There is a campaign to bring attention, of the public and of congress, to a five year long stagnation of NIH funding, which is being called a broken pipeline. NIH funding had been increased significantly prior to that, to address major shortfalls in funding for mostly medical research in key important issues. However, over the last five years, the dollar amount of funding has remained flat, not even keeping up with inflation, where it really should have increased further, even more than inflation.

This is not just belly-aching by people who would like funding. Those involved are pointing out some important effects other than just having an inadequate supply of research dollars. For instance, there has been a national effort over the last decade (or slightly less) to increase the number of young investigators going into the field, because there was a shortage. That initiative in combination with the increased NIH funding has had the effect of there being a larger (yet still not adequate) number of young investigators in research institutions. That’s good.

What is not good is that the stagnation of funding has had the effect of being an effective decrease in available funds per researchers. The squeeze is on, and many of these young researchers, often untenured or otherwise in less than secure positions. are being forced out of the field. So much of the effort, and money, spent on increasing our national capacity to carry out critically important research is being tossed out the window.

A similar effect may be happening at the level of the institutions themselves. A person in the know (who shall remain nameless) remarked to me about 6 years ago that there was a fear circulating among the upper echelon of the major US research institutes that we were moving towards a day when there would be roughly ten major research universities nation wide, through various forces. Well, this looks like one of these forces. Institutions are in a sort of dynamic equilibrium (a rather unsteady equilibrium, actually) with the communities in which they reside, state legislatures, the collegiate functions (an the tuition dollars and the costs of eduction involved there), the major funding agencies, and the number, capacity, and nature of specialty of researchers. We can add to that the interrelationship between the specific scientific needs and the available research capacities (what problems are arising, what problems are being solved).

What appears to be an arbitrary, and possibly politically motivated stifling of research will throw this already tricky relationship out of wack, in in some cases, into a death spiral.

There is a lack of thinking going on here. A lack of planing, a lack of stewardship, and a lack of good governance.

There are several places you can go to learn more about this.

The current initiative is being carried out by a consortium of major research universities, and their web site is here. You can also read their rather slick pamphlet and see scary graphs.

The 20-page report follows up on a related report released by a group of academic institutions in March 2007 “Within Our Grasp–Or Slipping Away? Assuring a New Era of Scientific and Medical Progress.” That report, issued by a similar group of nine institutions across the country, showed how stagnant NIH funding was slowing discovery and squandering the significant opportunities for breakthroughs that past investment has put within reach.

There is also a growing number of blog posts coming out on this issue:

Broken Pipeline at Blog Around the Clock

The Broken Pipeline at Drug Monkey