Rock Talk

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One Nation in Support of Biomedical Research?

A bar graph showing the percent change in scientific R&D spending from 2012 to 2013 in China (up 15%) Germany (up 15%), Japan (up 15%), South Korea (up 15%), Canada (down 3%), United States (down 5%), adapted from the July 3 2013 issue of Cell.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Until recently, we’d never have dreamed of mentioning the famous opening line of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities in the context of U.S. biomedical research. But now those words ring all too true.

The “best of times” reflects the amazing technological advances and unprecedented scientific opportunities that exist right now. We’ve never had a better chance to make rapid progress in preventing, diagnosing, and curing human disease. But the “worst of times” is the other reality: NIH’s ability to support vital research at more than 2,500 universities and organizations across the nation is reeling from a decline in funding that threatens our health, our economy, and our standing as the world leader in biomedical innovation.

After 10 years of essentially flat budgets eroded by the effects of inflation, and now precipitously worsened by the impact of sequestration (an automatic, across-the-board 5.5% cut in NIH support), NIH’s purchasing power has been cut by almost 25% compared to a decade ago.

Ironically, the United States is slashing its R&D spending at a time when other nations are significantly boosting theirs—as you can see in the bar graph featured in this post. It appears that global competitors have read our playbook, noted how U.S. biomedical innovation has helped to fuel our economic growth over the past 60 years and are now ramping up their efforts to emulate our success. Or, if we may quote Dickens again, “It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”

Unfortunately, the drama that NIH-supported science faces today is not a Dickens novel. It’s very real. The progressively worsening budget situation has the potential to inflict profound, long-term damage to U.S. scientific momentum and morale.

Imagine yourself as a visionary young scientist at one of our nation’s research universities. You have many exciting ideas. You write up the most promising and send the grant application to NIH in hopes of being supported. But you find it increasingly difficult to remain optimistic or to see a future in this field when you look at the steep odds of being funded. Currently, a grant application has a less than one chance in six of being successful—a troubling trend that’s detailed in the line graph below.A line graph showing the NIH grant application success rates from FY 1978 to FY 2013. The graph shows a declining success rate, beginning at 35% in 1978 and 17% in 2012. For the data table, please visit http://report.nih.gov/success_rates/

Because of sequester, NIH will be funding 650 fewer research grants than it did last fiscal year. Nearly a quarter of those unfunded applications have come from scientists who’d already made substantial progress in earlier grant awards and were hoping to renew them. Peer reviewers judged their research in the top 17% of all applications received, but they will now have to stop ongoing research projects—meaning, in this double tragedy, we will lose both previous and future research investments.

If sequestration continues for a full 10 years, the outlook for the U.S. biomedical research enterprise turns downright grim. NIH will lose a staggering $19 billion, and, with it, our nation will lose an untold amount of precious time in its race against Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, arthritis, asthma, autism, depression, diabetes, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, influenza, and so many other causes of pain and suffering.

While the full impact of sequestration on biomedical research won’t be felt until next year or the following, reports are already starting to come in from the front lines. A new nationwide survey by the American Society for Clinical Oncology found that three out of four cancer researchers said the current federal funding situation is negatively affecting their ability to conduct research. The survey reports 28% of the cancer researchers have decided to participate in fewer federally-funded clinical trials; 27% have postponed the launch of a clinical trial; and 23% have had to limit patient enrollment on a clinical trial. These are very sobering statistics—especially for cancer patients and their loved ones.

Perhaps the most serious and long-lasting impact of sequestration on U.S. science is the one that is most difficult to measure. We fear this budget uncertainty is going to hit young researchers the hardest because a lack of funding leads to career uncertainty and could drive many of them out of the country or even out of science completely. This is our nation’s priceless pool of innovative talent—the source of the high-risk, high-reward research that may lead us to the next Nobel Prize or next big breakthrough in medical care. If our current budget battles cost the United States an entire generation of scientists, we will have compromised our nation’s global standing in biomedical research and slowed the improvement of health for all Americans.

This is a defining moment for the United States. As a nation, history will judge us by how we set priorities. Should not NIH-funded research aimed at alleviating suffering and advancing human health rank very high on that priority list? We hope that when everything is said and done, all of us can emerge telling the Tale of One Nation—a nation united in support of the value of biomedical research.

 Note: Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., is the director of the NIH. 

43 thoughts on “One Nation in Support of Biomedical Research?

  1. Dr. Collins,

    As a Hispanic American biomedical scientist in my 30s, after having attained college and doctoral degrees from top American research universities, after having completed a 6-year postdoc in a top research institution, and after having published multiple papers in top scientific journals, I could not disagree more with your analysis.

    Yes, it is clear that a reduced NIH budget has adversely affected the success rates of NIH grants. And yes, a larger NIH budget would increase such rates. But while your analysis focuses on the supply of funds available for research, it completely ignores the demand. Simply stated, there are too many PhD-holders for the available supply of research funds. And while a larger NIH budget would temporarily ameliorate this imbalance, the current cloning and importation of PhDs, under the auspices of the NIH, make certain such supply and demand imbalance is perpetuated.

