Wednesday, October 15, 2008

If I had a million dollars, I'd be...

I was going to write "a NIH* funded biomedical researcher", but it turns out that it would need to be more like "If I had $2.69-3.38 million..."


Figure 1. How I imagine biomedical researchers like Dr. Isis examine their grant monies. I need not remind everyone that Dr. Isis, of course, is way hotter*.

Before my ecology compatriots have brain hemorrhages and have to explain to their colleagues why blood is suddenly coming out of their ears, these grant amounts are not annual amounts but are probably the total award for the entire grant duration (yes, I know, ecology peeps, this is still beyond our comprehension, but hang with me....). For the edification of the non-NIHers who read my blog: NIH's website indicates that the R01*  can be up to $250k per year or more*  (this is the amount that goes directly to the researcher, the university F&A* goes on top of that) for 1-5 years.

To understand why I find this so deeply fascinating, you have to understand the differences between NSF funding in my field and NIH funding. To illustrate, I found a table on NSF's website with some basic funding rate information (there is also a report that makes very interesting reading as well). I have provided below the 2007 information for a few programs in DEB*:

Organization Mean Grant Duration (years) Median Annual Size
Division of Environmental Biology 2.73 $87,439
    Ecology 2.51 $24,995
    Ecosystem Studies 2.43 $73,741
    Population Dynamics 2.37 $66,833

I would like to point out that these amounts probably include F&A, because that's how we NSFers roll. (For those of you checking up on me, I reported the program figures and not the cluster figures because I think the clusters include CAREER, OPUS, and LTREB grants which have different budget and funding criteria than normal grants).

In the spirit of full disclosure, I suspect that these numbers are on the low side (and the funding rates on the NSF website are on the high side) as they probably include all funded proposals through those programs - including workshop and conference proposals, dissertation improvement grants (DIGs), and Small Grants for Exploratory Research (SGERs). When I went through the Ecology program awards, attempting to weed out those types of grants, the average I got was closer $63,482/ year for an average of 3.6 years (though I have to admit my calculation is based on a small sample size....I am an untenured assistant professor after all and shockingly this is not what they will give me tenure for). If you assume 50% F&A on average, then the average net per grant annual research fund for an individual researcher in ecology is more like $42,000. This is a  far cry from the $250,000/year net research dollars of our NIH colleagues.

image Figure 2. How most ecologists examine their grant money.




My hope right now is that a few of my biomedical/cellular/molecular/neurophys peeps blink at our numbers like I did at theirs. I do not begrudge them their superior funds (I have to admit that I see the use of MRIs and not bleeding people with leeches as huge advancements that benefit me personally). My intent with this post is education. When NIH and NSF funded researchers coexist within the same department (as happens in Departments of Biology and even Departments of Ecology and Evolution thanks to the genomics revolution), sometimes things can get....weird*. We have different cultures, different research programs, different graduate student training goals, different philosophies for authorship. I think this is great. Each science has developed its own approach to facing the challenges of its discipline. The problems arise when these different cultures are forced to coexist within a department. My favorite quote from this bizarre little culture war was to the effect that ecologists were departmental parasites because "the NIH money we bring in runs this department". I obviously cannot argue with the money part of that statement, but does that mean there is really no need for ecology as was not so subtly implied? It is apparently a sentiment that has played out more than once as I know of more than one Department of Ecology and Evolution has been created because things got so bad that the university would otherwise completely lose ecology and evolution.


Figure 3. How ecologists and cellular/molecular researchers often get along.

One of the things I would like to do (hopefully with humor and grace) is to take advantage of the blogosphere to help communicate across this divide. I have been using DrugMonkey as a training ground, learning how this other culture operates and helping me to understand why my cellular/molecular colleagues sometimes yell at me. Perhaps I can return the favor (minus the yelling) for someone out there in a Biology Department who is fascinated by their bizarre hippie-esque, Teva-wearing brethren who can apparently survive scientifically on research funding scraps and still occasionally get papers into GlamourMags (no blind acorn jokes, please). In my Gulliver's Travels through the blogosphere, I have found that while many things are different across the sciences, we also have many things in common. Perhaps you will too...


