Til death do they part

Feb 08 2011 Published by under Careers

Of late there has been quite a bit of consternation over a very long comment left by one D. Noonan on the NIH OER director's new blog. Check DrugMonkey's excellent posts on this here, here and here. You should also read (if you have the time and patience) some of the comments following Noonan's.

All this reminds me a similar kerfuffle last year over funding at the NSF. Anyone remember the "NSF is Broken" forum?

What appears to be in common between these two outbreaks of "oh my gawd the NIH/NSF funding system is borked!!!!" is that a great many of the people claiming this are tenured individuals who are now finding it difficult to get funded. I'm not going to address whether or not these systems are broken (although they could be improved, I don't believe they're "broken"), but I do want to talk about an issue I've observed with some "established investigators" who now can't land a grant. This is anecdotal stuff, but based on conversations with colleagues, not unusual.

Times are tough in grantland. NIH funding has pretty much been flat for quite some time. In fact, with inflation* the NIH budget has declined significantly. The NSF has fared somewhat better, but not a lot despite Congress' resolution to double the NSF budget. It's getting more and more difficult to land a grant from either agency. For everyone. Sure, the ESI/NI initiatives have made it easier for young, untenured investigators to land their first grant, but that's really only leveled the playing field. And even if you qualify for those initiatives it's not easy. Single digit success rates? If you believe Jeremy Berg's numbers at NIGMS, perhaps not that bad. But not good.

Actually, why don't you go read all of that particular post of Berg's? I'll wait.

Interesting isn't it? Okay, it's just the numbers for NIGMS, but I seriously doubt that the data from the other Institutes would be all that different. A couple of interesting things about those numbers. First is that the funding rates are in double, not single, digits. The rates are still pretty bad, but not the doom and gloom some people are preaching. Secondly, and perhaps more apropos, ESI/NI's are not receiving a disproportionate slice of the pie. Not even close. These are two of the main "facts" the unfunded established investigators tend to throw around when whining discussing their own misfortunes.

Now it is quite likely that the current funding downturn is responsible for many of the funding woes of those established investigators claiming the system is borked. Times are tough indeed. But it's definitely not the NIH's ESI/NI policies that are at fault. And for some, those who inspired the title of this post, it's not even the downturn.

In my experience, those who complain the most about being unfunded are also those whose work just isn't fundable. Despite countless reviews telling them that what they're doing is just not worth pursuing, these individuals persist. 'Cos they know better. It's always the reviewers who are wrong. Always. These PI's know they are right, and they're going to stay wedded to their ideas. Til death do they part.

Some (likely very, very few) of them may be right. But that doesn't matter if the reviewers and funding agencies can't be convinced.

The rest of them? Well, they're wrong.

I understand what it's like to be told your research is at a dead end. It sucks.

But you need to listen.

Especially if you're being told the same thing again and again.

And again.

Blaming your woes on others might get you attention. It may even lead to changes in the system. Changes that aren't necessarily needed.

But it won't get you funded.

* In my experience the cost of equipment and supplies for research increases at a rate far above normal inflation.

21 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    In my experience, those who complain the most about being unfunded are also those whose work just isn’t fundable. Despite countless reviews telling them that what they’re doing is just not worth pursuing, these individuals persist. ‘Cos they know better. It’s always the reviewers who are wrong. Always. These PI’s know they are right, and they’re going to stay wedded to their ideas. Til death do they part.

    I find this understandable but nearly incomprehensible, if you see what I mean. I know the personality but....damn, how do they get through *life*? Sometimes I wonder if it is not the old occupation hazard of the academic (see end of this post http://scienceblogs.com/drugmonkey/2008/04/you_will_respect_my_authoritah.php )

  • juniorprof says:

    I would just add that there is a road to dignity (at least at many places) for those that can't get their stuff funded anymore... teaching. Once your lab is no longer competitive, taking on a substantial teaching load (especially for med students) takes a huge burden off your funded colleagues and is highly appreciated by young guns trying to build their funding base. It also brings in a substantial amount of money for your dept or helps keep it there if you are replacing teaching loads for those with large research programs. I've seen some profs do this to the great relief of their colleagues (in more ways than one). Then again, I've seen others fight to the bitter death of their labs as well as their departmental goodwill.