    With regards to the “hit young researchers” might suffer from the current NIH budget woes, if the NIH is so concerned about it, then why doesn’t the NIH more aggressively shift its funds to aid such “young researchers”? Certainly writing an editorial on “Rock Talk” is not going to help them.

    Finally, I want to conclude by saying that many young scientists like me feel betrayed by the scientific leadership of scientists in your generation, yours included. We have been far more productive and worked much harder and longer at the bench than any previous generation of scientists, and yet still lack a decent chance of landing a scientific job. Never has it been asked so much from young scientists for so little in return.

    Congress, the sequester, and other factors are at play in the current NIH funding crisis. But what about the NIH and its policies? The NIH should promote a far more stable and equitable scientific system.

    • Our concern for junior scientists is long-standing, deep and sincere, and we are trying to do what we can to give these researchers a competitive advantage. One example is NIH’s new investigator policy – when an early career scientist comes forward with a new grant application and it’s their first try, their application is grouped with other first-time investigators at the time of review as opposed to competing against experienced people with longer track records.

      We carefully track new investigator success rates every year. We publish this information in the NIH data book. As you can see, our new investigator policies have been successful in promoting comparable success rates for new and experienced researchers submitting new R01 applications. Dr. Rockey’s post on “Our Commitment to Supporting the Next Generation” may provide additional perspective.

      NIH’s Biomedical Research Workforce initiatives have been a major focus for us. These efforts specifically focus on some of the challenges biomedical research training. Dr. Rockey has discussed this many times here on the blog, with more posts to come.

      There have been concerns expressed that NIH is not doing anything to limit the number of Ph.D.s being produced. It’s important to remember that NIH does not control graduate enrollments. We are, however, firmly committed to the premise that bioscience Ph.D.s provide invaluable contributions to a whole variety of fields. Furthermore, there is no definitive evidence that Ph.D. production exceeds current employment opportunities. We are aware, however, that training currently offered may be too narrow to promote full consideration of all of those opportunities. In that regard, we have recently announced the BEST award program to encourage institutions to offer training experiences that better prepare students for the existing array of research and research-related careers. At the same time, we have instituted a number of new analytical activities that will allow us to more accurately monitor the entire biomedical research workforce so that we can offer more detailed information about the opportunities that are available.

      It’s not an easy time to be a young scientist, it’s true. Frankly, it’s not an easy time for established investigators either. But please be assured that we feel it is fundamental to the NIH mission and the future of biomedical research that we protect our pipeline of new investigators, and we personally will do everything we can to support that goal.

      • Our concern for junior scientists is long-standing, deep and sincere, and we are trying to do what we can to give these researchers a competitive advantage. – See more at: http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2013/09/24/one-nation-in-support-of-biomedical-research/#comment-3984

        It has been over 30 (40?) years of hand wringing over the plight of junior scientists and things have only gotten worse in a nearly linear trend. That is why those of us who are or were junior scientists trying to transition to independence find these claims hollow. Either there is no commitment or there is no will. Take the sudden realization that the New Investigator boost was going to highly established scientists (who just happened not to have ever had NIH funding for various reasons) instead of young scientists. Take the “expectation” that emerged that the younger scientist simply had to have an R29 before getting an R01, no matter how crippling that ended up being. Take the decision to tie the ESI boost to time since degree instead of time since Assistant Professor appointment. Take the ongoing abandonment of mid career investigators to prop up the aging Establishment PIs and fund the ESIs. Take the CSR’s recent efforts to push for more and more senior and fewer and fewer junior reviewers on study section.

        The bottom line is that your efforts don’t *work*. Your fine intentions are great but this is a scientific operation. If protocols don’t work to achieve the end, we tweak them until they achieve the end. And if we can’t make it work….we ask for advice. Above all else, we try different things. Everything we can imagine until we happen upon the solution. It never appears to be the case that you are doing that.

    • baby boomer scientists feel entitled to their continued NIH largesse….sorry, entitlement….. tenured faculty labs should never have to contract or downsize….

    • Depending on the funding agency, training young investigators is a primary concern. For example… AAAS has less RO1s or R21s, but they are not cutting ANY F31s. Their commitment to young investigators gives me hope.

