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.