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The Issue that Keeps Us Awake at Night

The most important resource for the successful future of biomedical research is not buildings, instruments, or new technologies – it’s the scientists doing the work. But by now, it’s no longer news that biomedical researchers are stressed – stressed by a hypercompetitive environment that’s particularly destructive for early- and mid-career investigators. But those are the researchers who, if we don’t lose them, will comprise the next generation of leaders and visionaries. Almost 10 years ago, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) took steps to improve funding opportunities for “early stage investigators”, those who were 10 years or less from their terminal research degree or clinical training. Those steps helped, but many stakeholders have concluded that more is needed. Stakeholders include members of Congress, who included a “Next Generation Researchers’ Initiative” (NGRI) in the 2016 21st Century Cures Act. This act asked NIH to support a comprehensive study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) on policies affecting the next generation of researchers and to take into consideration the recommendations made in their report. The National Academy began their study in early 2017 and completed it in April 2018. The NIH has initiated steps to fund more early stage investigators to improve opportunities for stable funding among investigators who, while funded, were still beset by unstable prospects. The NIH also convened a special Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) Working Group, focused on the Next Generation Researchers Initiative (NGRI) with members included from all career stages – from a graduate student through senior faculty.

The NASEM NGRI panel recently released a long-awaited report, “The Next Generation of Biomedical and Behavioral Sciences Researchers: Breaking Through.” The report includes a detailed summary of previous reports and their recommendations, along with a data-driven description of the biomedical research workforce “landscape.” The report offers a number of recommendations that deserve close attention. The NASEM report presents its assessment and recommendations within a multi-actor systems context: “Many stakeholders tend to hold the federal government responsible for this system, placing blame for failures at the feet of NIH, the principal funder of biomedical research. Doing so, however, obscures the important role that other organizations, particularly universities, must play in developing and implementing solutions.” We welcome the chance to work with other stakeholders to find those solutions.

The NASEM panel also calls for greater degrees of data transparency and communications from all stakeholders. It notes that “a lack of comprehensive and easily available data about the biomedical research system itself has impaired progress.”  Therefore, “biomedical research institutions should collect, analyze, and disseminate comprehensive data on outcomes, demographics, and career aspirations of biomedical pre- and postdoctoral researchers using common standards and definitions.” Last December, in a welcome development, the recently formed “Coalition for Next Generation Life Science” announced that 10 major institutions would disseminate data that would help students and early-career researchers make better-informed decisions. These data include information on admissions, enrollment, degree completion rates and time, time spent in post-doctoral research fellowships, and jobs held by former graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

Like the NASEM NGRI committee members, the ACD Working Group on NGRI is thinking in a systems-oriented data-driven manner. The Working Group is also wrestling with the issue that keeps us awake at night – considering how to make well-informed strategic investment decisions to nurture and further diversify the biomedical research workforce in an environment filled with high-stakes opportunity costs.  If we are going to support more promising early career investigators, and if we are going to nurture meritorious, productive mid-career investigators by stabilizing their funding streams, monies will have to come from somewhere. That will likely mean some belt-tightening in other quarters, which is rarely welcomed by the those whose belts are being taken in by a notch or two.

The NIH looks forward to integrating the recommendations of the NASEM NGRI report with the preliminary recommendations of the ACD NGRI Working Group in June, and their final report in December. We pledge to do everything we can to incorporate those recommendations, along with those of the NASEM panel, in our ongoing efforts to design, test, implement, and evaluate policies that will assure the success of the next generation of talented biomedical researchers.

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41 thoughts on “The Issue that Keeps Us Awake at Night

  1. God Speed, NIH. I hope you’re successful.
    The lives of an entire nation, and likely beyond, rest on your courage and strength.

  2. Career funding instability affects everyone and is the root of much inefficiency with respect to the science your grants pay for. So why only offer your concern for a narrow population of PIs?

  3. Why not use the indirect costs (i.e., “facilities and administrative” or “F&A”) to actually pay for scientific research? When first implemented, the F&A were initially capped at 8 percent of the total award, but are now much more than that, doubling the cost of a grant in some cases.

  4. It Is time to cut substantially indirect cost to Universities and reguire that Universities pay a large portion of PI salaries. By supporting early stage i vestigators youare only creating arger army of middle stage investigators who have no support. The pay lines as they are now are killing the science. I spend litteraly half my working time just chasing the money to sustain my lab. You should also look at how to decrease the administrative burden of grants submission. Why not only evaluate science and biosketch and ask for all the attachments when a person ets funded? Insted you are creating more and more attachments to grant and increasing the time we all spend on writting grants that have only 10-15% chance to be funded. I like being scientist but this enviroment is killing us.

  5. In this hyper-competitive and stressful grant environment, NIH’s policies of cutting requested grant support by 10-15% per year plus an additional 20% cut but funding only 4 years out of a 5 year grant effectively INCREASES the STRESS!!! Now we have to obtain enough data in just 3 years in order to apply for renewal of the grant, and do so with less staff as salary dollars increase every year while actual funding decreases! The NIH policies are exacerbating the situation by making an extremely stressful situation dramatically worse.

