The realities of modern politics and NIH funding: lone PI edition

Apr 27 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Let's start by defining what I am not: I am not at a MRU. I do not run a flash lab. I do not have multiple grants, multiple grad students, multiple postdocs. Right now, I've got one of each. When I started developing a second project, working with a wonderful young PI who came to me with a great idea, my current postdoc joked that I was going to become a BSD. My response: I would love to be a BSD.

But where I am in terms of running my lab, I don't have a lot of  financial flexibility.

What do I have: great colleagues. A chair, who by and large, appreciates me. This department, my  (relatively new) department is filled with people like me: one grant, small lab. Everybody gears up in the summer, and takes medical students (very serious, hard working, wonderful medical students) on as summer fellows. These are people who are  largely in the same boat as I am.

Last year, after much struggle (and submitting 2-4 proposals a year) I got refunded. Yes, I'm a boomer, and it's allegedly easier for me than thee. I acknowledge the issues that my younger colleagues have, but again, that's another post. I am glad to have this grant, I am doing something that Might Make A Difference for Babies, and certainly is chock full of basic neurophysiology goodness.

There was some initial weirdness from my IC, for which I am now very grateful. The grant started in August, but my IC didn't want me to have an August anniversary date. There are too many grants with August anniversaries, I was told. So, I started August, but they made my renewal May 1. But they did give me the first "full" (after the mandatory 18% cut to all grants in this IC) year, albeit for the reduced time period.

Now if I was a paranoid type, I might think they did that on purpose to make life miserable for me. Or because they didn't Care About Me. Why? Because one of the Rites of Spring is the Annual Congress Screws with the Federal Budget Follies.  In the past, this happened, and I don't remember it impacting me, and somehow NIH muddled through. It may have been that my non-competitive renewals (annual renewals on a 3 or 5 year grant) came at a Good Time relative to the Federal Budget.

But, now, I've got issues. Some major. Some minor.

Minor first: my 2nd year of funding did not come in when it should have. And the idiots in University Accounting sent emails to the postdoc, the grad student and the tech that "because your Grant is over, your personnel form has been terminated". I had some very anxious people inquiring. Sigh. Lab meeting: yes there is enough carryover to pay everyone's salary for at least 6 months. This is just an administrative thing. No, I have redone everyone's personnel form. And no, I'm not, the Chair is not, the Dean is not going to let you go because NIH has not sent next year's money. You are valued.

Major next: well, yesterday the 2nd year came. It has been cut 30% from requested. I looked at the number in disbelief. It was a tight budget to  start with. 30% is more than someone's salary.  More than two sets of experiments. And all the travel.

Pro response: Thank you very much sir. Please may I have another?

2nd Pro Response: write to the guy listed on ERA  Commons as the "financial contact". I have found the people in this role to be helpful and polite, as long as I stay polite. I asked about this and apologized for bothering. "No, it's what we are here for". I got lots of explanation, and only a little reference to the unintelligible rules.

Basically, because the federal government does not have a budget, and we (the people) are operating under a continuing resolution, all NIH awards  (right now) in this IC are being cut. Some IC's are cutting more than others. The cuts, if NIH budget is cut, are likely to be permanent.

I know people who go back and argue for more money. Some PI's go nuclear: I can't do the work with only this money. That runs the risk of "ok, we'll take it all back and give it to someone who can". Maybe there are some really big, really really big BSD's who can do this. Maybe they count on sheeple like me acquiescing, so they can have more money.

Because of the short first year, I've got some carryover to ease through this year. Because I figured out a major experimental cost saving, I will be OK this year and next. But by year 4, I will be having trouble figuring out where to cut. There won't be any fat left.

For my part, I am glad to have my one r01. I am glad to have my small lab and to keep pushing on the frontiers in my small way. I would love to have that 30% back. My department chair would love for me to have the 30% back, as most of it is going to come out of my salary support. It's sure as hell not coming out of trainee salaries, or experimental supplies, or animal per diems. We just keep going.


5 responses so far

  • Misha Koksharov says:

    "Some PI's go nuclear: I can't do the work with only this money. That runs the risk of "ok, we'll take it all back and give it to someone who can". "

    Welcome to Russia. 🙂

    • potnia theron says:

      Why do you say Russia? Because oligarchs may be running the country? This problem existed when Obama was president, when various Bushes were president. It's too many mouths at the trough problem combined with the elected government priorities being different from mine (and presumably yours).

      • Misha Koksharov says:

        That's just how scientists have to work in Russia for like the last 27 years (to do some science on very scarce resources).

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  • Ola says:

    Yeah the early FY finish can bite hard, especially when it comes to progress reports. I was in a similar situation - July 1 start date, but they made the end date April 30, so I have 2 months less to get things done. The killer is they link the RPPR to the end date, so for April that means mid January for RPPR - a little over 6 months after the start date.

    I tried to go the "nuclear" route and was quickly forced to eat crow. Specifically, a dual PI award with an initial modular budget was funded with a 40% cut. Our indignation at the offer was met with "you're welcome to try and get it funded elsewhere!"

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