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?