Effect Measure

More on NIH grant woes

In the late 1990s congress decided to invest in our future by doubling the NIH budget. If you are a scientist today trying to get an NIH grant, however, you are in tough shape. Success rates are falling like a stone, with less than 20% of grant applications now being funded. It is common to submit a proposal several times before finally getting a grant or giving up and moving on. What happened?

A lot of scientists want to know that and it prompted NIH Director Elias Zerhouni to try and explain in in the latest issue of Science magazine, the country’s premier science journal. The opening paragraph makes clear this is not the concern of just a few:

This has been a challenging year for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the biomedical research community. An extraordinarily tight federal budget is eroding the growth of NIH at a time when opportunities for scientific progress and advances in human health have never been greater. As I talk to scientists and administrators throughout the country, the anxiety is palpable. I share these concerns. I am most deeply troubled about the impact of this difficult situation on junior scientists, and on the ability of established investigators to maintain their laboratories. (Science)

I’m not complaining personally as I have been extraordinarily lucky. I’m all set with NIH funding for a number of years and I hope that will be enough to ride out the storm. But many others aren’t in such good shape and Zerhouni tries to explain why it’s harder to get funded today than before NIH’s budget doubled.

The core reason is the increase in the number of new applications and applicants for NIH grants (see second figure). In 1998, NIH received 24,151 applications for new and competing research project grants (RPGs) (1); NIH expects to receive over 46,000 in 2006 and over 49,000 in 2007. The doubling in the demand for grants is primarily due to a large increase in the number of new scientists applying for grants. In 1998, there were about 19,000 scientists applying for competing awards. In 2006, NIH expects to receive applications from approximately 34,000 scientists and forecasts that over 36,000 scientists will apply in 2007. Remarkably, the largest surge in demand for grants occurred at the end of the doubling period and continues today. This “perfect storm”–the imbalance between supply and demand for grants–is the fundamental reason for the painful circumstances in which we find ourselves.

In other words, the increase in funding and facilities encouraged more laboratories and more graduate students and more post docs. Now funding is flat and there is a large encumbered expense. Zerhouni says 80% of the grant money is for ongoing, committed research. Of the 20% available for new grants, with flat funding the only new moneies are from grants that have run their course and not been renewed. Flat funding is in reality a substantial decrease because research expenses greatly exceed inflation as new technologies required to keep a lab competitive come on line.

Zerhouni goes to some lengths to deny, using a set of figures so aggregated it is hard to verify if they prove what he says they prove, that the NIH Road Map initiative meant to bring the fruits of NIH research from the bench to the bedside faster is not the cause of the problem, as many suspect. We have gotten to the point we have in American health research because NIH has been a very effective supporter of basic research. It is not supposed to be the farm team for the pharm team. Zerhouni says NIH’s mission is still basic research. But then he says this:

Pragmatic and prudent steps need to be taken to minimize the long-term negative impact of the hopefully short-term budget woes. We must develop unified, informed, and proactive strategies.

We need to remain focused on our core values and to pursue our fundamental mission of discovery–translating new knowledge into tangible benefits for the American people.

This is surely a mixed message, as is much of the rest of Zerhouni’s article. Some institutes, like the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the only one of the NIH institutes that is primarily a public health oriented institute, is veering sharply away from public health toward clinical medicine. This is the influence of Roadmap working through the rather narrow vision of the NIEHS Director, Zerhouni’s handpicked choice, David Schwartz.

Like other health and science agencies of the Bush administration, morale at NIH is low, indeed the lowest I’ve seen it in my reasonably long career as a research scientist. Unlike the disarray at CDC, caused by mismanagement of its Director, this can’t be blamed entirely or even mostly on Zerhouni, although his Roadmap vision hasn’t helped. It is mainly the consequence of the stimulus to health research succeeding all too well with a consequent failure to support the new research it spawned.

