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Author Topic: the NIH grant treadmill  (Read 5279 times)
chiprof6
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« on: March 31, 2010, 9:00:30 PM »

I'm looking for honest opinions about careers in science at R1 universities.  I'm currently TT at such a place and will have my mid-tenure review a year from now.  I've got a relatively productive lab with 2 grad students and a postdoc, and I have submitted several grants but not had anything funded yet.  I also am a mom with two kids (age 2 and 4) and I love my family very much.  I have lots of great ideas, enjoy research, and I'm pretty good at it (I publish about 2 good quality articles each year and have done so for the past 8 years). 

I've had several more senior colleagues tell me (over and over) that it's "not like it used to be", funding is more difficult, it's not good enough to be a good writer and have good ideas, you also have to deal with the bullsh*t that is NIH grants and the review process, and that getting a grant funded and then doing the funded project (and applying for the renewal) will basically consume my life 60 hours per week, 50 weeks per year.  While I work plenty, I do not work this much (probably more like 45 hours/week) because I feel spending time with my kids is important and that I don't get any second chances with them. 

In any case, I'm gearing up for a resubmission of a grant in the fall and I'm trying to decide if this game is going to get me where I want to go.  Part of me feels as though I would be perfectly happy in a smaller teaching college where my skills as a scientist and educator were valued as much as my ability to get money.  Another part of me feels as though I am now just starting to figure this whole thing out and it would be silly to dial it back now. 

My real question is, is it possible to do play the R01 game without a 120% commitment?  Can I just plug along as I have been and, instead of submitting in October, submit in February and spread that prep time over a longer period?  (tenure clock notwithstanding)  Why the hurry?  Does anyone feel they have achieved this sort of balance in a similar situation?  I'd love to hear about it.
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mozman
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« Reply #1 on: March 31, 2010, 10:10:41 PM »

Is your salary hard money or soft money?  If hard money, I would aim to get at least ONE good submission in per year.

I am soft money.  My life is about what you describe.  I try to submit a new grant or a resubmission every cycle - 3 times a year.  I don't spend 60 hours a week on grants unless it is within 3 weeks of a submission date.  I usually work about 50 hours a week with about 50% of that on grants (research, writing etc...).  I definitely spent more time when I first started - I have gotten much better at the game.
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Could you grow the foot into another patient? I mean, you are a scientist.
shrek
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« Reply #2 on: March 31, 2010, 10:34:58 PM »

I can tell you my experience. I am at a research 1 type university, top 10 program (near to top 5). I am not on soft money. But, I have been funded on NIH and Dept. of Ed $$ for about 15 years. I don't HAVE to get grant, but I do like the freedom it provides. OTOH, well, think of it as golden handcuffs. I have about 15 people working in my lab at any one time. Two full-time research associates, 5 or so doc students (I don't even know how many off the top of my head that's terrible). Plus, I hire doc students from other areas, and pay consultants and so on. If I DON'T get funded, these folks lose their jobs (I find this pretty stressful). Currently, I'm in the last (but not no cost) year of an R01, the no cost year of an R21, two new NIH grants hit and will start in the summer/fall (depending). I have two dept. of ed grants as well (in first year).

I find that writing grants regularly does help to sharpen my skills. It's also a game of persistence. I think in the last 2 years, I've written 10 proposals. Eventually, 4 got funded. My goal for the next couple of years anyway is to sit out a year, and then write the renewal for my current R01, and then one a year (alternating between agencies-- we'll see-- actually now that I think about it, I need to write two in the next year, crap).

Would I spend my time doing this if I didn't have tenure?? NO! I did do this before tenure, I was fortunate enough to have two hit early on. But, my advice to junior faculty now is to write a proposal a year, but to write articles that will get them tenure. There isn't enough time to do both, now if you want to work normal hours. I do work about 40 hours, sometimes more, but I don't take summer off, or spring break, or...

Now, I have to say that it IS harder to get funded. But I don't think the process is unfair, it's just more competitive. I'm on one of the review panels. It's very hard to review because there are a lot of very good proposals that come in. We have to judge between excellent and outstanding, transforming research. Yet, the process is somewhat conservative, you have to be on the cutting edge, but do the science in a fairly conventional way, but be innovative, etc. I think unfortunately, the shorter proposals will favor experienced grant writers-- but, we'll see.

Anyway, spend time with your kids, publish, and try for the $$ but don't kill yourself doing it.
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chiprof6
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« Reply #3 on: March 31, 2010, 10:44:54 PM »

Fortunately I am not on soft money, so my salary is safe.  If I have grant money I can pay myself for summers, which is a bonus but not essential (we don't "need" the money). 

I think that a goal of one submission per year sounds reasonable.  I suspect (no, I *know*) that the faculty member I was speaking with about this was somewhat jaded with the game, though he is quite successful.

Out of curiosity, how is P&T going these days for people who have published in good journals, submitted grants, and maybe gotten one or two small things but nothing major? 
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shrek
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« Reply #4 on: March 31, 2010, 10:51:25 PM »

Out of curiosity, how is P&T going these days for people who have published in good journals, submitted grants, and maybe gotten one or two small things but nothing major? 
I'm sure this if field-specific and university specific. In my college we want people who have solid publications and teaching. Numbers do count, but quality counts more probably. The T&P committee is going to pay a lot of attention to the outside letters. Grant money is good, but not necessary. At the same time it looks very bad to NEVER apply for $$.
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mightymouse
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« Reply #5 on: April 01, 2010, 10:51:30 AM »

It is important that you are not on soft money.  Since that is the case, I would not get overly worked up about comparing yourself to how much time other people need to work to get it done.  If you are being productive at the rate you say, then stick with it.  However:  it is true that the NIH treadmill is ugly right now.  I am on soft money and I am sweating it, as are countless others at my institution right now.  Mid- and late-career people who have been funded their entire careers are not getting their renewals funded - and are losing their jobs.  I got an application back unscored recently, so my morale is not very high.

