Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

At the Society for Neuroscience meeting last month, there was a special symposium regarding the current NIH funding situation that was supposed to be given by the current director of the NIH, Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni. Due to his plane being delayed, he was a no-show, although the talk was instead given by a few of the directors of NIH divisions. The gist of the talk was this: despite the NIH’s budget being doubled a few years back, demand for grants has risen much faster and hence the paylines have decline dramatically. And we should all shut up and stop complaining, and ride out the low-funding wave. Now, to young scientists who are beginning to seek funding in the early stages of their careers, being perpetually denied grants or side-lined due to technicalities can be more than just frustrating. (Just check out my own travails with the NRSA grant application process in this archive category, if you want proof.)

This sentiment is mirrored in this month’s edition of Nature Medicine, which details that the approval rates of grants has been falling dramatically since 2000. (More on this, and graphs, under the fold….)

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Between 1998 and 2003, the NIH’s budget doubled to an unprecedented $27 billion. But since 2006, it has flattened out to $28.6 billion. For fiscal year 2007, the budget is expected to take a dive for the first time in decades, a 0.23% cut from last year, which Congress is expected to finalize after the November elections.
“It’s certainly true that the budget has been flat and, if you consider inflation, there’s actually been a decrease,” says Norka Ruiz Bravo, head of the NIH’s Office for Extramural Research.

Young researchers do appear to be among the hardest hit: last year, 3,894 young scientists won grants, compared with 4,521 in 2003, and the fewest since 1998. The average age at which investigators receive their first R01 has jumped from 39 in the early 1990s to 42 in 2004.

“This is killing us,” says Stephen Heinemann, president of the Society for Neuroscience. “If the young people don’t get the grants, all of us will get old and there’ll be no science.”

I’ve come to the conclusion recently that the amount and types of grants out there for young scientists is really poor. By the time you begin to write an NRSA (which takes a few months) and go through the obligatory 2 revision periods (another year), even if you receive a fundable score, you’re funding won’t likely begin until another 6 months. By this time, 2 years has easily passed. As these grants, like all grants, rely heavily on preliminary data, many graduate students are not even in a position to apply for an NRSA until they have generated a year’s worth of data (or more). By the end of the process, assuming you are successful (in that lucky 6-9%!), you may have already graduated from school and been awarded your PhD. Does this sound like an efficient and beneficial program?

Not to mention that doing your taxes seems like child’s play compared to these grants. Screw benchwork, the real genius-level scientists are expert grant-writers. And by that I mean, writing what they know the reviewers want to hear and what will get them funding. This obviously takes years of experience to learn how to play the grant game. New scientists are inherantly at a disadvantage as they don’t yet know the “secret handshake” to getting that grant through the process. Not that experienced scientists are doing anything wrong. There are just certain things that you learn by doing, and being successful at the grant process is one of them.

Now, I understand that this isn’t a new situation. Or than its expressly the NIH’s fault. I’m sure they aren’t any happier as to where things stand, and are doing a few things about it. For example:

NIH officials say they are doing whatever possible to compensate. The agency has awarded 150 investigators (author’s note: 150? woohoo….) new K99/R00 awards–dubbed ‘kangaroos’–which provide support for two years of postdoctoral work and R01-like support for the subsequent three years.

Concerned, Republican Senator Arlen Specter held a hearing in May in which NIH director Elias Zerhouni joined researchers and doctors in testifying that the budget freeze would jeopardize scientific advancement.

Congress hasn’t finalized the budget, but the NIH is not expecting a last-minute increase.

Says H. George Mandel, chairman of the National Caucus of Basic Biomedical Science Chairs in Washington DC, who wrote the Science report. “[America’s leadership in science] cannot continue without additional funding.”

And that is the bottom line. Forgive me if I sound all “the children are the future” and stuff, but just fund the freaking grants and “let them lead the way.” (Mine first!)


  1. #1 Roy
    November 8, 2006

    The reluctance to fund education and advancement and to invest money in young people never ceases to amaze me. That’s a pretty sharp drop in the number of grants, too.

    It’s sort of similar to the bind- you try to get an entry level position so you can build experience, but they won’t hire you because you don’t have experience. It just seems incredibly short-sighted to me.

    Best of luck getting funded (and congrats on the prize, btw).

  2. #2 Mouth of the Yellow River
    November 9, 2006

    Ni hao! Kannichi Wa!

