The Stimulus & the NIH - what not to do

If you have happened to browse DrugMonkey, you'll have noticed a discussion about how the NIH should spend its share of the stimulus package (~$10 billion). (For more info click here.) Unfortunately the plan, according to the NIH statement is the same usual BS - all quick fixes and no forethought about how to use this opportunity to repair some endemic problems with how we train our academic scientists. But within the cloudy depths of the comment section of DrugMonkey's PhysioProf's post, fellow Scibling Abel Pharmboy raises a key point:

In general, I'm very concerned that the pressure to spend the cash in two years will continue the short-sighted patterns of past NIH planning.

We have far more trainees than tenure-track faculty positions. Available positions are already being frozen or eliminated at most state universities. So while I'd love to see more training dollars, the fact is that we need to focus on newly-independent investigators and asst/assoc professors in their first 10 years of independence. These people are our future and have already been suffering and leaving academia for other jobs or careers. These people are the seed corn of our national biomedical future.

I understand the pressure to spend. Everyone associated with any stimulus money is under pressure to fund "shovel-ready" projects. But let's not shovel it down the shitter.

Exactly. Perpetuating the pyramid scheme will inevitably lead to scenarios like what we experienced within the last five years. Lots of postdocs shoved into the bottom rungs with little possibility to advance up the pyramid to a position where they have some level of financial and career stability.

The gauntlet is thrown, DrugMonkey and Comrade PP is this the best way to "stimulate the economy"? Last time I read my history books, FDR got us out of the depression by creating jobs with long term prospects and by initiating reforms whose long term goals were to solve problems that were endemic to the system. That's how he helped the middle class. Dumping money into R01s is not how you solve the problems endemic to the academic establishment.

For past posts on the pyramid scheme see:
A Lost Generation of Biologists
How much is a postdoc worth?
The Worse Parts of Scientific Life
Family and Academia
Foreign Postdocs and Wages
A way to break out of the pyramid scheme


Abel Pharmboy has a new post on the subject: Stimulating shovel-ready NIH extramural research.

Also it appears that the NIH may have changed its tune, it has now retracted the statement that I referred to and has replaced it with this:

Announcement concerning the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA)

The announcement from the Acting NIH Director will be issued later today.
We are making every effort to get this vital information to you as soon as possible.

This page was last reviewed on February 23, 2009.

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First, props where due, that was PP's post. Second, he didn't really take a position one way or t'other.

My knee jerk take on this stimulus was posted as the following comment:

Hellooooo? Ivory tower knucklehead peers?? KNOCK, KNOCK!!!!!

This is not about what is best for science or the scientific enterprise. This is about stimulating the economy. And nobody has an evidence-backed clue about how to do that.

Is it really that hard to stick to two things people (meaning CongressCritters) can grasp?

Putting people back to work and buying stuff.

I think we should be hammering the college-grad employment stats because after all this is just about the only "new jobs" we can create with NIH dollars- technician positions. Trouble is that I wonder if this select group of potential employees is going to make much of an argument.

Second, we should be hammering the purchase stats...are laboratory big-ticket and consumable items disproportionately obtained from US companies?

but you are right in the sense that this deserves quite a bit of discussion. At the least we* can perhaps influence the behavior of an Institute or Center here or there.

*meaning the group "we" of PIs who bother to call their POs and lobby.

Dumping money into R01s is not how you solve the problems endemic to the academic establishment.

I agree completely. But the aim of this bill has nothing to do with "problems endemic to the academic establishment". It is all about spending money and spending it NOW. And the word is NOW. Anything that is going to take time for discussion and careful consideration is just not going to be practical. That's a shame in a lot of ways and I would really like to see increased discussion on the structural problems, but the reality is that this stimulus funding is not going to be affected by that discussion.

