Adventures in Ethics and Science

A bunch of other bloggers are discussing the recent statement A Broken Pipeline? Flat Funding of the NIH Puts a Generation of Science at Risk (PDF). I thought I’d say something about the complexities of the situation, and about why non-scientists (whose tax dollars support scientific research funded by the NIH and other government agencies) should care.

The general idea behind funding scientific research with public monies is that such research is expected to produce knowledge that will benefit society. There are problems that non-scientists cannot solve on their own, so we pony up the resources so that scientists can apply their expertise to solving them. As we’ve discussed before, tax-payers seem most interested in the payoff of the research — the knowledge with practical application.

But you can’t get that payoff without scientists.

Funding from government agencies like NIH is what supports the research scientists do. It buys materials and equipment, lab space, the labor of technicians, graduate students, and the scientists themselves, just to get things off the ground. (A scientist’s salary is important here — if she has to find an outside job to earn money for food and rent and transportation, she’ll have less time to actually do the research.)

Usually, research funding is also expected to cover “indirect costs” associated with doing research at a university, costs that include maintaining libraries to support the research activities (something that can be quite expensive even as more journals are published online) and keeping the lights and water on in the labs. There are instances where universities have been too liberal in their interpretation of what indirect costs should cover (I was a graduate student at Stanford in the early ’90s, I know … though I was never on the yacht), but the infrastructure really is a necessary precondition to doing the research that yields the knowledge that the public expects to get for its money.

The public wants scientists to make knowledge. Agencies like NIH get budget allocations to fund scientific research. Scientists apply to get research grants. But the reports are that scientists — especially early-career scientists — are finding it harder and harder to get their projects funded.

Why should the public care? If we were flush with funds, the public might well be enthusiastic about pushing more money in the direction of scientific research. However, there are other societal issues that have reasonably good claims on the available money. (Undoubtedly, there are also a bunch that have weaker claims on the available money; this is why you should register to vote and make a point of electing folks who share your views about where society ought to put its money.)

What could happen if the funding stays flat (or, because it doesn’t keep up with inflation, effectively decreases)?

Early-career scientists need to get research funding to pursue their research projects. Without research funding, their ideas are just ideas; the research is what brings these ideas in contact with actual data from the world and lets scientists build reliable knowledge.

Early-career scientists need to do research to have scientific careers. If they’re not producing knowledge (in the form of papers published in the peer reviewed scientific literature), the assistant professors never become associate professors. Indeed, if they’re not bringing in significant amounts of research funding, many research-oriented universities will not tenure them. If you don’t get tenure, you get to try again somewhere else (where you still need to secure the outside research funding), or try to get a research job in the private sector (which means the public will get to purchase the knowledge you produce for your company) or leave research altogether.

It’s been pointed out that established researchers have lately been having a better success rate getting their NIH grant applications funded. In itself, this isn’t necessarily problematic. Established researchers have demonstrated that they can conduct research that produces good scientific knowledge. (Also, they have a lot of experience writing grant proposals.) Some people will tell you that the greybeards should yield to early-career scientists because scientific talent and creativity peaks by [some age between 25 and 40]. I’m not someone who buys into the whole boy-wonder view of creativity.

But established researchers are still mortal. Eventually, they will die or retire.

At that point, a serious skew in the funding success of early-career and established researchers could make things tricky. Research depends on funding and on scientists. Scientists who are established researchers don’t just pop into existence. They develop from early-career scientists.

This means that if public funding is intended to support not just the production of valuable scientific knowledge right now, but also our ability to produce future scientific knowledge as we realize that we need it, it would be prudent to direct that public funding in a way that sustains a vibrant community of researchers.

It would be a bad long term investment to direct too much of the funding toward researchers who have only another decade’s work ahead of them. That might put us in a position where we’d have to import the next generation of experienced researchers from elsewhere. My hunch is that this would be less cost-effective than training our own local talent and creating conditions where people with the smarts and interest to do good science can actually do research. (As well, the dollar is not as strong as it used to be.)