I also think it is easier to assume you can dial back and find one of these SLAC positions than is the reality:  in fact, these positions are scarce now and in many cases more competitive than the positions at large research institutions.

Good luck with the applications.
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janewales
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« Reply #6 on: April 05, 2010, 10:19:11 PM »


I'm not in sciences, but am on the final, university-level review committee for promotion and tenure at my R1. The scientists on that committee routinely look for grant funding, and are often reluctant to approve a case where there isn't enough and/ or the right kind (they worry if there's lots of big Pharma but no NIH, that sort of thing). They seem to be thinking about two things: 1) can the research program survive if there isn't sufficient funding (a productivity concern); and 2) is there evidence of external peer approval for the research (hence the preference for things like the NIH). But obviously this kind of thing is institution-dependent.
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chiprof6
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« Reply #7 on: April 07, 2010, 1:14:05 PM »

Thanks for the insights, everyone.  I think these are all good points to ponder.  The same colleague pointed out to me this morning that I really need to be thinking about *who* would be asked to write letters for me for tenure.  This was in the context of emphasizing having a coherent line of research as opposed to a few disparate projects.  (I've done some research focus-changes as I transitioned from grad school to postdoc to faculty member).

Now this makes me curious to know what the relative importance of:
(1) peer-reviewed publications
(2) grant funding (achieved, versus applied for)
(3) strong supporting letters

has in the promotion/tenure process?  And is the goal of submitting one excellent grant per year really sufficient?
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totoro
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« Reply #8 on: April 08, 2010, 4:17:20 AM »

I think the importance of these things will vary by institutions. Supporting letters help because a campus wide P&T committee might not have a good idea of what the normal number of publications or citations or grants for your field is and what is a good or bad journal etc. Some places will really not expect grants. At others showing grant activity or success is going to be essential. So you should ask your chair or Dean or the chair of the campus P&T committee what they think.
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pgher
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« Reply #9 on: April 08, 2010, 10:32:27 AM »

I've tried to stay out of this, since I'm junior around here and also have only been TT for 2 years (in engineering).  That said, I don't think you can reasonably separate the three items listed.  They are part of a virtuous circle: get the grant, hire the student, do the work, publish the results, receive acclaim from your peers, build on that reputation and those publications to get the next grant, repeat for 30 years.

At my institution, I know of two people who recently did not get tenure.  One had strong grants but virtually no publications.  The other had no grants and few publications.  Neither had a sustainable research program.  (I'm not privy to the details, so there may have been other issues as well.)  The point is, if you don't have funding, how can you do the research that will result in publications?  Presumably the two grad students you have now are funded internally.  How long will that funding last?

Since I'm not in an NIH field, I don't know if one proposal a year is reasonable.  But do the math.  Funding rates are what, 10%?  If you pour everything you have into one, maybe you can raise your odds to 30%, maybe even 50%.  Certainly not 100%.  There is too much randomness built into the peer review system--which peers review it, how strong-willed they are on the panel.  Also, your odds tend to increase as you submit more often, because you get better at writing the proposal.  So let's say you can get to the 30% level.  At one proposal per year, it might take four or five years to beat the odds.
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mozman
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« Reply #10 on: April 08, 2010, 2:28:54 PM »

At my institution, I know of two people who recently did not get tenure.  One had strong grants but virtually no publications.  The other had no grants and few publications.  Neither had a sustainable research program.  (I'm not privy to the details, so there may have been other issues as well.)  The point is, if you don't have funding, how can you do the research that will result in publications?  Presumably the two grad students you have now are funded internally.  How long will that funding last?

This is what start-up is for.

I got a pretty good start-up.  I calculated that I could probably stretch it out for about 6-7 years if I wanted to.  I also calculated that this would lead to my doom.

Instead, I took a "burn the ships at the harbor" approach and BURNED through that start-up in about 2.5 years.  I completely intended to be either fully funded or fired by the end of my third year.  Take no prisoners, don't look back, do or die.

We need genetic markers for our organism of choice?  Don't spend 6-9 months of a post-doc's time generating them - spend $15K and outsource to a company it in 3 weeks.  Ditto for transgenic flies, cell lines, sequencing etc... Time is money - the most expensive thing we can buy.

It paid off.  It could have easily gone the other way.
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Could you grow the foot into another patient? I mean, you are a scientist.
pgher
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« Reply #11 on: April 08, 2010, 6:18:08 PM »

You said what I meant.  Living on start-up is unsustainable, and start-up is only intended as a means to ultimately get external funding.  In fact, my start-up expires at the end of year 3 to encourage me to think of it that way.  (It was small enough that I couldn't imagine stretching it to 6+ years anyway!)

I like your strategy, mozman.  Glad it worked out!
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justanotherucprof
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« Reply #12 on: April 15, 2010, 2:56:45 PM »

Just another data point: at my strong but not top-tier R1, (non-medical) faculty in the NIH fields submit an average of 2 or 3 proposals a year, and successfully raise an average of about $400k/year each in external support.  In lab fields, both independent high quality publications and success in raising funds at the level needed to sustain a research program are critical for tenure (as is success in teaching).  Great pubs aren't enough if the work depended entirely on start-up funds, and funding success isn't enough if the papers don't get published.  It is a challenging road.

I think Mozman is exactly right about the need to be aggressive and strategic in spending money. My own experience in a non-NIH field was that it was hard to get past my natural frugality honed over years with my personal finances, but really crucial.  Money is a tool used to get research done.
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