The Instability of Science Funding and the Failure of NIH Leadership

Having perused the Twitterz yesterday and also this cri de coeur, I think there will be a deluge of science-funding related posts. So I think it’s best if we’re clear about what the problem is. One statement I often read (and hear in conversation) is that NIH funding is low. Leaving aside the question of whether we should spend more on research (I think we should), historically speaking, NIH funding is not low. Below is total NIH funding as a percentage of GDP from 1961–2011 (data are from here and here):


Looking at how “X” is a percentage of GDP is commonly used to describe military or healthcare spending, as it is an approximation of how much of the economy is devoted to a given sector. While funding has dropped since the halcyon days of 2004, in the larger context, NIH funding is not below average (though, again, I do think it should be higher–with caveats described below).

The problem isn’t the overall funding, it’s that the NIH (and to a lesser extent, the NSF) have created an unsustainable system built around a cheap supply of graduate students and post-docs (especially since the idea that they work only forty hours per week is ludicrous). Compared to many other government contractors–and in the most reductionist sense, that’s what we extramurally-funded researchers are–we come really cheaply (and faculty at universities get most of their salaries paid by the university, so they’re cheap too). This is a great thing over the short-term for NIH. Who wouldn’t want a highly-motivated and -skilled labor force whose wages are lower-middle class?

So how is it unsustainable? Well, at some point, all of these cheap workers eat their spinach, grow up big and strong, and want to sit at the grownups table. Unfortunately, the NIH model doesn’t allow for enough PIs (grownups). So funding for R01s has become really tight. A lack of leadership by the funding agencies is critical here: there wasn’t (and barely is today) any comprehension that the constant generation of new PhDs is unsustainable, that at some point, the perpetual motion machine stops moving. NIH needed to realize that the increase of funds, if not managed responsibly, would increase the PhD ‘birth rate’, while there was no equivalent increase in either positions or in the PhD ‘death rate’ (retires). This is probably mostly due to lack of foresight as opposed to cynical malevolence, though I could be persuaded otherwise.

Until we fix the glut, both through limiting PhDs and by moving more funding to extra- and intramural research institutes, or else convince elected officials to increase funding dramatically (which merely kicks the can down the road if there are no systemic changes), everything else is basically shuffling chairs on the Titanic.

Have a nice day.

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9 Responses to The Instability of Science Funding and the Failure of NIH Leadership

  1. Can you know in advance how effective incentives will be?

    Politicians decide that they want more biomedical research and double the NIH budget. Now, there are often incentives that people ignore. In this case, universities responded with great enthusiasm. They invested in research infrastructure. They created new programs. Was there any way to predict how strongly institutions would commit to the goal set by politicians?

    The NIH may not be entirely to blame for creating the existing structure. I think this is more a case o unintended consequences. That said, I get the impression that both NIH and universities have been far to slow to respond to the emerging patterns. I think they were starting to become clear soon after the doubling.

  2. MCA says:

    IMHO, the problem also exists on higher levels – soft-money positions and high overhead percentages create an incentive for schools to hire more and more Biomed faculty until there are once again too many mouths to feed with the given money.

    I think the optimal solution would be to triple the NIH & NSF budget, while placing the following restrictions on new grants: 1) grants will pay 3 months of summer salary and the university must cover the rest 2) grants will pay for only 1 PhD student at a time (but as many post-docs, undegrads, technicians, and staff as you want), and 3) overhead is capped at 20%. This will eliminate the incentive for universities to respond to more funding with even more soft-money huge labs, hopefully therefore increasing funding success, while stemming the swarms of biomed PhDs so they actually have a real shot (and giving existing ones more postdoc positions). And if there’s triple the funding rate, hopefully each department will bring in roughly 3x the money as before, so even with the cap on overhead, the universities get enough money to transition existing soft-money folks to hard money.

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  4. Bill Hooker says:

    “NIH funding is not below average” — I don’t disagree but it would be useful to describe what average we’re talking about. What do most industrialized nations spend on research as %GDP? How about other sectors, in the US and elsewhere — health, military, education?

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