How would you change US funding?

I encourage you to go over and weigh in on the topic of changing funding at Joan Strassman's blog. She has been discussing the changes to NSF Bio in her last couple of posts, both WRT the preproposals and why they were needed. The discussion on the second post has since evolved into how we should change the funding structure to maximize the resource we have.

All of the traditional battle axes have been dragged out. The "we should be more like those cuddly Canadians!" and the lovable "Overhead is the problem!" arguments were quick to pop up, as always. For those of you who are bored, we've discussed those issues here and here, respectively.

I am often wary of these discussions because, as Drugmonkey often points out, commenters are always going to propose whatever option benefits them the most. That's not to say that I don't think these discussion are worthwhile, but eveyone's opinion needs to be taken with a giant rock of salt, my own included.

However, one option I don't support that does not benefit me is limiting the number of grants one PI can hold. There may be studies on the optimal number of grants per lab, I have no idea, but to arbitrarily place a limit of, say, two or four grants per PI seems to me a willing attempt to close one's eyes to the variable nature of the science enterprise. And as CPP has pointed out on occasion, limiting the number of grants past a certain threshold is punitive to such a minority of PIs as to not really make a difference in the grand scheme. If only 1% of PIs have more than 5 awards (I'm making these numbers up. UPDATE: My numbers weren't so far off!), then limiting awards to 5 is putting lipstick on a pig, but it won't do much for funding levels for the other 99%.

So, readers, feel free to leave your thoughts here or join the discussion on the Strassman blog.

14 responses so far

  • We have mechanisms in place for new PIs (ESI, etc.) and if some believe that the Old Guarde are swiping up the rest of the cash (which may be a dubious thought in of itself), should a funding mechanism analogous to ESI be put in place for those in between ESI and midlevel, such as profs approaching tenure?

    My thought about this is that with longer postdocs, some over 8 years, some of the newer PI's don't have too much of that ESI shine on the apple once they take the job, and thus may never capitalize upon it to receive their first major award.

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    Funding is so tight right now, that the ESI mech may not be 'working' as intended. I've heard from several 'ESI's' that they were dinged for items that are not supposed to be dingable under 'ESI' status. For example, number of pubs during the first 2 yrs of faculty position......

  • drugmonkey says:

    they were dinged for items that are not supposed to be dingable under 'ESI' status. For example, number of pubs during the first 2 yrs of faculty position......

    why is this not "supposed to be dingable"? Where do you arrive at your understanding of what is and is not "supposed" to be a matter of discussion on any application.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Thanks, DM, I include that link above in the Update.

  • Bashir says:

    I would give myself more funding.

    commenters are always going to propose whatever option benefits them the most.


  • proflikesubstance says:

    Get in line, Bashir.

  • DrLizzyMoore says:


    I have been told repeatedly that under the 'ESI' lack of publication wasn't supposed to be held against the candidate. That said if the ESI apps are pooled and you have several ESI's that have pubs versus some that don't, then yes, it's dingable.

    My understanding is that ESI applications were held to a different metric than other applications.....that doesn't mean the metric is full-on shitte application gets overlooked 'cause you're a n00b. It just means the expectations for my app vs a full prof's app would be different. Honestly, the only benefit I see from being able to designate my apps as ESI is the slightly higher funding level. It doesn't mean that my app gets reviewed by peeps with rose colored glasses or anything....Regardless, I'm getting some pubs together NOW before my June submission....

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I vaguely recall reading about a study done to determine how to slow down Germany's scientific progress during, or just before, WWII. It was proposed that the Germans be conned into instituting a system just like NSF. I think there was a "Brown Room" proposal for streamlining and making NSF more productive. The available cash would be put in a brown room and researchers could come an take what they needed.

  • DrLizzyMoore says:


    I was told about the pubs thing in a grant writing seminar endorsed by the NIH, which I considered a good source. Talking to those who have submitted grants and read their comments are better sources......

  • drugmonkey says:


    The issue is that NIH reviewer instruction is filled with a lot more "may"s than "should"s on this issue. And nearly zero "will"s or "must"s. point being not to start yelling about how one needs to appeal* the erroneous review...

    *not necessarily you, I'm sensitized by reading the complaints at writedit and RockTalk

  • drugmonkey says:

    With that said, in my opinion a reviewer who demands pubs w/in 2 years of starting a lab is being a major league asshole with a delusional view of most biological research that I can imagine.

  • becca says:

    The overhead thing is real. Though I'll concede that NSF can't change before NIH does without somewhat imperiling it's investigators (though the inverse doesn't apply).
    There should be more incentives for funds that are more leveraged- if your uni has a 90% overhead rate and you're totally on soft money, we probably gotta get you talking to industry, because no matter how hard you work you're not going to be as productive per taxpayer dollar as somebody at a 30% overhead institution with full salary support.

    If I had a magic wand, all the federal government grants would have one type of application, with different 'achievements'* needing to be documented for different levels of funding, and a specialized track for early investigators.

    *achievements including papers published, citations generated, patents and trainees who get jobs that use their training, not so much awards/glamor mags/shininess)

  • Jeremy Fox says:

    Proflikesubstance, do you have your own suggestions?

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