OER Strikes Back

I took a pass in September on noting Les Costello’s piece in The Scientist entitled NIH R01s: No Longer the Best Science, in which he expresses concern over policies designed to increase funding to new/early stage investigators. This month, Walter Schaffer and Sally Rockey from OER (NIH’s Office of Extramural Research, which brings you the NIH Guide, Extramural Nexus, NIH Regional Grant Seminars, and all you need to know about grant application and management policies) respond with NIH Continues to Support the Best Science through R01s. {see Alison McCook’s comment below for the corrected subtitle to the Schaffer-Rockey piece.}

Essentially, Schaffer and Rockey lay out the history of NIH’s efforts to promote funding to new and early stage investigators (ESI) and the rationale for doing so:

When Dr. Costello [who “vehemently” objects to the new/ESI policy] received his first traditional NIH research grant (R01) in 1963, success rates were near 58%, and 35% of the competing R01s went to first-time recipients. … In 1977, the average age of new investigators was nearly 37, success rates had decreased to 28%, and the proportion of R01s going to new investigators had decreased to 33% … by 2006, less than 24% of the recipients of competing R01s were new investigators, success rates were below 21%, and the average age at first award of an R01 had increased to more than 42.

The first comment, however, keeps on with The Scientist theme about whether the NIH is funding the best science … not necessarily due to any potential discrimination favoring new investigators so much as penalizing amended applications by percentiling them separately (intended to reduce review burden by funding more A0s than A1s based on historical data showing that ~70% of A0s are eventually funded as A1s or A2s). The opening line probably sums up the scientific community’s mood though:

The angst over new and early stage scientists indicates a broader anxiety among established NIH investigators over what is seen as administrative meddling adding to an already capricious peer review process.

And then, of course, we have the forum over at Genome Technology asking Is Peer Review Broken? (review of grant applications and journal manuscripts). Clearly, CSR and OER need to keep the communication channels open for continued feedback on their enhancements to the application and review processes.



  1. Here we have an ODB who started his career when people typically got their first RO1 at about age 30 when paylines were hovering at ~40th %ile, who has secured some $22M in NIH funding and obviously knows his way around NIH, and who is (unless he’s a moron) deeply enmeshed in the old-boys network. And he thinks that by giving young* investigators a bit of help when paylines are at 10th%ile or lower, we’re ruining NIH by lettin in a bunch of ill-trained, stupid, young* investigators. I’d like to suggest that Costello go perform a physiologically impossible act.

    *Note that today, “young” typically means early-to-mid forties.

  2. Sleazy douchebags like Costello are *exactly* the reason why ESIs/NIs need a fucking break.

  3. Alison McCook said

    Our bad — when first posted, this OER opinion from Schaffer and Rockey contained the wrong subhed, but now has been fixed to what’s in print: “A response to accusations that the agency is biased against senior scientists.”

    Sorry for the mistake!

    Alison McCook, Deputy Editor, The Scientist

  4. NAPS said

    There is absolutely nothing wrong in helping the young/beginning investigators. The old R29 system was there for the same purpose. There are more special programs nowadays tailored just for the young..a good thing. I think the growing concern is that it should not be done excessively on the expense of the established investigators. Just because established investigators may have more than one RO1 or more resources or more experience, do not mean they deservingly (or automatically) should take the hit. These earned qualities should not be used against incoming investigators nor should they be used to punish the established. The commentaries coming out of various agencies and societies often leave out this growing concern. I think this is why we now see a slight shift in tone from “we must help the new investigators” to “what about us”.

  5. whimple said

    I find this kind of ESI hypocrisy irritating. It is totally about age, as all of the discussion about ESI clearly indicates. But of course, when it comes time to implement a “solution” to the age problem, Schaffer and Rockey promote an “age-independent” plan, because a plan actually based on age, which is what they want, would be illegal. Who do they think they’re kidding? I would love to see ESI status challenged in the courts on the basis that discrimination on the basis of “time since completion of terminal degree/residency” is such a good proxy for age as to essentially be the equivalent of discrimination on the basis of age. This kind of “how can we get away with our illegal behavior?” philosophy reminds me of the previous administration somehow. 😦

    …the proportion of awards going to previously unfunded investigators has declined and the average age at entry has increased substantially. In 1977, the average age of new investigators was nearly 37, success rates had decreased to 28 percent
    In spite of these interventions, by 2006, less than 24 percent of the recipients of competing R01s were new investigators, success rates were below 21 percent, and the average age at first award of an R01 had increased to more than 42.

