Smoke and MIRAs
This guest post from Sue Jinks-Robertson describes a personal experience with the NIGMS MIRA program. If you wish to share your perspective on MIRA or any other topic of interest to the GSA community, please consider authoring a guest post; send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contributed by guest author Sue Jinks-Robertson
I’ve been on the grant roller coaster at NIGMS (GM) since 1989, and in the past five years, have fluctuated between one and three small (<$200,000) grants; the average has been ~2.25 grants per year. Given the almost certain lapses in funding between grant cycles, this level of support was enough to run a small lab of about six. Needless to say, I was thrilled when the call for Maximizing Investigators’ Research Awards (MIRAs) was announced early last year and was eager to sign up. The prospect of funding stability, flexibility to pursue new research directions, and less time spent writing grant proposals was very appealing, even with the likelihood that “in general, the amount of a MIRA award will be somewhat less that the sum of all recent NIGMS support.” I should have remembered the old adage, “if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
Each of us who applied for a MIRA was in different situation in terms of grant cycles and the availability of non-GM support, and I’ll focus on my own particular situation. Some investigators are much better off than I am and are happy with the MIRA outcome, and some are in a worse situation. In my case, all of the support for my lab comes from GM: two grants went into a no-cost extension in summer 2014 and a third expires at the end of April. I staggered the competing renewals (each had previously gone to the same Study Section) and as seems to be the norm these days, neither competitive renewal scored in the funding range the first time through. Funding was restored for the first grant in summer 2015, but both the revision for grant #2 and the competing renewal for grant #3 had to be put on hold with the MIRA submission in May 2015. Since MIRAs are intended to replace all GM funding, “applications that overlap scientifically cannot be in review at the same time.”
The MIRA applications were reviewed in October 2015, but neither funding decisions nor funding levels were available until mid-February 2016. By that time, it was too late to submit any revisions/competing renewals for the spring deadline. The good news is that I was awarded a MIRA; the bad news is that the budget is the equivalent of ~1.7 of my small grants. That translates into a “non-negotiable” 25% cut in my average funding level over the past 4–5 years. I’ve heard anecdotally that budget cuts range from 12–50%, and my attempts (to understand how funding levels were determined has been unsuccessful. Some labs can absorb the budget cuts, while others will be forced to reduce personnel. As all of my support has been from GM, I’m squarely in the latter category.
So, what will the MIRA do for me? It will give me some stability, as advertised, but instead of a lab of ~6 supported by GM, I now can afford a lab of 2–3. While some may say this is consistent with the promise of “somewhat less support,” it’s actually a severe disruption for my program and will result in a forced downsizing. Being in a Medical School, I’m still expected to recover at least 50% of my salary, so a budget cut directly translates into reduced personnel. What really bothers me the most about the whole process is that I’ve been painted into a corner by the policies and procedures of the first round of MIRA funding. If I turn the MIRA down, I’ll be facing at least a year of running off a single, small R01. If I accept the MIRA, I’ll be left scrambling for additional support outside of GM, which means the promised respite from writing proposals has evaporated. Whether any of the programmatic themes included in the MIRA application can even be used as the basis for a grant elsewhere within the NIH is unclear.
Although several changes have been made in the latest MIRA announcement, they do nothing for me. The institution of the one-grant MIRA model and its associated budget cuts is “mission accomplished” for GM: more researchers can be supported as MIRA recipients are forced to look elsewhere for funding. To others who may be considering putting in a MIRA application, I hope you can learn from my experience. In the end, I had no viable option other than to accept the MIRA and try to move forward.
Sue Jinks-Robertson, PhD, is Professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology and director of the Cell and Molecular Biology Program at Duke University School of Medicine, where she uses S. cerevisiae to study the pathways that regulate mitotic genome stability. She currently serves as GSA Treasurer.
The views expressed in guest posts are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by the Genetics Society of America.