Request for Information: Potential Emeritus Award for Senior Researchers

Feb 04 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Even though I have heard discussion of the concept over the years, I must admit I was a bit stunned to see the Request for Information (RFI) from NIH regarding a "Potential Emeritus Award for Senior Researchers". The introduction for this RFI reads (in part):

An important issue for NIH is the long term succession planning for the research we support.  Over the years, NIH has been persistent and creative in efforts to support early career investigators through policy changes and new programs.  But we must also consider the needs of our senior investigators and how NIH can assist with the continuation of their well-established research programs, should they wish to transition to new positions.  While many senior investigators may be happy pursuing their research questions in the laboratory, others may be looking to move into other roles, such as full time teaching and mentoring.  Our senior investigators have invested their careers to establish the intellectual and technical infrastructure needed to pursue their research questions, and even if they wish to pursue new roles, they may not wish to dismantle their long-standing programs.

I find many aspects of this request surprising. These include:

(1) This problem already has a solution. An investigator can (with approval from the relevant IC) name a new Principal Investigator for a grant. Assuming the PI is qualified and NIH approves, this is an effective transition strategy that has been used many times.

(2) For most research programs, is "succession planning" something that NIH staff are worried about? Given that many investigators train numerous younger scientists over the course of their careers and that the system is currently flooded with accomplished younger scientists, the solution to this problem without any mechanism seems to be at hand.

(3) Even proposing such a mechanism seems quite inappropriate and tone deaf at this juncture when so many younger scientists are struggling to establish and maintain their careers.

Let me add two more personal observations. First, as someone who has changed roles several times over the course of my career, I know it can be done without any formal mechanism. Changing career directions can be a bit scary but I have been blessed with some tremendous opportunities and am glad that I have followed combinations of my heart, my brain, and my family to pursue them. I have developed many new skills and have had the privilege of going through the tenure process four times. In my experience, you just have to try to do the right thing, for yourself, your family, and your communities.

Second, when I was at NIH, I discovered that a senior and very accomplished faculty member had not tried to renew his R01. I emailed him and asked what was up. He said 'I have sources for some other funding and it is time to give someone else a turn'. I have considerable admiration for many senior scientists who have accomplished much over the course of their careers, but there does come a time when it is time to give someone else a turn.

NIH's requests information about:

  • Community interest in an emeritus award that allows a senior investigator to transition out of a role or position that relies on funding from NIH research grants
  • Ideas for how one would utilize an emeritus award (e.g., to facilitate laboratory closure; to promote partnership between a senior and junior investigator; to provide opportunities for acquiring skills needed for transitioning to a new role)
  • Suggestions for the specific characteristics for an emeritus award (e.g., number of years of support; definition of a junior faculty partner)
  • Ways in which NIH could incentivize the use of an emeritus award, from the perspectives of both senior investigators and institutions
  • Impediments to the participation in such an award program, from the perspectives of both senior investigators and institutions
  • Any additional comments you would like to offer to NIH on this topic

I hope you all will take advantage of the opportunity and share your thoughts. I certainly plan to.

43 responses so far

  • Drugmonkey says:

    Wow. Just......wow.

  • Established PI says:

    This has left me speechless. What problem is this supposed to address? Are they really worrying about the absence of a mechanism for keeping laboratories open when the PI decides to retire? Are there people who aren't retiring because they lack a mechanism for passing on the reins? And why on earth is there a pressing need to keep these labs open, rather than using the money to fund a new lab? I truly hope there is some grain of a sensible concern behind what appears to be (as you say) a tone-deaf request for comments on how to perpetuate the legacy of a handful of well-funded investigators. Could this be some eliptical way of setting up a face-saving exit strategy and thus induce more PIs to retire, when study sections don't have the guts to shut down programs? Someone please explain this....

  • Philapodia says:

    This smacks of behind the scene politicking. The whole biosketch fiasco and lack of real response by Sally Rockey and EOR to reviewer and applicant feedback on the need/value of that change makes me wonder if there will be any real attention paid to feedback from the riffraff for this RFI.

    I wonder if such an award were granted, would there be a lifetime bar to any further funding by the NIH to the awardee? Otherwise this is just another way for senior investigators to get more money.

    • datahound says:

      When I was on study section ~15 years ago, I recall two cases of senior faculty who submitted renewal applications that indicated that this was their last time in. They got great scores, were funded, did good science, and came back in and were funded again 4-5 years later.

      • Philapodia says:

        Unless there is a binding agreement that this mechanism would be terminal funding, I think the same would happen here. I know too many senior PIs who are 70+ who have no intention of retiring and would see this as tempting low hanging fruit.

      • drugmonkey says:

        Surprise, surprise I just learned that a colleague who was "definitely retiring, no seriously" has just put in another grant proposal this round.