  6. I agree with Maia, indirect costs are part of the issue and can be “part” of the solution. They should be capped at 20% (max). Administrative personnel are usually very inefficient…
    Also, many departments make money with salary releases (on top of indirects, patents, and everything else).

  7. Increase support for mid career as well. It’s a bloodbath for us.

    I agree F&A is out of control. Cap at 8-10% and fund more research.

  8. Everyone finds is difficult to get funding, with few exceptions. Focusing on a specific PI segment with – no matter how well intended affirmative actions – automatically penalizes everyone else.

  9. If NIH wants to ‘stabilize’ the funding situation, they should stop paying PI salaries or put a cap to federally chargable FTE (say no more than 50%). I work at a soft-money institution where I am required to make up 90% of my salary. Now, add 25-35% fringe and then add another 60-90% over to that total the F&A. Salary component (of all PIs, co-PIs) of my latest project was over 80% of the total costs. This is absurd.

    I don’t really think my situation is unique. I really would like to see how much of NIH’s total costs of R01 and R01 like grant goes into salaries (specifically investigator salaries; not trainees, or students).

    Institutions should invest their own people and personnel at a meaningful level, not pitiful 5-10%s. In the current system PIs (especially early career investigators who are not ‘proved’ themselves) are disposable assets. So from institutions perspective there is really no crisis, since it is the feds that pay for the people.

    To make existing money go around more for everyone, not just ESI:
    1. Put some sort of cap on federally chargeable FTE per PI and require institutions match the remaining funds.
    2. Do not let institution take F&A over salaries + fringe, which compounds things. Or reduce chargeble F&A to salary to 8%.

  10. As a mid career scientists I feel pretty let down by the NIH. So much money was invested in me as a trainee, and now, I feel pretty hopeless in getting NIH funding. It’s hard to keep submitting, and getting essentially the same score after answering the reviewers critiques. I am mad at the review process, mad at the system, and feel like most of my peers are losing hope in the system and in themselves. I have so many friends who have left academia because of the same issues I have faced, and it has been a struggle to remind myself that there is a place for me at the table, that I DO deserve to be here. It truly is a lost generation of talent gone to alternative careers. I did get tenure, but have very little funding to keep my ship afloat. It’s amazing what my students and I have been able to do on a shoestring budget. Maybe, one day I will be like Grantarella and stop singing “One Day, my grant will fund. One Day, I’ll be the one who has landed NIH funding…”

  11. I will believe it when I see it. The fate of the next generation of scientists has been discussed endlessly. Those of us in the “trenches” are still waiting to see the results. The problem lies within the atmosphere of the study sections that review the grants. Changes involving how grants are reviewed, scored and funded will benefit researchers at all levels.

  12. Mid career investigators face incredible challenges that I did not realize when I was an early career. We do much more administrative works, more mentoring for early career faculties as we become mid-career researchers, but I don’t feel that we receive support that we need to thrive from our own institutions nor NIH. Many mid-career researchers feel crushed by the current situation. This is such a critical issue and I hope the change will come.

  13. I am an early stage investigator in the behavioral sciences. I appreciate reading this article. It gives me hope that I am not alone in my struggles. I acknowledge I have a lot to learn to improve my skills to plan and implement research and submit competitive proposals. So, I hope that NIH will offer me and other new investigators the chance to be mentored and trained in the art of writing and submitting grants.

  14. I still contend that 10 years from a PhD is not a good abitrary cutoff. How about X number of years from when you start an INDEPENDENT position where you are allowed to submit grants? This 10 year marker penalizes many people who had to do several postdocs (which is very discipline dependent – e.g. biologists have many postdocs whereas computer scientists can initiate a career without a postdoc) or worked in industry and then went back to academia. It especially penalizes women who may have taken time off to have children or tend to family.

  15. I would like some more info on mid career investigators that had to, or decided to, leave academia because of funding issues. How many are there? What have they ended up doing? How did it affect their lives, families, job prospects, financial well-being?

    • Mid-career scientists could consider partnering with industry, using STTR grants to attract additional funding, or becoming entrepreneurs themselves as partners in a start-up company. After developing a new method of software-based diagnostic screening, I co-founded a company to manufacture it, with my wife as the CEO. I continued an academic career as a tenured professor. The company was successful and developed additional products through funding with SBIR grants, for which I was a scientific consultant and a company officer was the PI. This required extensive off-hours time and effort, but led to a successful outcome in company self-funding through product sales.

      • Well I think they should handout trust funds for project. Thus project would be funded for live and funds are returned after PI retire or under performs, essentially making research sustainable.
        That should reduce the application pool within 5 years. After the first award is obtain, stress should be relieved and productive should increase drastically, because the PI can start doing science and doesn’t waste time and effort writing applications that will not be funded.

  16. I think there is another aspect of protecting new investigators that NIH does not pay attention to. This is where senior investigators are actively destroying careers of junior investigators in order to kill competition. One form of how this is practiced is by getting them on grants as multi-PI’s. Once funding comes through, the senior investigators use their considerable knowledge of the internal mechanism at NIH and their cozy relationships to make a case to take the funding of the junior investigators away and redistribute it among the senior folks. I think this practice is despicable and more can and should be done by NIH to prevent this from happening. There should at the minimum be a person at NIH that the junior investigators can talk to without the fear of reprisal to seek counsel when such tactics are employed.

