A2s, the national budget crisis, and irrationality

Here’s the thing: I’m surprised and disturbed by the number of experienced scientists saying here that they are “insulted” by the data presented by Drs. Rockey and Tabak. Data cannot be “insulting.” Data are data, and if they tell you something that you didn’t want to hear–well, that sucks but that’s the data. I understand that keeping our labs afloat is our number one emotionally stressful issue–as a pre-tenure assistant prof., I’m just as stressed out (as an aside, these difficult times are perhaps reminding you all firsthand of how it really has been for junior PIs in the last 10-15 years now that paylines are not at the 30-40% range like they were when you got tenure).

But are you all so married to your hypothesis that the A2 would be your golden ticket that any data to the contrary are “insulting?” Taking data personally, and dismissing an experiment as having something “wrong” with it just because it doesn’t tell you what you want to hear and validate your prediction, are examples of “Bad Science 101.” You are all so emotionally invested (because getting/losing funding is a life or death issue for all of us in this business) in needing to see your prediction borne out in your favor that you are trying to demonize the results of an analysis.

If you think the analysis was performed incorrectly, hey: rePORTER is available to all of us, feel free to repeat the experiment yourself. But step back and remove your personal feelings and bias from the analysis, and do not let what you WANT to see in the results cloud your judgment. (and to the person who claimed they saw some fiddling of A2 vs. A0 status in a grant in rePORTER… seriously dude, take off your tinfoil hat.)

The zero-sum aspect of NIH funding makes the results of this analysis be more like a “Well, duh.” If you originally had three categories A, B and C with which to divide up N dollars with X proposals, you remove category C and just have A and B available, so you now have two categories with which to divide up N dollars with X proposals, uhhh, wow, big surprise, now there are proportionately more of X in each of A and B compared to what was in them when C was around. In other words, if your proposal was so meritorious that it would have been on the cusp between B and C, now you’re going to end up in B. You get funded now instead of having to sit around and wait for later. (and yes, I have experienced the “benefit” of the A2 finally getting funded, but would have much preferred for more A1s to have been funded the time I had a borderline score at A1 than have to go through the motions and wait my turn to be A2).

The data are the data. Being insulted by them is just bad science.

The problem is not that proposals scored at the 13% percentile at A1 are not being allowed to resubmit--the real problem is that proposals scored at the 13% percentile are not getting funded in the first place. Here's what would be a much better use of the time spent by everybody who signed the petition and gets involved in the comment thread: lobbying their fellow citizens and Congress to recognize how important NIH funding is to maintaining jobs in our research community and advancing the biomedical science that all citizens need to improve healthcare in the future. It's like we're playing right into the hands of those who want us to keep arguing amongst ourselves and looking for the most offensive piece of lint in someone else's navel, rather than engaging in a process that might actually have potential to make a difference.


*update: thanks to ProfLike for his commitment to the plurality of data. lol. 😛