Bridge Over Troubled Waters

The Scientist discusses a case study of a budget-crunch-induced lab closure, the personal and professional fall-out, and the concept of intramural bridge funding. In this case study, the PI (at Man’s Greatest Hospital) received a couple of Type 1 R01s during the NIH budget doubling that were not scored (article refers to them being returned without review – I assume she means without discussion/score) as Type 2s, resulting in funding loss … personnel loss … job changes … the works. Very interesting & engaging series of comments in response as well.

Historically, Type 2 R01s (competing renewals) enjoy roughly twice the success rate of Type 1s: 49.1% vs 24.5% in 2002 … 42.1% vs 20.0% in 2004 … 33.5% vs 16.3% in 2006. Hence the encouragement to pursue R01 vs R21 or R03 funding if possible (since the latter non-renewable mechanisms cannot take advantage of this higher success rate for Type 2s). In 2007, the gap narrowed a tad, with 36.1% success rate for Type 2 vs 19.2% for Type 1. As The Scientist points out, this meant 4,108 Type 2 applicants ended FY07 with out an award in hand.

I was pleased to see The Scientist feature institutional bridge funds. I strongly feel no research institution with a shred of integrity can get by operating without such a mechanism in place and transparent criteria for evaluating requests and distributing funds (distributive & procedural justice). These institutions gladly take the indirect costs their investigators bring in (70% at Dana Farber! and when I left another HMS teaching hospital in the late 80s, it was at … 92.3%!!! compared with a paltry 49% here at Baby It’s Cold Outside). In a cut-throat climate, they also dangle the damnedest recruitment packages to lure/buy funded researchers from other institutions. They better be ready to step up to the plate when the loyal productive PIs need help weathering the storm.

Apparently the Dana Farber will help those with scores within the 15th percentile that still weren’t funded. Baby It’s Cold Outside gives some weight to the percentile but just as much to the summary statement (some scores are outliers due to easily fixable application weaknesses rather than lack of productivity or scientific significance), the PI’s response to the critiques, and other funding sources. Budget requests must be prioritized, with students who need support in that particular lab for that particular project to finish up experiments for their thesis or dissertation receiving the highest priority. Maintaining a specialized animal model/pedigree or ensuring data collection continuity for a clinical cohort rank up there as well. Explicit reviewer requests for specific data to include in the amended application can qualify as bridge worthy. So, some strategies to consider for those of you trying to make a case for internal bridging monies at your home institution.

As discussed here last spring, NIH R56 bridge awards are also available, not via direct application by the affected PI but by recommendation of program directors and ICs. Last January, the Great Zerhouni reissued official notice of the NIH Director’s Bridge Awards. Usually program officers nominate their best & most worthy PIs without saying anything to said PI (so as not to get hopes up, especially when people’s careers are at stake in many cases) … but they shouldn’t mind if you send a quick e-mail reminding them that your A0 was really close and you could sure use a funding safety net until the A1 or A2 is awarded. Now, if your application was more than 10 percentile points above the current payline, probably not much they can do (don’t even think about asking about R56 support for an unscored application).

As I type this, it occurs to me that the case study in The Scientist was unscored but still received $50K a year for 2 years from the MGH as bridge fund grants, so clearly they have more liberal standards than the Dana Farber … or the NIGMS … as well.

Next week, I check out Life on Mars. Maybe it will look better on the red planet.



  1. Neuro-conservative said

    My institution implemented formal bridge funding last year for near-payline grants (we have had a variety of more informal mechanisms prior to that).

    I found it unusual that the Type 2 applications from the PI described in the article were so frequently unscored, given that he appears to be a productive researcher. I wonder if he was getting bad committee assignments, or if some other unstated factor was involved. Many competing renewals don’t succeed, but I have only seen repeated unscoring in the case of nonproductive labs.

  2. drdrA said

    I know you can also end up with an application that keeps being consecutively triaged when the study section you are sending too keeps getting dissolved… so although you are sending a renewal… it is being viewed through new eyes each and every time.

    Also, lets face it, there is a certain amount of clubbishness in peer-review that can keep people out (ok there is A LOT of this)… I’m sure I could go on about this.. . but why, we all know its there.

    These factors say nothing about the quality of the proposal, the productivity of the PI etc. It just means you keep going to the back of the line.

    Well, the rest of the comment aside, bridge funding is not unlimited so must support investigators with a demonstrated likelihood of having their extramural awards restored within a year. Hence the tendency to play it safe & stick within a certain percentile of the payline.

    And for those applications that are legitimately affected (negatively) by the ongoing study section reorganization such that two different panels review the A1 and A2 (beyond PI control, not at PI request), the PIs are invited to submit an A3 application (“invited” being the operative word here – as in, explicitly invited on the A2 summary statement). – writedit

  3. BB said

    At my institution, you have to compete for institutional start-up funds (unless you have a generous chair). Bridge funds go to established tenured faculty, not to new, untenured, or junior faculty. There are private bridge funding mechanisms like the Charlotte Geyer foundation for cancer RO1’s within 10 percentage points of payline (I think that’s how it’s worded).

  4. drdrA said

    ‘bridge funding is not unlimited so must support investigators with a demonstrated likelihood of having their extramural awards restored within a year.’

    Yes, I get that- but this is determined by a good score- if you keep getting moved from study section to study section I would venture to say that a high percentage of the time you will remain UNSCORED – so you won’t ever be considered for bridge funding. Just a reflection of going to the back of the line AGAIN.

    ‘And for those applications that are legitimately affected (negatively) by the ongoing study section reorganization such that two different panels review the A1 and A2 (beyond PI control, not at PI request), the PIs are invited to submit an A3 application’

    Ok, but you have to go ALL THE WAY TO THE A2 (that is 3 rounds at 7 or 8 months apiece at a minimum- even if you could submit in consecutive cycles- which you probably can’t if you want to take comments into account, as you well know) to submit and A3. So we are talking about a minimum of 2 years without a renewal here- with the time that this takes you will have run your lab down to 0- have let go of your personnel etc.

    I’m sorry- I don’t mean to be ranty but this is probably coming out that way…

  5. bikemonkey said

    we likessss ranty……my presscccioussssss. what we hatessessss is triagessss. (and bagginsessss.)

  6. BB said

    We also hates studies sections not reading the grants we write but rewriting the grants they want to work on.

    Although today I received my VA supplemental award, so I feel less like Gollum and more like Frodo.

  7. TeaHag said

    Well, nothing beats having your A2 unscored when you placed on the board (albeit not in the fundable range) last time up at bat!!! Way to ruin my weekend…………

    I am so sorry … but I’ve also seen scores go up rather than down in recent cycles, though not into the triage pile – as an A2 no less. Damn.

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