Looking to the Future of the Biomedical Workforce


You may have heard that Dr. Collins has charged a new subcommittee of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director (ACD) with creating a model of the biomedical research workforce that will address future workforce needs, as well as help inform NIH in implementing policies to facilitate a vibrant and diverse future biomedical research workforce. Many questions will be asked:

  • What is the right size of the workforce?
  • What are the appropriate types of positions that should be supported to allow people to have successful careers and to continue to advance biomedical and behavioral sciences?
  • What is the best way to support these various positions?
  • What types of training should be provided?

In preparation for this committee, my office developed some basic information about how the biomedical research community is currently supported by NIH. I thought I’d use my blog to present some of this interesting information.

So to begin, let’s ask where does NIH support go and what have been the trends in funding to various types of institution? After all, the grantee institution employs the biomedical researchers, it’s the place where training will be sought and is delivered, and it’s the place where any new workforce policies will be implemented.    

graph showing the consistency of NIH support by institution type

Looking over the past 25 years, medical schools have received the largest proportion of NIH funds followed by non-medical school academic institutions, research organizations and others. While this is no surprise to most, what is interesting is the consistency of this support over the past 25 years, meaning that the flow of funding from NIH has been relatively constant, at least in the proportion of funds various types of institutions receive from the agency. Even through the doubling of the NIH budget, the growth of specialized programs like the AREA and IDEA programs, and a number of other initiatives that target various types of institutions, states and populations, the proportion of funding remains remarkably steady. This is just a snippet of the data we have at hand, so we’ll be looking at these and other data that will paint the picture of the current funding structure of biomedical research and NIH support. More to come in future blogs.


  1. This is awesome! We are paying attention and cannot wait to see the details. We are the research Center for Craniofacial Molecular Biology at Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC and our primary function is to serve the needs of our researchers.

  2. / question . .. .
    In the bar graph figure above, is “% of NIH grant funding” calculated on a base that is “just” ‘[all RPG’s]? Or is it [RPG’s + T + F + K +/- SBIR, STTR]? And does it include or exclude contracts? (definitely there are trainees whose work is supported via contracts).
    / comment – interesting how an apparent crunch on % going to non-med schul higher Ed (1998-9) seems not to have recovered entirely.

    1. The data shown reflects all NIH grant funding (which includes all the programs you mention). It excludes contracts.

  3. It would be interesting to know how many non-US scientists are employed in the US using NIH research grant and contract funds (not training grant funds). I think we have been training large numbers of foreign scientists, especially from China and India, at both the predoctoral and postdoctoral levels. China, at least, is no longer a third-world country and is now attracting many US-trained Chinese scientists to return to China to populate the large, well-endowed research institutes that have been built there. Perhaps it is time to ask CHina to help support the training of their scientists. If they did so, we could get more research done per dollar of NIH funding and employ more young American scientists.

    1. I agree! I know of several Americans that do not get a R. A. position because the PI’s only hire foreigners, while the PIs are native or naturalized. Why is the US government not reviewing how many foreigners are receiving RAs vs. how many US citizens are receiving TA, which are NOT funded by grants. We are forced to take TAs because we speak english, while our research suffers for lack of funding!

      1. Mit & Sonenshein: I totally agree with both you. Senior officials at the NIH are going to have a lot of egg on their face and be in the hot seat if it every gets out how much American tax-payer money is payed to foreign researchers for graduate and post-doc training (outsourcing within) both at the NIH and American Universities. And there are going to be a whole lot of difficult questions to answer as to how it got this bad! People like Laghs may try to justify it to the American people by saying that US citizens won’t take these jobs because they are low paying (same arguement people use in the Agriculture sector for hiring illegals), but I suspect the American tax payer won’t be to happy to hear that some many NIH PI’s are hiring only foreign post-docs. It is a very troubling trend that I have seen repeatedly both in Academia and at the NIH.

    2. I disagree. As a PI, I often feel guilty because I am taking advantage of those postdocs and students for cheap labor and over work. So in return, they are well deserved of their due training. In general, less and less qualified US citizens these days want to enter science because of the low pay. Without foreign postdocs and students, I am pretty sure that the current biomedical community (at least the onw as we know of) will collapse. We need foreigners, including myself, to fill in the gap.

    3. Scientific funding of non-US citizens is indeed an issue of great significance. There is much lip service being paid to increasing workforce diversity in the sciences. Such diversity should reflect the US population and its various % ethnicities. For example, if African American p0pulation is 20% then it is expected that 20% of scientific workforce is African American. Such workers should not be insourced from Africa but should be selected from eligible US citizens. If qualified US citizens are not available for scientific positions then something is wrong with the US educational system. Fix the educational system before ignoring it in favor of a temporary fix that includes giving those jobs to foreign nationals.
      Striving to equate scientific work-force diversity with US population diversity in itself is a touchy issue. I loathe the practice of federal incentives for businesses to diversify their workforce if that means hiring any one else but the most qualified US candidate for the job. Perhaps companies diversify their work force as a matter of company policy. I guess they want to be touted as “….one of most diversified US companies to work for…” To me all that means is that such a company is either hiring a lot of foreign nationals (non-US citizens) or they don’t hire the most qualified candidate for the job. Just like justice, hiring practices should be blind.
      To conclude the practices of outsourcing jobs and insourcing foreign workers might just explain much of the unemployment in the US today. If you are a tax-paying US citizen then you should know that a portion of your tax money goes to paying salaries of foreign workers here in the US. In addition for all those US citizens displaced by foreign workers your tax money goes to paying their unemployment compensation.

    4. I recently advertised for a postdoctoral position, and received about 20 applications. Not a single one was from a US citizen. A few were foreign students in the US, most were from outside the US. If you think that Americans are lining up for these jobs but can’t get hired because of foreigners, you are mistaken.

      When I was in graduate school, almost all of the American grad students were funded by fellowships, never had to teach or even be an RA. Almost all foreign grad students were TAs, a few lucky ones had RA. They had to work ~20 hrs a week in teaching and work unrelated to their research.

      More than foreigners “taking away” anything, they are a source of highly qualified cheap labor that keeps America’s grad schools and research labs humming. Not only that, but foreign students bring in enormous amounts of cash into the country, and so education is a major export industry. Hundreds of thousands of foreign parents spend large sums of money (in many cases their life savings) to pay full bore for their children to go to US schools. Even more important than money they bring in, the impact of the intellectual capital gained by the US is enormous. Many other countries would love to have the brightest foreign students come there to study and work.

      1. Bill, you have made a very good point. I totally agree with you. This society is rewarding bankers, lawyers and medical doctors, but not scientists. Who wants to be a scientist when the students see their professors struggling miserably and the senior postdocs in the lab couldn’t find any job? Two labs in my department closed doors in the last couple of years. And also I know many postdocs around who are stuck in the lab for seven or eight years. I feel very sorry for them, but how can we possibly help? Even in industry, there are so few biotech positions available, let alone to say the elusive faculty positions. Should we tell our trainees at the very beginning that they should be prepared for the harsh reality? Even my wife switched career after a PhD and is now a happy lawyer. President Obama suggested in his recent address that we should cheer for science fair winners. We really need to boost the morale, but honestly, I don’t see how that could happen.

        1. Absolutely agreed. None of my US students will stay in research career. All they need are research experiences that can be used to decorate their RESUME for medical school or pharmacy school.

          1. @Peter: Perhaps you mentoring is driving them out of the research field or you are selecting only US students with goals different than yours?

      2. Fear not. Some of us still want to be scientists no matter what. I’d end up in a very dark place if I did anything else.

        At the same time, I’m a US student who’s going to end up doing her science abroad mostly because of issues that are entirely not within the scope of the topic of this blog.

      3. I don’t doubt your experience with receiving all-foreign applicants. What is your explanation?
        Would you mind telling me what salary you advertised and what benefits your institution gives to postdocs? In your advertised position, will the hired postdoc have grant-writing privileges? How about space to move into in the event that it is funded? Outside of grants, how soon can the hired postdoc move into a fully benefited instructor or research associate position with start-up funding?

        Assuming your grants will support the hired postdoc will the postdoc simply perform experiments that support your hypotheses and research aims or will the postdoc have some freedom at proposing his/her own? Your answer will determine if your advertised position is more suited for a technician or a postdoc.