  • Established PI says:

    OK, I read Rockey's new post and found the relevant part of the new FASEB "Sustaining Discover" report:

    "One way to reduce competition and free up more grant funding for early and
    mid-career scientists is to provide an incentive for senior scientists to downsize
    their laboratories."

    I still don't get it. Most large labs run on multiple grants, so an easy way to downsize is simply to let one or two grants expire. For the few that are lucky enough to have those big fat 40-year R01s, the NIH could reduce the budget. I just don't see how offering a special geezer grant mechanism is an inducement to downsize and then exit gracefully.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    My skimming of this was that it seems to be designed to incentivize retirement from the NIH pool. Paying up front to remove mouths from the trough. Maybe it is sort of a gold watch for PIs that are on a single gigantic grant- if those don't score well, those investigators go from full lab to nothing. It really reads like a transition award for the 500-700K per annum investigator.

  • DJMH says:

    It's not uncommon for a canny department head to do something like this, in the humanities. "Dearest Senior Professor X. You are 71. Your wife is, too. Why not take my very kind offer, which is 50% salary and only one class per year for the next four years, to *transition* into your well-deserved emeritus position?"

    This frees up 50% of a geezer's salary, which is usually enough to hire one new asst professor and still have some cash left over. Plus, the department knows they'll be able to write him off the books in 4 years...they are buying the budget certainty. Sometimes, people would like to retire but just haven't figured out how.

    Of course, plenty of scientists want to die at the bench, and this putative mechanism won't do jacksquat about them. Maybe instead the NIH should be incentivizing hobbies.

  • lurker says:

    Not even Rockey is that capable of such creative nonsense.

    The RFI came about because of the president of John Hopkins, Ronald Daniels, in PNAS wrote:

    http://www.pnas.org/content/112/2/313.full#sec-6

    Read or word search the following:

    "Separately, the NIH could introduce a new program for the experienced scientist who no longer wants to pursue R01s,"

    • drugmonkey says:

      Hopkins, eh? Gee I wonder what this is about what with all the "how do we incentivize Universities" business?

      IDC maybe?

  • tom says:

    So instead of just giving up R01s, I can make nih pay me for my esteem and experience. this is a great idea. never mind the trainnees in my lab who have near perfect scores on various K awards and NRSAs. Lets give some money to senior folks because their universities don't want to pay them to sit around and share their vast knowledge. Maybe this is because young PIs are sick of paying percentages of senior colleagues salary on grants for nothing. 5% of 180K with benefits is almost half a technician....

  • qaz says:

    All of a sudden NIH is concerned about research lab stability? After the last decades of "we just fund the best science, so who cares if a lab starves" [Zerhouni] and "no more A2s because that lets individuals negotiate with study section" and "every grant really is independent so we're not allowed to discuss the amount of funding a lab has [too little or too much] or take that into account when scoring". All of a sudden NIH officially cares about lab stability and continuity, when the old generation "doesn't want to pursue R01s anymore".

    Convenient that.

  • Established PI says:

    Thanks, Lurker, I went back and read the Daniels article. I guess the idea is that senior PIs would give up their grants more readily if they could come up with alternative salary support. This presumes that they are in a largely soft money position and that their institution is unwilling to pay their full salary for a few more years while they still participate in teaching, mentoring, etc. At my own institution, faculty clearly are able to hang on for a little while even when they lose all funding. They are shown the door at some point (either salary is ramped down or they are offered a financial inducement to retire) - there is no need for the NIH to get involved. FYI, the same is true at Daniels's own institution.

    The question is, how many senior faculty (65+, 67+, pick your cutoff) are there at institutions that would provide them no salary support for a few years after their grants lapse? DataHound, could you tell us the magnitude of the problem? Putting aside the question of how individual institutions handle senior faculty without salary support, how many 67+ faculty with R01s are there at soft-money institutions? (I picked 67 because 65 is no longer a reasonable retirement age given increased age at which "full" SS benefits kick in (really 71, but anyway...)).

    • datahound says:

      It is hard to get data on this issue. As a (poor) surrogate, there are 58 R01 in years 40 to 58 (renewed in 2014) and these PIs are at a range of institution types from state-supported to free-standing research institutes. Of course, many more PIs have grants of shorter duration but are still funded into their 70s and 80s.

      • drugmonkey says:

        Some of these have been the very thing that the Emeritus award is looking to accomplish. Established programs taken over by a younger PI. Some may be on the third or fourth generation.

      • Philapodia says:

        I wonder how rigorously these 40+ year R01's are actually reviewed anymore. I don't doubt that they've been productive, but at some point I would assume there is a significant level of momentum (and name recognition) driving these renewals.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Almost every institution is a soft-money institution E-PI. The question is only about the percentages.

    • Established PI says:

      There are still plenty of departments on traditional undergraduate campuses that provide 9-month salary support irrespective of whether the PI has any funding (or contributes to department life in any other way). If you are not supporting any offspring, this salary can be quite comfortable and can't be taken away. These departments sometimes use financial incentives to get these folks to retire, as there is otherwise no reason for them to give up those paychecks.

