Is the world of NIH-funded labs a haven for pathological douchebaggary?

Jan 16 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I have spent the vast majority of my career sheltered from the enormity that is the NIH funding machine. Part of that is my field, part of it was leaving the US for a good part of my training. As regular readers know, I have made some attempts at NIH funding and so, have tried to get my head around the culture. I've done so both informally via blogs and reading NIH documents and more formally by meeting with a good number of successful NIH PIs and getting feedback on proposals.

Generally I've had a lot of good interactions with people across the board. But as I've gotten a little more involved I'm getting a better sense of the NIH world. The more trainees and administrative people I talk to, the more concerned I get. But some of the stories... even if I limit things to just the people I know and trust.

The demands placed on trainees, the power dynamic that is wielded like a hammer and the ferocity with which it is used, have on several occasions left me speechless. And whenever questions about the behavior come up, it is chalked up to "You have to be tough in this game", or some such bullshit.

Perhaps it's a numbers game and the small percentage of asshole PIs is amplified in the bigger NIH world than what I have seen throughout my career. Might be the lack of focus on mentorship at NIH, compared with NSF, or the relative budgetary investment in trainees. Maybe it is a stress of the bigger payday or the associated power, I don't know. But in my dealings with a relatively large number of PIs who see NSF as the primary funding source, I have never witnessed the type of pathological behavior that appears acceptable within NIH circles. Or, at least, is tolerated by many peers and ignored by higher-ups. That's not to say it doesn't exist outside NIHville, but it doesn't appear so blatant and widespread that an outsider might be taken aback.

So WTF, NIHers? Why does the percentage of pathological PIs appear so high among your ranks?

28 responses so far

  • drugmonkey says:

    Our people are the whiniest?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Have you tried flogging harder?

  • geranium says:

    Can you give any examples?

    How closely do you tie these behaviors to the process of getting and keeping NIH funding and how much is it a generalized shift of discipline / academic culture do you think?

  • Anon says:

    I'm in a field (chemistry) where a good number of people are on both sides of the road (primarily NSF funding or primarily NIH funding). I don't think I'd agree that there is more bad behavior among the NIH folks. In a mixed environment I've seen NIH folks look down on NSF folks because the money that comes in from an NIH grant is significantly higher so perhaps they develop a superiority complex. But I haven't seen that rub off on how they treat their trainees, at least not in a generalizable way.

  • Dr. Strange says:

    I agree with your rough assessment. But.

    1) You are vague about what constitutes douchebaggery and so any measure will be inflated. I think I know what you mean, but what exactly is "unacceptable" behavior?

    2) Ascertainment bias. There are more stories about assholiness because assholiness generates more stories.

    3) Here's the agreement part-- Do nice guys finish last in NIH funding culture? This is a recurrent discussion I have with students, usually brought up by a compliment about how reasonable I am compared to other PIs. Anecdotally, I agree that the more successful NIHers tend to be douchebags. IMHO there are two components of how/why this is.

    3A) You don't like the "you have to be tough in this game" comment, but *any* highly competitive endeavor requires more determination than is required in an relaxed, balanced life. I don't think this is a big problem. If you want to win the Tour de France, you don't complain that the hills are too steep. Suck it up. Yuck? Yes, that is also a generations-old medical/surgical culture. Work hard, deal with it, no whining.

    3B) Our culture has an unhealthy obsession with being number 1 by any means necessary. This is bigger than the NIH. What happened to Lance Armstrong? (Great documentary on the relationship between performance enhancing drugs and our winner take all culture: Better, Faster, Stronger.") Starting from 3A, we have morphed into a system where the competition is unreasonably intense. The NIH is connected to pharma and the stakes both personal and financial are huge and this culture has made it OK for the measure of success to be crazy high to the point where lying, cheating and douchebaggery are common. IMHO at this point it is simply impossible (in my field at least) to do the amount of work required for a top-tier journal article in a single post-doc. It takes about 4-5 years to get a decent paper, and let's not forget the NIH metric is that one paper per post-doc year is expected. How is that supposed to work?? This puts tremendous pressure on me to be a dirt bag and push people harder and harder and/or merge projects (sorry second author!) for the sake of a glamour mag paper. Not to mention the large number (it seems) of people that succumb to fraud to achieve "success." Open access may provide a way forward, I don't know. I know I am sick of groveling to glamour mags and I am sick of lying to my post-docs that they by themselves have a chance to turn their project into a glamour mag publication.

