The NIH: A broken pipeline, yes, but the blame is not entirely on the NIH

As an NIH-funded surgeon/scientist, I just had to read this report at when I became aware of it, courtesy of Bora and Drugmonkey. Basically, it describes how bleak the NIH funding situation has become, particularly for young investigators. The report (PDF) comes from several prominent research universities and warns that we are at risk of losing a generation of new biomedical researchers. Even taking into account the knowledge that this report is anything but unbiased (indeed, it is explicitly in favor of increased NIH funding), the situation it paints is still pretty grim, and I can report to you honestly that I haven't seen morale in academic biomedical research this low since the last time the funding situation was this bad, namely back in the early 1990s. Of course, back then I was a graduate student and had been savvy (and fortunate) enough to have latched on to a promising young assistant professor who was funded, but even then I saw long-tenured and productive professors having to shut their labs because they couldn't renew their R01 grants.

This time around, I'm a principal investigator. I've gotten my first R01, but I'm approaching an equally important point in my career: Having to renew it for the first time. I was fortunate enough to be funded just before things started to take a real turn for the worse, just barely squeaking in under the wire, so to speak. Now I am nearing the end of the third year of a five year grant and wondering whether I will be able to renew it. The time to submit my competing renewal is only a year and a half away, and each and every day I wonder whether I've been productive enough and whether I can come up with a good enough proposal to continue the work to keep my lab going. Indeed, these quote from the report resonates just as much with me as it does with young investigators:

"Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, you're thinking about your grant proposals and wondering how to survive in this world where fewer people are getting funded, and proposals that are funded aren't being fully funded or are being cut." Michael Rodriguez, M.D., M.P.H. UCLA

"The process of getting NIH funding can be a career in and of itself. It takes time, and you have to be persistent." Kristen Newby, M.D. Duke University

One aspect of this report bothered me, though. Although holding the NIH budget flat or below inflation has indeed caused a serious problem, this report is very simplistic in that it doesn't address the other side of the equation. Indeed, I wrote about this very aspect on more than one occasion (links at the end of this post).

What am I talking about? The universities themselves contributed to the very problem that this consortium is bemoaning.

Big time.

Why do I say this? For every dollar in grant money that an investigator receives, an additional 50 to 60 cents go to his or her institution to cover the "indirect costs" of maintaining laboratories and facilities and administering the grant money. Moreover, the investigator is expected to pay part of his or her salary out of the grants received, meaning that the university doesn't even have to pay the entire salaries of its research faculty that are funded by NIH grants. Indeed, to receive tenure, a young investigator is generally expected to compete for NIH funding, preferably R01, and to cover at least 50% of his or her salary--or even more--from grants. It's a huge gravy train for universities, and it's not for nothing that both Abel Pharmboy and I have likened being a research in such institutions to being a freelance used car salesmen.

With that background, let's go back in time to the golden era between fiscal years 1998 and 2003, when a bipartisan effort succeeded in nearly doubling the NIH budget. Paylines loosened up, and the spigot of money government money and its associated indirect costs seemed never-ending. Truly, times were good for a brief time. Unfortunately, two problems in addition to the flat NIH budget from 2004 (courtesy of the Bush administration and the war) on set the stage for our present crisis. The first was that there appeared to be little planning for how to cover the "out year" commitments of all these new grants being awarded. What many don't realize is that a five year R01 grant is in reality five one-year grants. The money isn't in a bank to cover the five years, each "out" year of the grant is covered from the NIH budget of each fiscal year the grant encompasses. If a grant is awarded in fiscal year 2008, for example, then it will in reality be five grants in FY 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012. Even before the five year doubling was well under way, there was concern about preventing a "hard landing" in FY 2004, the first year after the doubling of the budget occurred and all those extra grants funded in the heady days between FY 1998 and 2003 were still on the books and had to be funded all the way through FY 2008. The concern, as experience shows, was justified. When the budget went flat and, adjusted for inflation, even started to decrease slightly, the result was predictable: The out year commitments from grants funded during the doubling started to squeeze out funds for new grants. Moreover, the NIH couldn't save any of this windfall for a rainy day; by statute it has to spend its budget each year, as described in Science and Inside Higher Ed. The NIH did a number of things to try to keep the percentage of success from falling too far (cutting 23% off of the budget of my grant and those of many others right off the top and then cutting 2-3% per year), but that only kept the situation from becoming even more dire than it is now.