        How many of your foreign applicants will ask you any of those important questions before working for you? Probably none. So lets not confuse “brightest foreign talent” with desperation for US citizenship.

        There is an inherent assumption in your writing that foreign students coming to the US for education are the brightest and will contribute to an intellectual aura in the research community. 1) Just because they have the tuition money from wealthy/saving parents doesn’t mean they are the brightest. 2) It can be inferred from your statement that US educated citizens in your lab are second class and would not add to an intellectual aura in the research community. Would you agree with me that the US educational system is in need of repair? Further, that the importation of foreign postdocs is simply a short-term band-aide that exacerbates our educational woes?

        My experience with working side-by side with foreign postdocs is that in general they can make fast mathematical calculations in their heads but they are just not very creative or innovative at the bench. Both my statement and yours regarding the contributions of foreign postdocs to formulating pioneering and innovative research proposals should somehow be borne out in a careful investigation. Yet we know that will not happen. So for now the federal government and folks like you will use the “brightest foreign students” rationale as an excuse for exploiting postdocs with low salaries, low bennefits, little scientific training (ie.. most are just glorified technicians) and shown the exit door after 4 or 5 years of dedicated service.

        1. Sorry, I just saw you reply. Your questions seem to imply that maybe this is a low-quality position and that’s why Americans didn’t apply. This would be incorrect. The salary is consistent with NIH standard, and is higher than NIH minimum. Postdocs are allowed and encouraged to write grants. They are also encouraged to come up with and do their own experiments. There is precedence of previous postdocs doing this. If their grant is funded, space is not an issue. No one will promise a new incoming postdoc that we will hire you as a faculty whether you get grants or not. But there is precedence of two previous postdocs from our lab being hired as faculty – one without a grant and one with. Furthermore, our institution has one of the best infrastructures in the country for doing our kind of research. Good support staff is available so that postdocs don’t need to do a lot of grunt or administrative work, or train undergraduate students. Our institution has also been rated consistently in the top 25 of the “best places to do a postdoc” for past several years. So overall, it is a very good position, IMO.

          Note that these things never came up because there were no inquiries or applications form American students at all. It is not like someone asked about these details, and were unsatisfied and hence did not apply.

          My explanation is simply that in this area, there not many American students looking for a postdoc. Not many do a PhD, and many of those who do are not looking for postdocs and academic pathways.

          1. When one offers a job/position that explicitly or implicitly offers a path to U.S. residency/citizenship, there is a difference in compensation when one individual already has it and one does not. In order to make a position/career path equally attractive to a U.S. citizen, one would need to offer equal compensations for the same work. This shouldn’t be so hard to understand. The pay and career prospects could be actually quite low, relative to comparable professions and employment where citizenship/residency is not offered as an incentive. In fact, there are laws that govern compensation. An employer either needs to remove a compensation bias entirely or needs to provide equal compensation to all individuals regardless of gender, race, creed, ethnicity, national origin etc. In this case, it would be a bias against a U.S. citizen, and it is not simple to calculate the value of U.S. citizenship for each individual. Of course, any suggestion that this occurs in employment is explicitly avoided, but U.S. postdocs and faculty know quite well that it is occuring.

          2. @Bill:
            Your statements imply a significant bias against US educated scientists. I agree with Ed, you should not look at US educated citizens as second class scientists.

            Sorry Paul, this statement was mant for Bill, not you.

  4. I currently serve as the Project Leader for the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) CTSA Pilot Grant Program. I am extremely concerned that even though the percentage of NIH funding going to medical schools has remained stable, my impression is that the proportion of MD investigators receiving funding is decreasing dramatically. More worrisome to me is that the recent trends toward reducing reimbursement for patient care services has prompted greater emphases on clinical productivity at medical schools. As a result, MD faculty members have decreasing protected time for scholarly activities, preventing them from serving even in collaborative or supportive roles on research teams. Without tremendously increasing the pool of MDs with the potential for leading or serving as collaborative investigators in research studies, the nation’s capacity for clinical and translational research that is relevant to the health of a nation whose population is aging rapidly will be eroded and insufficient long into the future. This is a national emergency.

    1. NIH research needs MD faculty. That is for sure. But, I am afraid that we put double mandates on them, which may not be good. MDs are trained for taking care of patients. We are short of MD at that front. On the other hand, we say NIH needs them. Without significant increase of MD training, how can we meet both ends? As a matter of the fact, we forget the power of collaborative research. PhDs are trained for research, so why wasting these investments by asking MD to become an independent researcher. Would it be more productive to encourage the team-work of both MDs and PhDs?

      1. I agree with you 100% Peter. I am a US-Educated, DVM (don’t hold that against me, smile) and I am repeatedly frustrated by the push for more veterinarians to get into the field of research, then pushing them to become molecular biologists, microbiologist, etc instead of simply applying their training as clinicians to research work.

    2. Agree with you. Please look at the study section roster, few MD or clinical faculty were involved the grant review, more PhD with more input time and effort to work on the “grantsmanship”. Many high-impact papers were produced in Sci.,Cell, Nature etc., However, very, very few great papers were translated into clinical intervention since some research projects are far, far away from diseases related or disease targeted instead of others intested. Dr. Colins has the pressure to create a new center to re-direct the NIH to more clinical research- or closee pre-clinical research orietated, or meaningful research (from much more on basic biological science). A new NIH program should be initiated for pushing more MD into research when they have daily problems or add requriements for more MD involved in research projects, program, grant application. etc. Otherwise, without personal clinical experience, research proposals focused on disease will escape its original goal.

    3. Serving as a non-MD faculty on a would be CTSA, it boggles my mind at the resources that are being squandered in an effort to make clinicians into researchers, in the face of zero protected time for research provided by their clinical chairs. The result has been a the rise of population/translational science funded by the institution at the expense of basic science. Just ask yourself, of the major scientific breakthroughs or Nobel prize efforts – how many arose from “big science” or population sciences? I won’t say “none”, but certainly none occur to me, while there are many examples of basic sciences contributing to high impact care, or other scientific advances.

      There a grand delusion that all MDs are capable of doing research, which (and I am sorry my MD friends – I know your curriculum) they are generally not equipped to do, either in training or release time!

      1. Absolutely agree. GWAS is probably the best project I am using to train a MD fellow, because all he/she needs to do is to write a proposal and coordinate the efforts of research nurse, a technician who only need to do PCR, and a statistician. Then, done, a XXX SNP is associated with XYZ disease has been identified.

  5. This type of analysis and dialog is crucial – not only in times of impending fiscal austerity but on a regular basis to make sure that this country’s biomedical research efforts are as efficient as possible. The most noticeable change in that graph is the dramatic (perhaps five-fold?) increase in the money going to ‘For-Profit’ organizations. Even though the overall percentage remains low compared to those going to medical schools and non-medical higher education – and I readily admit that I am not certain of the nature of the NIH-supported ‘For-Profits’ – it still seems that strategies that leads to that large an increase should perhaps be revisited.

  6. I absolutely agree with Dr. Sonenshein’s comment. Why do we restrict training grants to permanent residents and US citizens, but fund R01s at non-US institutions? There is no reciprocality to this arrangement from either Europe or Asia -despite being a British citizen as well as a US citizen, I am ineligible for EU funding unless I work there, but the obverse is not the case. Over the past 25 years we have outsourced our basic research to Asia and we will pay a heavy price for this now that these countries are investing so much in science at the same time as we are cutting ours to the bone.

    1. However, if you look at the graph, you will see that the actual percentage of funding going to foreign institutions is dinky and hasn’t increased nearly as much as the percentage of money going to for-profit institutions.

      Every funding category has been stable except for non-medical basic science departments at academic institutions, for-profit institutions, and foreign institutions.

      Dr. Rockey, what explains these changes?

  7. Universities and medical schools used to fund the salaries of their faculties, with grants paying summer salaries. Now that NIH will pay almost all of a faculty members salary school administrators are expecting and pushing faculty to get grants to fund their salaries. Even at our small medical school (East Tennessee State University, Quillen COM) new faculty contracts require grant salary support after start up. Consequently, faculties are becoming part-time temporary employees of NIH and tenure does not mean much without university salary support. This push toward extramural salary support has a negative impact on teaching because it is easier to count grant dollars and publications than to measure teaching effectiveness. NIH should never fund more than 50% of a faculty member’s salary, except for career development awards. Having some “skin in the game” would encourage universities to hire faculty capable of fulfilling their primary mission of education. More faculty would be engaged in research if it were increasingly difficult to get the second or third NIH grant, thus making it easier to get a single grant.