    Bottom line: stress turns people into douchebags. Too much stress, not sustainable science (ie. mentoring and career options for people who want to work 40 hours per week).

  • becca says:

    My experiences:

    Douchebag labs:
    *NIH funded, mostly program grant

    Semidouchebag labs:
    *NIH funded, 2 R01, fading into retirement unwillingly; *AHA funded, trying to get NIH funding (pretenure); *NIH funded, including program grant, and foundation funded

    Non-douchebag labs:
    *Combination NIH and HHMI funding; *NSF funding (quasi-retired), looked down on NIH funding; *Previously NIH funded, now mostly foundation funded (miss the money, not willing to be a douchebag to get it though); *NSF funding, foundation funding, scraping by; *USDA funded, alternately flushed with cash and scraping by; *USDA funded, trying to get NIH funding (intentionally avoided med school environment due to presence of douchebaggery)

    For the semi-douchebag labs, the pressures of funding (and tenure in one case) made very decent people into sometimes very unpleasant managers. The douchebag in the first lab would have been a douchebag in any funding environment, but *having* money made him nastier/more immune to consequences.

    So I think NIH funding (or the pursuit of such) makes some assholes worse. It's like smoking- it doesn't cause all the cancers, but it can cause a shocking variety of them, and is a blatant risk factor.

  • Genestumbler says:

    As a product of the NIH machine, can I ask for some examples of the aforementioned douchebaggery?

  • Hermitage says:


    NSFers are nicer because they're amateurs, obviously.


  • proflikesubstance says:

    I'm being vague for a variety of reasons one might be able to guess quite easily. However, I think yelling at trainees, making unreasonable demands on their time or "commitment", vague or direct threats of wrongful termination, holding authorship hostage, public belittling, etc. Any or all are unprofessional bullshit, IMO.

    And while stories of assholeness make for better stories, the stench seems to waft a lot more from certain parts of the research world.

  • odyssey says:

    Examples? K3rn, P00, St. Noonan.

  • Darwin Fish says:

    Like Alex said, I think Female Science Professor said it best.

    As someone who works at the interface of biomedicine and evolutionary biology, I have seen and worked in both worlds. I think the douchebaggery is related to two things, only one of which has to do with NIH and other is merely correlated. NIH funded labs these days tend to be molecular/cell biology (including neuroscience here) labs in biology. These NIH projects are huge and require a small army to carry them out. In evolution and ecology, you can pretty much do your own thing as a student or postdoc, in NIH fields you are -- by necessity -- part of a machine, a gear, a cog. This latter situation makes it much easier for abuse to exist, and it may even repel people who are more independent-minded and thus less likely to take this kind of abuse and keep it at bay for themselves and others.

    The other issue is money. During the big boom of the 2000's the mega grants were going out and it was relatively easy to get them. Universities grew fat and happy on the overhead they garnered from these grants, and in some cases they didn't even need to offer their professors salaries, so sure was the situation to get these grants and pay oneself. Now the well is going dry, but the infrastructure build on the largess of this time of plenty still largely exists. Thus the pressure to get these grants is much higher and those who have them are treated like differently, and this can go to their heads.

    A bit of anecdotal, though relevant, evidence was from a cocktail party just this past weekend. I was talking to a friend of a friend and a cocktail party. I asked him what was going on in his department, Biology (he is an associate professor). He said that he was hoping his part, neuroscience, was going to break off and form their own department because "Ugh, those ecologists with their tiny little grants? They are dead weight, we have almost all the funding, we get NIH funding, I don't want to deal with those other people and their small projects."

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Of course FSP did a better job on the topic. That's a default. But she didn't get to use douchebaggary.

  • Darwin Fish says:

    Hah! I meant she said it better than I could. I found what you wrote to be very interesting and insightful. I'm really glad you brought it up.

