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….)
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!)