    1. absolutely agree with you. The so-called “NIH funding crisis” is actually a part of the scheme of “profit to me and debt to the country”, similar to what wall street does. If every school hire permanent researcher (PHD or MD) to do the research, there will never be any crisis. The easy solution is to require at least 50% salary support from the grantee institute, and to cap the indirect to 50% or less. If NIH can achieve any of these, the real research can increase two times without costing a dime more.

    2. Strongly agree! US med. schools will collapse if without NIH grant support. Wining grant money is the ultimate goal or a golden rule for medical school faculty who invovled in research. The big picture is that we donot have enough money (or investment). We need congress to endorse MORE money to NIH and to back to earlier 2000’s with a grant payline of 20-25%.

    3. Agreed. Or change the system to a HHMI-like system where productive investigators are provided significant salary offset, but with limits on numbers of grants that can be simultaneously held.

  8. Only God knows the optimal size of US biomedical research community. At the current rate of shrinking, when you figure out the number, you may find out that it has been smaller than what you want. The survivals will then have golden time and the community will expand again and crush again. This is capitalism, and politicians decide the budget. Unless we learn how to say no to the increase of budget at the good time (think about NIH double between 1998-2003 and current situation), otherwise the pre-set size would be a joke.

  9. It is my firm opinion that the greatest threat to our health and the health of the future generations in the United States is the National Institutes of Health. The current priorities of NIH leave little hope for addressing the health of tomorrow simply because it is dumping the majority of its limited resources into developing drugs that subsidize the research and enhance the profit margins of pharmaceutical industries. Or to quote Dr. Collins, the current Director of NIH, in his remarks justifying the mega expenditure for the development of a center to be called the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, “None of this is intended to be competitive with the private sector. The hope is that any project that reaches the point of commercial appeal would be moved out of the academic support line and into the private sector.” In other words, once the taxpayer has invested their hard earned money into the research and development of a drug it will be given to a pharmaceutical company that will market it back to the taxpayer at some enormous profit. What Dr. Collins doesn’t mention is that for the past 10 years the NIH has had this same process ongoing extramurally and intramurally in the form of what they call a “Roadmap for Medical Research”. This includes NIH funded centers for:
    a) Creation of molecular compound libraries
    b) Molecular libraries small molecule repositories
    c) High throughput screening molecular assay development
    d) High throughput screening of molecular libraries
    e) Building blocks, biological pathways and networks
    f) Structural biology
    g) Bioinformatics and computational biology
    h) Nanomedicine
    These centers were instituted for the express purpose of drug development and screening. They have been costly and have generated little. Now the Director proposes what appears to be a new center that does basically the same thing. One of the most concerning quotes in this same speech was the statement that, “There are some people who would say this is not the time to do something bold and ambitious. But we would be irresponsible not to take advantage of scientific opportunity, even if it means tightening in other places.”

    Dr. Collins seems to have either lost tract of, or perhaps never really understood, where scientific innovations have come from in the past. All breakthroughs in medicine can trace their roots to hard-core basic sciences research. Whether it be a biologist extracting fungi to discover penicillin or yesterdays microbiologists and biochemists defining what we call molecular biology and its myriad of research breakthroughs. The initiatives being proposed by the Director drain large amounts of funds from an already stripped down grant funding budget that will have a trickle down impact the Director seems not to be aware of.

    The majority of the Nobel Laureates that we point to as our role models and true innovators of science did not get their start and interest in science at the Harvards and Stanfords of this country. Most came out of state funded universities and colleges. They aspired to be scientists because they received inspiration and early training from NIH funded investigators that typically ran small (1 grant) research operations that produced continuous high quality research on an assortment of subject areas. In the past these investigators survived nicely because their research was high quality, the folks reviewing the grants were experienced, the money was reasonably available and NIH funding priorities were directed towards quality applications that addressed both applied and basic sciences medical research. In the past decade money has become tight, qualified reviewers have become hard to find and NIH has implemented initiatives to prioritize funding for new investigators, clinical science and mega science. Similarly to that of small farm operations in America, the days of small lab operations surviving on a single grant are rapidly coming to an end. So in essence, what NIH has implemented is a form of bait and trap funding mechanism. Realizing that not all aspiring scientists have what it takes to compete in this business, and recognizing that there needs to be a winnowing process at some point in the matriculation of an aspiring academic researcher, NIH has taken it upon itself to make this at the competitive renewal stage rather than the traditional initial funding stage. In doing this they have taken a substantial portion of an ever diminishing pool of funds for competitive renewals and established investigator grants, and thrown them into a large assortment of new investigator awards and special projects. What this results in is a very limited pool of remaining funds being competed for by a very large pool of independent investigators that includes Nobel Laureates, National Academy Members, research institute scientists and academic scientists. Unfortunately, the vast majority of academic scientists, with their teaching responsibilities and small lab operations, are relegated to the very little that is left after the funding initiatives and Wal-Mart operations have captured their piece of the pie. This is currently producing a backlash that permeates almost all levels of academic science that ultimately will impact the future of science here in the United States.

    To begin with, these NIH priorities are rapidly producing an ever-increasing contingent of unfunded associate and full professor faculty, generally tenured at institutions employing the tenure system. These faculty enter into what I like to term the NIH death spiral. Having sat on enough study sections over the years, both past and present, and having submitted enough high quality grant applications that never made it to the discussion table, I can state with confidence that luck now outweighs any other factor in getting a grant renewed or funded, especially for those investigators lacking more than one funded grant. The increasing prevalence of ad hoc, inexperienced and direct competitor reviewers on study sections makes it simply a matter of luck to get a reviewer that unbiasly searches for what is right with a grant rather than what is wrong. Everyone knows that it takes only one detractor (and sometimes only one detracting statement) to either send a grant into triage or drive its priority score into the unfundable range. With the current ludicrous 2-submission mission of NIH, it is practically impossible to move a grant into the fundable range once it receives the scarlet “T”. What this means under the new NIH dictates, that all new grant submissions not share any identity with unfunded previous submissions, is that the investigator has to either generate preliminary data in a totally new research area or ask less relevant research questions in the area they are currently working in. This of course takes time; therefore in the next grant review the PI gets docked for “productivity concerns” or “significance” by a reviewer, generally one with multiple grant applications or some ad hoc Assistant Professor brought in because of their “expertise” in the research area. And there you have it, the NIH “spiral of death”. I speak not from conjecture but from experience. I headed down this spiral when an SRA chose to have my competitive renewal reviewed by no less than 5 reviewers, one of which most probably was a research assistant professor who had never successfully competed for NIH R01 funding. To make matters worse, the reason I know this is because in the previous meeting of this study section I served as a reviewer on this persons NIH submission that was triaged. Unfortunately, having served on enough NIH and DOD study sections over the past 15 years, I feel the scenario presented here (unqualified reviewers) is becoming more the rule than the exception.