*NIH: I think most of us know what this is, but I thought I would take this opportunity to draw your attention to the glossary I've constructed at the bottom of the post. For most ecologists, all you need to know of NIH is that it is inconceivably better funded than NSF and is generally (with exceptions) not interested in us.

*General Disarray came in this morning, saw the pictures in my draft and said, "Isis is going to be SOOOOOO mad." I am hoping that this blatant flattery will assuage the wrath of the gods.

*Ro1: the NIH folks have a variety of different grant types referred to with such intimidating names as R01s, A2s, and R21s. Ro1 is their main grant type. In ecology, we just call them...grants. Though, to be fair, we too have special names for some types of grants. We just seem to prefer cute acronyms (DIG, SGER - pronounced Suger, CAREER, OPUS)

*250,000k/year: okay this doesn't need defining, per se, but the NIH budget issues are quite foreign to us NSFer's so deserve a little discussion. My understanding from discussions over at DrugMonkey and BlueLabCoats is that $250,000 is the funding limit beyond which you actually need to justify your budget.

*F&A (facilities and administration). Also referred to as "Indirect Costs", the "University Tax", and "my money that goes to our crappy athletics department". This is the cut from a grant that goes to the university to reimburse them for research related expenses. Institutes I have been at were around 50%, but I have heard rumors of rates much much higher.

*DEB: Division of Environmental Biology. One of several divisions within the Directorate of Biology. Most ecology proposals will go through some program within this Division.

*weird is obviously not a technical term per se, but by weird I actually mean unpleasant, ugly or "not good".


Anonymous said...

The "funding rates" chart said for 2008 that 16% of proposals were funded. I call bullshit. No freakin way. The % is wayyyy lower, like half. I wonder where the charts and numbers come from??

My path has been to go the way of the non-NSF funding... USDA, USFWS, NOAA, EPA etc. I am currently NSF funded through the EPSCOR program (which targets poorly funded states like the "3rd world country" I am in now). The funding rates seem genuinely higher for the off-the-wall bio programs and are certainly higher for USDA and EPA -and- you don't need Dr. BigBritches's name as a PI to get noticed/read/funded.

However, the attitude among snooty ecologists is that non-NSF grants aren't "competitive"... my response is "as a woman, it's always competitive." Yes, the boys club funds itself and sits on the review boards, so it helps to have an internal buddy light the grant-writing path for you, just as it is for the NSF golden road. But money is money, and where it comes from, I don't care.

River Tam said...

Anon --

I'm in complete agreement with you. Money is money, as long as it allows you to do good science who cares! Some universities make distinctions between federal (which includes the sources you list) and non-federal, but I have also seen the NSF snobbishness you speak of. I definitely do not mean to indicate that ecologists don't have their own biases. I have also seen ecologists be less than magnanimous to the cell/molec colleagues in the cases when they have "more power" in the department and we definitely tend to have bad/snobby interactions with the more fish and wildlife crowd. A some of this is just lack of communication about how our respective sciences operate, so we judge each other by our own standards. This is one of the things I love about the blogosphere - I actually get to have conversations with scientists who I might not be able to hold deep conversations with in my own department because of poisonous departmental politics.

Oh, and I call bullshit on the official "funding rates" too. I believe they are "technically" true, but there are a lot of different pots of money that these programs control that have higher funding rates than the normal grant process does. I think those inflate those numbers by about half. I think that's also why the reported grant values are so low too, because many of those pots fund very small grants.

Odyssey said...

Interesting post. I've been meaning to write a piece on what it's like being an NSF-funded basic scientist in an NIH-dominated department in a college of medicine. Sounds like a similar situation to yours. Here NSF-funding is very much 2nd class, at least in the Dean's eyes...

River Tam said...