    • Everyone is suffering, not just the young PIs. We will never win if we pit old PIs against the new PIs. Here’s the thing…Let’s say you’re a young PI, and you get a grant. What happens at your first renewal? Are you now an old PI, and shouldn’t get preferential treatment? In fact, forget about you now, and fund the new crop. You see where this goes? Fund everyone one time, and don’t let them renew….Everyone is fighting for dollars, we need young, old, and mid-career, all for different reasons. We are all in this together, and we need to fight together. The way I see it, there is an incredible amount of waste…brilliant minds, young and old, dedicating long hours to the betterment of humanity. But they cannot really do anything, but sit in their offices, writing yet another grant proposal…. I’d like to think that Congress would have gotten the message pretty quickly if during the shut down, all government-funded professors stopped teaching because they weren’t getting paid. I know more than a few university administrators who were worried about making payroll at the end of the month if the shutdown continued…

    • Dear colleagues,
      NIH, as any other organization, was created as an instrument of the society to make people productive in reaching goals that are all in the outside of NIH, whether under its control or totally beyond it. Therefore, it is very important for the NIH leaders to stay in touch with the research community and to learn how to make it productive. But they will be much more “in touch with reality” if they continue research outside of the NIH, e.g., in one of the local biomedical institutions and, yes, apply for R01s. Direct outside observation is probably the most important independent source of information for the NIH leader, because results of NIH as a distribution channel are outside of it.

      Some prominent scientists devoted the second half of their life to a new career. For example, Max Planck focused on reorganizing German science twice – after 1918 and in 1945, and with great results. Now, when our biomedical research is affected by political splintering and sequestration of the budget, it is critically important for the NIH is to become a change leader. To lead the change, NIH has to overcome the problems that are created by the policies deeply rooted the past, policies that outlived their usefulness and became obstacles to the practice of management of biomedical research – policies that consider researchers costs rather than assets, policies that are focused on the process of funding rather than on results, etc. We need new policies that have innovation, quality, productivity of research in the center of the management concern. NIH may not need more funding, but it certainly needs to make the available finding effective. And this is a quality question based on continuous feed-back analysis. To develop and implement the new policies, NIH needs new visionary leaders who know how to introduce change, who learned the most advanced principles of knowledge work management, who will help to remaster the paradigm for the NIH, who will apply the ideas of the 2012 WH Bioeconomy Blueprint to life. Salvation of the NIH depends on prompt and decisive action in this direction.

  2. It is curious that the career uncertainty and barriers placed before young scientists have been present for every generation of scientists after the Baby Boomers came along. Coincidentally or not, these are the scientists who were in training just prior to and during the doubling and hit the job market when the budget was the BRDPI-adjusted highest. And yet their career prospects and launches were by no means easy.

    Posts on this very blog have identified the demographic shifts of the PI population, the increasing age of first-R01, etc. This distortion was not helped by the doubling and may even have been accelerated. Unsurprising because the trend against newcomer apps in study sections had been there for years and was easily detectable by anyone who was at a meeting. The growing cycle of endless revisions and thinly veiled “new” grants struck the newly transitioned Investigators hardest during the late 90s and 00s. This led to the opting out (and washout) of many of the very most promising and innovative researchers that you now mention.

    And when times became increasingly tight in recent years the NIH made faint gestures to help a very few ESIs while at the same time handing out copious R56 rescues and out-of-order pickups for noncompetitive very senior PI’s apps. Study sections, dominated by the established demographic, grew increasingly protective of their peers as well. ICs kept funding long-term, continued projects because of their confidence in, and established relationships with, their very most senior investigators. The bottom line is that when push came to shove, the established people got the breaks and the younger people got shrugged aside.

    So is it any wonder that the smarter trainees are fleeing the system in droves?

    It is beyond insulting that the young are being used as a cynical ploy to extract more money from Congress now that the pressure is so severe that even the established folks are (finally) feeling the pinch. Only a fool would believe that any budget increases would be used by the NIH to shore up the career prospects of the young and promising.

  3. Dr. Collins,

    My question for you is this….

    How is it possible for you to effectively perform your job as the Director of the NIH when you are also a lab head at the NIH still actively conducting research, “training” postdocs, and publishing?

    It would seem to me that during the last few years the NIH has really needed a leader who could dedicate 150% of their effort to not only directing the NIH, but also effectively advocating to congress, the president, and the american people why biomedical research is important to human health, why current funding levels are inadequate, and how the american economy benefits when there is lasting strong funding for biomedical research. Instead I believe we have had a leader who, while perhaps having the best intentions, has not been able to give this effort. Perhaps Dr. Collins it is time for you to make a choice, be the leader the NIH and the whole biomedical community needs you to be and give up your research activities, or gracefully resign from being the director of the NIH and return to being an innovative and productive researcher.

    • Thanks for your concern and your question. You are right that the NIH Director, along with all researchers who rely on NIH funding, should be doing everything in our power to let the nation know how public investment benefits both human health and the U.S. economy.

      That role is especially critical right now, when research support is under such significant stress. And, as my staff will tell you, that’s how I spend the vast majority of my time. I’ve met with more than 200 members of Congress over the last two years (far more than my predecessors). I’ve done countless interviews with the press to raise public attention to the harm being done by sequester. I meet with dozens of advocacy groups who want to support NIH, but need up-to-the-minute information about the science we are supporting.

