (The term is "synergistic".)

          • potnia theron says:

            Correct. And indeed, other funding sources to cover research are entirely possible.

          • potnia theron says:

            This is not NIH logic. The logic is that F's & many K's do not have research budgets to support projects. These mechanisms are to support the salary (which is often beyond the R-award of the PI). NIH wants to make sure that there is money to support the *project* of the trainee. They do not want to be in the position of awarding a salary, but having the trainee get nothing done because there was no additional money to support the project.

        • potnia theron says:

          This, too, can be a problem. But in general, I find that the grantsmanship (grantspersonship?), into which basket I place this problem, is largely *higher* in younger, junior people. IME, they are more sensitive to these issues, and do their damnest. The problems (like the footnotes thing I blogged about a while ago) tend to be in more senior people who really think they are above the law. Of course that is a subset of senior people. By and large, I think that everyone understands what 10% funding lines mean, and try to do their best.

  • wally says:

    One of my colleagues got critical comments from reviewers about her budget on an R01 application.

    • potnia theron says:

      If it was not in the "other criteria" section (at the end of the review, where there is specifically room to comment on this, and vert animals, and human subjects and all manner of secondary issues), it is wrong. It is something that can be taken back to the PO and ask for help.

      Most SRO's will not let that slip by (unless it is triaged, where they the SRO does minimal editing).

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