Fun with Nonexistent Funding

Shelley Batts has this to say about the poor funding situation of late:

At the Society for Neuroscience meeting last month, there was a special symposium regarding the current NIH funding situation that was supposed to be given by the current director of the NIH, Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni. Due to his plane being delayed, he was a no-show, although the talk was instead given by a few of the directors of NIH divisions. The gist of the talk was this: despite the NIH's budget being doubled a few years back, demand for grants has risen much faster and hence the paylines have decline dramatically. And we should all shut up and stop complaining, and ride out the low-funding wave. Now, to young scientists who are beginning to seek funding in the early stages of their careers, being perpetually denied grants or side-lined due to technicalities can be more than just frustrating.

Read the whole thing.

I posted an editorial about the Bush administration record in the sciences that deals with this issue of funding.

Money quote:

Despite renewed political interest in biomedical research, the field is doing well, by many measures. In recent years, the only scientific discipline to enjoy lush sums of money has been the life sciences, which has outpaced growth in all other areas. The pace of growth has now flattened (even decreased when factoring in inflation), but this pattern is "not entirely unexpected," given that the budget couldn't continue indefinitely at its previous pace, regardless of who was in office, says Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the AAAS.

Flat funding has also been the state of things for years in every other scientific discipline, Koizumi notes. "The biomedical research community is beginning to experience some of the funding pressures other communities have gotten used to," he says. In other words, imposing flat funding on science is a decision that the government often makes, and may not necessarily reflect an "antiscience" attitude, says Greenberg. It's natural for the government to ask the biomedical community to take time to "digest" the rapid increase, and allow the government to focus on science that was "neglected" during the NIH boom, he adds.

They also had this nice graph that I found particularly edifying (click to enlarge):


I guess from my point of view on the funding situation -- also a young scientist in the biomedical field -- I would make a couple of points:

  • First, the poor funding situation has many causes. One of these is the government's decision (I view this as a group effort between the President and Congress) to not increase NIH funding. This does indeed -- in effect if not in intent -- constitute a net cut in funding because of inflation. However, I see the administrations point of view on this. We are at the hind-end of a meteoric rise in biomedical research funding. Is it reasonable to expect that rise to continue in perpetuity.
  • An additional cause of the tight funding is the recent expansion of the size and scope of research programs. This is also not that surprising. When times are fat, research institutions build new buildings, hire more faculty, and expand their graduate programs. These increases put pressure on the system by increasing the numbers of people applying for new grants.

    However, I see the graduate programs point of view too. Even though times are lean, what are they supposed to do with all those people? Having acquired them, the government now decides not provide enough money to support them. Mind you, these are graduate students and new faculty who would like to start their careers. They came to these programs with the understanding that they would be scientists as some point, and now they are being frustrated by lack of funding.

  • Finally, because of the way the science is structured, all funding issues will impact the students and the junior faculty the most. Science is an hierarchical system. Funding agencies tend to choose established scientists over newer ones because they know that their money will produce results.

The conflict between funding agencies and scientists is destined to be continuous. Programs and scientists want to expand their research; when times are good they do so and perhaps overreach. Funding agencies do not consider it politically or financially realistic to up funding every year. This puts us all in a situation the percentage of grants approved is likely to decline.

What to do about that?

  • One, a response would be to petition for more funding. I think that it is possible to be successful in this regard, but only so far -- there is only so much we can get out of Congress and any administration no matter how generous.
  • Two, a response would be to seek out alternative sources of funding such as private charities. This is often possible for people engaging in research with direct medical applications, but not always possible for pure scientists.
  • Third, and I think the wisest, would be to recognize the next time there is a huge rise in funding that the funding increases are not likely to continue in perpetuity. This situation is analogous to a state government that ups social services during an economic boom, only to go into debt when the economy sours. If we live within our means during the boom, then the busts are likely to be less difficult.

    Therefore, if I could make a recommendation, it would be to limit the rapid expansion of the numbers of new scientists. This is a fundamental part of the problem with the funding situation -- an increasing number of scientists looking for a decreasing number of grants. If we all didn't try and double the number of grad students in our programs and build billion-dollar buildings when times are good, then we wouldn't be having this problem as badly now.

    Of course, that is perhaps a wildly unrealistic response. I could choose to run a graduate program by that standard, and everyone else would probably ignore it -- resulting in me having less grad students and the funding situation being just as tight as it was before.

I don't necessarily have a good response to these problems, but we do need to be aware that while politics plays a role, our behavior collectively is part of the problem. It would appear, however, that the only likely response is to weather it out like we have always done.


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I still can't believe you actually liked that article in the Scientist. It was total rubbish and denialism.

I don't feel like debunking it again, but really, you shouldn't link that thing.