      • drugmonkey says:

        And the other three months is what?

        • Philapodia says:

          That's when you get to sit on the porch, sipping your Glenlivit 18 and yelling at the kids to get off your damn lawn.

          • Dave says:

            One would surely have finer taste in scotch by that stage

          • Philapodia says:

            @Dave
            Personal funds scotch are not unlimited even in our highly paid and respected profession, and 18 is already $100/bottle. Now, if you go for a Glenlivit 50, that's $25,000/bottle (~$1,200/glass). That's for the NCAA college football coaches (who are the heart, soul, and reason for being for most Universities)

        • Established PI says:

          It's called summer. You can raise your summer salary from an NIH, NSF or other grant. If you have no grant support, you can teach summer classes and bring in some extra cash, or you can kick back and do nothing. For aging faculty who are no longer supporting kids, 75% of your previous salary is just dandy, all the more so once you hit 70 1/2 and have to start taking distributions from your 403(b) and Social Security. Some faculty in this category still do a lot for the department in other ways, but all too many are just dead wood: lousy teachers, no new ideas, and not someone you want leading a new initiative or the like. These guys (they tend to be guys) rattle around biology, chemistry, physics and math departments until someone offers them an inducement to retire, or until they pass on.

  • potnia theron says:

    Most big Medical MRU's are pyramid schemes, where you are in the clinic, teaching or paying your salary through grants. Many don't have "real" tenure anymore, so that salaries can be reduced if you don't have a grant to cover it. Thus giving up your grant to be a harrumphing olde farte waxing prolix is akin to saying "take my salary please". And irrespective of what any of you may think about what old fartes should feel about salary, many of them don't/can't give up the $$. Boomers who are 60 have children in college.

  • Anne Carpenter says:

    An as-yet-unmentioned issue that I just posted to the RFI:
    "Such a program should be assessed for its effects on NIH PI diversity. Those eligible for such an award are presumably predominantly white men. Any grant mechanism that specifically targets a non-diverse population should already be disfavored unless there is a clear and strong benefit to the community overall. But, it should also be studied who these senior PIs are likely to choose to carry on their legacy. Would senior PIs choose junior PIs that are at least as diverse as the existing NIH PI pool? Or would they be biased towards choosing a protege that is similar to themselves (in ethnicity and gender)? Studies indicate the latter would be the case and thus this program would benefit a non-diverse population of junior researchers - in essence, older white male scientists handing over the reins to younger white male scientists. Has Dr Hannah Valentine signed off on this idea?"

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    SOYLENT GREEN IS PEEEEEOOPLE!!!

  • Spiny Norman says:

    "Boomers who are 60 have children in college."

    They should have thought of that when they decided to have kids in their late 30's, then. We decided not to have kids for that reason (among others). I can forgive the indiscretions of youth. The indiscretions of people in their late 30s? Not so much.

    This is privilege and entitlement. Nothing more, nothing less. Sympathy? Zero.

  • namaste_ish says:

    My ESI just lapsed. I'm thinking given paylines I should apply now?

  • Dave says:

    Depressing. The NIH cares little for what we all think here. It seems to be run just like Congress, with the key exception that we don't get to vote every two years.

  • jmz4 says:

    The only thing I can think of is that there's one guy in the planning office who just won't shut up about his idea to sunset old labs and how it will save the entire research infrastructure. They put this thing up so they can have a digital record of every instance of someone telling him how wrong he is.

    Does anyone have any good ideas for how they could incentivize the 65+ crowd to give up their labs and give someone else a turn? Do we have any hard data on how much money this would actually free up? I mean, according to a old DM blog post, PI's over the age of 65 only constitute about 8% of the R01 holding population (admittedly, its on a rather sharp incline).

    If they do institute this, won't this just be turning the old guys into kingmakers? Wouldn't that be bad?

  • Spiny Norman says:

    I'm starting to take more seriously a colleague's suggestion that we should start handing out cartons of cigarettes at faculty meetings.

  • qaz says:

    How many research labs really need to be handed down? How many long-term research labs running decade-long experiments need to be handed down? Do we have any numbers on this?

    It's not like most R01s are waiting for the next drop of pitch to fall or running a longitudinal Alzheimer's experiment. Most R01s are designed to be done in 4.5 years. (Huh - I wonder why that is.)

    Given that labs are addressing experiments that last less than one R01 cycle, why can't retiring PIs just retire and new faculty hired? If those new faculty want the equipment or the technicians, that's easy enough to pass from lab to lab.

    [Cross-posted at Drugmonkey.]

  • SaG says:

    I suggest that we instate the ritual of "Carrousel"

  • dr24hours says:

    It's a naked grab at relevance and luster by the insatiable. The image I see is a glutton stealing food from a starving child's plate, all the while shrieking about how hungry he is.

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