      But do you really want an NIH Director who is completely out of touch with research? I think I’m most effective at advocating for biomedical science if I’m still an active member of the research community—maintaining a lab helps to keep me grounded in the realities of what it takes to “do science” in today’s world. And there’s good precedent for it: my friend and Nobel laureate Harold Varmus also ran a lab when he was Director of NIH from 1993-1999. Almost everyone thought that was a good thing.

      But I get that you’re concerned about my priorities. It might reassure you to know that I typically put in 90-100 hours a week, with less than a tenth of that time devoted to my lab. Of course, I couldn’t pull this off without having a terrific team–you’d be hard pressed to find a more talented, hard-working, independent-minded group of researchers than those in my lab.

      So rest assured, my #1 priority is to do everything possible to lead NIH into the future. I just think I can be a little better at that by keeping connected to the realities of research.

      • Dr. Collins – Have you ever spoken to Bill & Melinda Gates about the possibility of bridging the gap caused by sequester? Folks like Warren Buffett sometimes voice the concern that it is hard to know how to execute effective philanthropy — perhaps a more prominent role for the FNIH?

      • Dr. Collins,

        I actually appreciate that you have some skin in the game.

        I think of greater concern is what the shield and sword strategy is going to be going forward:

        Shield: How will NIH protect the enterprise in the face of diminishing support? Through lower indirects, reduced award amounts, fewer project support years?

        Sword: What can be done to stop this attack on scientific funding? Activism? Forming our own superpac? I know you can’t actively lobby, but short of this what will you do?

        I frankly think we’re near a breaking point. Most any network will resist collapse and will hold out homeostatically for a while. But then a critical point is passed and catastrophic failure occurs. It feels like that is close for the biomedical enterprise unless Washington comes to its senses. I’m now directing all of my trainees to industry.

      • Dr. Collins,

        Thank you for replying to my question. I do truly feel honored that you took the time to respond to my question. I was very pleased to hear from you that your role as Director of the NIH is by far the main focus of your effort and from your description it sounds like you have been doing perhaps everything that could be expected of you. While on one hand I agree with you that having a director of NIH that is still actively doing research could be a beneficial thing, I think there is one significant issue you yourself have raised. You stated that you work 90-100 hours a week, of which 90% or greater of your time is spent dedicated to being the director of the NIH. This means that less than 10% of your time is spent running your lab, so less than 10 hours per week. It might very well be that your lab is filled with independent, bright, capable young scientists, however, I think this speaks to a common problem in biomedical research these days. PIs spending only a few hours a week actually running their labs. Many PIs hold administrative positions, consult for companies, or even run their own companies. When you only have a few hours a week to actually run your lab this means that certain responsibilities of being a principle investigator are either being passed off onto others or not being done at all. Some of these responsibilities can be performed by a lab manager, grad students, postdocs, and technicians. What suffers though is training and ethical oversight of labs. With only a few hours a week dedicated to running a lab a PI will not have enough time to train grad students and postdocs and will not have time to review primary data to ensure that ethically sound experimentation and data analysis is taking place. The people who suffer the most are grad students and postdocs. The lengthy time it takes to obtain a PhD and to complete a postdoc(s) prior to becoming a PI have been issues that the NIH itself has identified as problems, and perhaps this is one contributing factor. Additionally there has been an alarming rise in retraction rates in recent years, which also could be rooted in diminished PI oversight of their labs. To me, this is a clear conflict of time/commitment being carried out by PIs.

        • And this problem is a direct result of the funding shortage…instead of spending time with students and postdocs discussing data and writing papers, the vast majority of time is spent writing the next grant. Productivity drops precipitiously, and everyone loses….

  4. Dr. Collins:

    I am one of those young American biomedical scientists that you and your old boys cartel pretend so much to care about.

    More NIH funding will not solve the career problems of young biomedical scientist. Any extra funds will simply end up where most of the current funds go–the establishment (old PIs). And these funds in turn are and will be used to train or import even more PhDs, despite ample evidence of a PhD glut. So, in reality, NIH funds as currently spent make the situation of young scientist worse, not better.

    What is needed are structural reforms to make NIH funding and career opportunities in the biomedical sciences more fair and equitable. In the absence of such reforms I cannot support funding the NIH. Today, NIH funds are used to run a sweatshop that benefits the old establishment and exploits young trainees.

    I say cut the NIH budget even more and let the House of Cards that you and your old buddies have built collapse. And please stop using young scientist as an excuse to get more funds. It’s so hypocritical and cynical.

  5. I had an A1 submission that was scored 10%. I was denied funding because the NCI decided that for grants between 7%-15%, what will be funded would depended on the “programmatic interests” of the institute. This is a joke because it is not clear what that is. It belittles the review process and reeks of favoritism. Research in America is about playing the game and less about science.

