More on NIH grant woes

by revere

[Since my colleague and new blog sibling Dave Ozonoff posted here some advice on NIH grant writing in response to a post of mine over at Effect Measure, I thought I’d cross-post a follow-up I did on NIH funding a few days later. BTW, Dave, I’ll have to give you some lessons in snarkiness. Your post was way too benign!]

In the late 1990s congress decided to invest in our future by doubling the NIH budget. If you are a scientist today trying to get an NIH grant, however, you are in tough shape. Success rates are falling like a stone, with less than 20% of grant applications now being funded. It is common to submit a proposal several times before finally getting a grant or giving up and moving on. What happened?

A lot of scientists want to know that and it prompted NIH Director Elias Zerhouni to try and explain in in the latest issue of Science magazine, the country’s premier science journal. The opening paragraph makes clear this is not the concern of just a few:

This has been a challenging year for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the biomedical research community. An extraordinarily tight federal budget is eroding the growth of NIH at a time when opportunities for scientific progress and advances in human health have never been greater. As I talk to scientists and administrators throughout the country, the anxiety is palpable. I share these concerns. I am most deeply troubled about the impact of this difficult situation on junior scientists, and on the ability of established investigators to maintain their laboratories. (Science)

I’m not complaining personally as I have been extraordinarily lucky. I’m all set with NIH funding for a number of years and I hope that will be enough to ride out the storm. But many others aren’t in such good shape and Zerhouni tries to explain why it’s harder to get funded today than before NIH’s budget doubled.

The core reason is the increase in the number of new applications and applicants for NIH grants (see second figure). In 1998, NIH received 24,151 applications for new and competing research project grants (RPGs) (1); NIH expects to receive over 46,000 in 2006 and over 49,000 in 2007. The doubling in the demand for grants is primarily due to a large increase in the number of new scientists applying for grants. In 1998, there were about 19,000 scientists applying for competing awards. In 2006, NIH expects to receive applications from approximately 34,000 scientists and forecasts that over 36,000 scientists will apply in 2007. Remarkably, the largest surge in demand for grants occurred at the end of the doubling period and continues today. This “perfect storm”–the imbalance between supply and demand for grants–is the fundamental reason for the painful circumstances in which we find ourselves.

In other words, the increase in funding and facilities encouraged more laboratories and more graduate students and more post docs. Now funding is flat and there is a large encumbered expense. Zerhouni says 80% of the grant money is for ongoing, committed research. Of the 20% available for new grants, with flat funding the only new moneies are from grants that have run their course and not been renewed. Flat funding is in reality a substantial decrease because research expenses greatly exceed inflation as new technologies required to keep a lab competitive come on line.

Zerhouni goes to some lengths to deny, using a set of figures so aggregated it is hard to verify if they prove what he says they prove, that the NIH Road Map initiative meant to bring the fruits of NIH research from the bench to the bedside faster is not the cause of the problem, as many suspect. We have gotten to the point we have in American health research because NIH has been a very effective supporter of basic research. It is not supposed to be the farm team for the pharm team. Zerhouni says NIH’s mission is still basic research. But then he says this:

Pragmatic and prudent steps need to be taken to minimize the long-term negative impact of the hopefully short-term budget woes. We must develop unified, informed, and proactive strategies.

We need to remain focused on our core values and to pursue our fundamental mission of discovery–translating new knowledge into tangible benefits for the American people.

This is surely a mixed message, as is much of the rest of Zerhouni’s article. Some institutes, like the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the only one of the NIH institutes that is primarily a public health oriented institute, is veering sharply away from public health toward clinical medicine. This is the influence of Roadmap working through the rather narrow vision of the NIEHS Director, Zerhouni’s handpicked choice, David Schwartz.

Like other health and science agencies of the Bush administration, morale at NIH is low, indeed the lowest I’ve seen it in my reasonably long career as a research scientist. Unlike the disarray at CDC, caused by mismanagement of its Director, this can’t be blamed entirely or even mostly on Zerhouni, although his Roadmap vision hasn’t helped. It is mainly the consequence of the stimulus to health research succeeding all too well with a consequent failure to support the new research it spawned.

Scientists in other fields look at the amount of money absorbed by NIH with envy and tell health researchers to stop whining. But there are a lot more of us than there are of them and our research is on average a more expensive. There are also few faculty jobs at research universities. Zerhouni notes with alarm that the average age for a life scientist to get a tenuretack faculty appointment is now 38. That’s not tenure. That’s tenuretrack, meaning that many of those jobs will disappear after four to six years when the faculty member doesn’t get tenure, as is increasingly common. It is an “up or out” situation. Many of those scientists are in their mid forties by that time and failure to get funded is one of the principal reasons for failing to get tenure. The average age for the first independent grant award from NIH is now 40 years old. The typical grant is two or three years support. As soon as you get one you have to start working on your next proposal. Writing an NIH grant frequently can take a year. The pressure is substantial.

I’ve seen some very hard times in the grant world before. The eighties were no picnic. We’re seeing it again. But now it is affecting many more scientists because there are many more scientists.

This is one of the most exciting times to be a life scientist in the history of biology. In theory. In practice, it is an awfully tough row to hoe.

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