    The major issue of concern in all of this is the trickle down impact it is having and will continue to have on the future of science in America. The above obtuse priorities and new grant funding dictates being implemented by NIH is and will continue to lead to a glut of unfunded mid and late career academic scientists at our nations state funded universities. For some it means discarding 20 years of education and finding employment in some other profession. For many others it means languishing in a university with little to no laboratory operation. Here is where the kicker comes in and something that NIH is either totally oblivious to or chooses to ignore. These unfunded investigators are generally relegated to playing an increased role in undergraduate and graduate education. They are the predominant “inspiration” for Americas next generation of scientists. It is clear, NIH believes the future of science and discovery resides in our “New Investigators”, the Assistant professors we either promote through the postdoctoral ranks, or more often than not, import. Unfortunately they have it all wrong, these scientists are not the future of science, they are the present of science. These young men and women have already committed to science. The future of research-based science careers is found in the university undergraduate and graduate students that have yet to really commit to this career choice. So what we have now at many university settings is an ever growing cadre of unfunded and disenchanted faculty teaching our future of science. Here again I am speaking from experience and not conjecture. I am currently a co-director of our College’s “Integrated Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program (IBS)”. I also have taught and continue to teach graduate and undergraduate students. One of the interesting statements I hear often from my colleagues, many of whom are struggling to find funding for their research, is “I cannot in all honesty recommend academic science as a viable career to my students”. In reality, the students do not have to be told that. They are generally observant enough to hear and see the frustrations of faculty they look up to as quality research scientists and educators. I am also acutely aware of this problem in my capacity as co-director of our IBS program. Over the past 5 years we have had to work harder and harder to identify qualified candidates for our program, resorting increasingly to importing graduate students from other countries. In addition, we find many of our students after their 4-6 years of training and research, opting for alternative careers in small non-research colleges or some career alternative to academic scientist. Cumulatively, this does not bode well for our future in medical research and suggests that although the United States may prosper in the therapeutic development of possible treatments of today’s diseases, we will not in any way be ready for the next set of curveballs that nature throws at us. In spite of the fact that the international community is rapidly catching up to us in technological development and may be able to fill the void NIH is creating in basic medical research, I personally do not want to have my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren relying on other countries for the development of cures for our future diseases. If NIH keeps along its current pathway the 2 most predictable outcomes with respect to the health of our nation are: enormous short term profits for a few, but long term tragedy for many.

    I’ve always felt that if you can’t be part of the solution don’t be part of the problem. Therefore, in keeping with this motto, below I list several measures and changes that I believe any Director of NIH, truly interested in both the present and future health interests of the United States, should seriously consider voicing and championing. Many of these suggestions would produce much whaling and gnashing of teeth, especially by administrators and research tsars who profit from the system as it exists today, but sometimes we have to prioritize the best interests of the United States over the self interests of a few.

    Priority number 1: Implementation of measures for increasing available dollars for funding independent investigator awards (R01s and R21s).

    1) Delay and preferably cancel these initiatives like the “National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences” that are frivolous, duplicative, and definitely not justifiable at this time of fiscal strife.
    2) Limit NIH funded independent grant research awarded to any investigator to 3 grants and $1,000,000 per year.
    3) Place a diminishing formula of indirect costs on multiple grants (e.g. 100% for the first grant, 50% for the 2nd and 25% for the 3rd). This is by far the most abused aspect of NIH/DOD funding. Everyone knows that 99% of the investigators receiving a second and even a 3rd NIH grant receive little to no additional research space or administrative help. Nor is their usage of utilities exceptionally higher.
    4) Reduce maximum salary reimbursement dollars available to 50% salary for those individuals working off of hard money salary funding mechanisms. These funds in reality are seldom if ever used to reimburse the state or original source of salary funding, and are often, through some well designed but legal money laundering scheme, used for purposes unrelated to salary reimbursement and sometimes even unrelated to the grant research.
    5) At this time of fiscal frugality, limit if not eliminate the NIH funded subsidization of research building projects. If the government wishes to stimulate the economy and jobs, let them subsidize the building projects and not have NIH redirect its limited resources to this venture. Furthermore, with the declining availability of state funds and faculty positions to fill these buildings it becomes an even greater waste of taxpayer dollars.
    6) Quit any initiatives that either compete with or subsidize pharmaceutical company drug discovery efforts. These companies probably spend something close to the NIH budget in advertizing alone and still make an obnoxious amount of money. The idea that they have little money left for research and development of new drugs is ludicrous. The mantra in pharmaceutical companies appears to have changed to “why pay for it when we can get the government to do it for us”. I feel certain that once left with the choice of resuming a strong investment in drug discovery and development or loose out on the next great money maker, they will find ways of maximally subsidizing this effort again.
    7) Trim the waste and excess in NIH intramural funding.
    8) Factor in composite funding when deciding the merit of funding a grant application, especially in the cases where the PI is an established investigator with huge non-NIH funding sources (Hughes Scholars, those funded through pharmaceutical companies, etc.).

    Priority 2: Implementation of measures for increasing the funding directed towards smaller research operations, especially those of unfunded established investigators.

    1) Create funding vehicles that emphasize funding of smaller research operations. Although it is presumed that the initiatives in Priority 1 above will free money for R01/R21 funding, it becomes irrelevant if you don’t get it into the hands of those needing it. As done with the New Investigators, create a category of “Unfunded Established Investigators” and fund this category in the 25-30% range.
    2) Increase the funding of medically related basic research projects. These are often the focus of smaller laboratory operations, are the essential foundation of applied research, have lead to most if not all of the major scientific breakthroughs for the past century, will lead to most if not all of the major scientific breakthroughs in this century, are an essential aspect of maintaining a leading international role in scientific discovery and perhaps most importantly fund many of the projects that inspire and develop our next generation of medical researchers. .

    Priority 3: Implementation of measures for increasing the quality of reviews and reduce “luck” as the driving force of grant funding.

    1) Require as a stipulation of NIH funding that funded investigators must serve on study sections for minimally 1 year per 3 years of funding (no exceptions). This will assure that there are plenty of qualified reviewers and perhaps even moderate aspirations for a limitless number of NIH awards.
    2) Do away with the 2 strikes and you are out rule and go back to the 3-submission scenario. I can’t even imagine how much excellent and potentially groundbreaking science is being lost via this regulation. The real scary part is that someone actually wants to reduce this to 1 strike and you are out. That move should set basic science discoveries back to the stone age and accelerate to light speed the shift of world prominence in scientific discovery from the USA to Europe and Asia.
    3) Review (discuss) and give priority scores to all grant submissions. This eliminates the bias triage can have on a grant. The excuse that this involves too much work is totally lame. With proper organization and direction this can easily be accomplished within the standard time frame of a study section meeting. We did it in the past and the DOD still does it.
    4) Allow and even encourage reviewers to once again provide constructive feedback in their reviews. This attitude that we are not here to help you write your grant is counterintuitive with respect to the mission of NIH. With the current policies in place that totally inhibit feedback of true study section sentiment with respect to a failed grant application, this may be the only real insight an applicant might receive with respect to the review of their application.
    5) Quit buffering the SRA from post-review feedback. The SRA, but not necessarily the institute representative, can give valuable study section feedback with respect to the discussion that went on concerning an investigator’s grant. Taxpayer’s money pay substantial salaries to the SRAs, let them earn it.

    Please don’t misunderstand my sentiments here; I am not totally against changes made at NIH. I think some of the current policies that shorten grant applications and foster collaborative research studies are a move in the right direction. Unfortunately these are vastly offset by many of the current and proposed policies at NIH that destine it to be a supernova that will burn out about the time the United States and the world really needs it. Finally, in closing I must include the standard disclaimer that the expressed opinions here are mine and not in any way my university’s. I feel certain many of the administrators and accountants here at the university may not agree with some of the opinions expressed here, but I am likewise certain that many unfunded and jobless academicians might agree with them.

    1. D. Noonan you have given voice to many of my concerns. Having been continuously funded for almost 20 years, I now watch my chances of ever getting another grant funded become nil. How do you come up with a new direction when you are told your proposal is excellent but not outstanding? Also true of many of my colleagues who have served science respectfully and carefully for many years but are now described as doing “incremental” science rather than respected for performing careful scientific procedures that add to our body of knowledge. What is the point of tossing good science out of the system when less than 10% of these excellent proposals can possibly be funded? I’ve served on several study sections and I have become increasingly despondent over reviewers that offer nothing more than a summary of what the investigator has written. Many reviewers do not seem to understand what a “critique” entails and look for the easy criticism (statistical analysis of a project proposed to take place 2-3 years down the line!). There is little discussion about the state of the science and the contribution of the proposal to scientific progress by these so-called “expert” reviewers. Having spoken to many SRO’s and PO’s I find the morale at NIH to be dismal and no one seems to feel there is opportunity to reverse directions.

      1. Agreed. The most annoying thing in the study section is to watch your “colleagues” trash a proposal that is so exciting in your own field but doesn’t ring a bell in his/her area, and you can’t do anything about it because you are not a 1st or 2nd or 3rd reviewer.

        1. Umm….actually, anybody on the panel has the right and responsibility to speak up in defense of a proposal they think is being misunderstood by non-experts. That’s the whole point of having the discussion in the meeting, otherwise they’d just do online-only voting from preliminary critiques.

