Brian C. Martinson has written an excellent commentary that appears in the 13 September issue of Nature. The topic of “Universities and The Money Fix” is the discordance between the goals of NIH and research universities in conducting biomedical research and, as a result, generating research trainees at a rate whose absorption by the system is unsustainable.
Since the early 1980s new investigators have been entering NIH funding at a more rapid rate than experienced investigators have been exiting, leading to a population increase…
…We need to look at both the supply and the demand sides of the NIH funding equation. Most who worry about these issues have focused on the size or distribution of the pool of NIH dollars. Far fewer have given consideration to the size or dynamics of the population of biomedical researchers living on NIH funding. Few have overtly asked the question — are there too many biomedical scientists?
There are insufficient ‘feedback loops’ linking the production of biomedical researchers to the availability of resources to support them. Instead, the educational system is replete with incentives to generate ever more PhDs and medical doctors. In the short term these arrangements may benefit universities, but in the longer term, such extreme levels of competition for funding are unsustainable.
Inattention to those ‘feedback loops’ is at the heart of the current problem of qualified PhDs being unable to find positions. NIH might be faulted for their role in training too many biomedical scientists relative to the number that might be competitive for research grants down the road. But instead, Martinson faults research universities for riding the cash cow for too many years:
Universities have benefited handsomely from the efforts of senior faculty members in securing NIH grants during their careers, perhaps those same universities could now return the favour by taking full responsibility for paying these faculty salaries in their later years. This would serve the dual purpose of getting them off the NIH dole, and encouraging them to share their knowledge with their younger colleagues through more teaching.
This won’t be easy. Given the levels of dependency on NIH money, it is akin to asking an addict to give up an easy fix.
A few days ago, Jake Young (Pure Pedantry) and Orac (Respectful Insolence) cited a recent Science commentary lamenting the current lack of support for physician-scientists in academic research. While Orac’s thread generated a lively discussion of the virtues of MD-PhD researchers vs. PhD-only researchers, both posts cited the commentary’s point that all academic biomedical researchers essentially operate as small businesses, although in buildings owned by universities.
As a lab director, you are responsible for raising the money to pay some percentage of your own salary plus usually all of the salary of lab personnel, plus the general operating budget of the laboratory. Very expensive shared equipment is usually paid for by funds pooled from departments or centers, with the now-rare exception of NIH large equipment grants. Universities recover the funds to pay for infrastructure and fixed costs of providing a building in the form of indirect costs (or F&A, financial and administrative costs). So, an academic laboratory director is basically renting space from a university (with their indirect costs) and providing some services (teaching, patient care) in return for the portion of their salary not covered by grant revenue. But, in many research universities, pressure exists to do more research (for more indirect costs) and less of the service activities.
With academic faculty members seen as revenue generators, they are encouraged in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to expend greater effort on lucrative activities: this has made research a preferred activity over teaching or patient care. It also means they must spend a substantial amount of time writing grants. This arrangement generally works in the universities’ favour, but the downsides of the dependence on NIH funding are becoming harder to ignore.
Beyond the poor prospects for current biomedical trainees, those fortunate to land junior faculty positions, often competing with several hundred applicants for one position, then face their own very serious issues:
As NIH funding becomes harder for junior researchers to obtain, we might expect them to experience the elevated levels of depression, anxiety and job dissatisfaction documented in a survey of medical faculty members in 2006. We might also expect the greatest effects to be felt by female scientists and those from minority groups, for younger researchers to leave science, and to see somewhat less ethical behaviour among those who stay. The robustness of the research engine must be judged on more than the level of funding or the number of scientists.
I am not an economist but it is clear that we as a scientific community must pay more attention to the issues of researcher supply and demand and less on “biggering and biggering,” as taught in the insightful Dr Seuss classic, The Lorax. Martinson argues that calling for more NIH funding will only serve to perpetuate this problem:
Thus, calls for further increases in the NIH budget may only make matters worse. In my view, it is time to ask the biggest beneficiaries of NIH largesse — the universities and academic health centres — to find ways to balance supply and demand that better reflect their obligations to researchers and society.
How to do this is the challenge for the current generation of NIH and university leaders. For current trainees and those competing for positions, not trying to follow in the footsteps of your academic mentors is only one solution, as the pharmaceutical and chemical industries have also cut back on the hiring of biomedical PhDs.
So, the problem is already a big one for existing junior scientists – how can we keep it from getting worse for the next generation?