    Funding will not return to what it once was. NIH needs reforms:
    1. Tax payer money is funding exorbitantly high indirects. Institutions are/were building more research labs to bring in more indirects. This scheme is unsustainable.
    2. Investigators are forced to have large labs with multiple R01s to funding their entire salaries.
    3. NIH needs to democratize the process and shows better transparency so that all investigators would have a chance. This fuzzy funding range of 7-15% is unfair.
    4. It also needs to do away with expensive pet projects (so-call RFAs and SPOREs). Significance is a must, but the best discoveries tend to be serendipitous and are initiated by the investigators themselves.

  6. Dear Dr. Collins,

    I can comment as one of the young scientists who may soon be a casualty of both the budget and current system. I secured a faculty position after a postdoc at a high-profile institution. I agree that restoring NIH as a national funding priority might help with research funding, but as I budget the last of my startup over the next few of months, I see the chance of gaining independent funding as increasingly slim. The review system is also a factor in killing off young investigators. Senior colleagues read study section comments on my unfunded proposals and note that they’ve never seen something like that NOT funded. Other reviews come back where neither I nor the Program Officer can make sense of them (criterion: “6″, weaknesses “none.”)
    The most disheartening, though, was talking with a Program Officer about a new project and being told, “Don’t submit for the R01, lots of senior people are applying and because of that you will never get it.” That was without any substantive discussion of the project or my background. It was purely senior vs. new.
    What can we do with that?

  7. Dear Dr. Collins,

    I am a high school senior with an interest in research. I spent the past two summers doing basic science research experiments at the Cancer Center of a medical school near my home. I plan a future as a PhD scientist with a focus on pancreatic cancer. Reading this concerns me greatly. What does the future hold for students such as myself? Because funding is so bleak, should I pick a difference career?

    Thank you for your advice.

    • I will take a stab at answering this because, with the government shutdown, who the heck knows when NIH will get back to you.

      I would encourage you to look at the bigger picture of overall employment as you weigh what you want to do. It’s true that the picture for biomedical science is bleak right now. But the good news is that the unemployment rate for PhDs is quite favorable, close to 2% (which is similar to professional degrees in health fields) compared to a national unemplyment rate of ~7.6%. Industry employment is also on a growth trend, so if you acquire skills that are in demand for industry you can still do alright. This may range from internships during your PhD to a program offering joint business training. And of course, just because the US is devaluing and destroying its research enterprise doesn’t mean that other countries are – consider an international path in countries that will rush in to fill the gaps left as US science goes through this period of decline.

      Another option is Masters level education in fields that are relevant to your scientific interests. If you are mathematically inclined, informatics and biomedical engineering are projected to be growth areas. In your case I could imagine health informatics related to cancer to be an interesting area, especially since the Affordable Care Act will make better decision making a valuable skill.

      Science is still cool and worth doing. It’s easy to visit sites like this, read comments borne of frustration and fear and get turned off. But if you really think you’re a scientist (and if you are skimming NIH’s website I’d say the chances are you are going to be a good one), then don’t let the current political climate dissuade you – just understand that by the time you get to graduate school the system will be very different than it is now, and maybe not in a good way.

      But who knows, maybe it will get better. Most of the people who are the problem will be retired in 5 years or so.

      Others, please chime in.

    • A PhD is still a valuable career path. However, make sure you have a alternative career path in mind right from the beginning. IIf you want to exit, do it the latest after a strategically chosen short (!) postdoc. At this point, I cannot really advise you on a career in basic sciences. It is possible that so many of us PIs are killed off during the next decade that people like you have a wide open glory future since there is nobody left standing. Otherwise, it appears that McKinsey and Co. are always a good choice after an outstanding PhD. Good luck.

  8. Let’s all forget about the sequester disappearing. If anything has emerged from the recent CR and shutdown debacle, it is that the sequester will remain in place at FY13 levels (at least) and that the NIH is low down the list of priorities in both houses for a reprieve. In short, there is no sign of an improvement in the NIH budget for many years to come. So with that said, what ideas does the NIH administration have for how to deal with the continual erosion of the NIH budget in the next 5 years? Will the NIH continue to reduce paylines until they hit <5th %ile (I doubt that will cover it) or are you looking at large-scale reforms to the way the NIH funds extramural research? My concern is that you are all sitting around waiting for congress to restore your budget, but I see no political climate for that for at least 3 – 4 years.

  9. High school senior, since Dr. Collins has not responded to you, I will give you my advice for what it is worth. My general reply to my own students considering the PhD path in the biomedical sciences is: unless you think you would be unhappy doing anything else, do anything else. That is, of course, a bit cynical, since good PhDs can still find employment in the biomedical field, but if you decide to go for it, choose your field carefully. Look through job adds in Science magazine to see what fields are hot and which are not. Also, try to choose a field that is marketable in both academia and industry. For example, if you become a yeast geneticist, you are very unlikely to find employment in industry. However, if you learn how to work with mice or study bioinformatics, both possibilities are open to you. Also, consider a PhD in chemistry, or at least biochemistry. Job prospects are much better in those fields. Finally, get into the best school you can and work for the most highly regarded person there. Though you would think the quality of your work should speak for itself in science, pedigree counts for more.