    The problem is not just as inferred in the cited articles of late, that funding for younger scientists is scarce. There are many highly independent, innovative investigators with many years of sustained research and contribution whose careers are cut short by the whims of the funding system just when their experience, capabilities and discoveries are at the peak. They are now going on to other ventures.

    Funding to individual investigators whose survival and career goals are at stake represented best by the R01 mechanism is the ultimate in supporting scientist through the free enterprise system. In essence, individual scientist is small business hosted and funded by private, state, and federal agencies, the best compromise for maximum productivity.

    Unfortunately, when the feed trough becomes indiscriminately large like when the NIH budget doubled, the big hogs move in by simply gathering up multiple R01’s. I have heard of one hog at Harvard or one of the big hog institutions like it that had up to 8 R01’s at one time. This many R01’s to one hog defeats the idea of the R01. This is in addition to the big hog programs under the guise of cooperative, non-redundant programs (special projects, program projects, etc.) particularly promoted by the recently espoused “NIH Roadmap to Nowhere.” The biggest hog projects being those misson oriented ones related to AIDS, cancer and mindless high throughput generation of databases from purely DNA sequence, to RNA expression, to proteins, to epigenetic alteration, to knockout every conceivable piece of DNA in a mouse genome, and ad infinitum.

    I have heard numerous NIH bureaucrats admit this happened because there was so much money that programs had to be invented to spend it.

    Science moves steadily within small teams of bright non-mission oriented researchers not knowing where in the hell they are going, but following the data. The closest place to this ideal of late is Janus Farm where size of teams are limited and you don’t have to spend all your time writing your butt off on proposals or little slices of bologna for publication.

    The problem is one of multi-factorial neglect and lack of reform in periods when there was plenty of total resources. Instead of reform during the doubling of the NIH budget, the hogs just got fatter, more numerous, and more dependent on Federal funding.

    It is when the food in trough begins to shrink that things necessarily reform with maximum pain and suffering, the most intense sufferer the small independent investigator (businessman), the person with the small team funded by one modest R01, not the big hogs that have stored up a lot of fat.

    The problem is quality versus quantity, in essence where the available resources are going. Basic long term conceptual basic research and knowledge and understanding should be the primary goal of science and practical application the secondary goal. In the last 30 years the priorities of the two goals have slowly switched and the whole educational and funding system has accompanied it, and now drives it. From K1 through Nobel Prize winners.

    If fundamental basic knowledge falters, then there is nothing for the educational system, translationists and drug producers to teach, or to translate or make products from.

    Here are some overlooked facts that underlie the problems and might be kept in mind to guide reformation:

    (1) The bulk of the training and funding in this country is oriented toward training and support of “technicians” (applications engineers one might say) rather than individualist concept-based thinkers. Our training and recruiting programs have become mostly to staff big hog assembly line science rather than to build individual thinkers of conceptual novelty and innovation.

    (2) The big hog assembly-line data churn industry has been largely fueled by immigrants yearning to participate in the US scientific system that despite its faults is orders of magnitude better than other places in allowing individual freedom even on the assembly line. No small number has been immigrants from Yellow River country since mainland China opened up in the early 80’s and where shear numbers of people for the purpose exist. Just look around you. They were highly skilled in technical thinking, hungry and eager to prove themselves, but deficient in training as conceptual scientists. On average they were older, took time to adapt and prove themselves in a foreign system and were often in need of remedial training, thus the long time spent in postgraduate positions and the average age of first R01 awards. Very similar to the immigrants brought in to do the menial jobs in American society (most of which are Latinos), they are ready to be rewarded for their contribution and perseverance, they are ready to be allowed to break the “Asian Glass Ceiling.” If they are not, then they will leave science within this country or in smaller numbers move to other countries and most often their home country. Participating in American science is still a ticket to advancement in most other countries. Even the dwindling number of domestically trained budding scientists on average require remedial or longer training periods in time because of deficient backgrounds oriented toward techniques and facts, rather than conceptual thinking from K1 through graduate school.

    (3) The distribution of support through the so-called peer review system is in shambles, not to mention the distribution of results (publication industry) supported by the funding. There is a giant bureaucratic industry purportedly required for “rationale and optimum” distribution of support that in itself is expensive, resources that could go for generation of data. Debatably, distribution of the fraction of government funding (NIH and NSF) that goes to individual investigators through R01 type mechanisms is essentially an expensive lottery. The system might be as fair and productive with some sort of organized lottery system assuring that basic resources at the host institution of the investigator are adequate.

