Who gets NIH grants and is it a problem?

rise-fall-dominant-few-2

from http://grantome.com/blog/rise-fall-dominant-few

Drugmonkey posts a graph from Grantome.org showing distribution of grants by institution. A series of follow-up posts at Grantome includes one that looks beyond the top 50 institutions and concludes:

The NIH website reports that more than 80% of its budget goes to over 2,500 universities and research institutions. Yet for the R01 – which is arguably the most sought-after, prestigious grant that is the financial staple of many medically oriented research laboratories in the U.S. – the bulk of the grants are distributed to 4% of these 2,500 institutions. It therefore appears that the division of R01 grants among institutions parallels that of wealth among individuals in the U.S. population. It is highly unequal, with the bulk of the pool held by a lucky few.

Drugmonkey asks both in the comments and on twitter:

50 institutions get 60% of the #NIHGrants. Good, bad, or meh?

The distribution of grants is interesting, but it leads to the obvious question: what should it look like? I don’t think that is knowable from the data provided, and it may not be knowable, period. The description of the top group as “a lucky few” suggests a perspective from a particular point of view. As with the reactions to the Alberts PNAS paper (which is now taking comments btw) scientists/PIs tend to view the question from the perspective of what is good or “fair” to scientists. But  it is important to remember that just as pro-market is not the same as pro-business, what is good for Science is not always the same as what is best for scientists. Or, as I tell graduate students about the importance of working hard: the NIH is not supposed to be a welfare program for smart people. I usually add what Bob Sauer used to say to every new person in the lab: you don’t have to be that smart to do Biology. If you were really smart you’d be doing math or philosophy or shit like that.

The correct but painful question then is not whether PIs are being treated fairly, but rather whether federally funded science agencies are doing a good job of optimizing the taxpayer/citizen return on investment in research. In the case of NIH, the investment is in biomedical research (preferably a big tent definition of biomedical, IMO). In general, while I still tend to think that the peer review systems at NIH and NSF are like democracy (terrible but better than most the plausible alternatives), I do worry that the system is getting worse at approximating an ideal system for maximizing the taxpayer investment in research. But I am not sure whether a system with the nonexistent perfect program officers , SRAs, and reviewers would increase inequality or decrease it.

Lots of interesting reading at the links, in any case.