  10. Scary amount of anger and venom directed at the mid-career science generation who themselves (ourselves) are being wiped out. It is a shame that the posts are all or almost all of a “I’m struggling so beggar-the-others” sort. Lost though it is among the howls – this really is supposed to be about what is good for the country, and for humanity, and our futures. The blog post is spot-on about the lost opportunities, and about the avoidable risk to the human resource infrastructure to teach and train.
    NOT that I’m a supporter of NCI’s “Director decides” approach [sad tale of the fuzzy payline and lack of transparency in that decision-making process]. Not that I have been a fan of how the doubling (which was absolutely essential) was handled, about so much “basic research” portion of the budget going into “big project public data generation”, or many of the other points (overly sunny / party-line massaging of statistics, focusing most on the young investigator for pleading to Congress, rather than the entire community, etc).
    To the high school student’s question (and to my son majoring in biomed sci in college), I’d say, no matter what, find over time if you love formulating new questions, are able to tolerate risks, and work incredibly hard because the experimental process is so intrinsically satisfying. As any scientist (or scholar) should, investigate the lay of the land, consider alternative possibilities. Bad as things are now – they’ll get worse before they get better. But there probably will be loads of opportunities (USA; world-wide) by the time a high school senior would finish the 13-15 years of education and training that go into making a potential team leader.

    • When I was in college beginning my pursuit of a career as an academic scientist I was told by many faculty that the timeline would be as you had mentioned, 4 years undergrad, 5-6 years PhD, 3-4 years postdoc then there would be enormous opportunities for me to become a research professor and run a lab. This may have been the case many years ago, but it is not the case anymore. A student entering highschool should plan on it taking at least 20 years (4 years undergrad, 5-8 years PhD, 6-8 years postdoc before being able to compete for their first professorship position. The competition is extremely fierce with so few positions available relative to the glut of PhD and postdocs vying for these positions. It is normal now to see several hundred applicants for a single position. If you are lucky enough to obtain a position to run your own academic lab, there will be enormous pressure for you to obtain your own NIH R01 funding within a few years otherwise you will lose your salary and your job. With grant success rate below 10% in many cases, this means that a great many early stage professors will be out of jobs within a few years of “making it”. Keep in mind that the average age of a professor obtaining their first real big money grant (R01) is 42 years old, meaning that when you are 18 years old and about to start college you are looking of at least 20 years before you have “made it” as an academic research professor. Industry is perhaps a bit different, but generally a postdoc is now required to obtain a solid position in industry, thus the time frame for this type of position is still probably at least 15-20 years for one just entering college. Bear in mind that during these 20 or so years of “training” you will be losing out on income that you would have been accumulating had you stopped with a Bachelor’s degree and entered industry as a research technician or pursued a medical degree, pharmacy degree, nursing degree, or even just did almost anything else. I am currently a postdoc and live paycheck to paycheck barely scrapping by enough money to pay my bills and rent. Many of my friends who earned B.A.s in various fields (and even some with just a high school diploma) have earned enough money by now to start families, buy houses, own cars, have a savings account with money in it, have retirement accounts. You will have to delay these things for up to 20 years if you pursue a career where you will lead your own research lab. The worst part of it is, that after 20 years, the vast majority of those pursuing this career path will ultimately have to switch career tracts because of a scarcity of jobs and opportunities and start out in a job earning an income at a level they would have reached if they had just earned a B.A. and worked for a short few years. This is the problem with Science, this is why many of us, even though we are passionate about science and love research are looking into other careers, and perhaps the worst part is that the NIH is aware of all these problems and yet keeps saying ” we don’t know if there are too many PhDs” in the US”. I think many of us who are disenfranchisized should start asking our congressional representatives to call before congress the leaders at the NIH to discuss the real state of the biomedical workforce and establish a legitimate plan to correct the horrible state of affairs it is currently mired in.

      • You said it all. I am a mid-career PI and I am getting out of dodge. I am sick of this slavery system where you can work for no salary at a major university because they coupled salaries to grant income to feed their greedy administration. I am also sick and tired of NIH telling me what I can work on and trying to come up with project ideas that fit those narrowly chosen exotic themes NIH seems to hold near and dear. I would not choose this career path ever again even though I am passionate about science.