    The ESI elements of the policy provide incentives to encourage the reduction of the excessively long periods of training required to enter faculty ranks and apply for NIH research support. This policy is age-independent and is based on the duration of time since completing medical residency or the terminal research degree.

    • D said

      You are absolutely right. But, I think of it as how can NIH solve a problem someone else made without doing anything illegal.

      If Big Rich Universities hadn’t abandoned their junior faculty career development responsibilities this wouldn’t be an issue today. And, 3 years to get an NIH R01 or you’re out is not much of a plan.

  6. Candida Albicans said


    I am not inside the system and may not be grasping the subtleties.
    What if you’d left the sentence unfinished: “ It is totally about age………” ?
    Perhaps it is about Age + Quantity of funds consumed over time and direct correlation with advancing science in ways that the public can touch (not just promises, promises…).

    If it is all about AGE, the discrimination concept can then be used to challenge
    old and newer policies. “AGE”, in the context of “access to public funds”, can be an ambiguous parameter. It would be Much less ambiguous if AGE were to correlate with Quantity of funds consumed and type of “science” generated.

    • ESI said

      Candidta: The issue is that there is real (as well as perceived) control over who is allowed to gain access to the funds. The system is set up so that established investigators who have had sufficient time and resources to gather preliminary data are more likely to receive funding. In addition, universities are set up so that only certain people (who are given access to sufficient data collection resources) are allowed to apply for these funds. Age happens to correlate very highly to both ‘history of gathering data’ and ‘access to existing resources necessary to execute further data collection’. So this meritocracy seems to favor established scientists rather than new scientists.

  7. D said

    Steven Wiley discusses this issue in the Scientist.


    I wholeheartedly agree with his statement towards the end:

    Unfortunately, the reason why we argue so passionately over the relative merits and fairness of scoring systems is not because we are concerned about the absolutely best science being funded. It is because we worry about our jobs and careers. NIH has been forced to consider career issues in their funding decisions because many universities and research institutes have abandoned their responsibilities.

    Right On!

    • whimple said

      Sing it, brother!

  8. Luna Halloween said


    Do you think that big universities are going to take responsibility for their Faculty by giving them, once more, most of the opportunities with these additional 15 millions ARRA funds?.

    If they have not done it so far, what makes you think that they are going to change ?. Just because PIs with multiple grant parents will write down in their applications that they will create jobs, do cutting-edge science and cure every catastrophic disease ?.

    NIH should require these institutions to demonstrate first, for a minimum of five years, that they are committed to change their brutal policies ?. That is the first test they need to pass. Instead what NIH is doing is procuring more money for them.

    • D said


      I don’t care so much that the rich stay rich or get richer. What bugs me is how little they value their junior faculty as anything more than present and future money makers. I just don’t think there is any NIH funding strategy that will fix this problem. It has to happen at the University level.

      As for where the money goes, NIH funding is (mostly) meritocracy based not fairness based. There is no “fairness” review criteria. If you want to change that you need to talk to your Congressional Rep or Senator and either change the law under which NIH operates or have them shovel some pork your way.

      Science Funding does not equal Fair in the USA.

  9. ESI said

    ESI as a Market Pressure:

    I can understand the need to support established researchers and continue to reward individuals who have an established track-record of excellent science. From an investment perspective it is these established researchers that represent the ‘safe-money’. By investing in established scientists, reviewers can be relatively assured that good science and publications will result.

    On the other hand, if there is no mechanism for young scientists to get their foot-in-the-door, then they will simply leave academic science because they too need to follow the ‘safe-money’.

    As an ESI-level person, I have watched many of my contemporaries receive a postdoctoral grants and then struggle with the transition to the next stage. Many of these young scientists (indeed, a majority of my contemporary graduate labmates) have now left academics. This is a much bigger loss for science than for these individuals-they now all hold well-paying jobs in industry. It is important to understand these market pressures.

