Hey, where'd that gravy train go?

From Inside Higer Ed, there are reports that the end of regular increases in NIH funding (such that there will soon be a double-digit decline in the purchasing power of the NIH budget) are stressing out university researchers and administrators:

At Case Western Reserve University, a decline in NIH funds contributed to a budget shortfall of $17 million below projections for the 2006 fiscal year. NIH funds are key at Case -- and at many institutions the NIH is the largest outside source of research support.

While NIH officials have touted the fact that the number of new competitive grants will increase next year, they are slower to point out that a decline in the number of renewals for existing projects more than offsets the increases. Some projects that researchers thought were shoe-ins for refunding, such as the university Alzheimer's Center that had been supported by NIH since 1988, are among those that lost NIH funding.

Why are officials always slower to point out the bad news?

More from the article:

Faculty members at Case got a rude awakening when administrators asked them to bargain shop for airfares and hotels when traveling to conferences. When the budget shortfall was announced last October, Ronald Wright, a microbiology professor and chair of the Faculty Senate, told Inside Higher Ed that "we all recognized what was happening in terms of federal funding, but some of us felt that, 'we've been a very successful research university, we won't get affected.'"

I'm not at an R1 university; my conference travel always involves bargain shopping for airfares and lodging, plus picking up a good portion of the travel expenses myself, and it would even if I were a chemistry professor here. So, I'm not struck by the tragedy of these particular details. Still, it's worth pointing out that part of doing science is presenting your findings at professional meetings. The need to do so doesn't go away just because the funding does.

Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that "most of the biomedical research community would agree that slow and steady would have been better in retrospect." Koizumi added that if the NIH had continued to increase at a rate of 6 or 7 percent each year, as it was in the early 1990s, the budget would be larger today than it actually is. "Collectively, institutions got a little carried away," Koizumi said. Some erected new facilities that created huge demands for staffing, equipment and maintenance. "They looked at the doubling trajectory and assumed the NIH budget would be much higher today than it turned out to be. If you made plans ... you may have trouble filling that lab space."

Between 1998 and 2002, the University of California at Irvine experienced a 127 percent increase in NIH funding, bringing the university total to just over $110 million.

Bill Parker, Irvine's vice chancellor for research, said that nobody expected NIH budgets to continue increasing at 15 percent a year, but that some transition to smaller increases would have been nice. Parker said that Irvine didn't create any major new buildings, but that the University's Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center "will have to look at fund raising or internal funds."

(Bold emphasis added.)

On the one hand, I find myself biting my tongue to keep from shouting, "Irrational exuberance!" A short-run trend does not a permanent pattern make, and scientists should know that if anyone should. On the other hand, the reality is that modern science requires money. You need facilities, equipment, and scientists and technicians (who, as it happens, like to be paid so they don't have to live in the lab and heat ramen noodles on the Bunsen burner. Or switch to being business majors). Funders like the NIH have made it possible for active, productive scientific communities to flourish at lots of universities.

But the NIH money is coming from the federal budget, and there are many other interests lobbying for that money. Chances are, even the scientists would agree that some of those other interests need to be adequately funded. So, with less federal money flowing to scientific research at universities, what happens? One option is for universities to raise more money -- maybe hitting up alumns or private donors. It's worth noting, though, that at this moment in time lots of universities are pretty strapped for cash, too.

While some institutions might be struggling to maintain expanded infrastructure, just about all see the need for some maintenance to faculty psyche.

In October, Wright described a feeling among some veteran researchers of "'Why should I knock myself out when I know it won't be refunded in this atmosphere?'" he said.

Parker said that Irvine "went through a period where faculty who had longstanding -- like 15-year -- support, from NIH, all the sudden got rejections."

Like other research institutions, Irvine gave bridge grants so that faculty members could keep their labs open for six to nine months while they incorporated suggestions made by grant application reviewers and resubmitted. (NIH gives applicants three tries). Also, Parker said, "we've had to be a little more helpful to beginning faculty." Parker said that scientists have had to take more care to align their proposals with NIH priorities, and that there's no getting around the fact they just have to brace for a tougher landscape. "In a competitive world, those that enjoy the competition rise to the top," he said.

Peggy Newell, vice provost of Tufts University, said that Tufts has added staff and administration to help with grant writing and support for putting together major proposals. "Morale is difficult for people," Newell said, "when you think about all of the effort that goes in to putting together a grant proposal, and to have the likelihood of success for that proposal be so low, and decreasing, is hard for everyone in science."

A few comments here: Note that not getting renewal of a grant can mean the closing of your lab. No guff. This is an indicator of how seriously big research universities have come to depend on federal dollars to do the things they have to do to be research universities. Also, consider what the tightening of funds may do to the dynamics between more experienced researchers (who see the funding terrain changing before their eyes and are hit with a sudden sense of security despite all the years of good work they've put in) and newer faculty (learning the ropes of grant-writing in the tougher funding climate, and getting more help from the institution). Ideally, the newer faculty want to be able to seek guidance from the more experienced faculty. Will the increased competition foster mentoring, or undermine it?

Here, let me point out that my university does something that other universities might consider: it recognizes that there is serious scholarship involved in writing a good grant proposal and, for the purposes of retention, tenure, and promotion decisions, includes such proposals in the evidence of scholarly work to be evaluated. In other words, if you write a good proposal and it doesn't get funded, it still counts for something.

Newell added that NIH wants to see institutional commitment to a particular field of research before it pours money into a university, "and when you're not getting as many dollars to help support research infrastructure that you built, that becomes more difficult."

Newell said that institutions are looking more to foundations and donors, as well as to corporate sponsorship. "Although that hasn't increased in recent years either," she said.

