The Scientific Activist

More on NIH R01 Grants

Since I reported yesterday on a letter in Science describing the current decline in funding of NIH (National Institutes of Health) R01 grants, several others have chimed in as well. PZ Myers of Pharyngula gave the post a mention, and Mike the Mad Biologist as well as Orac of Respectful Insolence gave their own detailed commentary.

Here’s what Mike had to say:

For faculty, many of whom have guaranteed salaries if they are tenure-track or tenured, this is an inconvience. For those whose salaries are dependent on this funding, this is far, far worse.

In the medium term, this is really going to hit hard around 2008, when the last of the five-year grants from the halcyon days of 2002 run out. In the long term, this will kill innovative research: no funder wants to take chances with a one in eleven funding rate (which if you revise and resubmit the proposal, increases to about one in six. Whoopee!!). The one in three rate of competitive renewals means that most ongoing research will crash to a halt. Again, more often than not, the principal investigators will be alright, but the junior people will be hurt hard (time to pack up and move. Again.)

As one of the “junior people” myself, I can definitely relate!

Over at Respectful Insolence Orac’s commentary is insightful and nuanced, and it is well worth a read. As someone who is actually currently on an R01 grant, he certainly has authority on the subject. Although he is far too reluctant to place blame on the Bush Administration and he calls my argument “simplistic”, in the end I think we can agree on a few things:

So what to do? Throwing more money at the NIH won’t necessarily correct this problem if present NIH priorities remain the same, although increasing the NIH budget so that it at least keeps up with the rate of biomedical inflation would certainly help. In that, the Bush Administrating is being penny wise and pound foolish, saving an insignificant amount of money over the last two years (in the $2.3 trillion federal budget, the total NIH budget is around $28.6 billion, or around 1.2%) at the potential cost of a degradation of our biomedical research enterprise that will be difficult and expensive to reverse. This is exacerbated by the shifting priorities of the NIH away from funding R01 grants. True, the NIH is funding more small grants for one or two years that are designed to fund riskier pilot projects, and this is a good thing, but these cannot make up for the decrease in R01s, which provide stable funding. What is more critical is to halt or reverse the decrease in the funds devoted to funding investigator-initiated R01 research grants. Big science can yield dramatic results, as the Human Genome Project has, but it is individual projects where riskier ideas are likely to be first explored.

As many of the commenters on my last post have noted, the cost of the R01 program is just a drop in the bucket compared to the war in Iraq, for example. If we’re thinking about getting the best value for our money, I’m pretty sure that almost any one of these R01 grants will produce something much more valuable to society (not too mention something far less destructive) than would be gained from that amount of money put toward the war in Iraq. It would at least be more likely to meet some measure of being successful, anyways.

There were also some questions about how the NIH fared under the Clinton Administration. The answer is, in short, much better. Based on data from the NIH, the total funding for R01 grants doubled from 1992 to 2000, and although the number of grants awarded increased 35%, the amount given per grant increased 46%. Although there a surely a variety of reasons for the current situation looking not nearly so optimistic, the Bush Administration and the Republican Congress have done little to reverse the ongoing decline.


Update: Thoughts from Kansas and The Daily Transcript also put in their two cents.

Comments

  1. #1 Programeister
    September 13, 2006

    Nick,
    Your concern as a young scientist is warranted. Indeed, the recent NIH paylines have been brutal. At the NCI not only was last year’s payline 12%, there were also substantial policy reductions to those applications that were awarded. New grants that met the payline received approximately 71% of the requested (and study section approved) budget. One silver lining is that the new investigator payline was higher, 17%. There is a lot of emphasis, both at the NCI (and overall within the NIH) to keep the number of junior faculty getting their first R01 grant constant. The funding issues facing researchers are complex. Throwing more money into the NIH budget isn’t an option at this point–there isn’t more money. The question is how do we best utilize the resources of the Ferderal Government to continuing supporting the amazing discoveries of current researchers and encourage the development of the next generation of researchers. Maybe one solution is to free up more space, faculty positions and money by encouraging early retirement among the cadre of aging tenured scientists whose creative years are behind them. Maybe they could teach high school.

  2. #2 Mike the Mad Biologist
    September 13, 2006

    Nick,

    thanks for bringing this to everyone’s attention (Maybe our Seed Overlords could make this a topic o’the week or something).

    One other factor to consider is that there has been a shift from R01 funding to biosecurity/biopreparedness, ‘multi-disciplinary centers’, and to ‘big project science.’ It’s not just R01s that have been hit, but entire funding areas.

  3. #3 Rienk
    September 13, 2006

    Scary and strange, but since 2003 there are research groups who rewrite their grand proposals in such a way that it sounds like the outcome of their studies can somehow contribute to counter terrorism. Simple phage research suddenly becomes anti-bioterrorism research, on paper only, of course. This way, if the NIH does not grand them the funding, they can go to the military! I’m not kidding!

  4. #4 Nick Anthis
    September 13, 2006

    I don’t doubt it one bit, and I’ve seen it happen before. It’s unfortunate that are militaristic culture has had such an influence on our science.

  5. #5 Ross
    September 14, 2006

    The priorities of our current (and to an extent past) government is worrying indeed. What perhaps is most frustrating is the lack of foresight to ignoring such areas. In the end, the most individuals can do is try to sway the masses with common sense instead of propoganda and hopefully move the public opinion, and thus vote, in the right direction.

    I am glad there are blogs like yours that cover such topics as this.

    Ross
    Practicing Agressive Memetics Since 2006
    http://www.memesinconflict.com

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