    Young scientists now have many options outside of academic research thanks to research advances that have sprouted a flourishing biotechnology industry. If the goal is to attract talent to biotech, then the system is succeeding.

    However if the goal is to retain talent within academic science, then the system has not done so well. I think that ESI will be a critical market pressure for reversing this trend.

    After completing my NRSA fellowship, I was on the brink of having to leave academic science for a job in industry. In my case, ESI status provided an incentive for my institution and senior scientists to support my PI status on my own R01 application. My first submission received a marginal score and was not selected for the ESI payline boost. However, my second R01 received a 5th percentile and I am now likely to be funded. If it were not for ESI status, I would not have been given the opportunity to even try for my own R01, and I would now be leaving academics for industry. ESI status gave me a foot-in-the-door and I now have an opportunity to leverage my research dollars into new papers and future funding opportunities for many years.

    ESI saved my academic career.

  10. Luna Halloween said


    I appreciate your well-informed comment. I have a few disagreements with it.

    1.I would not care so much that the rich stay rich or get richer if all talented, science driven and hard working people were given legitimate opportunities. This class of researchers exists in the scientific community and, in my experience, is age and tenure status independent. Those opportunities are not available or cannot be available because the resources are ill distributed. Why are they ill distributed? I don’t have a complete answer but if the resources were unlimited, there would be no problem at all.

    2. I would agree with your concern on “how little the rich or to get richer value their junior faculty as anything more than present and future money makers”. Perpetuation is a critical feature of all-living systems. Money/business makers want to perpetuate themselves by producing more money makers. Science doers want also to perpetuate but many of those will not make it unless the resources are better and more rationally distributed. How to do that ?. Is it not a question of priorities and objectives??. How and by whom are those priorities and objectives established, implemented and evaluated ?
    I disagree with your statement : “I just don’t think there is any NIH funding strategy that will fix this problem. It has to happen at the University level.” Sure, the prospects of leaving the problem to be fixed at the university level are not encouraging. Why ?. You just said it: “how little they value their junior faculty as anything more than present and future money makers”.

    3. “As for where the money goes, NIH funding is (mostly) meritocracy based”. What’s meritocracy ?. The holding of power by people selected on the basis of their ability. It sounds kind of consistent: money makers versus science doers. If the balance continues to be displaced towards the money makers, I envisioned that the future of the USA is to get extremely rich as a result of having only a handful of science doers.

    4.“If you want to change that you need to talk to your Congressional Rep or Senator and either change the law under which NIH operates or have them shovel some pork your way”.

    D, I understand that NIH is an organization that administers public funds and does not legislate. I have certainly talked to a number of Senators about the problems affecting the scientific community and I would do it all over again if I had a chance. You too should do it, if you care. NIH, in my view, is also a very appropriate channel to let the political representatives know what are the issues that are mediating the on-going exodus of present and future scientists from academia.

    Sorry D. It does not mean that I dislike you. I happen to disagree with most of your statements.

  11. Candida Albicans said


    It sounds discouraging that we citizens are putting our money under a “controlled system” that favors scientists doing data collections rather than researchers with the energy and creativity to advance science to the public’s benefit.

    • ESI said

      Exactly! This is the goal of the Early Stage Investigator (ESI) status that we are discussing. ESI is an attempt by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to encourage promotion of new scientists. NIH is attempting to address your concern by tweaking the way they allocate funds. The goal is to encourage more opportunities for new scientists. However, as you can see from this forum, this is a controversial new policy.

    • D said

      I wouldn’t go that far to say that all funded scientists are merely data collectors while the unfunded ones have the energy and creativity to advance science to the public’s benefit. This is nonsense.

      The point I (and others here and elsewhere) are trying to make is two-fold.

      1) Senior scientists have a competitive advantage because of the resources they have accumulated.

      2) There is little to difference in the merit of the top 20% of scored grants even while much less than 20% are funded.

      So, to even the field, ESIs need a boost. How much of a boost is debatable but a boost they do need.

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