  • physioprof says:

    Sadly, I've seen a lot more of the latter than the former.

    • odyssey says:

      Same here. They just can't get it through their heads that their research is of no interest to those who control the money.

      An increased teaching load is one way out without having to admit your research sucks. Of course if they're early enough in their careers a change in research direction, although difficult, can work.

    • juniorprof says:

      me too, but the fireworks at the end are momentarily entertaining.

  • Namnezia says:

    And it's not a recent phenomenon. A senior-ish faculty in my department told me a story that after getting tenure he was having a hell of a time renewing grants, to the point that he was unfunded, or very close to it, for some time. This was at a time when funding rates were much higher, too. He finally figured out that his research was no longer of interest to his NIH study section and that he needed to change direction. He did, hit upon a big finding, got a couple of glamour pubs, changed study sections and now has multiple grants and a highly productive lab.

    That was his way of saying to me that a) my initial attempts at R01 applications were simply not of interest to the current study section and to stop wasting my time. and b) That maybe I should change the focus a bit and send it to a different group of people. And finally c) that I probably wasn't going to get funded unless I had a few publications to show for it.

    All sound advice.

  • GMP says:

    As always, it's a fine balance between fighting for what you believe in and knowing when to stop. Do you drop it after 1 unsuccessful submission, or 2, or maybe 4? How about 10? I have seen grants get funded by the NSF on a 3rd or 4th try -- they ranked fairly well with each panel, but until the proposal truly clicks with a panel, the money isn't awarded. So with the NSF it is a good idea to be persistent.

    I am in a field where there is a tremendous pressure to go after the fast-moving funding trends. It can be quite dizzying. Typically people with large research programs have the ability ot follow them and quickly generate preliminary data for whichever direction the money goes next. There are, however, a great many medium and small groups, with perfectly reputable PI's who know the craft, but are more inert because they have smaller postdoc/student ratios and training students takes time. I think it's important to appreciate that the timescales of funding fashions are sometimes much shorted than the timescales on which many people can reasonably build up some clout in a new field.

    I agree that there are many people who are just left in the dust or simply give up the grant rat race on their own. There are also crackpots who hold on to nonviable ideas for dear life. But...

    But perhaps it is also useful to remember that there are many difficult and important questions that people have nearly abandoned in the basic sciences because they are considered unfundable. Current fundability is not the only criterion for the validity of a research program, so "unfunded" does not necessarily mean "a crackpot". See for instance the Most Courageous Postdoc Prize of which Bee from Backreaction recently wrote here.

  • becca says:

    You will always find more criticism of a system among those for whom it isn't working.

    That said... you aren't talking at all about what *makes* science fundable or unfundable. Other than "it's not popular enough".

  • juniorprof says:

    Becca, in my field what makes most science unfundable is that the idea moved into the clinic and failed or had side-effects that will forever keep that approach off the market. Why people can't get it through their heads that these are just facts and there is nothing you can do about it is beyond me. It has very little to do with popularity though.

  • physioprof says:

    Another important point here is that this is yet another motherfucken reason why in today's environment you simply cannot sustain a research program on a single modular R01. This is because when you need to "change directions", you are gonna need to be able to quickly allocate resources and people to generating data and publications that will support that change in direction and allow you to obtain funding to pay for it in the longer term.

    • odyssey says:


      Changing directions when one has a single major source of funding is beyond hard. Trust me.

  • neurowoman says:

    Sooo, why aren't you commenting over there with facts to counter Noonan's seemingly baseless statements?

  • neurowoman says:

    Can't wait to see the take down! Lots of unsubstantiated statements, that guy.

    • odyssey says:

      Seems like things have died off over there. Same thing happened last year with the "NSF is Broken" forum. Initially lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth, then... nothing.

  • drugmonkey says:

    That's blogging....

    No worries though, this issue will appear on Rockey's blog again I bet...

  • drugmonkey says:

    That "NSF is Broken" dude must have finally gotten his funding, doncha think?

    • odyssey says:

      That would explain the silence. I just went over there to check - the last post was in December. And that was by a spammer. You can hear the crickets chirping there.

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