      • I feel (and personally live) a lot of what you describe, and I feel very fortunate to have started as faculty not too long before the previous crunch (which was in early 1990′s, and trivial by comparison to the crisis now in place). I am equally fortunate to have survived the early 1990′s “paylines (@NIAID) less than 10th percentile” period. In terms of the estimate 13-15 yr, what I’ve factored in is the sort of hard advice almost no one asks for (or gets) during career development. The thing is that moving slowly is a bad prognostic sign. It generally is reasonably clear (on average) after 4 yr in doctoral work who “has it”, and even more so after 4 yr in Research Fellowship. Yes, I know of examples of folks whose 8 yr PhD led [straight] to faculty position, HHMI, etc, and with the current slowdown loads of terrific pre-faculty trainees are screwed, stuck in limbo. But, bottom line, if one moves slowly, and is not doing something really fresh, bad sign.
        As a twist on the mantras that “Universities (Medical Schools) need to make more of a real commitment”, “Universities need to put more skin in the game”, and so forth. All of the above are true and I support them, but the consequence of their implementation will be even less job openings, especially on tenure track, and a higher bar for “tenure”. In terms of a current high school senior, 15 yr is a time (2028) when most of the baby boom generation will be dead, disabled, or “retired” (knocked out of active research), so personal prediction is that the job market will be better (though in the short run, it may get worse before it gets better). In any case, though there are things to fault about NIH, I just never heard of anyone being forced by NIH to get a Ph.D.

    • Seriously, midcareer means over 50! Young investigator awards go to the OVER 50!

      The young are being slaughtered in a system so top-heavy it would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. Science in the US going to fall hard, and it WILL be the doing of the empowered generation that took the gold handed to them as youngsters and refused to share.

      It’s like the (rightful) class war of economic disparity in the US – the young vs old is the reality. The young are starved and dying. The old fat and refusing to give up power.

      The end result is easily predictable and has ample historic precedent.

  11. Thank you for this very timely and important commentary. I urge everyone to share it widely and to remember we all have a right and responsibility to contact our elected representatives.

  12. One thing that NIH should do in the current situation is to re-neogiate indirect cost rates with research institutes across the nation. Although this may not be a fundamental solution, it would be able to save 500-600 grants annually.

  13. Dr. Collins clearly gets it. However, his voice is being drowned out, Reactionaries and fiscal idealogues in Congress cannot allow certain ideas to conflict with their closely held beliefs, regardless of data to the contrary. Unfortunately many moderates in COngress have self preservatoin and tea party idealogues barking their way into the foregound. Even the word stimulus gives them heartburn.
    So instead of skirmishing over an obviously shrinking pie that is being divided in far too many ways, we should get much more politically active. Grow the pie. Shed the genteel veneer of the dispassionate scientist, the pipe-smoking bemused victim, and show the passion, and high purpose that has drawn us all into this great realm of endeavor.

    Arm the NIH and supporting science not-for-profits (e.g. AACR/AAAS/NYAS/ATS, other) with the political cover, and all the energy and fiscal support you can muster.. . get vocal. Lead the leaders, and they will follow.

    Concrete Suggestions:
    a. Get a group to meet with your local legislator, state representative, or Congress person. The myriad requests alone will be a potent message. These guys listen, and even for the purpose of self-interest and re-election, they can be effective advocates.
    b. Throw the bums out. If tea party activism makes no fiscal or scientific sense, then do something about it. Get moving, stop whining. Surely, it is clear that is their hard-nosed motto. Disinformation machines are not immutable, but you gotta shout over them.
    c. Get the anemic science infrastructure story on cures/therapies not attained, disease not prevented, diagnostics still in the stone age, into a newspaper. This is not about praying at the altar of science, or preserving the scientific employment rate. It’s about everyday people, children, families, older patients, including many of us here now, who will suffer a concrete loss of health and yet have only the same meager options available now, available 20 years from now, should the advances in medicine, public health, and biomedical science slow to a halt from here.
    d. Get active in your current science organization, make noise, and be vocal beyond that organization.
    e. Avoid internal skrmishing….the ship has too few rations, so let’s land somewhere hospitable, and find new supplies….rather than throw each other overboard.

  14. An issue that has not been raised is the loss of mid-level scientists due to the current situation. There are many efforts in place to get people into the system, and once faculty have reached a certain “status” that usually takes years to develop, they have enough trainees to help keep the ball rolling. But mid-level scientists are suffering the most, and are losing their labs over it. They got into the system by being “new investigators” and now, after 25 years of devoting their lives to this scientific endeavour, are finding themselves without funding, and hence without jobs – having to close down an enterprise that they have spent years building. I hope NIH is considering options for these people, as the situation improves (hopefully!) to allow these people to re-enter the system. Because once without NIH funding, it is very difficult to get it again.

  15. I’d like to address what has and hasn’t been done to help new PI’s. Concentrating their proposals as a group and/or giving them special consideration works sometimes in some study sections, but hardly ever overall. I have never seen a new proposal from a young investigator be treated “specially”– it is either outstanding or not and gets scored like any others in the piles. Piles which also hold A1 proposals from super labs and megastars.