          Put your mouth where your complaints are and stand up!

      2. would you mind further defining what you mean by “incremental” research? The definition in the context of your sentence is clear; I just want to be extra sure before I use that word.

    2. Outstanding post (at least I can give this post an “Outstanding” and not merely “excellent” review :). I completely agree with most of the suggestions. Everyone should especially read those under “Priority 1”. Similar views are expressed here: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/329/5997/1257.full

      For the record, my own R01 grant was recently funded and received a very high score, so I am not agreeing with these suggestion out of bitterness or disappointment.

    3. “Unfunded Established Investigators”

      No. An established investigator has enough prior results and credentials to support subsequent, strong applications, unless his/her research is junk. Therefore you do not need the playing field tilted in your favor. On the other hand, I also resent the ideas of prioritizing new investigators, creating career development mechanisms, social engineering etc. Science is supposed to be a meritocracy.

      I agree with other suggestions, especially with respect to improving the quality of peer review.

      1. That would be nice in theory, Greg, if the odds at study section weren’t so severely stacked against the new investigator at present. NIH policies are a bandaid, but put in place to correct the bias in favor of the experienced investigator. Notice the only category of PI that is explicitly *not* represented on study sections?

        It is naive in the extreme to propose that a system of human judges could ever be unbiased or reflect pure “merit” (which is plural when it comes to funding science anyway…). In lieu of that we have the tried and true method of competing biases. Except the PI who does not yet have funding does not have her bias represented.

    4. D. Noonan – I’m the editor of ASBMB Today, the monthly news magazine for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday). I’d like to publish a shortened version of your comment in the magazine. Would you be okay with this?

      1. Will you be inviting an equal time contribution from someone that is not irretrievably compromised by their own personal lack of success under the NIH system, Nicole?

        1. Will you be making any comments about his argument that do not presume its irrelevance based on your conjecture concerning his professional history?

  10. It’s about time someone is looking at the grant structure process at the NIH. I know it would be revealing to understand how all the money spent through the NIH grant process has produced improve health to the people of this country. At best, the approach to research has been one of trial and error utilizing a learning curve process where information is not part of a collaborative process. The metaphor is having many monkeys using typewriters and eventually producing a meaningful word or sentence. The consistent funding for research in this country for academia represents a failure of management to understand how resources are squandered, the desire to maintain an ineffective research capability and to satisfy political influence peddlers.

  11. I wonder what is the % funding per institution within each of the categories and what is the breakdown between four year colleges and research universities and within that HBCUs and minority institutions and non-minority. Since this is directly related to workforce for the future it would be interesting to see what are the actual numbers of researchers being produced by the different categories. As an associate professor in a four year college and a minority institution one can’t help to note the shrinking in funding to our type of institutions which perhaps while they are not research intensive may have a potential greater impact on increasing the diversity of the workforce than a medical school or a non-minority university.

  12. Translation research is especially suited but not limited those who have dual training. Physician Scientists are dying breed. It is much easier to be just a straight physician who sees patients since it so much more cheaper to hire Ph.D. to do the same work as about half the cost. Hence, I have seen many if not almost all my fellow MD scientists quit, forced out or simply give up. Can you just throw money at a problem it takes people to make changes? How do we take a publications and turn into a product that patients can use? Who is supposed to do this? Translational research is not always hypothesis driven; hence, it is not easily funded through the NIH. There needs to be new mechanism of funding with new types of people reviewing the grants if true translation is to happen

    1. why not teaming PhDs and MDs together? Would it be more productive? If physician scientist is so critical, why not just training more from the very beginning? We are already short of MDs for taking care of patients. Then, we want a large block of them to become professional researchers. I don’t know how to achieve this wonder.

      1. It baffles me that enormous effort is made to produce “translational” researchers who embody medical and non-medical graduate training, when we could achieve these same result today instead of at the end of many years of combined training by simply promoting team science. NIH is wrong about this, too.

  13. Your graph is consoling, but I think the key psychological metric — at least for young people entering the field — is the funding rate, not the total funding amount. The chance of landing an NIH grant declined substantially during the Great Doubling. Correct?

    Where did all the new money go? The reason for the NIH funding-rate decline needs to be better documented, I think. I assumed the decrease in the funding rate at universities was due to medical schools and other soft-money research institutes expanding their ranks dramatically while universities did not. Your graph appears to refute this hypothesis: since the university cut of the pie is roughly constant, it must be that universities also expanded dramatically. Chemistry departments sure haven’t ballooned in size. Is is that the number of postdocs has grown dramatically? Where did all the new money go?

    1. It’s not just the overheads. The new money went to Eric Lander-style “ill-conceived megaprojects” (quoting from another reader’s reply). Huge funding increase for the elites pulling in $50million R01s for open-ended non-hypothesis-driven work = funding decrease for a typical PI. Where’s the money, Francis? Do we have a two-tiered system that only allows the already-famous, e.g. ex-HGP participants, to land the mega-grants? How can we hope to have a sustainable public science enterprise when even a new investigator has to be in the top 5%-10% of R01 applicants to land that grant that she or he needs to attain tenure at his or her institution?

  14. Thank you, D. Noonan, for that spot-on critique on current NIH policies. To this I would add that the best way to advance translational sciences and foster collaborations between academia and the biotech industry is to provide additional funding to the SBIR/STTR programs. Speaking from experience, I can vouch for the number of times SBIR/STTR funding helped to keep novel, innovative, translational programs alive until they were strong enough to commercialize. However, SBIR/STTR funding today is increasingly more a matter of luck at the time of review than anything else. In my opinion (and from experience) reducing the ability to resubmit applications, and tightening the screws on the space available to flesh out the science and rationale in submissions, makes the process even more of a gamble than ever before.

    Small biotechnology companies are the engine for translational medical research, and not large pharmaceutical companies whose current modus operandi is to devour biotech companies for new products and spit out the creative personnel behind these innovations. This short-term strategy will soon result in a wasteland in the once thriving innovative biotech environment, much as there now exists in Noonan’s description of current academia. Small-scale academic research and industrial entrepreneurial development are the true strengths of our nation, one which our national competitors would be hard-pressed to match because of their top-down, big-brother-knows-best mentality towards science and technology; one, unfortunately, that the NIH appears to increasingly want to emulate.

  15. The NIH’s Pioneer Program exemplifies the kind of initiative I believe the NIH is seeking for the future of US biomedical research. My comments are directed at this program but they apply to NIH extramural research programs in general (supporting many of the issues raised by D. Noonan above).

    A couple of years ago, I looked into the Pioneer Program. Although my chances of getting it were miniscule I have an idea that could be considered pioneering and my circumstances fit the profile of a scientist that this program’s advertisement said it was designed to help. There was this odd and uncomfortable requirement though. I had to request three people to write letters in support of my ‘pioneering’ streak. I happen to think that pioneers are those individuals who inhabit the fringes of a field and probably are the only ones who feel that they are onto something big. So, how can others spot or know those individuals let alone write “glowing” letters or recommendation? Anyway, I explored the Pioneer Grant’s website where I could see who the successful candidates are and their research projects. The advertisement had indicated that this program is meant to support people and their ideas that might have difficulties in the normal grant programs. Therefore, I had imagined individuals at the fringes of their fields, fighting for survival against incredible odds armed only with their passion and pursuit. My evolutionary biology mind had conjured up images of animals in the fringes of niches, doing what they do best, with a non-zero but close to zero probability of getting an unexpected break from a meteor or some such fundamental shift in the environment. I expected to “meet” such people and projects at the website, so that I can see the future.

    Instead I found confusion, even surprise. The one kind of pioneering that did not register in my mind when I read the advertisement appeared to be the predominant pioneering science recognized. Every field has a leading edge in the direction the majority is moving. Individuals or ideas occupying this leading edge are indeed pioneers. But don’t the regular granting mechanisms take care of them? After all every grant, even in well-established areas, is a pioneer in a sense. Who funds a project that is already done? Why then wouldn’t grants in the leading edge get funded? I thought the Pioneer Program was meant to target projects or people in other directions, not the leading edge but other edges! There was very little evidence for it. Almost all the recipients were from “elite universities”. The majority occupied very senior academic positions many even holding endowed chairs and heading big labs. Many were apparently well funded even before the pioneer grant. The projects were interesting and seemed excellent based on the abstracts, definitely representing a leap ahead of the leading edge in their respective areas. Many relied on massive and advanced technology that might explain the links to elite universities and the wealthy or big labs. Conceptually, however, nothing made my mind turn in new direction or pointed me to a new paradigm and a way of thinking. And I am very eclectic in my interests. I follow the US Supreme Court decisions with the same fervor I follow cell fate specification during animal development.

