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.