“BOOM AND BUST” – APRIL 20, 2007 ARTICLE IN SCIENCE
POST DATE May 2, 2007, 6 AM
POSTED BY Peter Fiske
Since this blog started in the Fall we’ve had an active dialog on the subject of funding at NIH. Science Magazine’s April 20 issue has a long article by Jennifer Cousin and Greg Miller detailing the issue, and confirming many of the trends and factors we have discussed on this blog. (Note that I think you have to be a AAAS member to see the entire article – if you aren’t, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I can perhaps get you a copy) The authors spoke to “dozens of investigators… [and] six NIH institute directors and agency head Elias Zerhouni” and confirmed what a lot of the readers of this blog are saying. Maybe Jennifer and Greg have been reading this blog all along?
In any event, the article is good and thorough and I thought it would be useful to provide a link to a pdf version that you can read – and to discuss this article as a group.
One issue that Geoff has speculated about – and that these authors confirm – is the fact that the doubling of NIH funding prompted a lot of infrastructural investment at universities and national labs in the US. According to the authors of this article, schools invested $2.2B in new medical school construction from 1990-1997, $3.9B from 1998-2002 and a whopping $7.4B from 2002-2007! Schools hired new faculty to fill the offices and were “expecting to recoup their investments from the NIH grants investigators would haul in.” Most ominously, the article notes that growth at medical schools has lagged the doubling of funding: “many institutions are still expanding”, they report.
Institutions have been confronted with huge increases in demand for bridge funding for their investigators. Dana Farber’s CEO told the authors that his institution was setting aside $3M-$4M for this year – historically the amount of money set aside for this category was a small fraction of this amount.
We have explored the growth in NIH grant applications in our blog – this article confirms the trends Geoff and others have reported. As we have discussed – investigators have reacted to the paucity of funding by trying to up their odds by submitting more proposals.
The result: misery among the investigatorial classes. Several young and mid-career investigators are interviewed and their lives over the past few years sound miserable. Ironically, NIH has tried to protect some of the youngest investigators by giving them a slight edge in funding for their first R01s – but this simply robs resources from the mid-career folks who are often struggling to get R01’s renewed. What a perfect time to get hosed by the NIH: just when you’re up for tenure review.
The authors talk a bit about the effect on early career scientists and graduate students. No data were presented but the authors describe the situation at Brown University: 49 faculty members were polled regarding how many were planning on taking a new graduate student next year: only 25% said they were – down from 90%. But Harold Varmus is quoted by the authors as saying “I don’t think we’re losing young people outright yet.”
My experience with Science magazine is that the journalism staff is first rate, but they tend to stick to the establishment line of thought. They shy away from perspectives that might be too critical of the powers-that-be, and often choose a “silver-lining” to close out the discussion. None of the anger that has been so eloquently expressed in this blog is evident in any of the quotes in the article. One might think that the catastrophic failure of the management of NIH, and of the science policy community as a whole, to prepare its community for this “day of reckoning” would elicit a bit more ‘what the F!@#!! were you thinking???’ comments from folks. According to the authors of this article, eight senior scientists and policy makers published a commentary in Science in 2002 presenting different budget models for NIH – the most pessimistic of which modeled increases of 4%. One of those involved is quoted: “We didn’t model increases below 4% a year because the tradeoffs and sacrifices that would have been caused…were too difficult for us to deal with in the model.” [!]. Director Zerhouni attributes the dive in funding rate to below inflation levels on 9/11, the wars and Katrina. No doubt they might have marginally affected the schedule of declines – but certainly not the inevitability: for any agency to assume long-term growth above the rate of inflation is… well, unsound at the very least…
Which gets us back to this blog. We started this discussion because, despite its abundant successes, “science” in the United States is far from perfect. The current crisis in funding at NIH is only the latest in a long history of similar crises in different disciplines since the advent of the “modern” science funding model proposed by Vannevar Bush. Even today, policy decisions on science funding almost entirely disregard issues related to the scientific workforce – and this makes young scientists particularly vulnerable.