Stimulating shovel-ready NIH extramural research

Over the weekend, Comrade PhysioProf at DrugMonkey posted on the details of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) stimulus funds distribution for the US National Institutes of Health.

For some unusual reason, the letter that was sent to NIH investigators and posted on the NIH website has now been removed and replaced today by the statement:

The announcement from the Acting NIH Director will be issued later today.

We are making every effort to get this vital information to you as soon as possible.
This page was last reviewed on February 23, 2009.

From the DrugMonkey post and an article in The Scientist, it appears that much of the $8.2 billion going to NIH will be used to fund previously submitted grant applications that missed the funding payline, with only about $100-200 million appropriated for new "Challenge" grants. A large fraction of the funds seem to be going toward infrastructure, buildings, and equipment, mostly because the funds have to be used in the next two fiscal years.

So, if you're a new investigator with a new lab and great ideas, chances are that you've missed the boat. My hope is that review of the current proposal rankings will focus on those junior, tenure-track investigators who have been shortchanged by the worst NIH paylines since the early 90s. However, it does appear that funds and supplements will be available for existing trainees and hiring of new postdoctoral fellows.

But with all due respect to our trainees, here is the concern I voiced at Drug's place:

In general, I'm very concerned that the pressure to spend the cash in two years will continue the short-sighted patterns of past NIH planning.

We have far more trainees than tenure-track faculty positions. Available positions are already being frozen or eliminated at most state universities. So while I'd love to see more training dollars, the fact is that we need to focus on newly-independent investigators and asst/assoc professors in their first 10 years of independence. These people are our future and have already been suffering and leaving academia for other jobs or careers. These people are the seed corn of our national biomedical future.

I understand the pressure to spend. Everyone associated with any stimulus money is under pressure to fund "shovel-ready" projects. But let's not shovel it down the shitter.

...or dig the same hole we dug during the doubling of the NIH budget.

As I said, I recognize that it may not be possible to effect long-term changes that impact more successful transition from postdoc to TT faculty member with monies that must be blown in two years. But we've got to show restraint and responsibility by not training another few thousand postdocs who still won't have faculty slots to pursue in three years.

However, and I don't mean this tongue-in-cheek at all, some current scientists may start looking more seriously at research reagent sales positions. Part of the stimulus funds, "will require researchers to report the number of jobs created or preserved by the grant to show that the money is boosting local economies, according to Elie Dolgin in The Scientist.

Finally, DrugMonkey notes something that we currently in research can do as part of the stimulus package: buy American-made reagents and equipment.

More like this

Isn't one of the most stimulating-stimuli for the economy getting unemployment benefits to people increasing food stamp benefits?
I think NIH should give food stamps to grad students with this money. That would be the most logical funding aimed at "trainees"- aid for existing trainees that will almost certainly be spent. It will free some of my income up so I can buy antibodies without my PI breathing down my neck, and be good for the economy since I will surely need to eat (brains-on-a-stick [i.e., grad students] are such inconvienent mechanisms for getting science done- always needing more glucose).

Finally, DrugMonkey notes something that we currently in research can do as part of the stimulus package: buy American-made reagents and equipment.

We are part of a global economy and every nation is suffering in this recession, including my own country (Canada).

This is not the time to become nationalistic and isolationist.

Besides, American companies sell a lot of reagents and scientific equipment all around the world. Do you really want to trigger a backlash where other countries stop buying from American scientific suppliers? You think that will help your economy? Or your scientific reputation?

Why don't you ask Sigma=Aldrich and PerkinElmer-New England Nuclear what they think of your proposal?

Calm down, calm down my Canuckistani friend. First, Abel might have ever so slightly misrepresented what I said in a laudable effort to drive traffic our way. Apparently you didn't bother to click through in your rush to find someone wrong on the internet. I had this to say:

Second, we should be hammering the purchase stats...are laboratory big-ticket and consumable items disproportionately obtained from US companies?

This followed my main point which was that the scientists are going off on indignant rants about the proper use of NIH funds without realizing that their paymaster for this little venture is Congress in a more direct sense than is usual.

While it probably is the case that we can make an argument that scientists spend a lot of dough with US flagged companies, we get to have our cake and eat it because we know damn well that much of the product is global.

So no, I don't think that if we make it a goal to argue that run-of-the-mill science pours cash into US companies this is going to cause some global "backlash" against either those suppliers or somehow against the science either. (What, are you going to start a "citeCanadian!" movement? Whatalaff*.) Seriously dude. A backlash?

Most people are a bit more sophisticated than that, wot wot?

*okay, true, don't get me started about the Brits...

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 25 Feb 2009 #permalink

Prof Moran, I did indeed misrepresent DrugMonkey's suggestion somewhat and I did not mean to be isolationist or protectionist. I'm just very much a 'buy local' kind of person as it relates to things from locally-grown produce to buying from local independent bookstores rather than Amazon.

I know that PM Mr Harper is extremely concerned about Canada's economy being hurt by such a myopic view and I would never suggest anything that would violate international trade agreements. Interestingly, the CBC reports that a Canadian think-tank thinks (I guess that's what they do) the country is relying too heavily on the US stimulus package for collateral benefit and has proposed its own "Buy Canadian" theme.

I certainly make no claim to being an economist and I'm not terribly convinced that even the best economists, much less NIH administrators, know what to do right now. But I do know that NIH grantees will be under unusually strict reporting rules to show how their funds create US jobs. In no way to I mean to offend my Canadian colleagues - in fact, I'll probably be doing my next kinase profiling experiments with Kinexus in Vancouver