Dr ZZ has a strong point here. Clearly, the peripatetic postdoc is an untenable long-term position, although it has become the bulwark of our academic science workforce (along with foreign postdocs paid by their own governments)-but this structural problem will not succumb to a quick fix. Over the last 8 years of anti-science no-growth NIH budgets, many PIs have reduced their groups in size, or shut their doors and retired altogether. Many are now hanging on by their fingernails, with funding at less than 10% at many of the big NIH Institutes. Each lab that closes is never coming back and represents, in terms of jobs, the loss of not just the PI, but from 2-5 techs, and often other permanent and temporary positions, as well as the administrative support staff paid for by indirect costs. Maintaining academic science jobs is critical to the future of the research universities in this country- and raising the payline at NIH and NSF Institutes is the best and quickest way to minimize the continuing loss of those jobs, and perhaps a lasting investment in scientific discovery and innovation as well. I agree we cannot stop there- but we need to get through a growing crisis first.

By Kite, PhD (not verified) on 23 Feb 2009 #permalink


Sorry about the mix up in authors. Also I would like to point out to everyone else, an earlier post ( where you echo my concerns:

Jesus fucking christ! Have we learned nothing from the effects of the five-year doubling of the NIH budget!?!?!? Increasing the budget by about 1/3 in one fucking year!?!?!?

And let's be very, very clear. To the extent that we are pumping a huge bolus of money into the NIH budget over a short period of time, the vast majority of this money *must* go towards increasing the budgets of already awarded grants that have been slashed upon initial award, and then bled a little more with each non-competing renewal.


This idea that we've got to burn cash now is so short sighted. Why is it that public policy discussion in the US always revolves around these quick fixes that SCREW us in the long term? With this huge bolus of money, PIs will hire loads of technicians, gradstudents and postdocs and then in 10 years Paul Nurse writes another commentary about us sacrificing ANOTHER generation of scientists. Let's fix the problems within the system not exacerbate them.

I'm not against increases in federal spending, but to just dump money into R01s is not the way to do it. I do agree that in light of the lean years that we've just gone though the number of R01s should increase, but $8 billion in one year???

This idea that we've got to burn cash now is so short sighted.

Whatever your opinion or my opinion is about it, it is the LAW and the NIH does not have the option of ignoring it. It also doesn't have the option of talking about it for a year and then figuring out what to do. I agree with you completely that this is a lousy situation, but again our opinions don't change the reality. You also have to realize that for long time most of the academic elites that have the ear of congressmen and high level NIH officials have argued for the "put it into RO1s and nothing else" policy. It is going to take a long time to get consensus on how to attack the structural problems and get buy-in from the academic community for the necessary changes. In an ideal world those discussions would be well advanced and implementation of some things could take advantage of this stimulus money. In reality those discussions have barely begun and the stimulus money will necessarily go into existing structures.

I just see this potential bolus of money, if it is dumped directly into R01s, as causing more problems. If $8 billion went straight into R01s we would definitely be taking a step backwards. Sure we need to increase the # of R01s, but c'mon. And as for the alternative ... could all NIH funded labs spend that much money in lab equipment? Probably, but I'm sure that much of it would be a waste. I can it see now - all these unused microscopes, PCR and mass spec machines siting in the corner of the lab collecting dust. I'm sure that there are MANY labs who could use the money and the equipment, but again I have to ask, $8 billion???

Here is a crazy solution off the top of my head. Use the money to buy each junior faculty, postdoc and gradstudent a house. It would stimulate the slumping housing market (albeit re-inflating the real estate bubble especially in academic centers), encourage Americans to go into science, and add financial stability to the lives of young scientists. Of course it is a politically impossible and selfish proposition, BUT IT WOULD BE A MUCH MORE EFFECTIVE WAY OF STIMULATING THE ECONOMY IN THE SHORT AND LONG RUN. Now of course I don't believe we should do that, but I hate the fact that the NIH will get a huge bolus of money in the name of stimulating the economy and that the unintended consequence is to take a bad situation (i.e. the academic pyramid scheme) and make it worse.

Here is a better idea: increase the NIH guidelines for graduate students and postdoc salaries coupled with an increase in funding to all R01s so that PIs can afford the raises. This would not only stimulate the economy but also fulfill Obama's mandate to encourage Americans to enter into R&D.

By Acme Scientist (not verified) on 23 Feb 2009 #permalink