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January 9, 2023

INTERVIEW: Geneticist at a Top 5 University

At the Good Science Project, we’ve been featuring regular interviews with practicing scientists. One of the chief difficulties in doing so is that many scientists aren’t willing to be quoted publicly, for fear of retribution from folks at NIH, NSF, etc.

(PS: Whether or not that fear is justifiied, it is still very real. This shouldn’t be surprising. I spent many years as a private funder, and I had to bend over backwards to get anyone to give me honest feedback about anything whatsoever, because no one wants to take the slightest risk of offending a potential funder, especially in a competitive environment. The complete lack of honest feedback is a serious and systematic problem for both government and private funders, but that’s for another day.)

In any event, I recently interviewed a genetics professor at a top 5 university who was willing to let me publish the interview, but only after anonymizing certain details. It’s worth a read.

What’s the NIH doing right?

The NIH, compared to other countries, has a huge budget. I would argue that NIH funding of academic research has led to the US being a research powerhouse (including industry).

As for the MIRA (“Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award”) program at NIGMS, it’s a great idea. You’re funding a person and their research program, and the proposal is a very high-level overview of your research questions and where you’d like to go in 5 years, without a ton of detail about specific aims and specific experiments. The idea is that if you’re a productive researcher and do high-quality work, you’ve accrued some amount of trust, and if you get funding, you’ll do quality research.

By contrast, for an R01, you have to be very specific about experimental design, and it’s so easy for reviewers to find things to criticize. And with funding rates at like 10%, it’s very easy not to get funded even if it’s a high-quality submission.

With MIRA, reviewers are able to say, “That’s an interesting idea,” and the funding rate itself is higher (around 30%), and the renewal rate is more like 50%.

Could the MIRA program be improved?

Absolutely. Right now, accepting a MIRA grant can sometimes make it very difficult to sustain a research program. But a few tweaks could help.

Right now, if you get a MIRA grant, you’re required to dedicate 51% of your research effort to that grant. But with the size of the typical MIRA grant, that could essentially limit you to a couple of post-docs at an expensive institution like [my university]. And because you have to put in 51% of effort, you can’t apply for other top-tier programs (Pioneer, etc.), because you’d also have to commit 51% of effort to those programs. In addition, by being funded by MIRA, you cannot apply for an R01 with NIGMS. 

If the overall budget per grant was raised, there would be less pressure to apply for other grants. Alternatively, if NIGMS cut back on the work effort requirements or on the ability to apply for R01s, that would make it easier to apply for other grants so as to support several students/post-docs.

What do you think about soft money positions? 

A fundamental issue with science funding is that when NIH funding doubled in the late 1990s, many institutions saw that as an opportunity to hire more people who had to cover their own salaries.

I have to cover 60% of my salary with grants, and I have colleagues in clinical departments who have to cover 95% of their salary from grants. So you are strongly incentivized to get multiple grants and cover 25% of salary with each of them.

If NIH said that over 10 years, we will decrease the amount of salary coverage paid for by NIH grants, and the universities will have to figure that out, it would bring things more in balance. But universities would see this as a seismic shift or as an existential threat.

Right now, universities are hiring people without paying salaries, and it’s almost like investigators are independent small businesses who are required to raise as much indirect costs for the institution as possible. There has never been a time since I got to [my university] over 20 years ago where it wasn’t doing construction on a new research building. They are clearing ground now to build yet another science building. They get money from donors for the building, but the goal is to hire more people to bring in money from grants.

That’s good for the universities, but not so good for the faculty or the NIH.

Several years ago, the NIH unsuccessfully tried to cap the number of R01-equivalent grants any researcher could get. This would have limited the size of certain labs. What do you think is the optimal lab size, if there is one?

I see people with tons of grants and millions of dollars per year, but the level of mentorship and productivity is probably less per person.

If more investigators had say $700k per year to hire several people, I’m a fan of that model. I’ve typically had a group of between 6 and 12, and I like the idea of a relatively modest lab.

In the old days, like my old advisor [deleted] and his peers, it was the case that you had an R01 for 30 years and that basically funded your lab’s research, and your trainees got fellowships. You didn’t have a bunch of grants at once. But today, at places like [my university], you’re not competitive unless you have 6+ grants. There is almost no RFA to which people won’t consider applying.

Should we limit graduate students/post-docs to training grants or fellowships, rather than as staffers on R01s?

I like the idea especially for graduate students.

It has seemed to be the case in the last 5 years that NIH wants to decrease the number of slots for training grants, with the alternative being that students apply for fellowships (F31 for graduate students). 

Those fellowships have very low funding rates (maybe 20% if you’re lucky), but it’s also not appropriate to apply for those until the third year, because they require some preliminary data from the student. You wouldn’t get it as a brand-new student. So, there’s a gap in funding for new students, which means that the PI has to pay for it.

At [my university], we are incredibly fortunate in that much money has been raised, and we have reasonable success at getting fellowships from NIH and NSF. But to some extent, it’s a pyramid scheme in academia—the number of trainees is more than the number of positions. At [my university], the number who go to become faculty is probably higher than elsewhere, and I know faculty who view it as a failure if someone leaves academia. I don’t agree–if my trainees go onto become productive and contribute to society, I’m happy. We need smart people in industry as well.

What do you think about today’s level of hypercompetition for grants?

Hypercompetition is harmful. If I need several post-docs to run my lab, and I have a 20% chance of getting funded, I have to apply for a ton of grants. In one prior year, I applied for 10 R01s, and not a single one got funded. I spent virtually all my time on grant proposals that year, and the mental toll was difficult to take. That said, the next year, I got 3 of them funded in a row as resubmissions.

This “feast or famine” nature of research funding makes it hard to maintain a research program. We need more stability and predictability in our funding stream. One of the goals of MIRA was to flatten that out a bit, and to allow people to do creative and riskier research.

How are we doing at funding innovative work?

It’s an open secret that people write grants for stuff that they’ve already done – they know it’s feasible and has good preliminary data, and by the time it gets funded, they can take the money and do something else.

I’ve sat on study sections, and it can be a feeding frenzy when someone says, “I don’t like this experimental design or this tool,” so your incentive is not to propose something high-risk. We’re all trained to be critical and to find flaws, so that dynamic takes over.

If you have a funding rate of 10%, probably the vast majority of things that get funded deserved it, but there may be an equal number of grants that deserved to get funded but didn’t. If you reshuffled the reviewers or just met on a different day, it might be a different set of the top 20-30% that got funded. It’s fairly random.

As for high-risk programs: the NIH Pioneer awards say they are for new lines of research: “To be considered pioneering, the proposed research must reflect substantially different scientific directions from those already being pursued in the investigator’s research program or elsewhere.” 

When I applied, I looked at all the NIH Pioneer awards that were successful, and the researchers were all doing the exact same thing they’d been doing for 10 years! I proposed doing a different line of research, and the reviewers didn’t like it because I didn’t have enough experience! They weren’t abiding by their own criteria at all.

What about bimodal scores in peer review?

That’s an interesting idea. Consider Pat Brown, one of the pioneers of microarrays. The first proposal he wrote was around 1992. The study section hated it and said this will never work. Pat ended up having to develop microarrays with his startup funds. Once he had shown categorically that it would change the face of science forever, suddenly he was getting funding from everywhere. If one or two study section members liked his idea and wanted to fund it, that could have been a useful signal.