Former Republican congressman Newt Gingrich recently proposed a doubling of the NIH budget. To provide some context, from ~1994 – 2003, the NIH budget was doubled. Then the music stopped, funding plateaued, and even declined in real dollars, leading to overproduction of biomedical PhDs.
Part of me says that we need more research, including in the areas Gingrich describes in his article. After all, like my Uncle Harry used to say, “Rich or poor, it’s always good to have money.” Funding rates are so low, more money will help–we are definitely shooting down perfectly good projects, and, intramurally, especially in the ‘scientific infrastructure’ areas, NIH is stretched thin. But another part of me looks at this proposal and thinks we’re just kicking the can down the road: at some point the doubling process will come to an end, at which point we will have too many newly-minted PhDs (paid for with all of that new funding), and we’ll be right back where we started, with too many mouths at the trough.
Ideally, NIH would do a better job managing the PhD supply, including a willingness to recognize there are PhDs who are neither post-docs nor academic professors, but NIH doesn’t see the PhD supply as a problem.
The real problem is that Gingrich views research as the sole product; the work. Unfortunately, if scientists aren’t also taken care of, the research quality will suffer. The reality has always been that NIH has multiple missions:
…NIH has never simply been about funding research. It has had other missions, including the funneling billions of dollars to academic institutions, which supports those universities’ other activities (science and other) as well as providing local, non-science jobs. That is part of its governance role, just as defense contracting (in principle, anyway) isn’t just about building weapons, but also maintaining technological infrastructure and expertise (analogous to support for universities), as well as providing decent jobs and economic stimulus for local communities.
So how about the NIH realize that another part of their governance role is to assist the scientific workforce by not driving down wages, job security and working conditions? Something that the National Academy of Sciences realized was a problem in 1998.
Because you can’t do Science without scientists, and at some point, what economist Paula Stephan has called a pyramid scheme, will stall out. And that’s not good for anyone.
You can’t have research without researchers. A real plan for the NIH’s future would address this. Otherwise, this is a short-term solution leading to long-term pain and disorganization.
Yes, NIH needs more resources. But the problem is not only one of resources, and Gingrich doesn’t address that at all.