The second issue is the universities themselves. The doubling of the NIH budget led to a recruitment and building boom at research institutions all over the U.S., as universities sought to capitalize on the increase in the NIH budget. This led to a huge increase in the number of grant applications submitted to the NIH:

Meanwhile, research institutions everywhere were breaking ground on new facilities and expanding their faculty. In a 2002 survey, AAMC found that new construction at medical schools had exploded: From 1990 to 1997, schools invested $2.2 billion in new construction, compared to $3.9 billion from 1998 to 2002. But that paled in comparison to what was to come: an expected $7.4 billion in new construction from 2002 to 2007. AAMC has not yet confirmed whether these plans were carried out.

Schools hired new faculty members to fill the buildings, expecting to recoup their investments from the NIH grants investigators would haul in. "Universities and their leadership did what I would have done too," says Zerhouni. "The government is indicating support for these activities," and the expansion was "exactly what Congress intended."

This appears to have helped drive more applicants to NIH. In 1998, fewer than 20,000 scientists sought research grants from the agency; in 2006, that number was more than 33,000, and according to NIH forecasts, the number of applicants is expected to top 35,000 in 2007. The number of applications has grown at an even faster clip, as scientists, concerned about their chance of getting funded, are submitting proposals more frequently. Because growth at medical schools lagged somewhat behind the doubling, many institutions are still expanding. At Sloan-Kettering, for example, officials only recently began filling a new building with scientists. They expect to increase their faculty by almost 50%, says Varmus.

But as requests for NIH money edged upward, NIH's resources began to drop. After a 16% increase in 2003, the final year of the doubling, NIH received a 3% boost in 2004, an abrupt reversal of fortune. Although the general rate of inflation in 2006 was 3.1%, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the cost of goods and services in biomedical research and development rose 4.5%. The number of competing grants NIH funded peaked in 2003 and has been dropping since. The declining value of NIH's dollars and rising demand were "a perfect double whammy," says Zerhouni.

If anything, things have only continued to deteriorate since the above article was published.

I understand that the Broken Pipeline effort is an advocacy effort. I also largely agree with its report that the NIH is crisis right now because of five years of flat or declining funding. I also largely agree that much of the blame falls at the feet of the Bush administration. Oddly enough, the doubling of the NIH budget, started with such good intentions and fanfare, may have ended up hurting the NIH. It may well have been far better to have had a slower, more sustainable increase in the budget, rather than the boom-and-bust doubling that we saw. I too worry that the current funding climate is causing talented young researchers such as the twelve profiled in this report to consider other options and decide to do something else for a living, putting our future biomedical research effort and innovation at risk. Indeed, I can relate. I'm a surgeon. Unlike many Ph.D. researchers, if I fail to renew my grants I can always go back to taking care of patients and operating for a living. I'd view it as a serious career failure even though I'd probably make more money than I do now, but I could do it.

The problem with the Broken Pipeline effort is that it puts all the blame in one place. To wax Biblical, universities are pointing out the mote in the Bush administration's eye and ignoring the plank in their own. An acknowledgment that universities share in at least part of the blame for the plight of the twelve promising young researchers profiled in the Broken Pipeline report would have made the Broken Pipeline effort more convincing--to me, at least. In its present form, this report strikes me as simply asking for more money to prop up a broken biomedical research system, with twelve talented young researchers used in much the way some charities use children with cancer to extract money from donors. Perhaps it's time for a more radical change than just throwing more money into the same system. Sure, more money is clearly needed, but without systemic changes, how do we know we won't be in the same situation five years from now?

We don't.

Perhaps it's time for some real reform. Perhaps it's time to try to change the "used car salesman" model of how biomedical research is funded at universities.

Other posts:

  1. NIH grant funding in crisis
  2. Sweating to the NIH paylines
  3. Biomedical researchers at medical schools: Free-lance used car salesmen? Or: Show me the money!