Scientists in other fields look at the amount of money absorbed by NIH with envy and tell health researchers to stop whining. But there are a lot more of us than there are of them and our research is on average a more expensive. There are also few faculty jobs at research universities. Zerhouni notes with alarm that the average age for a life scientist to get a tenuretack faculty appointment is now 38. That’s not tenure. That’s tenuretrack, meaning that many of those jobs will disappear after four to six years when the faculty member doesn’t get tenure, as is increasingly common. It is an “up or out” situation. Many of those scientists are in their mid forties by that time and failure to get funded is one of the principal reasons for failing to get tenure. The average age for the first independent grant award from NIH is now 40 years old. The typical grant is two or three years support. As soon as you get one you have to start working on your next proposal. Writing an NIH grant frequently can take a year. The pressure is substantial.

I’ve seen some very hard times in the grant world before. The eighties were no picnic. We’re seeing it again. But now it is affecting many more scientists because there are many more scientists.

This is one of the most exciting times to be a life scientist in the history of biology. In theory. In practice, it is an awfully tough row to hoe.

Comments

  1. #1 Nick Anthis
    November 20, 2006

    The Bush Administration and the Republican Congress have been disappointingly (but not surprisingly) silent on this shocking decline in success rates. Hopefully we can expect a little more from the incoming Democratic Congress.

  2. #2 PhysioProf
    November 20, 2006

    I grant you that Zerhouni is, for the most part, simply the bearer of bad news and not its cause. To his detriment, however, he engages in classic blame-the-victim rhetoric: “It is all *your* fault for building out infrastructure, hiring lots of scientists, and writing so many grants.”

    The fact of the matter is that NIH was imprudent when the budget was in the process of doubling, and failed to plan ahead for the foreseeable time when the doubling process was slated to end.

    There is only one possible outcome now: the demand for grant money and the supply of grant money have to trend back towards a balance. What remains to be seen is the extent to which this occurs via attrition of applicants, recycling of previously committed funds as multi-year grants awarded during the doubling terminate, and (fingers crossed) resumption of at least inflationary budget increases.

  3. #3 M. Randolph Kruger
    November 21, 2006

    Nick A-Non Sequitur. Revere just said that the funding has been there up until now. Iraq for some of it for sure, entitlements are the other. I commented on this yesterday. Think its bad now? Wait five years as one tenth of the population goes on the dole from Social Security. Then they will tax the crap out of what they were given. Either way, research is going to go by the wayside for a while.

    Health research has painted themselves into a corner. Everyone is living longer and no one when S. Security was formed along with Medicare expected you to live much past 65. Kind of like the twilight years. Uh, I just saw my 82 year old next door neighbor sky diving out of a hot air balloon. They better come up with something fast. Taxes on people though who cant pay taxes such as those past 65 will be out the windows because they beez voters. The prescription benefit was nothing more than another entitlement that wasnt funded. 6.5 trillion dollars across the next 30 years. Yeah, trillion. So research? Better come up with something sexy for the private sector boys and girls. Dont think for one minute that the Dems are going to be able to anything better. We have had about 10 years of tax cuts. It has made us moderately more competitive in the world market but we cant compete if they tax the crap out of us for research …or entitlements.

    The days of the giveaways are over too. They can inflate the economy for 5 years to about 4% and it would handle it, but it wouldnt take care of everything thats needed. Thats just for the entitlements we have. Universal Health Care? No way to pay for it until sometime in 2035 if I read the rags correctly as the boomers go AND it would be based upon the fact that the kids today had a lot more children OR we opened the gates to immigration. Thats the wild card. They can do that but then the standard of living will go down as it did at the turn of 1900 to 1923. Too many people willing to work for peanuts, sweat house wages.

    Dilemma Revere, everything costs so damned much in your fields of endeavor. Dont have even a remote idea of what you can do except sell your souls to Big Pharma.

  4. #4 M. Randolph Kruger
    November 21, 2006

    Nick A-Non Sequitur. Revere just said that the funding has been there up until now. Iraq for some of it for sure, entitlements are the other. I commented on this yesterday. Think its bad now? Wait five years as one tenth of the population goes on the dole from Social Security. Then they will tax the crap out of what they were given. Either way, research is going to go by the wayside for a while.