    The reviewers listed were all very accomplished individuals, who have shaped or laid the groundwork for the existing knowledge in their respective fields. Some of them were even pioneers at one time. But, yesterday’s pioneers are today’s mainstream and this transition raises many disquieting questions. Can one pioneer identify another pioneer given that he/she can be even more closed-minded compared to other scientists? Keep in mind the possibility that a single-minded pursuit with blinders to other viewpoints can be a hallmark of pioneering. Furthermore, can pioneering people at the leading edge have a better view of the fringes elsewhere in the field, which can be the source for the next paradigm shifting pioneering movement? Can people atop today’s establishment see value in someone or an idea outside it? Didn’t the establishment fail a person who provided one of the greatest insights in science, one that had eluded great thinkers for thousands of years including Darwin? I am talking about Mendel. And look where this insight came from: a monk in a remote monastery at a time when the world was simultaneously enamored and ruptured by the jolt of Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Talk about the mysterious way science pioneers!

    I am not comparing myself to Mendel (even the thought is inconceivable and ludicrous) or expecting any of the
    pioneer grant awardees to be like Mendel. But Mendel is a good example of a true pioneer. Shouldn’t a program that purports to support pioneers keep in mind the environment and context where it might find such people? Shouldn’t it take into consideration in developing its devices that true pioneers are easy to spot in hindsight but notoriously difficult to pick when they are ‘in the process of pioneering’? Despite these questions and many difficulties, the program serves a worthwhile cause given that science in many fields today is impossible without money and almost certainly there are very many “pioneers” out there who are struggling to survive. Thus, it would help the cause if the net is cast in the right part of the niche or broadly so that there is an increased probability of ‘catching’ the truly pioneering individuals before their academic death. Sure there will be duds, may be like me. But it is among such duds one might encounter a true pioneer. Anyhow, all these questions and issues become irrelevant if pioneering is operationally defined by the NIH as the moving front of the main body of knowledge rather than a fringe offshoot elsewhere that has a different perspective and might bring about a fundamental shift in the rate and direction of our progress in science.

    Bureaucratization of pioneering aspect has its advantages. One of them is the evaluation of the program preformed by an independent agency. There were the usual graphs and tables evaluating the various parameters one generally finds in such reports. But, there were also very good points there, either explicitly stated or apparent between the lines. Many of these points relate to the kind of ‘fringe’ pioneering activity I am referring to here. In addition to the recommendations in the evaluation report, the NIH might want to consider the following five points if it wants the program to be inclusive of all kinds of pioneering.

    Come up with a good operational definition of pioneering and decide which kinds of pioneering activities it wants to pursue. Devise mechanisms that increase its chances of identifying the pursued pioneering activities using among other things principles of pioneering activities gleaned from ecology, population biology, evolutionary biology, and the history of science. These mechanisms must invoke trust and confidence in the process. Otherwise true pioneers in the non-leading edge fringes, probably already struggling with barriers in other kinds of granting programs, will not even bother applying. Consider suggestions from applicants. The applicants know best what they are talking about and they will have a good idea of the kinds or names of reviewers best suited to review their grant. The potential pitfalls in this approach could be easily overcome as journals routinely do. Make the size of the award need based so that the sampling size can be increased to improve the chance of capturing different kinds of pioneers. Many great or truly novel ideas start out quite cheap. You cannot get cheaper than Mendel’s discovery, the observation that led to the discovery of the restriction enzymes and the molecular revolution in biology, or Mullis’ three $75 heating blocks, $100 enzyme, cheap chemicals (Tris, KCl, NaCl, MgCl2, DNA template, and primers) that led to the invention of PCR that dramatically changed the practice of fields from evolution to criminology. Furthermore, it is debatable that technological or personnel ‘supersizing’ identifies or promotes pioneering. Find a way to screen the ‘repeatedly rejected’ applications in its R01 grant program for evidence of pioneering activity. These applications would have undergone multiple rounds of reviews, provided feedback to the applicants who in turn would have responded, and the process is quite transparent. Many of these applications/applicants are not losers but only failures under the set of criteria used for their evaluation. For all its limitations, the R01 program and the comparable NSF program are arguably the most democratic mechanisms of funding that exist at the present time. I suspect that most non-leading edge pioneers will keep going after them with love-hate fervor because at the moment they represent their only real hope for a break through. I suspect that the majority of the ‘repeatedly rejected’ applications are from mid-career or late-career scientists. Biological science is now in an advanced stage; the days of easy discovery is behind us. I believe that it is not the desk manager-scientist but the experienced bench person whose mind is populated with all the data incongruent with current paradigms who is most likely to experience the eureka moment today. Unfortunately, these mid-career, idiosyncratic scientists are the ones most likely to be ‘guillotined’ in the Triage phase of the current grant review process (I suspect Lavoisier would have been more horrified if his executioners were other scientists!).

    I commend the people who came up with the idea for this Pioneer Grant Program and those who worked to make it a reality. The NIH would waste the great opportunity this program presents if it ignores or ill-serves the cause of supporting, even rescuing, non-leading edge pioneers who are being decimated after every cycle of R01 study section meetings. The leading edge pioneers will survive anyway as they are not usually threatened with extinction. Loss of non-leading edge pioneers will impoverish science. Imagine the pioneering ‘ideas’ that were extinguished in the course of the evolution of life on earth purely because of lack of support. I am not talking about extinction of established lineages (like dinosaurs) but mutations or life styles (“ideas”) that never attained the status of a lineage because they were in the wrong place or at the wrong time and therefore failed to survive or spread. These “absent lineages” are the ones you do not see in a large natural history museum or collection of animal and plants. We know now that evolution is not just about survival of the fittest; it is about the fit that survived. Can we imagine what has been lost? For an answer, just imagine what biological phenomena and solutions have persisted, which is a tiny fraction of all possibilities (even after excluding the Darwinian “misfits”)- a fact that serves as the primary source of hope in many areas of biotechnology (the basis for ‘mining the gaps’ or ‘recreating the missing’ efforts). We humans have the unique ability to not only foresee the value of an idea or a process but also support it for future returns against the tide of the ‘darwinian’ forces that support only immediate returns. The obstacle to the use of this ability is usually the lack of proper justification, will, means, and methods. The Pioneer Grant program seems to have passed the stages of justification and will but still requires development of proper means and methods.

    1. Cedric, I completely agree. Thanks for such a well thought-out essay. The “pioneers” and “new innovators” by and large are taking advantage of existing hype, for example in areas such as small RNA and epigenetics, rather than being truly off-the-wall revolutionaries. The support letter requirement is onerous indeed — we should not look outside of the blind peer review process to discuss a candidate “pioneer’s” merits.

      1. Hello Genomically Speaking,

        Thank you.

        As this nice blog indicates, there are so many good suggestions to fix our research funding but how does one translate all or most of them into a program that can be successfully implemented? I have been thinking about this question and have concluded that we should identify few principles or criteria that when translated into practice would simultaneously resolve many ills that plagues science funding. I can think of three, which can be not only easily and impartially implemented but also well monitored!

        1. Only scientists working at the bench are eligible to apply for R01 or a new comparable program. Why: They would have intimate knowledge of data, their strengths, and limitations in explaining a phenomenon.
        2. If a PI envisions a new project but cannot be the first and corresponding author on papers resulting from that project, he/she recruits and supports another person to obtain a grant for that project as a PI. On this second grant, the first PI would be one of the authors or even a co-corresponding author but not the first or the sole corresponding author. Why: if one cannot oversee a project intimately, they cannot take responsibility for it (note that issues affecting patents and ownership of ideas can be dealt with separately from publications and nowadays most journals list specific contributions of authors).
        3. The size of the team linked to a PI is limited to between 9-12 members (2-3 PI team). Why: Since the earliest time of organized warfare (that has informed the most on group dynamics towards achieving a goal under stressful conditions) the size of the platoon has remained about the same (9-12). The reason is because that is the size that makes a good and productive team. A smaller number could lead to collusion and a larger one would lead to disarray.