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I am a very young researcher who just got comments back from my first NIH grant proposal (an R21). The priority score was pretty bad, but when I read the critiques they were all minor. I asked a few of my senior colleagues who serve regularly on NIH study sections about the apparent discrepancy, they both told me that it was now common practice to torpedo the score of almost every initial submission of a proposal from a non-giant in the field, as they just don't have enough money to fund all of the good proposals.

And don't even get me started on NSF. You think funding rates on NIH grants are bad...

This story is quite vindicating for me. Now, I'm a computer scientist, and I'm in Canada, but the story with NSERC in Canada is quite similar. Last year many of my friends and colleagues thought I was crazy when I turned down three offers for faculty positions in favor of an industry job. I had come to realize, after 10 years of grad study and postdoctoral research, that it was far more preferable to work 40 hours a week for better pay and be able to spend time with my family, sleep at night, etc, than to be the mouse on the wheel relentlessly and thanklessly chasing the carrot. Between the funding race and teaching I could see quite clearly that my opportunities to actually do the research I love were about to dwindle considerably, so I said screw it, and so far it's been the best decision I've ever made.

Dont forget all of the 'support staff' that 'indirect costs' pay for. Working as a tech for 2 years, I was responsible for our paperwork/billing/crap, and while certainly some support staff is helpful, some exist only as form creators/shufflers.

In my field (microbial genetics) there simply aren't jobs for new investigators. All of the departments that are hiring people like me want folks who already have an NIH grant. But you can't get an NIH grant without a position. But you can't get a position without an NIH grant. But...

Departments have recognized that hiring young investigators is simply too risky for them, so they're poaching talent from other departments. is arguing that if the NIH isn't fixed, we'll lose a generation of researchers. They're off by a few years. We're already losing them. Anyone finishing a post-doc now in my field has the choice to a) do another post-doc or b) move out of academic science. The job situation has gotten so grim that places like the Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) are demanding that their new post-docs have 5 years of prior post-doctoral experience! That's how many post-docs are flooding the market, that premier research institutions can demand that their post-docs already have post-doctoral experience.


Over here in the UK Universities are similarly greedy. Our Uni also takes at least 60/70p per pound.

I'm not sure about the US, but over here I strongly feel that it's the case of working researchers propping up the cost of a huge and unwieldy bureaucracy.

As a post-doc, I'm trusted to do research on a microscope worth £70,000, but can I be trusted to book some flights to a conference? Of course not. In reality, I need to spend all the time working out exactly what flights I want, and then write a hugely precide email to one of our admin staff detailing what I want. Frequently it gets screwed up anyway.

Bureaucracy really does have a lot in common with cancer - it slowly grows inside big companies, and particularly universities, until it saps all the life from the host. However, unlike cancer, I don't think I've ever seen bureaucracy spontaneously decrease in size.

I'm actually quite glad that I'm about to leave academia for industry.


And here is how the whole funding issue gets worse -- try surviving when both you AND your spouse are trying to make it at a major research institution.

My husband ended up trapped in a 12 year post-doc cycle because once his NSF grant ran out every single grant he tried to write got torpedoed because he was applying as a new investigator (the money at NIH was already drying up in some areas despite the golden days of the late 90s). None of his pink sheets ever came back with serious problems indicated, there just wasn't any money at NIH for certain fields (NIH doesn't think fungi are important, so if you are looking to get money -- ever -- out of NIH then don't study fungal pathogens). His PI's grants went up for renewal and one after another got tanked (again, NIH could care less about fungi). End result: last money dried up, husband out of job.

And when did he lose his job? At the same time that I lost my payline. I taught for 9 years at the same major research university but my payline was needed to try and entice a big gun researcher to come (my department also decided that they couldn't take a risk on new blood and so went for the established researcher). Bam -- just like that we went from relatively successful academic couple to out of work Joe's in no time flat.

My husband now teaches at a small non-research heavy college; most of his time is spent teaching and research is only a minor thread for which, thankfully, he doesn't need NIH money to keep going. Unfortunately for me small schools only hire one at a time and tend to be located in somewhat out of the way places. My career as professor and author apparently is over. On the one hand that's ok because now I have time to spend helping the kids in my son's kindergarten class learn to read, but on the other hand I certainly do miss teaching science.