Given the present funding outlook, though, harnessing the local talent could get more challenging, too. In this information age, it seems likely that it will be harder to keep undergraduates and grad students in the dark about the career and funding outlook than it once was. Among other things, this could result in fewer graduate students — the ones providing the cheap skilled labor in the lab that makes the research happen.

I don’t think there’s an easy solution to this problem. I suspect that it will take a combination of responses — a larger pot of NIH funding, a concerted effort to make sure that funding is distributed among scientists at different career stages, more research funding provided to researchers by their universities, and possibly even a shift towards smaller cohorts in graduate training programs.

But to all appearances, this is not a sustainable situation. And if things go off the rails, it’s not just going to be a problem for the scientists.


  1. #1 PhysioProf
    March 12, 2008

    As someone whose scientific career depends on NIH funding, I thank you for posting so eloquently about this.

    Some people will tell you that the greybeards should yield to early-career scientists because scientific talent and creativity peaks by [some age between 25 and 40]. I’m not someone who buys into the whole boy-wonder view of creativity.

    I believe that the peak of creativity for biomedical scientists is later, like around 50. This is because doing really creative biomedical science–unlike heavily mathematized sciences like theoretical physics–is dependent much more on massive experience, knowledge, and intuition about lots and lots of biology than it is about sheer brain power, which maybe does peak before 40.

    I am 40 now, and I feel like my capacity to think creatively about biological problems is just at the beginning of a new phase of rapid growth.

  2. #2 DrugMonkey
    March 12, 2008

    Some people will tell you that the greybeards should yield to early-career scientists because scientific talent and creativity peaks by [some age between 25 and 40]. I’m not someone who buys into the whole boy-wonder view of creativity.

    While you don’t have to buy into it, you do have to think long and hard about when universally acknowledged “genius” work occurred in said genius’ lifetimes.

    I cannot overuse the phrase “Mozart would have been dead for 7 years by the time he was awarded his first NIH R01” enough…

    Not to mention, you are perhaps missing the point that much apparent “creativity” of greybeards in science is in fact the creativity of the younger junior scientists who work “for” them. One of the points of my usual critique is that these younger individuals should have the chance to have their creativity recognized. The current structures do not encourage this.

    And finally, people who are on about this are not necessariy Logan’s Run fans as you have construed the argument. I, for one, am not suggesting we need to give the boot to anyone over 50. Rather it is very clearly the case that this is a matter of the distribution being WAAAAAY over to the other side.

    So to rephrase your point, I am not one who buys into the geezer-wonder view of creativity and I do not think that scientific talent and creativity only starts at 40!

  3. #3 Janne
    March 12, 2008

    Just to point out another alternative: go abroad to advance your career. Young scientists in most smaller countries do, after all – I did – and not just to the US either (though the discussion in US blogs is of course centered on that case).

    The number of countries doing serious financing of basic research has been growing and there are a lot more options available now than there used to be, in Asia especially. And as you say, the dollar isn’t all that strong any more, which means that you’ll relatively get paid more in Singapore, Korea, Germany or wherever than you used to.

    Having international experience is also generally good for your career, with a wider contact net and a broader understanding of ways research is organized, financed and disseminated than just in your own corner of the world. Many other countries encourage – even require – young scientists to go abroad; perhaps it’s time the US did the same?

  4. #4 ScienceWoman
    March 13, 2008

    Of course, it’s worth mentioning that this problem is not limited to NIH, which has a budget >5 times that of NSF, the primary funding source for a much wider range of sciences.

  5. #5 Eric Severson
    March 14, 2008

    As a young scientist, I am a “creativity pool” for my boss. He gets good ideas from me, but I benefit in the exchange as well. I wouldn’t have time to sit, think and come up with ideas if I had to learn to run a laboratory first (What is accounting anyway?). Besides, I get credit. I’ll be the first author, just not the last author. Biomedical science is about ideas first, but after that comes execution. An idea that never gets executed and shared might as well not been an idea at all. And “greybeards” are excellent at execution, at least in my experience.

    The grey area is after the post-doc while an assistant professor. That is when grants make or break your career. Unfortunately you have to compete head-to-head with scientists with much bigger brain trusts behind them.

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