    Health research has painted themselves into a corner. Everyone is living longer and no one when S. Security was formed along with Medicare expected you to live much past 65. Kind of like the twilight years. Uh, I just saw my 82 year old next door neighbor sky diving out of a hot air balloon. They better come up with something fast. Taxes on people though who cant pay taxes such as those past 65 will be out the windows because they beez voters. The prescription benefit was nothing more than another entitlement that wasnt funded. 6.5 trillion dollars across the next 30 years. Yeah, trillion. So research? Better come up with something sexy for the private sector boys and girls. Dont think for one minute that the Dems are going to be able to anything better. We have had about 10 years of tax cuts. It has made us moderately more competitive in the world market but we cant compete if they tax the crap out of us for research …or entitlements.

    The days of the giveaways are over too. They can inflate the economy for 5 years to about 4% and it would handle it, but it wouldnt take care of everything thats needed. Thats just for the entitlements we have. Universal Health Care? No way to pay for it until sometime in 2035 if I read the rags correctly as the boomers go AND it would be based upon the fact that the kids today had a lot more children OR we opened the gates to immigration. Thats the wild card. They can do that but then the standard of living will go down as it did at the turn of 1900 to 1923. Too many people willing to work for peanuts, sweat house wages.

    Dilemma Revere, everything costs so damned much in your fields of endeavor. Dont have even a remote idea of what you can do except sell your souls to Big Pharma.

  5. #5 cpg
    November 21, 2006

    Revere

    Time to revisit relenza vs tamiflu especially with all the new news reports coming out of the UK today.

    http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/health_medical/article2001505.ece

  6. #6 revere
    November 21, 2006

    Randy: It’s all relative. Our research is expesive compared to mathematical research. But compared to a week or two in Iraq, it’s chump change. Thanks for bringing us that. It’s all about choices and the choices the Repubs made were catastrophic. The Dems did the same in the sixties. Remember Vietnam? If we don’t fight them in Saigon we’ll be fighting them in Seattle? Thanks, again.

    As for taxes, we pay very little compared to the more prosperous Europeans. Whose quality of life is a lot better, too. They actually work only one job and take vacations. They can afford it because we are fighting their wars for them. Like Iraq. Thanks again.

  7. #7 Brian
    November 21, 2006

    I would be surprised if NIH-funded research in the last 40 years has not lead to a general life expectancy increase of at least 5 years. It’s really impossible to quantify, but the number of drugs and treatments out there that would be impossible without the knowledge base promulgated by US biomedical research is incredible. And yet we’re spending $97 per capita on this same research (compared to $1600 per capita on defense). Over your lifetime, would you pay $8000 dollars to live 5 years longer? Right, no, that’s a handout.

    But $128000 over your lifetime so that we can go out, find the most godforsaken corners of the world, and make them even worse? Laudible goals…

  8. #8 M. Randolph Kruger
    November 21, 2006

    Depending on which guy gets us into a Gulf of Tonkin situation doesnt matter. Kosovo costs us 4 million a day and we are still there. Brians handouts are not funded by anyone so that 8000 IS a handout, its a mortgage to be paid by someone else.

    The prosperous Europeans havent and dont put too much up for their own self defense and they let us shoulder their bills, just as we pay for the cheap drugs in Canada that we cant get here. Its all upside down but one thing is certain. Social Security goes insolvent in under 12 years and thats the best case scenario. Thats two terms and change from now. So we bump up against that and the bulk of the people will just be hitting it in 7. They live even 30 years and there wont be any aid of any kind. Inflating the economy now would help but not for our kids. I wouldnt say we are doomed, they are just going to have to make some choices and so far everyone has made bad ones. I would look for them to cut the spending across the board and for already approved everything.

    When they said healthcare is back on the table that was the signal that the balloon was going up again.
    Cant fund it, cant tax to get it. Bonds? Cant finance bonds if your intake or creation of money is too low. 7-1 ratio of kids, moves out to 12 in 30 years. Only chance we have at it is controlled immigration and mostly with technical types and the money they bring with them.

  9. #9 cervantes
    November 21, 2006

    While I agree that proper investment in biomedical, public health and health care research (which I believe is a more appropriate and comprehensive description of the NIH mission than just biomedical) requires a steady path of increase, I don’t think that the percentage of proposals funded, or how many times you need to resubmit, are appropriate metrics.

