NIH Funding. Sigh.

If you haven’t read the Science letter by George Mandel and Elliot Vesell, and which was nicely summarized by fellow ScienceBlogling Nick Anthis, you should. It chronicles the coming dissolution of American science.

If you think ” the coming dissolution of American science” is too bombastic, I have some very nice ‘re-sized’ levees to sell you. Without repeating the letter or Nick’s post, here’s some data (and analysis) to chew on:

1) the funding rate of new, unsolicited research grants (“R01” grants) has dropped from 20.1% in 2000 to 9.1% in 2005. Mandel and Vesell write, “Peer review cannot discriminate among and accurately select only 1 of 11 meritorious applications.”
2) The average dollar amount per grant has not changed significantly once adjusted for inflation. In other words, science isn’t becoming more expensive.
3) Adjusted for inflation, the total dollar amount in FY2005 (in FY2000 dollars) is only 58.5% of the amount in FY2000. It’s not that there are too many applications–the total number of applications has increased 22%. Keep in mind, however, that as funding gets tighter, investigators submit more grants.

In short, this is due to a lack of funding. Mandel and Vesell write:

…even revision of a rejected application delays by close to a year the time required before support can be approved and research initiated. For type-1 applicants [those submitting new proposals], this is a slow, uncertain process that often leads to a career reevaluation and change by otherwise successful professional contributors. For an ongoing and previously approved type-2 research activity, rejection casts major doubt on eventual continuation and frequently results in breaking up teams of highly trained personnel.

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.)
What we have done is provided incentives to leave science, even as we’re being told we need more scientists. But, what the hell, at least Paris Hilton has herself another tax cut. Or as Billmon put it:

What I’ve learned (from 9/11, the corporate scandals, the fiasco in Iraq, Katrina, the Cheney Administration’s insane economic and environmental policies and the relentless dumbing down of the corporate media — plus the repeated electoral triumphs of the Rovian brand of “reality management”) is that the United States is moving down the curve of imperial decay at an amazingly rapid clip. If anything, the speed of our descent appears to be accelerating.

At some point, you can’t flip options–you actually have to create and invent something.

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6 Responses to NIH Funding. Sigh.

  1. Janne says:

    One result could be people looking elsewehere; depending on your field, there are a lot of other countries out there with good funding and a desire to hire good researchers. That is partly what happened with US research, so seeing the flow redirect or reverse to other places woudln’t be very surprising.

  2. Nick Anthis says:

    We’re a little too willing as a nation to rest on our laurels, huh? I can only imagine what kind of wake up call it’s going to take to reverse the current decline.

  3. Rob Knop says:

    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.
    For faculty who are tenure-track, it does mean that their is a time bomb on their jobs.
    Univerisites expect faculty to bring in money. What’s more, with the size and growth of NIH over the last — well, however long its been — expectations have risen at Universities, and it will take a while to adjust. Junior faculty will take the bullet right along with the soft money people.
    Stupid country.

  4. David Bruggeman says:

    I would suggest that with the current push to do to same kind of doubling with NSF that was done with NIH, an important thing to do is to try and manage that increase in funding in a way that can avoid some of the disasters the NIH doubling has wrought. To wit:
    An increase in capacity of both federal and university scientific research infrastructure that generates a demand for researchers that eventually becomes unsustainable once the doubling ends.
    Communities of researchers that in an era of apparent increased budgets find themselves competing for much smaller pieces of a somehow smaller pie.
    Scarce resources (because they are spread across a growing number of researchers) increasing pressure to propose and fund ‘safe’ research in order to increase chances of getting some of those resources.
    Pissing off yet another cohort of young researchers by extending postdoc time, reducing tenure lines and otherwise increasing the inherent instability of faculty employment in higher education.

  5. Orac says:

    Although the Bush Administration richly deserves criticism for the last three NIH budgets, the situation between 1999 and 2003 was much more complicated than just “Bush bad.” In fact, Bush completed the five year doubling of the NIH budget that began under the last three budgets of the Clinton administration. The problem is, after that there was no plan to consolidate the gains and the budget went first flat and then into decline.
    One part of the problem is that univesities have become so dependent on NIH largesse that it is now expected that researchers will bring either all or significant fractions of their own salaries using grant support. Another part of the problem is that the NIH is enamored of funding more large multiinstitutional collaborative efforts, arguably at the expense of R01 grants to individual investigators.

  6. Orac,
    I agree that the argument “Bush bad” is too simple (and I, uncharacteristically, didn’t make that argument). What I avoided was the whole role the biosecurity/biopreparedness emphasis has played, considering that, overall, NIH funding hasn’t increased to meet these new priorities while maintaining the old ones. It is very foolish to solve future problems by cutting the funding to solve the current ones. That, and an emphasis on ‘big project science’ and multi-center hoohah, have really hurt the R01 process.

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