NIH frustrations

Apr 01 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I have a great postdoc. He decided that he would like to write an F/K award to branch off on his own project. Perhaps I pushed (a little) to get him to think about this. But he is doing it right. He has a project. It relies on the techniques he learned in my lab, but its a different disease entity, and it will require him to learn some new other things that is well outside my realm. He's got a secondary mentor (for the those other things) and they've just hired a new faculty at almost-MRU who will be a great third mentor. When we went to the major clinical meetings for Our Stuff, he sat down and talked with the two other PI's near this new area. I know both of these (much younger than me, well, but 80% of the world is, now) folks, and have reviewed their grants. He had Serious Science talks with both, as well as more Informal Sharing of Victuals with them. I sat in on some, but not others.

What can I say? He is Doing It Right. The project is good. We spent a month hashing over the Specific Aims. He started collecting some preliminary data. I should point out, he's got some first-authored papers from my R01 (which has paid his salary up till now). He's given a bunch of talks over 2 years at various meetings. He can genuinely claim to have, if not completely mastered, at least demonstrated skill, ability & knowledge of what he would need to make the F/K go.  He wrote to NIH staff about this. And... that's where today's story starts.

F&K awards are reviewed in the IC's. And the most obvious fit for the PD's proposal, let's call it NIOBRS (institute of obscure but relevant science), requests (as do others) that you talk with the PO for training prior to submitting. They want for you to send a copy of the SA's, the abstract, maybe a little something about yourself (always a good idea: I've studied bunny hoppy from perspective X, but now wish to branch into perspective Y). He did this and we didn't hear back.

He kept collecting the prelim data, which of course involving animals, had its share of set-backs and disasters. We thought the biggest problem we'd have were the problems in the data. But, alas, no.

Finally we got a very curt email from the (new to the position) PO at NIOBRS. Basically: we're not interested. You're not in our portfolio. This is debatable, and more on that below (which is my real frustration). The message simply said "I spoke with the PO in this sub-area of NIOBRS and she says that we do not study this any more". Note the "any more". After depression, frustration and gnashing of teeth, the PD and I sat down, identified 3 other IC's that might be appropriate. One longshot never answered. One (a big one - NINDS) said "oh, this isn't ours, this belongs to NIOBRS". Hahaha. The third, most appropriate where co-mentor is funded NIC-MF (National Institute of Co-Mentor Funding), still (2 weeks later & one reminder) has not answered. But the deadline (8 April) is out of reach, now.

We have discussed and re-assessed. We will try & reach the NIC-MF PO for next cycle. Co-M and I and PD will discuss turning it into a R21, because that might fly better at NIC-MF. The PD has ordered more animals and will try another go round of prelim data, hopefully enough for a paper (there's enough for an abstract right now). The first order of business is to take care of the PD.

But, but, but...

This has been brewing for a while. NIOBRS has been trying to shed my area for a few years now. Even the renewal of my current R01 (which belongs to NIOBRS) got assigned elsewhere, despite my requesting NIOBRS in the cover letter. But as I have been submitting significant numbers of proposals (and of course, getting them rejected) get NIOBRS as tertiary, if at all. There is an art, as well as a science, to working with the IC's at NIH. You need to be polite, but insistent. It matters. But there comes a point when no matter what you do, the PO has decided something else. In this case, bunny hopping is no longer in the portfolio at NIOBRS. In fact, no one seems to want it at all. Cancer and bunny hopping can go to NCI, aging bunny hopping, as long as it is part of the syndrome of frailty and aging, can go to NIA. Failure to thrive at bunny hopping in infants can go to NICHD. Neural control of bunny hopping to NINDS. etc. But none of those  institutes really want bunny hopping as part of their portfolio. I have heard "Why not send it to NIOBRS?" many times.

This brings up the question: is funding bunny hopping worthwhile? The use of "bunny hopping" suggests no,  and the ironic point that if it wasn't bunny hopping, it would be of interest. And, if no one wants it, maybe its just you Potnia and your PD that thinks its worth funding. But, what "bunny hopping" is standing in for here, is a genuine clinical problem.

Here are the things that are, in my view, politically working against bunny hopping. Firstly, MD's are not the first line of treatment. There are several "therapist" diseases/problems where the first line is physical therapists, occupational therapists, respiratory therapists, etc. Therapist fields, not surprisingly, are traditionally female fields. As is true of nursing, and even more recent occupations such as Physician Assistants, these callings are becoming more gender-diverse, and medical schools are nearly 50/50. But historically and leadership-wise, therapists are women. Problems treated by women are not things to which BSDs gravitate. And, not surprisingly funded at lower rates.

Secondly, NIOBRS did fund a lot of, in my view, very bad bunny-hopping research over the 90s through 2000's (not mine, of course, the very bad part). Large RCT's that found nothing for the "standard treatments", but with PI's so invested in the treatments that they couldn't say so. I still see this when I go to meetings and see statistical horrors presented, such as "we found no effect at all, but if we look at the cases where we did see some effect, there is significance...". NIOBRS funded the big dogs in bunny hopping and there wasn't much to show for it, so now, when funding gets tight, they have redefined their mission away from bunny hopping.

The burdens of history are myriad.

So what to do? I do not believe I am going to change NIH. I do not mean to dampen the spirits of all the young people who believe that they can change things from the inside and the outside. Nor do I belittle the Chris Reeves and Michael J. Fox's of this world, who work very hard to change the landscape of medical research. But I am not a famous movie star who will start a foundation to fund bunny hopping. I must work with the system that is.