For both of us teaching and research has been something we have wanted to do for a long time, but because grants have become such a major portion of the life of a researcher, we have found that we can't do the things we once wanted to do. Given the choice between loosing our house and changing direction, we chose to change direction.

We already belong to the "lost generation" of researchers, though by now we aren't exactly young anymore.

Geez, the NSF... I don't know how anyone gets money from them.

Another voice for "already lost".

In the past year, my department has lost six (count them, six) postdocs - a few left for industry, so concievably could come back, but most left science completely (for law, nursing, even accounting). We are already paid little, for a stresfull job with long hours; now, the pressure of not knowing whether you'll have a job and health insurance in a few months is just too much to take.

Me and my wife are poised to follow. The lab that she's in is flailing in a final effort to stay afloat, but will likely fold within the next few months. I am in a temporary position which is likely to crash by the end of the year. After that, it's industry or something else again for the both of us. We are both seriously considering taking out some student loans and getting nursing licenses.

Graduate students are observing all of this and dropping out like flies. And since the medical field has become sour due to the whole health insurance mess, we are losing more and more of the best and brightest to business administration and similar degrees.

It is already too late to prevent the brain drain. The question is, will something be done to start fixing the damage, or is US set to lose its intellectual primacy?

There's another problem with the low funding rates at NSF that may not be obvious. As the funding rates drop (2%-10% is typical in my field), people end up submitting more and more proposals, which increases the reviewing burden, which decreases the reviewing quality, which makes it seem more like a crap shoot, which makes people submit even more proposals, etc.

For example, a recent program, CDI, got 1300 proposals, of which probably about 30 will be funded.

From my outsider's perspective it seems amazing that this period in particular has turned out to be such dark days for medical research, since it seems like the last ten years have been the time one should have expected there to be a great boom-- as this is incidentally the same time things like stem cell research and biotechnology are entering their most promising phases yet. I don't know if my perspective is sufficient to form an accurate judgement, but it really seems like just as cutting-edge biology is beginning to demonstrate itself one of the most promising frontier areas in all of science, we've effectively been doing everything possible to make research in those areas practically difficult.

Orac, problems with the behavior of the universities aside: a question about this whole thing with "five one year grants" and having to make a choice between meeting obligations on established grants and issuing new grants. Are there any possible or proposed changes which could prevent this from being a problem in future? The solution you suggest is to make increases to the NIH budget steady and slow rather than jerking the budget up in one dramatic step and then flatlining it; but this isn't really an implementable solution because Congress is inherently unpredictable, and it doesn't seem like you can make plans that depend on the passed budget doing such-and-such in two years (like, "we'll increase it a little this year and keep steadily increasing it over the next four") and expect that plan to be followed through on by whoever the Congress is two years later. So what I wonder is, other than manipulating the size of the budget itself, are there any structural changes that could be made to the NIH funding system which could help in the long term to prevent this particular problem you describe, regardless of what the Congress chooses to do with budget sizes two years later?

Orac's points are all good. But several comments (here and on many, many other posts) seem to indicate a complete lack of perspective among many scientists on what one gains by earning a Ph.D. and becoming a scientist.

Going into industry (or anything other than tenure-track) is time and time again described as an alternative career or as a loss to the system (see M. above, for example). No! No! No! It is absolutely critical for biomedical advances (not to mention for a thriving global economy) that large numbers of highly talented PhDs go to work in industry (pharma/biotech/devices/etc.). If only "failures" go to industry, then what sort of innovations do you expect from industry? Disease treatments very rarely come directly from academia. It drives me crazy when a crystal structure is reported and the news reports state that this "could lead to a cure for [disease X]." Not in any reasonable time frame! And not without incredibly talented teams of scientists leading the way with highly focused efforts (many/most of which will still fail). If an academic position is viewed as the only possible success for a Ph.D. (as is often implied in these discussions), then we are in far more serious trouble than can be fixed by bumping up NIH funding levels.