    If you REALLY want to help a new investigator give them a REAL benefit: allow them an A2 submission. Their first submission is their first rookie fight in the gladiator ring, and its focused on the one main project that got them their PI position. After they get clobbered in the first round, they only have one more shot– and then their main project, the one that they were planning to use to build their lab, will be close but no cigar–just like 85-90% of all the other A1′s in that round.
    Give new investigators a third try– all the rest of us who started their positions greater than a few years ago had that extra chance! Give it back or stop pretending you’re doing them any favors at all.

    • Look, the system is more than fair to new investigators. They compete against other new investigators and get funded at a much higher proportion than at any other single stage (1st renewal, 2nd R01 renewal, 3rd renewal, etc).
      In addition the K99/R00 has added a lot of new people to the R01 pipeline.

      It seems to me and having talked to a lot of people at the assistant to associate transition the problem is not how do I get my first R01, but how do I get it renewed or get another when my ESI/New investigator status is used up.

      From what I can tell the valley of death used to need to be crossed before getting that first R01. Now the valley of death is crossed getting it renewed. It used to be assistant profs died for lack of an R01. Now many of them get promoted only to die later from a lack of R01 renewal.

      I’m not sure that’s any fairer than what we had before. The focus on new investigators is not sustainable given the current funding climate. How fair is it to launch 1000 new careers when you know the system will only be able to support 100 of them 5 years on.

      Don’t get me wrong, I know its still tough for those trying to get started in the field and I think the ESI policies are a good thing, but they have had some unintended consequences nobody seems to want to talk about.

    • An excellent and constructive suggestion. Availability of only a single revision (A1) is a tough prospect for everyone, but especially a new investigator.
      Reading these posts, I am surprised at the hostility to NIH. It is true that the doubling of the NIH budget represented a bubble, just like the real estate or tech bubble; and we are in a painful period of deleveraging that will result in the loss of many investigators from science. However, there never was a guarantee of a slot as an R01-funded investigator — this always has been the real “alternative” career. The real problem is that the career decision-point is postponed so long that people are stranded in their forties, not “making it” as academic investigators, and being at an age where career flexibility is more difficult. I would consider reducing the number of “transition” awards (eg “K” awards) because they are traps.

  16. Everyone is missing the point. Check your economic and political principles. So long as free markets are atttacked and marginalized, as has been happening here for over one hundred years, there will be inevitable decline across the nation and in support for biomedical reserach.

  17. S. Spivack’s concrete suggestions are right on target: scientists need a political voice.
    I also applaud OlderSciGuy’s suggestion of giving early stage investigators a third try with an A2 submission. What a great suggestion; it can cut across study sections and institutes.
    I agree as well with the suggestions that early stage investigators should be counted as years since first independent faculty position. This eliminates the penalty for choosing to have kids as a post-doc, or for taking on a riskier project.

    Finally, I think NIH and NSF need to fight the pressure from universities/institutes to increase indirect costs. They need to fight the institutional pressure on faculty to just keep submitting grant applications, regardless of the scores or the funding levels. Funding levels are going down, and application rates are going up… it makes no sense when it costs money to review all those applications.

  18. The posts make it clear that across the board, junior to senior scientists are suffering under the budget cutbacks. This again raises the issue of whether the total number of RPGs per investigator should be limited. This has been addressed before (http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2011/04/06/number-of-grants-per-investigator/) but is worth re-investigating. I feel 4 RPGs (not 3 as was most often mentioned in the prior discussion) should be the cutoff. This represents a sizeable yearly investment of the NIH in successful investigators. For those outstandingly successful investigators that would have otherwise had 5+ NIH awards, then they should be good enough to compete for non-NIH sources of funding. The return on a 5th award or more is of diminishing returns compared to giving a rising or established investigator a first or second R01, which is necessary to run a competitive research program, and makes sense for the NIH based on diversifying the national research portfolio.

  19. It was not so long ago that the Institute of Medicine issued its report on the dismal results of basic research. The vast majority of results of basic biomedical research do not translate into improved patient care. Multiple editorials that followed were generally consistent in their observation that the promises of basic research were being unfulfilled. In spite of numerous “centers” for translational research springing up around the country, the results have not. Much NIH funding looks more like a work program than progress. Of course, if you are part of the system, you might not be able to notice and probably feel unfairly challenged or maligned if someone points this out; much sociological research has examined this phenomena; the staunch defense of the continued financial support is predictable. Its easy to spend other people’s money. Many more NIH-funded projects should be scrapped. It looks a lot like a boondoggle.

  20. A very easy solution exists for the current funding issues:
    1) Force universities to pay 12-month salaries for faculty members (e.g., take a look at the Canadian system) and do not allow faculty salaries to be charged against the federal grants.
    2) Force universities to decrease overhead charges (e.g., there are institutions charging over 70%-80% in overhead).
    3) Do not allow universities to charge enormous amounts for student tuition against federal grants.
    For example, I am a PI on an R01 bringing in total of $1.2 million over the duration of the grant. If you implement these three simple suggestions, I would have still been able to accomplish all aims of my project with only $300k over the duration of the grant.

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