This post gets into the weeds discussing funding for biomedical research in the US. I want to discuss historical funding trends, changes in NIH policy, the relationship between politics and funding research, and ask whether “peer review” is truly unbiased.
I am currently serving as a co-investigator on an R03 project. In NIH terms, this means a small, self-contained 2-year research project with an annual budget cap at $50,000 per year. As co-investigator, it provides me with 5% “Effort.” That is — this project is budgeted in such a way that I am expected to spend 5% of my time working on it. This works out to be 0.6 months per year, or roughly 2 weeks and 3 days, or 13 days. I was happy to help write my part of the project when the grant application was being submitted (“rising tides” and all), but I didn’t realize what I was getting into.
For this project, I am supposed to do sub-cellular fractionation followed by Western blotting on 3 regions from 50 mouse brains (25 per year). Each sub-cellular fractionation generates 5 samples (total protein, crude synaptic densities, large synaptic plasma membranes, pre-synaptic vesicles, endosomal vesicles). Given the limits of the ultracentrifuge and time it takes to process the samples, I can do 6 per day just to generate the samples. (This is an 8-10 hour day, too). So that is roughly 5 days to process one region of one of the cohorts — or 15 days to process all 3 regions from one of the cohorts. In all, this generates 375 samples. We can run 4 Western blots per week (roughly; it’s a 3-day process with lots of incubation times, if you try to do more, it is easy to mess things up); let’s say it takes me 2 workdays to do 4 Westerns (this is generous). At 12.5 samples per Western (12 on one, 13 on t’other — making all 25 from a cohort’s region/fraction on two blots), that is about 16 days (of more or less non-stop benchwork) to complete the cohort. Not to mention data analysis, optimization, instrument preparation, supplies management, the emails, the meetings, the organization, storage, labeling (very important), note-taking, and record keeping. Continue reading