    (4) Although precise outcomes and followup studies should be done, I believe a large number of R01’s funded are isolated “flashes in the pan,” e.g. not a sustained program of individual investigator scientific inquiry. This is largely a result of the assembly line data churn mentality based on narrow technical detail that sounds good to technically minded reviewers and appears glamorous because of persuasive promises outlined in the proposal. These fairly randomly funded unproductive four to five year projects leave no contribution to the corpus scientific database due to lack of publication, the eventual disappearance of the investigator into another venture, and are a waste of resources.

    Simple reformation steps, granted easier said than done, are:

    (1) Orient the majority or all of NIH funds other than infrastructure or facility subsidies to individual investigator-initiated and led R01 grants.

    (2) Put restraints on the big hogs by limitation of total dollars represented by R01 grants.

    (3) Fund all new investigators after a triage of certain fundamentals base fundamentals, recommendations by former mentors, publication record, etc. If there is not enough funds, fund by lottery since no one has a track record on which to judge an independent investigator and administrator of an R01. The lottery infrastructure (NIH admin) should serve to simply establish that candidate investigators are legitimate and have a sponsor. Maybe criteria to be a valid sponsor should be stricter, e.g. contribution to the new investigator?s welfare and potential for success. But do followup. If there is no productivity as a first project manager, factor it into the individual’s budding track record, and review of future proposals. No productivity, no funding, no matter how many lottery tickets (proposals) you write under another theme. Currently, the reason that there are so many proposals hitting the review system lamented by DSR head and others publicly as a stress on the system is that new, mid-range, and seasoned investigators are frantically playing the odds of the lottery system by writing more proposals. Buy more lottery tickets, greater the odds of a random hit. Spending most of their time frantically writing proposals when they should be researching, training and teaching.

    (4) Fund individuals with highest priority with a proven track record on a continuous career stream of productivity, a single long term R01 rather than a new one thrown into the lottery pot. FUND INDIVIDUALS, NOT PROJECTS that one has no idea of how they will come out.

    (5) Lastly, most importantly and most difficult is if theme or project is to be considered, fund it on on concept, innovation and novelty with potential for long term impact rather than grantsmanship, proven feasibility and glamour of the moment coupled together with the above factors. Currently, the most fundable projects are those that the simple minded “expert” reviewer can understand and probably has already been done, but of little use for the progress of science and knowledge.


  3. #3 AJ Mackenzie
    November 10, 2006

    Pardon this outsider’s viewpoint, but the statements made by the people cited in this post make scientists look like a bunch of whiny, greedy kids. A drop in awards to young researchers of less than 15% is “killing us” and means that there’ll be “no science”? A cut in NIH’s budget of a quarter-percent is a “dive”? Such hyperbole! Rather than beg for more money to support young scientists (a noble cause, I agree), it seems like NIH should do more with all the money it’s getting — especially since many other science programs are making do with far less. At least in the viewpoint of this taxpayer.

  4. #4 PhysioProf
    November 10, 2006

    As an R01 awardee, I can say that MOTYR’s analysis is very accurate. The only thing I would add is that there is a need for *some* large-project extramural funding mechanisms. Also, the “kangaroo” program–given the ludicrously small number of people it is supporting, and given that it only applies to current post-docs and not currently unfunded new independent investigators–is just bullshit window dressing, so that the NIH can claim that they “care about the younger generation”.

  5. #5 Drugmonkey
    April 18, 2007

    One of the major problems with the way we train young scientists is to let them believe in the mythology of the ivory tower. The myth of the academic life free from worldly concerns like money, employers and expectations of productivity. Some of this is because mentors, rightfully, wish trainees to think about science, not worry about science funding. But this can be a disservice because it does not prepare scientists for careerism. Just as in most job sectors, expecting things to be handed to one on a silver platter is not an effective career strategy. Yes, the grant game is frustrating. But it is an integral part of the career so you might as well learn how to do it. Yes, universities have shifted toward more soft money positions so you aren’t going to have as many chances at nice comfortable FTEs. But most other job sectors have also downgraded from traditional notions of job security. Yes, notions of “translational” impact and “significance” interfere with one’s unfettered pursuit of scientific fancy. But why, exactly, do you expect the taxpayer to support you to the tune of millions of dollars in research costs over the course of a career? Bottom line is that trainees would be best off realizing that there is nothing special about biomedical science careers. The key is to figure out how to make the system work for you rather than bemoaning how things are harder than they were a generation ago…

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