Preparation Nation: Shut Down Week 3 – What Happens Now?

Fiscal Cliff 2I’m following the latest on the back and forth negotiations in Washington DC on my iPad like a devotee of Scandal (or Breaking Bad for you guys out there). Will they or won’t they? Who is doing what to whom? When will they open the government? Are we going over the cliff? Oh the drama!

It would be entertaining – if it weren’t so high stakes for the scientists doing research around the world. And not just for the graduate student who traveled all the way from Boston to Antarctica and had to travel all the way home again once he got there (because his research project was cancelled during his trip). Scientists are reporting that the shutdown is having a devastating impact on the ability to obtain specimens, recruit participants, and collect and analyze data – which could set back research in a variety of fields from months to years. You can tap in to conversations that researchers are having online on Reddit here. (Note the team that is working at the South Pole!) You can also follow #shutscience on twitter for more stories from scientists who are on experiencing the shutdown’s devastating impact on their work.

The Status of Negotiations

While it appears that Congress and the President are making some headway towards an agreement that will keep us away from the fiscal cliff (and perhaps negotiating a budget to open the government in the meantime) they will need to achieve that in the next three days. If memory serves, this Congress likes to take us to the last second, we’ll see. If you’d like to track the status of discussions in Washington, a few helpful resources include a visual guide to the negotiations; a series of articles on the shutdown and its impact on science, and to remind us what we’ve lost in all of this, a tally of what the shutdown has cost.

The Washington Post has a live update on the negotiations on their website if you can stomach the roller coaster ride.

Resources To Keep Going During The Shutdown

You may have already figured out some quick fixes when the NSF, NIH and other government websites went dark. Google cache is one easy way to find program announcements, RFAs and access to other website pages that are currently unavailable. There are other homegrown websites and links (see resources above) with additional links and documents. While Federal government agencies have stopped accepting applications (you can submit to, but they won’t reach the agency, so most agencies have said not to submit)  preparations for completing grant submissions should continue on schedule.

However, we are learning from NCI Director Howard Varmus just how long it may take for most Federal agencies to come back on-line after the shut down is over.

When the Shutdown is Over

By law, Federal employees had to vacate the premises and leave behind their work computers and devices on the last day of the fiscal year. The shut down was completed within 1/2 day (in reality, I’m sure most agencies saw it coming and were prepared for some time).

Since then, we’ve not heard much, until now, about how the shutdown is affecting agencies and their ability to fund and manage research and how things might work after the shutdown is over. This memo from Harold Varmus gives us a leg up on how we can get ready for questions from our investigators – and as you’d suspect, the news isn’t great. Large and small agencies are going to have a tough time catching up from just a couple of weeks – and as we know, these weeks contained crucial grant and contract deadlines.

We’ll be ready to submit applications, but the systems to accept them will have to be ready for every application, all at once. Grant review meetings will need to be rescheduled as quickly as possible – and all of the missed deadlines and missed meetings will have a cascading effect on upcoming deadlines for every type of extramural application. All of these activities depend on hundreds, if not thousands of faculty and staff altering their plans to participate in rescheduled reviews to bring the process back on-line.

And the longer we’re waiting, the worse the problem becomes.

What Can You Do to Help Your Investigators?

As most program officers are unavailable (they have been furloughed) it’s important to keep up with the latest news in Washington to identify potential impact on your investigator’s research.

  1. Talk to your investigator regularly to determine his/her concerns – a lot of investigators have concerns that are time-dependent. (If the shutdown lasts until X date, I’ll be fine, but if it goes until Y date, this will happen…)
  2. Read academic media to learn what your investigator’s colleagues are doing to cope in the face of the shutdown.
  3. Discuss fiscal strategies for managing research projects given a delayed payment cycle – if you have projects that are in the process of being renewed, how will your investigator manage with his/her current budget?
  4. Investigate available institutional resources, if you’re that fortunate, for these types of situations. Perhaps you can pool institutional resources to care for animals, or share staffing to keep gathering data, etc.
  5. Talk to central offices about what they are hearing regarding the shutdown, and how you can prepare for next steps.
  6. If you find something that was especially effective to assist your investigator in weathering the storm, remember what you did, because you’ll need to do it again in six months!

Remember – expect the worst – and hope for the best, and maybe we’ll end up somewhere in between.

Sequestration Nation: What is Sequestration and What You Need to Know Right Now

United States Capitol BuildingThe Ultimate Deadline – March 1, 2013

The “Budget Control Act of 2011” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but if you care about research, you should be paying attention to what’s happening in Washington DC, again, right now. Right after the new year, Congress dealt with an aspect of the BCA 2011 by delaying the effects of sequestration – and passing a bill that would implement revenue increases to partially address our nation’s budget deficit. What Congress didn’t do was to address the aspect of the legislation that imposes serious spending cuts – they deferred this decision until March 1, 2013. Which is, as you can tell, right around the corner. You can read a bit about this issue from a prior R.A.N. post, and there is an excellent briefing on sequestration by the A.A.A.S. to bring you up to speed on the effects of the drastic cuts proposed to scientific research.