        Just ponder these three criteria and how they would impact the various issues raised in this blog. I think if we can come up with no more than five or six principles/criteria that addresses most of the issues and can be implemented, we would help the NIH to help us and the future of science in the US.


  16. This should be very interesting to see. I hope that the committee considers that the current model trains many more PhD and post docs than the academic system has higher (faculty level) positions for. While many of these PhD and post docs do end up in biotech, pharma and alternative careers, I think that the current academic education model does not train them well for finding or making a smooth transition to these alternative careers. More interaction between the for-profit entities and the training environments is needed for greater awareness and more appropriate training. Lastly, making students aware of, and encouraging, entrepreneurship paths would be greatly beneficial to everyone. In general, the current focus of the typical PhD training does not provide enough breadth in the paths that can be chosen. This is likely because those of us doing the training do not have experience in the alternative paths.

  17. If limits aren’t placed on the numbers of R01s and grant size the entire research enterprise will be at risk. D. Noonan has articulated very well the threats and some of the potential solutions. I am lucky (emphasize LUCKY) to be funded right now, and I am funded doing what I consider to be the lesser of 3 separate projects that I have submitted. I’m making the best of it, but right now I play a numbers game, either submitting every round or waiting until the study is essentially done so that the data pass muster. Of course we can’t market a career as a scientist to savvy graduate students, who see the toll it takes on our health and free time. It’s tragic because I love being a scientist and the process of discovery – but science (at least NIH) doesn’t love us.

  18. The NIH has spends $$$$$$$ training students and postdocs, then dumps most of them through capitalistic competitive principles that only continue to fund/employ a small fraction of the initial pool. There simply aren’t enough jobs for PhD’s, even if you add in careers not in academia. Thousands of trained scientists are seeing their careers end, with no employment options, due to low funding percentages coming from the NIH. As a country and society, we should be ashamed of the brutal way our system treats our scientific intellectual assets. Either we need to cut the number of PhD’s 10-fold, or come up with a mechanism to make sure that after 10+ years of dedicating one’s best years to bioscience research training, the endpoint is not the unemployment line.

    1. I agree with Dr. W. sentiments. However, the main reason for lack of opportunities for Ph.D.s in biomedical research is not so much the lack of NIH funding; most biomedical Ph.D.s are funded by NIH grants. Instead I suspect that legislation geared at opening US science jobs to foreign workers is the main culprit. Also the main thrust of the National Postdoc Association appears to me to be NOT to address this injustice to US science researchers. Instead it offers programs and symposiums etc… aimed at, in summary, how to out-compete your fellow world-wide Ph.D. colleagues for jobs and resources. NPA does nothing for advocating for jobs for US citizens.
      Regarding the pioneering spirit of US researchers I have come to the following conclusion. They will be pioneering only as far as the NIH funds. In other words there are many, many recipients of NIH funding who “dumb-down” their grant proposals for the purpose of maintaining the gears of their research machine. Their research is clearly not the most innovative that they can perform but they are content to have continuous funding for mediocrity. Indeed, mediocrity is what the current NIH granting system encourages.
      Cedric Wesley makes reference to evolutionary pressures working against historical and would be pioneers. In what direction is the NIH pressuring scientists? My answer: to conformity. So sad.

  19. I fully support everything Dr. Noolan so eloquently articulated. The points he/she raised do pose a great threat to the future of science in the US. The combination of ill-received megaprojects, a premature push to have almost the entire NIH funded science be translationally relevant (and pretty much all major institutions in the country blindly follow) and the “improvements” to the review process will have devastating consequences. I am an established scientist who has always been sufficiently funded but I too can see myself at some point slide down into the NIH death spiral for exactly the reasons that Dr. Noolan points out.
    I would like to add one criteria that I feel needs to be improved during the grant review process. Good science and developing major concepts often requires many years of work beyond the 4-5 year funding cycle. That is why we have competing renewals. There used to be a significant advantage of submitting a competing renewal over a new submission. That advantage is almost gone. In my own experience the vast number of proposals that are received at least on the study sections I have served on were new submissions. Not enough credit is given to previous accomplishments. The question of “what have you done with the funds” does not receive enough attention and when it does often quantity and not quality of publications is being considered. That needs to be changed. Similar to the reviews of the NIH intramural programs more credit needs to be given for what has been achieved during the previous funding period. Only then can we ensure that valuable tax money that has already gone into science that has been very productive is not being wasted because of a review process that now depends so much on luck.

    1. Please show where competing continuation advantage is “almost gone”? If there is a decreased frequency of submissions this may reflect the uncertainty and timeline factor more than any real competitive disadvantage. Need we remind that success rate is down across the board? Are you simply echoing Noonan’s lament that grants are no longer just renewed for life as a default?

  20. I am terribly concerned about where the money for the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. At a time when the NIH budget is if anything decreasing, how can we consider taking money for the established areas such as funding RO1’s for this initiative? The Pharma industries know how to do this and do it well. Why not let the NIH continue to do what it does well-innovative science.

    I have achieved my 22 years of research through A1 and A2 grant submissions. I know I could not be where I am without the ability to learn and improve my applications through this process. Cutting down the size of the grant application and limiting the number of resubmissions basically allows the rich to get richer. I agree with the proposal of Dr. Noolan.

  21. The current NIH peer-review model was built upon the assumption that the success rate should be high. I can’t find it, but remember having read an article long time ago saying the original assumption was somewhere around 30-40%. If the success rate couldn’t be raised, we should at least adopt the review system used in the athletic games, such as in figure-skating, water jumping etc. They may not be ideal, but at least fair. For the record, I have been continuously funded, but still don’t think that the current system is sustainable.

  22. Hooray for Dr. Noonan’s perceptive comments that he/she articulated so well. I fully agree with all the mades made by Dr. Noonan. I hope NIH will wake up and listen to these important comments.
    From: S.G.

  23. I may be a Wee Undergrad, but looking at the graph, I see an increase in money going for for-profit institutions and a concomitant decrease in bucks going toward non-med school institutions.

    Surely there is something one can say about this.

    1. This question seems to be legitimate. Why is Federal funding of for-profits (be they big pharma companies, private hospitals, or something else) increasing when money is as tight as ever?

  24. The whole problem now is limited resources and too many great ideas. When you look at what was funded in the 80s and 90s, the quality of these older grants was so poor that most of these would be triaged if they were to be submitted now.

    I agree with Dr. Noonan that the process of funding has become not objective, but totally disagree that getting established reviewers will solve the problem. History tells us it did not work- The problem there again was biased reviewers against new investigators , the whole issue of lack of prelim data, and this issue of publication bias and issues with rating of the productivity of a researcher. It is unacceptable that an investigator has to complete at least 2/3 of the whole project before they submit to the NIH in order to avoid getting criticized for lack of prelim data- No fresh or out of the box ideas would ever get funded this way and most have not been funded in the past. (eg. H.pylori as the cause of ulcer disease never got funded and now is worthy of the Nobel prize and has had one of the highest impacts in medicine by practically eradicating 50% of ulcers by avoiding thousands of surgeries and their resultants cancers).
    Today, even RO3 and R21 mechanisms have been requiring lots of prelim data by the reviewers. In fact, in some institutes , one would be better off submitting an R01 instead of an R21 because the funding level for R21 are so very low. There has to be a way to fund higher risk higher reward projects instead of wasting money on projects that confirm finding x in one tissue and extend it to another tissue or cell line or animal.
    There also has to be an out for a researcher to have high impact research, besides having to find an editor at a “high impact journal” ,who will get their paper accepted. Lets face it: These are fundamental problems with the research in the US and reverting back to what it was like will not take care of any of these problems.
    I have three solutions of my own to suggest:
    1. Create a new mechanism for truly high risk and reward projects OR truly not require prelim data for R03 and R21 projects and hold the reviewers to this new standard
    2. The only way to get around bias in the review process is to BLIND the reviewer as to who is submitting the application- Same as blinding the assessor to the outcome of a clinical trial. This is what science would tell us to do. To accomplish this, I propose a two stage review:
    The 1st stage should be the review for the idea and hypotheses, the significance and approach that are presented to the reviewers anonymously without any names and inferences in the references as to whose grant this is and without any preliminary data. I envision two roles for the 1st set of reviewers: 1) Rate the project as to its significance/impact and approach, 2) Raise written questions/criticiques that need to be answered at the second stage by the unblinded information including the preliminary data.

