The Structural Component of the NIH Funding Crisis and the Tournament Model

Michael White, writing about U.S. science funding, makes a point that might sound familiar (boldface mine):

First, we staff our labs with low-wage, temporary workers—graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who move on after a few years. This means that universities have an incentive to recruit and train more students and postdocs, regardless of their eventual job prospects. The result is unsustainable. As Stephan writes, “the research enterprise itself resembles a pyramid scheme.”

The second structural problem is that career rewards in science are doled out according to a “tournament model,” a situation in which small advantages—in productivity, skill, or network connections—translate into large differences in rewards like faculty jobs, grant funding, and tenure. Tournament models foster intense competition, but they can be incredibly wasteful: the differences between a proposal that is funded and one that is not can be small and arbitrary. These small and arbitrary differences are making and breaking scientific careers in which taxpayers have invested substantial resources. As Stephan writes in her book How Economics Shapes Science:

The public has invested resources in tuition and stipends. If these ‘investments’ are then forced to enter careers that require less training, resources have not been efficiently deployed. Surely there are less expensive ways to train high school science teachers than to turn PhDs who cannot find a research position into teachers…. The current system may be “incredibly successful” from the perspective of faculty, as a recent report described it, but at whose cost?

These structural problems are deeply ingrained in our current research institutions, and solving them will require difficult decisions regarding how to fund scientific training, and whether to stop staffing labs primarily with temporary workers. More money by itself certainly won’t solve the structural problems of the biomedical research community.

This represents a long-term failure of governance by NIH leadership. You can’t have science without scientists. Yet, from everything I’ve read, it’s not even clear to me that the NIH realize there’s a problem.

We need new NIH leadership.

Related: DrugMonkey provides some historical context.

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2 Responses to The Structural Component of the NIH Funding Crisis and the Tournament Model

  1. coloncancercommunity says:

    The NIH has needed new leadership for a long time. I started working in a lab in 1989. There were issues even back then. The pyramid scheme was well in place – though it wasn’t so obvious at the time. It wasn’t going to be easy, but you could move up. When the doubling happened, it didn’t so much help nascent scientists set up their labs and get started (although it did do this) as it encouraged the flooding existing labs with tons of “slave labor”. The money did two things: Disguised the reality of the pyramid by giving a small leg-up to new investigators and at the same time broadening the base of the pyramid. The net impact was to turn obtaining a Ph.D. into a Ponzi scheme. This became obvious when I was about two years from graduating (I entered grad school in 1998). Much of that labor was from abroad and many of those people are now taking what they learned back home to compete against us. After all, we have nothing to offer them. This was a massive waste all around.

  2. Pingback: At Least One Prominent Scientist Understands What the Funding Crunch Means For Junior Researchers | Mike the Mad Biologist

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