What is Sequestration?

Sequestration is a legislative term for a series of mandated across the board spending cuts that will affect “discretionary” spending in the federal budget if Congress cannot decide how to meet the terms of the Budget Control Act of 2011 and make spending cuts on their own. The result will be to cap almost all defense and non-defense categories, with few exceptions for the next decade.

The Fiscal Cliff is Near – Plans Are Being Implemented

The President asked all Federal government agencies to prepare to reduce or downsize their operations if Congress did not enact legislation that would fulfill the legislative mandate of the Budget Control Act. Despite the fact that the deadline has not yet arrived, the plans are already being set in motion in some parts of the world – the Defense Department has stalled ships that it would have ordinarily deployed into foreign ports, and has started the 45 day notice to furlough civilian workers if needed. Other agencies are taking similar measures. It is unclear if measures will affect the levels of grants being awarded (actual grants going out the door) or the dollar amounts of awards (less money to researchers).

UPDATE: The NIH just posted its plans for sequestration in a notice to grantees. It’s just what you’d expect to see – they are operating currently under a continuing resolution, and have funded current awards at a reduced level as a result. Under sequestration, they plan to continue this practice and anticipate that the ICs will be affected by making fewer awards.

The Time To Act is NOW

If you support scientific research and the pursuit of knowledge – and believe that the Federal government needs to prioritize its funding role, contact your legislators and let them know. The Federal government is the largest funder of research in the nation, and these cuts will drastically affect the pace of scientific progress, educational advancement, and the pace of economic growth in our nation.

Contact Your Member of Congress Today – Stop these Budget Cuts

Be sure to contact your Representative (Member of the House of Representatives) and Senator on your own time (not at work) as contacting them at work would be construed as lobbying, which is often against institutional policies and not permitted if your institution receives Federal funding. (I’m writing this post on my home computer at night.) I’ve provided links here to the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate websites and they have handy search functions to help you find your Representative and Senator by your zip code.

I’m not sure what’s going to happen this time – I hope we’ll have a last minute agreement to prevent the sequestration from going into effect. But it won’t happen unless we all make our voices heard!

NSF Meeting Sessions: More Information on Pre-Proposals

I’m in the Biological directorate section now, and we are talking about the two year pilot for the pre-proprosal requirement in several divisions. The pre-proposal process is a stripped down version of the scientific plan for a full proposal. Its fascinating they don’t ask for a budget at this stage.

The interesting comment that the program officer made is that they hope the preproposal process will increase a PI’s chances of being funded to as much as 1 in 3 when selected to write a full proposal. The goal is to reduce the number of mediocre proposals that are resubmitted without incorporating reviewer feedback, and most importantly focus awards on the highest quality science.


Be sure to focus on intellectual merit and broader impacts.

Present a critical view of your scientific idea (controls, etc.)

Not all divisions have chosen to participate in the pre-proposal process. The division website will outline their participation in the pilot program.

At the NSF Conference in Chicago

The NSF has come to the Windy City, and 300 of your closest colleagues are here to learn about the latest going on at the Foundation (including me). I’m going to be covering sessions from the NSF meetings and relating items of interest.

So far,we’ve been covering the basics – the NSF provides approximately 6% of the federally funded scientific research budget. In FY11, one in five proposals received were funded.

What do you read?

What’s on your Kindle, or your iPad? (Or your night table?)

It’s not just a loaded question for political candidates. Keeping up with developments in the field and incorporating new information into daily work is a requirement for research administrators, and a broad “media” list shows you’re thinking about your role in a strategic way. Resources for research administrators include information streams from agencies, and timely sources of input about how to anticipate changes in the funding environment we work in, as well as how to improve service to investigators.

Of course, we’re always reading and keeping up to date in a rapidly changing field, that seeks to serve scientists who are looking for funding that is becoming harder to find, looking to establish and solidify their careers and to advance their research agenda through alliances and collaboration. We’re uniquely suited to help our investigators identify opportunities and ensure that their proposals best represent their work, especially when we have a solid understanding of their scientific research and the competitive environment that they are working in.