  • Alex says:

    Darwin Fish,

    I've got a friend who is very much focused on cellular and molecular stuff for biomedicine (I'm a biophysicist, so I collaborate with him a bit), and he had just the opposite opinion of the non-NIH parts of biology. (In comparison with that neuroscientist at the cocktail party.) He noted that there are some animals that do something very interesting, something that might be very interesting for human disease, but isn't yet on the radar of the biomedicine folks. He also noted that if one of those animals should ever become a hot model system for biomedicine, the knowledge base that the biomed folks draw on will all be the work of non-NIH biologists. It will be from people who were out there doing field work, studying the behavior and life cycle of this animal, or putting them in zoos and monitoring them and asking purely curiosity-driven questions about how an animal works just because it's an interesting animal.

  • Like Darwin Fish, I straddle both evol. biol. and NIH land. What I found is that (usually) in evolbiol, the idea that there were 'competitor labs' was (again usually) viewed as an absurd concept. More often than not, researchers 'spaced themselves out.' Many of the NIH-funded disciplines seem to be very competitive with lots of potential scooping, which could lend itself to the aforementioned douchebaggery.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Not sure that competition excuses treating your people like shit.

  • eeke says:

    The NIH budget is ~5x that of NSF. You have 5x higher chance of running into an NIH-funded asshole than an NSF-funded asshole. So I don't think the source of funding is what's causing assholery, unless you've already done a correction for population size. It could also be that the larger grant sizes enable and amplify asshole-like behavior.

  • "Not sure that competition excuses treating your people like shit."

    Agreed. But in my experience the correlation exists.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    It's a chicken and egg concept, frankly. One could just as easily argue that people with a tendency towards douchebaggary are more attracted to fields where competition is tighter.

    And eeke, 5x the budget doesn't explain a general lack of this behavior outside of the NIH world and the "every department has at least one" type of prevalence within. I am not at all saying that people funded by other agencies are all great people or treat every trainee with the utmost respect and care, but the comparison would have to be on a log scale.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Funny, I had forgotten about FSP's post on the topic until the reminder by Alex, but it's interesting we're seeing the same thing and the comments are.... well, kinda what I would expect.

  • I think that people who have (maybe ever) done field work have a better grasp of reality and understand that drinking beer in the rain or snow is really what doing science is all about.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I think that people who have (maybe ever) done field work have a better grasp of reality and understand that drinking beer in the rain or snow is really what doing science is all about.

    That's a theory I can get behind.

  • iGrrrl says:

    Well, speaking as someone who works across disciplines and lines... eeke said, "So I don't think the source of funding is what's causing assholery, unless you've already done a correction for population size. "

    The cultures are tremendously different. And where your department is matters as to how much of this world-class abusive jerk behavior is 1) tolerated, or even 2) encouraged. If the person is in a medical school vs. department with substantial undergraduate teaching, the potential for reward for jerk behavior is much, much higher. I worked in a university with pretty amazing culture, but even there, the cultural difference between the Bio department on the 'main' campus and the departments in the biomedical graduate school were very clear. My short-hand example of the cultural differences is that you go to an NSF meeting, and usually the biggest thing on the badge is the first name. At an NIH meeting, the full name with all degrees and position are all in the same sized font, and people read your badge to calibrate whether and how they want to talk with you.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    At my previous institution, I was based in the medical school and funded by RO1's but was also part of an NSF funded project with some folks at the arts&sciences campus.

    The cultural difference that iGrrrl notes was very real and very apparent.

  • Darwin Fish says:

    Full disclosure - I am 100% NIH funded, but trying not to be a douchebag.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    NIH projects tend to support a larger percentage of the PI's (and co-I's) salaries, especially in medical school where the university fronts only a small part, and there is relatively little teaching, so it is win or die. You see the same crap in physics departments where they have loaded up on research faculty.

    As a suggestion, you might approach the appropriate NIH program manager and volunteer for letter reviews (and maybe even an unimportant panel) to get a better idea of how the game is played (dirty). Same goes for NSF.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Oooooohhhhh, thanks dude! I'll just go get on one of those unimportant panels so I can figure out why it's cool to crush trainees for fun. *on it*

    If I didn't know better I'de think you relished the dirtiness of it. Interesting.

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