    If the grant gets a high enough score at the 1st stage, then a separate set of reviewers should look rate the investigator and environment and preliminary data ; and try to answer the questions of the 1st set of reviewers based on what is written in the grant. This gets around the problem of luck, and it gets around the potential problem of insider trading of votes to the best extent possible. This might also get champions for those excellent grants in the second stage of the process- and we all know to distinguish a excellent grant from an outstanding grant requires a champion among the reviewers. It will also eliminate concerns about bad quality reviews, because the process will force the 1st set of reviewers to ask meaningful questions and the 2nd set of reviewers to do a much thorough review than ever before to answer these questions ( so that they do not get personally embarrassed).
    The main critiques I have come across blinding the reviewer is that:
    a) “What if we are giving away money to people who may not do anything with it ?We do not want to waste resources”
    The two stage process overcomes this problem by separating the review of the good idea from the review of the investigator/environment/lots of prelim data.
    b) “You cannot blind the reviewers because of the preliminary data and references”
    My answer is again simple. Look at the DOD idea grants. They are blinded.
    c)” This is complicated and will be hard to manage and we won’t find people to do it”.
    Not necessarily, if your electronic systems are up to par and if you compensate reviewers (or their funded institutions) directly, instead of giving out a few hundred dollars/day or huge indirects that support more and more administrators to prepare more and more reports.
    Lastly , I think NIH should create the option of an open access database for scientists to publish their data with a quick review to weed out any fraudulent submissions but without the heavily biased peer review process at these so called “high impact” journals. This database should allow a thorough post publication review and ratings of the papers anonymously by hundreds of people who read them (e.g. have scientists register and then give a score to the paper and post it like Amazon.com and others do) and use the data to establish objective indices of the impact of a research project, in place of this requirement of publishing in high impact journals by listing one’s friends as the reviewers and by penalizing anyone else who is not an insider when it comes to funding time. Journals and databases should also be made to require scientists to clearly put up ALL their RAW data as supplementary information , so that others can call out fraudulent or erroneous material even after years of publication and can comment on them and publishers of these articles can answer these in real time.

    1. “objective indices”? Please explain how the bias of those that like to post online reviews and the same problem of field size/vigor that plagues IF and other citation metrics is going to be magically avoided?

  25. Please share your successes with your elected representatives in both the House and Senate. NIH funding supports jobs, trains the next generation of scientists for industry and academia, and produces the biomedical technology improves health and serves as an economic engine. There is no better way to invest government dollars. Your representatives should know about the great work you do and how you could do more with increased resources.

  26. Remember when looking at the for profit funding levels that programs have been established in law that set money aside for small business funding. Read more about NIH’s small business programs.

    1. Hm. This would make sense.

      Perhaps it might be more illustrative if you replotted this graph as a bar graph showing bars of the total number of dollars being doled out over the years with percentages of that amount going to each type of institution (separating out the small businesses from the bigger businesses) within those bars; that seems like a way to get a better handle on how much money is going where.

      Or, if this has already been done, point us to it?

      (Or perhaps I can just play with the statistics myself and upload an image somewhere.)

  27. Might I suggest that people avail themselves of a few facts before jumping on the anti-NIH bandwagon? A good place to start would be the NIGMS Feedback Loop blog. I particularly recommend the dulcet stylings of Jeremy Berg. Maybe start with this one.

    The numbers in the above might just be for NIGMS, but I seriously doubt the other institutes differ significantly.*

    * While we’re at it NIH, how about statistics for all the Institutes? A little more transparency would go a long way to dispelling some of the nonsense displayed here.

  28. Returning to the OP question about workforce, one of the most profound changes over 30 years is the length of time, sometimes career length, spent in the dark twilight of postdoc/superpostdoc/research scientist/etc in traditional academic settings.

    Some could be perfectly happy in such a role if there were a little more career certainty, benefits and insulation from exploitative PIs.

    One thing the NIH could do is create a K mech sort of like the K05 but intended for the staff scientist level. Career level benefits required. Has to be renewable too. It could be tied to Rmechs of a lab head (for the primary research support) but it should be easily switched to a different lab w/in the University if necessary. Competitive review would focus on productivity rather than the *specific* project.

  29. Ahh statistics and graphics, don’t you love them. Sometimes though, it is all in what or how we choose to compare. This is especially true when the statistics are being generated for promotional purposes and not simply for unbiased analyses. For example, many of the statistics presented in Jeremy Berg’s graphics could “theoretically” represent simply a few investigators (e.g. some well funded established investigators in the latter comparisons) submitting multiple grants. The comparison between established investigators would be better served if it included the parameter of currently funded versus unfunded investigators. Similarly, in regards to the concerns voiced in the D. Noonan War and Peace post above, it might be nice to get some statistics comparing where this grant funding is going (type of institutions). Finally, it is unclear whether the funding data presented by Jeremy Berg marry in grants that are part of ‘packaged or targeted grant funding’ (all the rave these days) such as program projects, COBRE grants, RFAs, Recovery Act funding etc., which might be predicted to dilute the pool of funds for basic medical research grants.

    1. Berg makes it very clear the data are for R01’s (I’m referring to the post of his I linked to directly). These would include RFA’s, but very likely none of the other mechanisms you have listed.

      By the way, ARRA funding was a separate pool of funds that in no way could “dilute the pool of funds for basic medical research grants.”

      And honestly, what is it you really want to see? The statistics for currently unfunded are obviously going to be worse than for funded given the currently unfunded will include a fraction who shouldn’t be funded (even if all else were equal, which it isn’t). How would seeing that data help given there’s no way of quantifying who should and who should not be funded?

      Nobody is entitled to funding.

  30. when the statistics are being generated for promotional purposes and not simply for unbiased analyses

    So the fact that they start with the broadest brush and don’t instantly drill down into the subanalysis that is dearest to your own personal heart, they are only doing it “for promotional purposes” and are, one infers, “biased”?

    Get a grip, people. Yes, we can always wish for additional parsing of data on grant review. It is particularly frustrating that there are many internal NIH policies and initiatives that would seemingly do well to be informed by analysis of data that they possess. And yet the NIH does not always seem aware of some simple realities obvious to the newest reviewer on study section (“Gee! the NIs who are doing well are all long term NSF/VA or foreign grantholders recently moved to the US? Wow, what a concept, we must create ESI to make up for this….”). The NIGMS is the only IC publishing grant outcome data which, again, boggles the mind. Perhaps OER Dir. Sally Rockey would care to take this up as a more general OER project?

    …but to suggest that they are using selected release of broad-stroke review data to pursue a biased agenda seems a bit of a paranoid stretch, doesn’t it?

  31. Good points Odyssey and Matt. I might tend to disagree with the issue that data on unfunded versus funded investigators would be useless. I would be interested in the trends in funding in these groups over the past decade or so. Also, I have to believe a pot of money is still a pot of money and anything that impacts that pot impacts the components of the pot. Furthermore, I was in no way saying that there were any introduced bias in these statistics or choice of comparisons. I was simply saying that the relative importance of comparisons being made are no better or worse than the choice of groups being compared. Finally, I agree that it is most unfortunate that we are relegated to a single institute for these comparisons.

  32. Pingback: Crocodile tears from experienced NIH investigators over the discontinued A2 revision [DrugMonkey] | iPhone 2 die 4
  33. If any capping of NIH funding is considered, then there must be major attention given to the fact that it costs much more to pay faculty and staff and to do experiments in large cities as compared to small towns or rural universities. The size of such a cap would need to be much larger in big cities and would have to be tied to the cost of living for staff and postdocs in expensive cities like San Francisco, Boston, New York, and Seattle.

  34. Awesome. However, it would be much better if the graph and information that is plotted was just a little larger. I can see it fine, but I know that other may have a problem seeing it since the text is a little vague. Great new though. Do you guys do any work with hypnosis?

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