Michelle’s Must-Read Media List

  • Dr. Sally Rockey’s Rock Talk Blog – written by the director of the NIH Office of External Research. There’s always something helpful on this site. I read it on my Google Reader through RSS.
  • GovTrack RSS feed on Congressional Appropriations – when Congress is about to shut down the government and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to submit applications for cycle coming up next week, I watch CNN and track my RSS feed for legislative updates to keep my investigators informed.
  • – Kevin Pho, MD is an uber-blogger who has an empire on Med-Page Today with a following of physicians and other medical professionals who discuss the latest trending topics in research. It’s an interesting perspective to keep up on research and news affecting physicians and investigators in the clinical realm.
  • Speaking of Medicine – Is the leading open access Public Library of Science medical journal that publishes “highly selected papers of relevance to a global audience that address the major biological, environmental, social and political determinants of health.”
  • Stanford Social Innovation Review Blog – SSI Review is a creative resource for managing projects, workflow and resources in a non-profit environment.
  • Harvard Business Review Blog Network – HBR is the go-to resource for management, HR, and career insights, as well as how to manage projects, and people. I recommend a subscription to benefit from the full array of the information available.
  • NCURA: Report on Research Compliance (e-mail subscription service) – is a fantastic, but expensive email subscription that tracks all aspects of Federal government activity on the area of research rulemaking and compliance, as its happening. There are email updates and a monthly newsletter. Definitely worthwhile.
  • RSS feeds for NIH, NSF, and a myriad of foundations and sponsors’ websites – I prefer to receive updates from sponsors via Google Reader, where others may prefer Twitter or Facebook. Check the “news” or updates pages for NIH or NSF to subscribe to just the information you need in the format you prefer.

Reading List

The books below are some of my faves, because they lend insight into the work of physician investigators, their training and education,  and the tremendous complexity and change in the medical/clinical environment (created by research and the health care system itself). When our investigators come up for air to write a research grant, after spending eight hours in the lab, or in the O.R., or in caring for patients, it’s helpful to have some context to think about their experience and the pressures they are facing.

Managing Externally Funded Research Programs: A Guide to Effective Practices – Council on Government Relations

The Checklist Manifesto – Atul Gawande, MD

How Doctors Think – Jerome Groopman, MD

On Doctoring: Stories, Poems and Essays – Edited by Richard Reynolds MD and John Stone, MD

Do We Still Need Doctors? John Lantos, MD

White Coat: Becoming A Doctor at Harvard Medical School – Ellen Lerner Rothman, MD

Mortal Lessons – Richard Selzer, MD

DNA – James D. Watson

Hospital: An Oral History of Cook County Hospital – Sydney Lewis

Science on Trial – Marcia Angell, MD

What’s your favorite regular news source? What book would you recommend to a colleague? 

Are you a science nerd? I am.

At times like these, when I’m on my eleventy-billionth diet coke (that’s our favorite number in my office) and I’m having another Hershey bar lunch, and I’ve worked more 10-hour days  than I can count, I ask myself, “tell me again, self, why do I do this?”

There are many reasons why. Dr. Peter Pang is one of them. (He’s the guy in the photo.) We worked   together in the Fall to apply for his K-award, which he recently received, and will be starting in May. Dr. Pang is developing an intervention for a group of  patients with heart failure who are first diagnosed in the emergency room – he hopes that his study will help physicians determine how to best treat this group of high risk patients with intensive treatment so that patients who are sent home will not have to return back to the hospital. Right now, if they receive usual care, they often relapse. His research could impact the lives of many older people who are impacted by heart failure. I adore Dr. Pang’s tireless dedication to his research – and I am fascinated by the idea he is proposing. I really love to work with him and enjoy every time we do a new proposal together. He’s a rock star.

I’m deeply motivated by Dr. Phyllis Zee, whose research is changing health outcomes for people affected by sleep apnea, and Dr. Konrad Kording, whose research affects people with neurological disorders. Every time we do a new proposal for Dr. Kording, he likes to tell us about what it means for every day people. I love that about him. Dr. Steve Gard is developing prosthetic and orthotic devices which function more effectively for survivors of stroke and traumatic brain injury.

Every time I get involved in a project or a proposal, it’s as naturally tiring as can be. But I mostly love the experience because it has natural rewards. I thrive on the science and research aspect because I’m a nut about that kind of stuff. I read science journals for fun, and I like learning about my investigators’ careers. It’s fun for me to get to know everyone involved in the proposal and I want to have them get the award. I like to help the investigator develop the project, so I’ll look into aspects of the proposal that go beyond the technical points of submitting the proposal itself. I enjoy learning about a new area of science – and becoming knowledgeable about a new aspect of medicine. (We joke in my house that when we go to the doctor it’s for a second opinion.)

It’s really difficult for our FSM investigators to apply for research grants, so we work hard to help them with their applications while they are in clinic, doing rounds, performing procedures, and (in the case of Dr. Pang) working in the Emergency Department during their shifts. We keep the process moving and allow our investigators to focus on the science, and take pride in that process.

One study itself does not advance science, but it adds to the evidence that allows for science to build to a conclusion. To contribute to the career of an investigator, or to help an investigator receive an award that leads to an advance in science – that’s the thrill of a lifetime for this science nerd.