    As you and I and everyone who has reviewed proposals to NIH knows full well, the majority of them don’t deserve to be funded. Responding to reviewers’ comments and resubmitting is a process used by NIH that most grantmakers in fact do not use, and it is a good thing. Reviewers often get it wrong but responding forces you to explain yourself more clearly, which usually also means getting a clearer understanding for yourself of what it is you are trying to do; and they also get it right much of the time, which makes for better research plans.

    The appropriate way to look at the “demand” for research dollars is not how many proposals get thrown over the transom, but at how much good science the existing research infrastructure — physical and human — can be doing. And with NIH, we’re not just talking about projects that promise to add to knowledge — NIH has a specific mission to use the taxpayers’ money to benefit the taxpayers’ health. Most proposals, frankly, are written to try to enhance the PI’s career, not to make the world a better place.

    I don’t know of any evidence that makes it clear where, exactly, we should be spending more. I don’t say it isn’t a far more important priority than squandering 2 trillion dollars on the horrific debacle of Iraq, or building warships to fight WW III against the Soviet Union, or paying churches to pray drug addicts back to sobriety. Nevertheless I do think the appropriate measure of how much and where to spend research dollars is the public interest, not the desperation of post-docs for their own R01 and tenure.

  10. #10 revere
    November 21, 2006

    cervantes: I don’t agree that the majority don’t deserve to be funded. Most proposals are pretty good, at least the ones I see. Post docs and young investigators are the infrastructure of bioimedical research. As I said in an earlier post, the NIH review process is a mechanism to reward “in the box” thinking and the tight funds exacerbate that.

    NIH research has been basic science research, not applied. It has paid off handsomely. I think we have a disagreement on the level of direction that should be applied to this very modest investment compared to other investments. Your cynicism about the reasons for writing grants I believe is misplaced. Most researchers can make more money outside of bsic research and they do it because they are interested in science.

    There are good reasons to be cynical, I agree. But you carry it to an extreme.

  11. #11 cervantes
    November 21, 2006

    I don’t think very many people go into academic scientific research for the money — but that doesn’t mean that every young person who writes a grant proposal deserves to get funded, either. And yes, it’s basic science, or rather much of it is, but it’s basic science directed at questions that matter to human health, not just any old questions that may be of scientific interest. While most proposals may have some merit, that doesn’t mean that all possibly meritorious proposals should be funded. There is always going to be competition — when the NIH budget goes up, the number of proposals goes up proportionately, which is exactly what happened. Competition means, hopefully, that the best ones get funded, which means more effective use of taxpayer dollars.

    I agree that the process is inherently conservative and does not often reward truly innovative thinking. But that isn’ta function of the amount of money available, it’s a function of the nature of the process and the structure and culture of the scientific establishment. Believe me, I have plenty of complaints about that. But if the NIH budget was bigger, that wouldn’t do anything to fix the problem.

  12. #12 revere
    November 21, 2006

    cervantes: When you talk of ambitious PIs you are not talking about the young PIs putting in their first independent grant proposals. No, not every grant proposal deserves to get funded. But less than one out of five overall and less than one out of ten in some institutes? The structural funding problem with the NIH doubling is that they didn’t fund the outyears and they stimulated much new demand. Funding and demand weren’t proportional, which is why success rates have taken a nose dive. This is having very serious repercussions for young investigators. I don’t think you can dismiss this so easily as just a market mechanism. It was a policy mistake.

    Increasing the budget isn’t meant to make the NIH grant review process more innovative (it won’t) or less competitive (it won’t do that either). It will help to salvage some of our intellectual capital which will spoil on the shelf without it.

  13. #13 PhysioProf
    November 21, 2006

    “Most proposals, frankly, are written to try to enhance the PI’s career, not to make the world a better place.”

    The personal motivation of a scientist is absolutely, completely, utterly irrelevant to the merit of the science.

  14. #14 Greg
    November 23, 2006

    This government should try a different gas-station. They have enough roadmaps to have killed a medium-sized forest and not one matches the terrain it is supposed to describe.