William Elger, chief financial officer of the University of Michigan Medical School, said that the NIH doubling had a stated end, so institutions really should have known that things would change. Elger advocates that universities adopt some of the financial practices of industry to get the most bang for their bucks. "If you go to Johnson & Johnson, or Pfizer, and say, 'how do you run a research institute?' you'll see some differences," Elger said. "You'll see things like more sharing of common equipment. Space is assigned and utilized on how it's needed, rather than just because you're a professor you're entitled to so many square-feet."

Elger added that the doubling was "driven on, 'if we could just increase the pace of funding,' there were a lot of promises on what kind of cures could be delivered," he said, "and I'm not sure how well that's been delivered." He said that research institutes should formulate longer term plans that aren't beholden to federal funding for survival. Elger pointed out that pharmaceutical companies commercialize enough of their own research and development to then fund more of their own research and development, whereas academics "do R and D and then they give it away. There's commercialization value there."

Newell said that banking on technology transfer money, though, is tricky in the academy, especially with basic research, because "there's a lot of luck involved," she said. "You can't turn an invention that's not ready to make a lot of money into a lot of money."

(Bold emphasis added.)

Given my perspective as faculty at a not-lavishly-funded state univerity, the space-sharing and equipment-sharing seems pretty reasonable to me. (Yes, I have shared lab equipment with others. Yes, there were times that it was pretty frustrating to do so. However, it was workable; you learn to get along with people when you have to.)

In principle, I think it's also a good idea for universities to figure out ways to do science without having to lean so heavily on the federal budget. However, I'm concerned about the strategy of setting the scientists on the trail of discoveries that can make the university lots of money. Even setting aside worries that this might involve some amount of conversion of public funds to private profit (since there are lots of ways universities draw in public money to support the work they're doing), it seems to me that this could make "basic research" even harder to justify to the holders of the purse-strings (here, at the university instead of NIH). If basic research really is important (and scientists seem to think it is), we need to be sure it happens somewhere. Do we want to leave it to the private sector, where the fundamental knowledge produced will end up being proprietary? If it doesn't happen at the universities, will it happen at all?

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The entire biomedical system in this country has become way too dependent on the federal government. Universities don't even have to pay their researchers any more. Basic science researchers are expected to fund 50-100% of their salaries in grants, or they don't get tenure. It's a huge scam, whose origin I've been meaning to look into for a post of my own. Add on top of that the fact that many universities get indirect costs of 50% or more of whatever investigators bring in via grants for "overhead and maintenance," and you have a serious dependency problem.

Why can't universities pay their own faculty, rather than requiring them to support so much of their salaries with grants? That alone would make NIH grant money go much further. Also, the obtaining of NIH funding is a prerequisite for tenure in many institutions. If you don't get an NIH R01 within 5 years or so of being hired, you won't get tenure and will be asked to leave. Even if tenured, if you lose your funding, you lose your lab. When I was a graduate student, I witnessed two senior faculty members lose their funding and labs back in the early 1990's, which was the last time NIH money got this tight.

That's one advantage of being a physician-scientist. If the money stays tight and the worst happens (I lose my grant and lose my lab), all is not lost. I can still practice and do clinical research. I'd consider it a severe professional blow if that ever happened, but at least I could still be in academics.

I'm an assistant professor in my second year at Case (perfect timing, right?). What's most frustrating is the attitude of the administration. It's pretty clear that they're in denial: they seem convinced that the current situation is just a blip and that things will be back to "normal" in a year or two.

The whole research community needs to come up with a strategy for maintaining itself that goes beyond shouting "More money! More money!" every few years. Of course funding needs to keep up with inflation and allow for pursuing new opportunities when they open up, but the current attitude seems to be that we either have limitless exponential growth or we're in a crisis.

I often think of these issues in terms of our cultural values.

During the occasions when our culture has understood the value of public knowledge, public knowledge that resulted from public investment in research, then public funds have been invested. Right now our culture doesn't see value in public knowledge created by publicly funded research, so politicians feel safe spending public money on...um, other things.

For those of us who are stakeholders, seeking ways to maximize the dwindling investment is a rational approach. Unfortunately it appears to me it's also a stopgap approach. Different, better bookkeeping will work only as long as public funding continues at some amount that we stakeholders consider an acceptable baseline, yes? If public interest in public investment continues to fade, however, it seems likely public investment will fall below even that baseline.

So... Unless we increase our culture's perception of the value of public knowledge, politicians will continue to direct public money elsewhere.

More people need to understand the benefits of public knowledge. We gotta talk values, and we gotta talk values with non-scientists. Let's go to cocktail parties this weekend and remind folks of the benefits we all get from science research.

Cheers

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Agreed. Outreach needs to be an essential part of any science program, so that people understand what they're getting for their money.

We also need to work harder on media relations. Right now, discoveries are taken out of context routinely, "potential cures for cancer" are overhyped, and pseudo-science is everywhere. As much as I wish we could just ignore this stuff, we need to be on the front lines, correcting people and showing them what they're really getting for their money.

I'd also love to see public ad campaigns that reminded people of how much science does for them in their daily lives.

Other issues are, when funding was rolling in, of course universities wildly expanded- because there is a HUGE talent pool being pumped out of graduate schools with nowhere to go. Labs are addicted to cheap grad student/post-doc labor, and in many cases there just aren't places for these people to go, but they were out there and ready to get jobs, which made it really easy for "irrational exuberance" to happen. Now it seems like everything is going down the tubes. You can see grant reviewers looking for any reason to turn down applications. There just is no funding.