All NIH Restructuring Proposals Need to Explicitly State Who Gets Culled

My first reaction to this Cell article by Ronald Germain which offers a supposed solution to some of science’s funding problems was, “I love it when the Very Serious Scientists reinvent ideas the riff-raff discarded as unworkable years ago. Genius, fellas.” Note to senior people: you’re not as smart as you think you are, and the riff raff aren’t as stupid as you think either. Or as the kids used to say, been there, done that.

While, as is usually the case, Drugmonkey’s joint has some pretty good discussion about the Cell proposal, I also came across this post from Dr. Isis about the Cell proposal. While I don’t agree with much of Isis’ proposal (if people are interested and I’m up for it, I can make it a post–it’s not a short answer), these proposals, as well as the comments at Drugmonkey’s post, made me realize that, in all of these proposals, we need to explicitly state who gets screwed. In the case of the Cell proposal, any ‘slow starters’ or people trained in less prestigious groups or programs will find it much more difficult to get funding. If history is any guide, this will also discriminate against women with children and minorities in general.

The only way prohibiting grants from paying PI salaries would make it easier to obtain funding is that most of the ‘soft money’ researchers (PIs who aren’t paid by their institutions) would lose their jobs–most universities can’t make up the salaries any more than they can afford to lose overheads. So it’s pretty clear who gets screwed there. Good luck with the rest of your life, mid-career scientist!

As Jeremy Berg, in more tactful language, has described, we are already undergoing a PI cull, somewhere between ten to forty percent, depending on how you want to look at it. As long as funding does not increase and there are still too many mouths at the trough, we are going to force people out of NIH-funded science. Let’s at least be clear about who gets screwed (and it’s pretty clear Germain isn’t being clear at all).

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3 Responses to All NIH Restructuring Proposals Need to Explicitly State Who Gets Culled

  1. Colin says:

    Let’s here your response to Dr. Isis. The more discussion the better (for all the good it will do …).

  2. Brian C. Martinson says:

    I concur with most of the criticisms of Germain’s proposal, but think his point about the rate of growth of the NIH-supported workforce points to something larger that warrants more consideration before any proposal for NIH restructuring can be taken seriously. Germain suggests the NIH-funded workforce population has a doubling rate of 4-8 years. Whether we think his estimate is close or not, it points up some larger questions that we really should be asking – such as: What is a sustainable population size of the NIH-funded workforce, under various assumptions of GDP expenditures? What is the current reproduction rate (“birth rate” of new PhDs) in the population (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/sres.2210/abstract), and how does that vary by broad or narrow fields of research? What are the age, sex, and race/ethnicity-specific exit-rates (alt “cull-rates” or “mortality rates”) from NIH funding? Thanks to some of the data that Jeremy Berg and others have been mining, analyzing, and posting, we are starting to get at least a sketch of the age-composition of the population, and the work of Ginther et al. (2011) provides some insight into the sex and race/ethnicity-composition. Yet it’s incomprehensible that we would make any kinds of policy decisions based only on the kind of loose, back of the envelope figuring that Germain gives to arrive at his estimate of population doubling. Why don’t we have better data about the population birth-rate? Or about the sub-group specific exit-rates? I suspect it has something to do with the longstanding myth of never-ending growth of the science enterprise. I’ve long been struck by a statement made in 1983 by the mathematical demographer, Nathan Keyfitz (1913-2010) – “Only long afterwards did it occur to any of us, myself included, that in the stationary condition to which every system must ultimately converge each scholar can have one student who will take up his work, that is, one successor during the course of his entire career – not one per year, but one per 30 or more years.”

    My own beliefs (admittedly informed more by my informal observations than by truly solid data) are that it’s quite likely we have an unsustainably high birth rate into the NIH-funded population, and that we likely have extremely high rates of “early life” mortality in the population, and quite low rates of mortality among those who survive the early life stage, which would lead to an oddly bi-modal age-distribution with over-representation of the very young and the very old.

    These basic dynamics have likely been exacerbated by things like the aging through of the baby-boom cohorts, but also by policy initiatives such as the NIH budget-doubling, the increasing prevalence of soft-money positions, and the funding of graduate students and postdocs as cheap, skilled-labor on R01s.

    As a mid-career researcher myself, who has lived in soft-money positions my entire career, and who is always within 6 months of being culled myself, I still think the soft-money gigs are a large part of the problem, setting up a completely perverse set of institutional incentives (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3147269/). So in whatever proposal is made, I’m pretty sure I’M going to be one of those getting screwed.

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