TL neuro

August 30, 2016

What it takes to survive the NIH Game

Filed under: Careerism, Postdoctoral — mtaffe @ 11:07 am

I recently dusted off some old slides on the academic science career arc to prepare for a presentation to our postdoctoral trainees who are supported on the training grant that has been housed in our department for much of its 35 years. I am the new PI of this NIH award and it falls to me to serve in an overseer role for the training and education the postdocs receive. No small responsibility, this.

Of course, we will eventually cover career paths that veer outside the NIH-funded grant-supported research laboratory in which these trainees are working. But to start with, I presented a very superficial overview of the NIH extramural system. As a NIH Training Grant, the first assumption is that we are training the next generation of Principal Investigators to lead their own independent research projects, so this frames our starting point.

One of the elements which I stress repeatedly is for individual trainees to do their own research about how the NIH’s (or other agency’s) grant game might work for them. Individually. Part of that was an exhortation to see how it has worked, or is working, for the scientists that they know (NIH’s RePORTER is helpful) …if nothing else to educate themselves on the world of the possible. The experiences of scientists change over time and with academic generations but it is a good idea to take a look at the career paths of those PIs who are most like you (the trainee) imagine yours will be.

I also recently had a peer scientist who provides me with a lot of career and grant related sounding board type advice remark “you work at this harder than anyone I have ever heard of”. I do not know if that is true or false when compared to people in my field at my approximate career age (I was appointed Assistant Professor in mid-2000) and in my approximate employment type (soft money, i.e., essentially all of my time is spent on grant-funded research activities).

But this resonated with my advice to the Training Grant postdocs to do some research on the career arc of the scientists in their fields. So, here’s a summary of how hard I work at it. YMMV, of course.

Starting in early 2000, I have submitted approximately (I may have lost track of one or two here and there) the following number of grant applications to the NIH as a Principal Investigator, including participation as a component head on P-mechanism.

Thirty two new (including revisions) R01 applications, 6 of which were funded.

Seven competing continuation R01 applications, one of which was funded.

[Note that my 18% hit rate for R01 submissions is (roughly, roughly) right about where the aggregate success rate for NIH submissions is, if you amortize over this interval of time with a very broad brush.]

Component head within a P (Center) application included 4 total submission rounds, one of which (the second) was funded.

One U01 application, which was not funded.

Eleven R21 applications, one of which was funded.

One R25 application, not funded.

I’ve also contributed substantially to three SBIR applications in the sense of being the scientific subcontract for those proposals; one of these was funded.

It is important to note that many of these submissions were in fact re-submission of amended versions of proposals that had been previously reviewed. There are also many of my submissions that were highly similar to other proposals even if not direct revisions. This might be due to the NIH rules not allowing further revisions or by alterations in our ideas or plans.

As far as my funded R01 awards go, two were funded un-amended, two on the A1 version and three on the A2; but this only tells a part of the story. Each “un-amended” app had been reviewed previously as part of a different grant mechanism.

Two of these awards were clearly saved by Program Officers deciding to pick up a grant that otherwise might not have funded.

Two received 1-2%ile scores (you can’t do much better than that).

One followed an R21 award (funded on A1) and one followed a component of a funded P20 Center (components are ~R21 size) in terms of topic and direction. These might therefore be considered more in line with a competing continuation rather than a new award/new project although they were not technically competing continuation applications.

I have also been the PI of three major awards that were originally reviewed with a different person as the PI (two of which I contributed to as the postdoc in the laboratory of the PI).

Obviously the question of how hard one has to work at maintaining a given level of research funding is a moving target at best. I have a colleague of my approximate generation that has received funding for over 80% of submissions. I have colleagues of various generations beyond Assistant Professor stage that have been very spottily funded over many years to decades. Some of this depends on personal choice of research topics, grant submission behavior, choice of laboratory size and other factors. Some, no doubt, is just variation in how successful one happens to be within this highly competitive grant-award system. And some probably depends on how hard you work at it. For that you would have to ask the individual PI in question how many unsuccessful grants they have submitted.



Update 05/17/17: I recently found reference to this paper.  It emphasizes that grant success is a function of grant application effort.

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