I do believe that bunny hopping is important. I do believe that my work (and my PD, too) has important basic science and clinical implications. The advantage I do have is not that I am a BSD to whom NIH will listen, but that I am an old and wily scientist. I know how to place my work (spin? perhaps) in the context of things that IC's have said are important. Bunnies have trouble with blood flow and often have strokes whilst hopping: NHLBI here I come.


17 responses so far

  • drugmonkey says:

    Very frustrating. All of us are eventually going to have areas where this pops up- the IC just says "no more, no way". It is hard to believe if it is something we are deeply invested in. And at least for R grants, hope springs eternal that we can secure such a good score that one more (ours!) will sneak out of the door.

    • potnia theron says:

      I think good scientists and good PIs think of ways to tailor/fit/carve/verb-of-choice their work to missions of the ICs.

      Its one more step: read the mission IC before writing.

  • Newbie PI says:

    I'm a little confused by this. Why are you putting so much effort into contacting a PO? I never contacted a PO before submitting my (funded) K grant. Once you submit it they have to assign it SOMEWHERE. Isn't it really the study section that matters?

    • potnia theron says:

      F & Ks are reviewed by study sections set up by IC's. They are not in study sections that CSR runs (for R01s, etc).

      The IC where my PD wanted to go *requires* permission to submit from the PO prior to submission. Go back and look at the SS that reviewed your K award. If you look at most IC web pages for training proposals, you will see this recommended.

      Props to you for getting funded. IME, it is always worth contacting POs.

      • Newbie PI says:

        Yes, you are right. The study section for my K was a special emphasis panel. Sometimes naivete is good.

  • Dave says:

    Desk rejects from PO now????? Perfect.

  • Dave says:

    And I talked to my PO before submitting my K, but there was never any discussion of whether the science fit or not. It was more about whether I would be competitive, which eventually I was after a few tries!

  • Lay Bunny Hopping Enthusiast says:

    This really makes me wish I had the expertise to do a study examining how the NIH portfolio aligns to clinical issues treated by traditionally female professions.

    • potnia theron says:

      this would not be hard to do. Calling Datahound.

      • datahound says:

        If folks want to provide fields of interest, I will be glad to see what I can do as time permits.

        • potnia theron says:

          The biggie is nursing, of course, which has its own institute. But I would say also: Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Respiration Therapy, Speech Language Pathology. There are other "female" jobs, but are often more helpers and not necessarily actively involved in research - such as midwives. I think part of what's necessary is to look at disciplines in which people get doctoral level degrees (which includes some on the above list) and are therefore involved in doing research of some sort.

  • Brain says:

    Yup, NIMH is (in)famous for this. Some topics just are not considered "mental health" and if that is what you want to study your are SOL with them. I have not figured out who picks the in and out topics. However, I have lucked my way in to working on "in" topics and this can get you funded with what would appear to be unfundable score.

    • potnia theron says:

      One way to find out is to read /study the website. Each IC lists areas of interest, and many have detailed yearly statements of strategic goals/objectives/plans.

  • Ola says:

    Annoying anecdotal examples about the whole PO / CSR / SS interplay:

    (1) Colleague got a very (very!) well scored grant, but more than a year later still not funded because PO says "we already have too much of this sort of stuff in our portfolio".

    (2) Even though SS's are not supposed to be aligned with a specific institute, they are in reality. The institute that my SS is aligned with does not fund R21. Hence, we get R21s to review, but they always score badly because they're aligned to other institutes and only peripherally linked to the SS expertise. SRO cannot justify bringing in good ad-hocs to review these R21s, since it's only 3 or 4 proposals per cycle.

    (3) Colleague's grant has bounced in and out of the same study section for years now. Tried to get it reassigned, and spoke with several SROs, all of whom seemed interested. Most recent app got a letter back from CSR saying they couldn't find anyone to take it. He got mad and they assigned it back to the original one that had fucked it over so many times already. Quel surprise - it did badly again.

    (4) Comment from reviewer at SS during discussion - "I didn't think NIxxx funded this sort of stuff any more". Also "this proposal is responsive to NIxxx's overall mission".

    Potnia I think the issues you speak of are symptomatic of a bigger picture in which the review system is more than a bit fucked. Namely, one can see why they might want to remove the reviews to a separate entity (CSR), for transparency and all that crap, but doing so creates a whole 'nuther place for communications breakdown to occur.

    • potnia theron says:

      Some responses to points:
      1) yes... and I would say this is the time to look elsewhere... which takes us to your other points....
      2) I think this varies with section. I've sat on some that are 90% one institute (with a few to aging & kids). But the one where my proposals currently go (which has a quite obscene nickname amongst the supplicants) is about 30/30/20/ plus a few misc. sections.
      3. & 4. I do feel for these comments, but at this point its time to re-tool the application and emphasize a different aspect that appeals to someone else.

      A good colleague avoided some of the same problems I've had with NIOBRS by framing the proposal in terms of ZZZ, which is an explicit part of NIOBRS mission. Needless to say, she had the expertise to do that; my postdoc & I did not.

      Finally, bigger picture woes: Maybe because I'm an Olde Farte, I'm hesitant to "start over" and redesign review (not that this is what *you* are advocating, but many others do). There are LOTS of problems. And we can work towards solutions. I still think the PO/IC level is where most politics come to play.

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