Mike the Mad Biologist

Even More NIH Funding Woes

Alex at the Daily Transcript has a great post discussing an editorial by Robert A. Weinberg about the consequences of funding priorities. Here’s the short version by Weinberg:

The funding policies of the NIH have made it increasingly difficult for young researchers to procure research funds. This threatens to drive a whole generation of young people away from careers in basic biomedical research.

Read Alex’s entire post for a very good discussion of the Weinberg editorial.

Unfortunately, all I can add is that things are in fact as bad as Alex claims–or worse. Here’s some observations that show just how bad the funding situation in the life sciences is:

  1. Funding rates in most areas are down to 10-15%. NIH isn’t releasing annual figures; instead, they’re releasing funding rates averaged over five years. The last time this happened was in the early 80s when biology took a massive hit.
  2. The only areas receiving significant funding are HIV, influeza, and ‘biopreparedness.’ Because NIH funding has either flat-lined or shrunk, depending on the institute, most other areas are experiencing significant cuts.
  3. In talking with study section members, because there is a perception of very limited funds, there is a bias towards established researchers (even in the R01 grants). The thinking is that if these researchers lose their grant–which is often a competitive renewal, and thus represents the ‘next step’ in a particular vein of research–established research groups will have to shut down, and will be unable to start up again. This makes it all the harder for younger researchers to catch a break.
  4. Related to the previous point, study sections and panels are becoming very, very conservative, which also means younger researchers, who have less extensive track records are less likely to receive funding.
  5. Finally, the conservatism is also manifesting itself in the types of proposals selected. Proposals that are farther away from the ‘core activities’ of a given study section or panel are less likely to receive funding since these proposals are not seen as ‘essential.’

Maybe there are others who have conflicting information, but each of these points has been confirmed by multiple people who are very involved in the funding process.

This shit didn’t happen when Democrats ran things….


  1. #1 Boubou
    July 31, 2006

    In Europe, that’s the same, when there is a right-wing government, the funds for science fall down ( excepted for the militaries ).

  2. #2 Abel Pharmboy
    August 2, 2006

    Without feeling that I’m telling tales out of school, I can offer that my study section experience has been somewhat different the past few cycles (these are generalities and I don’t have solid data to support them, but this is what my gut recalls): I’d say that most reviewers went out of their way to give the benefit of the doubt to junior investigators, even knowing that first-time R01 applicants also get cut a break of 3-7 pct points. Among my group is a palpable fear of losing highly-promising junior investigators. More senior investigators with multiple R01s were evaluated much more critically than in the past, even though budget is not supposed to be part of the scoring process.

    Where I will agree is that highly innovative or risky projects do not fare well, in part, due to that conservatism you describe. However, I’ve been serving ad hoc for over 10 yrs and rarely found that true innvovation and risk taking has even been rewarded at the NIH R01 level because it is so difficult for three people and a panel of forty or so to come to consensus on what kinds of risk are likely to generate truly outstanding advances.

    Yet another travesty not discussed by Weinberg come from something I read in the Boyd-Goldberg Cancer Letter: some mid-level multiinvestigator programs that support some junior investigators have also being cut: Gail Eckhardt at Colorado led a team that got the top or 2nd best scores on the NCI AP4 (academic public-private partnership program) that was intended to build bridges between academic oncology and pharma big and small to accelerate the translation of academic discoveries to the clinic. The program was eliminated after the study section met, before a single dollar of funds were awarded. Not only was this a slap in the face to Gail and Colorado (and wasted what she calculated was $100,000 of personnel time in preparing the 500-page application), but it has now made certain kinds of businesses very wary about collaborating with academic researchers.

    I’ll finish by saying that the US NIH needs comprehensive leadership with a vision that looks with commitment across the entire spectrum of scientific careers, not just feeing the fat cats with more Big Biology. In the States, we’ve trained twice the number of postdocs in the 1990s vs. the 1980s, but we have no similar doubling of available faculty positions due to the strangling of the R01 budget allocations and unwillingness of states (and state legislatures) to gamble on leveraging new positions. I pray that Weinberg is wrong about his “Lost Generation” but his analysis does not lend optimism. However, I welcome suggestions as to how mid-career scientists can be of help in retaining our best and brightest junior compatriots.

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