Similarly: Ph.D. students who go into law, business, finance, etc. should not be viewed as going into alternative fields. IP law depends on people who actually know the science (see the foolishness in granted patents in computer software for examples of what happens when practitioners aren't involved in law). Similarly, I want more businesspeople to be well-schooled in the scientific method and to have deep scientific knowledge. Are companies better off having people trained only in business, or people who actually understand the underlying science (or can propose new directions for science in their companies)?

Finance may be the best example where Ph.D. scientists can have a major impact on improving the quality of decision-making and outcomes in a "non-scientific" field. Analysts (and advisers at venture capital firms) that deeply understand the science will be far more effective in developing new startups and establishing companies based on good science (rather than most effective investor spin) than those lacking real scientific training. A B.S. plus an M.B.A. does not give you the same thinking and analytical skills as a Ph.D.! We need scientists playing a larger number of roles in the world!

(Note: I am a federally funded academic scientist - with many successful friends with PhDs that are in industry, consulting, finance, venture capital, and law, in addition to friends in academia.)

By Bioorganic Chemist (not verified) on 13 Mar 2008 #permalink

I'm an MD/PhD candidate who is lucky enough to be in a well funded lab (To make everyone jealous, 2 RO1s funded in the last year). Partially this has to do with the excellent science that is done, partially this has to with publication records, and partly this has to do with what an excellent writer my boss is. However, I feel that in the current climate there isn't a chance that these grants would have been funded if it was a first time investigator instead of grant renewals for an established scientist. If the blogger has published enough, has sat on NIH study sections and has good ideas, refunding is a possibility. But that is sad compared to the idea that in the late 90's it would have been a near certainty. However, if you are a newly minted (still minting?) scientist like me, my entire career track is skewed by the funding situation. While some part of how I am picking my residency is for the research possibilities, a large part is for the fall-back position of being a full time doctor. I love nothing more than playing in the lab, however, if the funding situation doesn't change people like me won't end up doing research.

I think the NIH made a really short-sighted decision when they increased the funding for training grants for grad students. I have to admit that I was a beneficiary of that and am very thankful but it has resulted in a (duh!) glut of post-docs fighting for an ever shrinking pool of resources.

In addition to the 50 % to 60 %(are at SnobU in the 60+% range) overhead, there is the fact they charge for local phone service and internet access in the labs on top of that. Throw in the fact they "charge" tuition to graduate students in the basic biomedical sciences means they reap in more dollars. Tuition at many places is waived for those in the humanities/social sciences. After my first year, I stopped taking classes and was either working for the university (i.e. serving as a TA) or working in lab (i.e. helping my advisor get a grant that will provide overhead for the university as it is). In theory some of that overhead is supposed to come back to the lab as funds for buying equipment. That has never happened for my PI since my advisor got his start up package. The US government is supplementing many private R1 universities with large endowments through grants from the NIH, NSF, DoE, and DoD. If we as a society want to do that, we should be upfront about it. Regular voters expect research funds to go towards research not as a source of revenue for schools flush with wealth. It feeds universities being run as companies and treating graduate students/post-docs as cheap labor instead of training them to be scientists who can take those intellectual skills in a myriad of different ways into society.

I'm going to second the excellent points made by Bioorganic Chemist. Orac himself seems to imply that it would be a failure if he (as a surgeon!) has to go back to looking after patients.

The boom-bust funding was certainly a debacle, and anyone smart enough to be a scientist should have been able to see it coming right from the start. Changes need to be made with the whole funding system, but even more importantly, scientists need to change their attitude and take a look at the big picture about what it means to be a scientist.

In any case, most PhDs aren't cut out for basic research. There's no shame in that, but it's silly to keep banging your head against a wall when there are many other possibilities out there.

There's another problem, though, in terms of incentives. If Ph.D.s do not go into a sector that cares about publications, then this causes a fundamental difference in incentives between the advisor and the student.

I'm a cancer researcher who designs experimental therapeutics. I currently have an R21 and a VA R&D Merit Award. I re-submitted another R21; it was triaged along with a comment about exactly how I formatted my introductory remarks addressed to Study Section.
I don't recommend my career path (PhD researcher) to either of my children.