NIH "Emeritus Award" RFI Results-FOIA Request-Initial Observations

May 06 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

After hearing comments at the Experimental Biology meeting that responses to the NIH Request for Information (RFI) about a potential "emeritus" award were substantially more positive that those posted on the Rock Talk blog on the subject, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to obtain what I could about the RFI responses.

Yesterday (less than 6 weeks after I made the request), I received the response. The key item was an Excel spreadsheet with meaningful responses from 195 individuals and 3 scientific societies (American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Genetics Society of America, American Association of Immunologists). The names and email addresses of the individuals (as well as some other bits of information) were redacted although institutional affiliation information was included where provided.

As a first pass at the analysis, I coded each response as Supportive of an Emeritus Award, Not Supportive of an Emeritus Award, or Mixed. The results were almost evenly divided with 92 Supportive, 85 Not Supportive, and 21 Mixed.

Some of the responses disclosed that the respondent was a senior scientist who would potentially have been or would be a potential applicant for an emeritus award. I searched the responses for such disclosures and identified 17 individuals. All 17 were supportive of the concept of a potential emeritus award.

I also examined the institutional affiliations of the respondents where provided. The institutions for which more than 2 responses were received included:

Harvard Medical School (including Brigham and Women's, Mass General, and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospitals) 11

Johns Hopkins University 6

University of Colorado 5

University of Washington 4

University of Michigan 4

University of Maryland 4

University of Massachusetts Medical School 3

Tufts University 3

University of Kentucky 3


Note that this parallels, to some extent, institutions that have a large number of grantees (Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins , University of Michigan, and University of Washington are in the top ten in terms of overall NIH funding. However, Harvard Medical School and the three affiliated hospitals listed account for approximately $300M in NIH funding (or ~1 %) yet they accounted for 11/198 = 5.5% of the responses; 7 out of these 11 responses were scored as positive.

I will continue to examine the responses and share some of the more interesting comments.

What are the take-home lessons here?

First, the response rate is typical for this sort of RFI at a few hundred responses. This represents a very small selection of the biomedical research community, substantially less than 1% of grantees and applicants. Note that I used the term selection instead of sample since their is certainly bias in who chose to take the time to respond.

Second, the responses are more substantially more positive than those seen on blogs. Of course, the blog response is likely biased toward those who are younger and more likely to be negative while the RFI response may be biased toward those with self-interested positions.

Third, the FOIA process here was relatively painless and quick in this case.

I urge you whenever NIH issues an RFI on a topic of interest to you or your colleagues, take the time to take a look at it and respond as appropriate. Your voice can't be heard if you don't speak out and it only takes a few minutes to respond.

26 responses so far

  • Dude! Post the fucken spreadsheet!

  • drugmonkey says:

    Wow. Thanks for getting this info. NIH would surely be trying to snow us with a selective picking of quotes.

  • Dave says:

    The online comments should not be dismissed, however. I realize blogs are somewhat uncontrolled, but still they allow people to comment openly without worrying about being identified or singled out. The NIH should find a way to incorporate them into their 'analysis'.

    Responding to RFIs is a bit old fashioned.....

  • anon says:

    I went to respond to the RFI, and when I saw how much identifying information they wanted about me I backed away. As an ESI/NI I don't want my program officers' first notice of me to be "that jealous chick who wants to keep money away from our long-time friends." RFIs are only for people with an established relationships with their POs.

    • Dave says:

      Exactly. No chance I was responding to the RFI.

      • datahound says:

        I think you are being a bit paranoid here. I doubt very few if any POs even have access to the responses with names not redacted and, even if they did, I doubt they would respond negatively. There is also a down side to not responding as this post reveals.

        • anon says:


          Thanks for the heads up! I certainly was not aware of whom has access to RFI responses. It would be helpful to know when deciding to respond, but that information is notably absent in the RFI.

  • Philapodia says:

    Thanks Datahound! I'm not surprised that it was more positive in the RFI as you have to identify who you are and the the fear of being blackballed within the NIH for saying what you really think is very real with younger faculty. That being said, it will be interesting to see what people said in their responses.

  • drugmonkey says:

    The conversation on RockTalking was mentioned a few times, so at least there is that.

  • anon says:

    Opinions are for people with tenure.

  • Established PI says:

    Any chance the rest of us could see it?

  • becca says:

    I wonder if it's typical for Harvard folks to be that overrepresented in decision making.

  • @ericbgonzales says:

    "Squeaky wheel gets the grease"

    The more comments from one institution, the more attention they will get.

  • @ericbgonzales says:

    "Squeaky wheel gets the grease"

  • drugmonkey says:

    I suspect The (data)Hound is trying to work out a mechanism for that, EPI.

  • Dave says:

    I wonder if it's typical for Harvard folks to be that overrepresented in decision making

    hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha! Kidz these days.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Nailed it, becca.

  • Philapodia says:

    The greybeards at Harvard are well known for performing vertically ascending science, so why shouldn't they get this fluffjob, er.. Emeritus grant, on the way out as a thank you for all they have done for science?

  • […] on my previous post on the responses to the NIH RFI regarding a potential "emeritus" award, several commenters asked to […]

  • UCProf says:

    Was the RFI specifically sent to some people?

    I heard about it from blogs, but one of the comments says something like "you sent me this questionnaire".

    The results could be biased by the selection of who/where the RFI was sent to.

    • datahound says:

      The RFI is open to anyone to respond to. It was available for response from February 3rd to March 6th. NIH tries to publicize the opportunity to comment as did I and others on blogs and Twitter.

    • E rook says:

      I'm on several newsletters from two ICs, and the RFI was headlined a few times, maybe that's the "you sent me this questionnaire," comment. My Dept chair also has forwarded this info to the faculty list serv and encouraged everyone to give input. So far as I can gather, no one did.

  • […] should you take a few minutes out of your day to do this? Former NIGMS Director Jeremy Berg submitted a FOIA request for the responses of a previous RFI regarding the controversial “Emeritus… As a result of this, many of us were surprised to hear that the NIH received just over 200 […]

Leave a Reply to anon Cancel reply