The reality of science: Money rules (a personal anecdote)

I just got some awesome news yesterday. Some amazing, mindblowingly awesome news.

I just got an e-mail telling me that the NCI finally announced its cutoff for funding grants today. My very first R01 grant was funded, just barely―by the skin of my teeth, actually (more on that later).

Fellow scientist-bloggers in the biosciences like PZ Meyers will know immediately the significance of this news, but for those readers not in the science biz, let me take a moment to explain what an R01 grant is. The biggest hurdle in modern science is that it takes money, lots of money, to do it. Starting after World War II, the U.S. government has funded a significant percentage of the biomedical research in this country through its system of peer-reviewed grants. The NIH offers a variety of funding programs. There are training grants like K08's. There are more exploratory grants, like R21's. However, at the top of the heap for individual scientists, the gold standard grant that pretty much every biomedical scientist in academia aspires to is the R01. Anything bigger is usually given to institutions (SPOREs) or to groups of scientists (P01). R01's are generally five year grants (meaning stable funding), and most of them are between $150,000 to $250,000 a year, plus indirect costs to the institution (to support "infrastructure") between 50% and 60% of the direct costs. The peer review process used to evaluate them is rigorous. Once you manage to get one, it means you have "arrived" as a serious researcher and that you can call yourself and NIH-funded researcher, which always looks good on the old CV. (And, if you're a physician-scientist, like me, the basic scientists don't sneer at your research so much anymore.)

It's not that I haven't had consistent funding almost since I started. I managed to secure a small pilot grant right after I arrived at my present institution. After that, I managed to parlay that small grant into a larger, two-year grant from the state. Finally, I managed to secure a three-year grant from the U. S. Department of Defense. (Believe it or not, the U. S. Army funds a fair amount of cancer research. However, since the war in Iraq started, these grants, once relatively easy to get compared to most, are now very difficult to get. The Army funded only 4% of the applications last year.) There was only one place to go from here. It's true, there are quite a few physician-scientists who never get an R01. They usually exist on smaller grants and funding from industry. Going that route, however, is difficult, because such grants are usually for shorter periods of time. That means constantly scrambling for new grants as old ones expire, which is essentially what I've been doing for the last five years. Combine that with my actually having a clinical load (in surgery, no less, which does not lend itself to segregating clinical time and research time as neatly as medicine can, leading to very few surgeons having R01's), and it's a major amount of stress and work. (I'll talk about the difficulties in combining research and clinical careers in more detail another day.)

So, over two years ago, I submitted my first R01 applications. It got "nerfed," which is slang meaning that, upon first pass, the study section reviewing the grant thought it was in the bottom 50th percentile of all the applications they received, and thus not worth going through a full review by the entire study section. I slaved away, drove my technician and postdoc to do the same, and, finally, on February 1 of last year, I tried again with a new grant. Now, it takes months for the National Cancer Institute to review these applications; so it wasn't until the end of June that I knew my score. My score was quite good, well under the pay line for the previous year (21% of grants were funded). Everyone told me I was golden, not to worry. Although it was expected that the pay line would fall somewhat, it had never fallen so far in one year that my grant wouldn't be funded. So I waited.

Normally, the final funding decisions would be made in October or November, and funding would start in January or February. Unfortunately, because that was after October 1, that meant the pay line would be determined by the fiscal 2005 budget, not the 2004 budget, and everyone knew the NIH budget would be more or less flat this year. In addition, 2004 was an election year, and all of our legislators, as they are wont to do every election year (and almost every year, period), didn't pass the fiscal 2005 budget on time. Some of you may remember that big 2005 Omnibus Budget bill that was being argued about in November. The NIH budget was in that bill. You may also remember the wrangling about some riders about abortion. Same bill. Consequently, the NIH budget wasn't passed until sometime around Thanksgiving, and it wasn't signed into law by the President until the middle of December. In the meantime, scientists everywhere who had applied on the same cycle as me twisted in the wind.

It gets worse. Shortly after the budget was passed, rumblings and rumors started, dark rumors of pay lines dropping precipitously. Senior faculty in our institution, who had contacts in the NIH and NCI heard through the grapevine that the payline was expected to take a bigger drop than expected. In fact, in my case, the rumored pay lines were right around the score I got on my grant, and no one knew if they would be higher or lower, if my grant would be funded or not. In a manner of months, I had gone from confidence that I was almost certainly finally going to "make it" to serious doubt. True, it wouldn't be the end of the world if my grant didn't get funded this cycle. I'd resubmit a revised application. But the pay line would almost certainly go down more next year, and I would no longer have the buffer of my Army grant to save me if I failed again.

Time passed. There was no news by Christmas. There was no news in early January. The next deadline for resubmission was March 1. I needed to know if I needed to get to work on a revised application. (It takes several weeks to write up these applications, get them looked at by colleagues, and produce new drafts.) The day before yesterday, I was wondering what I should do. Should I just start writing a revised application, assuming I wasn't going to get it? Yesterday morning, I started to put together the skeleton of a revised application. Yesterday afternoon, I got an e-mail from the NIH that the pay line had been set, and that I had made it by 0.4 percentile points!

Naturally, I'm relieved and elated.

Some may notice that I haven't really talked about the science. That was mainly because I wanted to convey a bit of the common experiences of most academic biomedical scientists when it comes to getting grants. I also wanted to point out the depressing funding situation that is developing. But the main reason is that I wanted to save that for another post. (I will say that my research involves tumor angiogenesis.) In any case, now that I have the R01, I'm getting really nervous. Now it's time to actually do the science, rather than write about it. There are no more excuses.


  1. Congratulations. :)


  2. maybe now you can actually pay your people the NIH recommeded minimum...

  3. I already have and do. It's university policy.


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