Odyssey-- I would love to see you write that post. When I started writing this one, I was focused on my small world of cell/molec vs. ecol/evol, but as I was writing it I started to realize that it was probably broader than that. That there are probably two axes of strain: NSF vs NIH (or as anon points out NSF vs. NIH vs. other sources of funding) and lab vs. (what we would call) field-based research. I'd love to hear what someone's experiences with the NSF vs. NIH issues was like who controlled for the field vs. lab difference!

NJS said...

NSF is some of the most prestigious funding in my field. I can't imagine NIH would be interested in many (if any) studies...maybe air quality, but it would probably have to be a collaboration with a more health-oriented department.

ScientistMother said...

I think Dr.isis will be flattered and I for one almost spit my coffee out from laughing

BikeMonkey said...

I have heard rumors of rates much much higher

like 89.9% perhaps?

River Tam said...


holy crap! In some ways, I wish NSF worked like NIH where the focus was on the actual research dollars and not the research dollars + F&A like at NSF. The feeling through the NSF channels has always been that if the total dollar amount was too high, you would be passed over for an equivalently ranked but cheaper proposal, so that F&A rate can be pretty critical for us!

(still shaking my head) 89.9%!

Anonymous said...

Love you river. Another ecologist.

JaneB said...

Ah yes, those F&A costs get you coming and going...

The acronyms are different, and in my department the mix is different (I like many people in my field have never yet been able to get interviewed for a job in a 'biology' type department because what I do is at the ecogeomuddyboots-end of the spectrum with no use of shinymachinegenomics, despite my academic background which includes a degree from one of InternationallyRenownedUniversity'sworld class biology departmants) so the 'other end' is not medical funding, but the experiences are very similar. Might write about it this weekend if something more annoying hasn't come up instead!

qaz said...

Although I know a lot of universities (including my own) judge our importance by the number of $$$ we bring in, I think we all need to actually say (what I think we all believe) that grants are not the goal. They are only the means to the end (which is the science). I suppose one could argue the end is the publications as that is the way we communicate the science.

When one of my colleagues retired, he told me "I've had a good run. I've been funded my whole life." This was/is a guy who'd actually had an impact on how we think about certain drugs [specific substance names removed to approximate anonymity], but his definition of success was that he'd been funded continuously. (Yes, I knew what he meant, but still... I think it reflects an unfortunate but pervasive attitude.)

River Tam said...

janeb: please do! ecologists end up in many different types of departments. I know of at least one university where ecologists are located across campus in 8 different dept (for such a small field we sure get around)! I've spent most of my time in either Biology Depts or Ecol&Evol Dept where genomics ruled the roost, so would love to hear the experiences of others!

qaz- I hear you. General Disarray and I had a long discussion about this yesterday. As state support for higher education declines, the university has to make up for that revenue loss. I understand that pressure from the higher administration. What seems sad is that we scientists seem to have bought into it and beat each other up about how much funding someone has, as if just because it costs more for you to run your research than it costs me to run mine makes your research better! Most of us scoff at that logic. The one thing I do like about the tenure policy at my university is that the requirement is a demonstrated ability to fund your research - which means as long as I have a grant (regardless of source or amount) and my productivity shows that it is sufficient to support the level of scientific productivity that makes everyone happy, then I'm good.

Anon2 - it always makes me happy when fellow ecologists stop by!

Isis the Scientist said...

You know, Dr. Isis is a bit flattered. She is honored to have such loyal followers in the blogoshpere.

And yes, you are exactly right. Dr. Isis requested that her RO1 be paid in dollar bills so that she could spread them over the lab bench and roll around naked in them.

Isis the Scientist said...

PS: Let's try to keep this obvious imitation to a minimum, though. You can't be stealing Dr. Isis's schtick or you may make it on to the list of people I call "bullshit" on.

River Tam said...

And yes, you are exactly right. Dr. Isis requested that her RO1 be paid in dollar bills so that she could spread them over the lab bench and roll around naked in them.

I knew it!! Even if it's not true, thank you for letting me keep my illusion that one of us is able to do this!