    Happy to talk to anyone at NIH who might be interested in this particular form of protectionist and predatory tactics employed by senior investigators against junior investigators using NIH itself as the mechanism of retribution.

  17. Good luck but you can’t do this without fundamental changes in Universty administration. NIH funding is a critical source of money for all kinds of pet projects and useless hires, and the scientist is only valuable when he/she is providing the fuel. Congress wants funds to come to their districts and usually opposes any restrictions on the university’s access to federal funds. So, change isn’t likely without some courage from leadership to break the cycle.

  18. A very naïve perspective. So few scientists in the US can actually obtain funding and do research. It is not about 30, 50 or 60 ear olds. The subject comes up every so often and is then forgotton.

  19. Not to sound too negative and pessimistic, but it seems too much damage has already been done. A stroll through most university research labs will confirm this. My estimate is that it will take decades to rebuild and strengthen academic research programs, if it ever happens at all. In the meantime, it appears that PIs who will survive are those with access to internationals who come with their own support. Currently, I hear little to no English being spoken, throughout the building.

    • Not only are we dependent on scientists from other countries whose school systems prepare them better for a scientific research career, but we are also growing more dependent on philanthropy from foreign countries (great way to ‘make American great’).

  20. Well, a nice initiative, that may make administrators and politicians feel better, but it is way to late and starting to collect data is way past due. Mid-career investigators seem to be left hanging with senior mentors going in early retirement.Young investigators have to rely on the burned-out mid-career investigators with a moral at all time low.

    With funding rate de-facto below 10%, applying for a federal grant is more like searching for the holly grail. Lack of institutional support to maintain an minimum level of basic research ( 2 tech 4 students plus supplies) make investigators feels like beggar on the street.

    Compared with investments in Europe and specially Asia, US not only missed the train, it is already out of sight. Other countries build the faster trains, bigger building, bigger power plants etc., going to space. Catching up with the drug development centers abroad is not even an expectation even the most optimistic logical person has.

    We need a drastic change not just spending effort and time collecting and looking at data. We could stop wasting funds for useless a war machine and put where it is needed – to make the world a better place.

  21. The Issue that Keeps Us Awake at Night..

    I applaud the focus on early-stage and mid-career investigators. I only hope that NIH is not considering a funding shift, i.e. moving funding from late-career investigators to the younger generations of investigators! A well-balanced funding strategy should consider allocating funds 1/3rd, 1/3rd and 1/3rd. The rationale for supporting late-career investigators is simple: those investigators are the most experienced investigators of all 3 generations, and are playing a critical mentoring role to younger investigators. Let’s imagine for a second that it was decided to retire from the work force everyone 50 years old and older… Where would the country go?
    Another point that seems strange to me is the definition of mid-career investigators (10 years after their 1st R01)… I understand that NIH likes to fund those it invested in previously, but having had a R01 is definitely not the best gauge for scientific success. R01 are in general reviewed by peers who are already funded by NIH and work in the same field, hence by reviewers who have a perceived conflict of interest with the proposals they review. Extending the definition of mid-career investigators to individuals who have a significant publication record, whether they were funded by NIH or not, would be a fairer, less biased, and would bring new blood to science and discovery….

  22. As usual, mid-career left out – in spite of the fact that those who are running out of their first R01 or were not able to renew it were supposed to be a priority – blah blah blah

    • I completely agree. As a midcareer investigator, some part of this job should be getting easier – but it’s not. The NIH always adds another stressor – now it’s 4 year grants instead of 5 with significant budget cuts for the remaining 4 years – not to mention the constantly changing rules and requirements for human subjects (even when it’s not an actual clinical trial, just use of primary cells from healthy donors and patients, which cannot be controlled so well for gender and ethnicity). It’s hard to convince young investigators that this is a good life.

  23. Gradually NIH money became a business for institutions. It would be very instructive for NIH to follow the money trail and track the actual dollars that institutions contribute to support investigators salaries to do research. My guess is that it has declined precipitously as institutions have come to view research as just another expense. That is certainly true looking back in my own career and the attitudes that my institutions have espoused. Long gone is the true co-funding of research as a cooperative endeavor. One proposal would be for institutions to match in a meaningful way salary dollars for PIs. This would put skin in the game for institutions and encourage them to invest in the success of the PI and research. This would free up salary dollars in grants so that more was devoted to the science. Indirect costs of course are the ultimate expression of institutions committing large sums to rationalize all manner of expenditures “in support of research” and yet the same 500 square feet of space is paid for multiple times over in the most successful labs with multiple grants. So the incentives variously are not well aligned to produce steady careers of accomplishment.

    • “Gradually NIH money became a business for institutions. It would be very instructive for NIH to follow the money trail and track the actual dollars that institutions contribute to support investigators salaries to do research. My guess is that it has declined precipitously as institutions have come to view research as just another expense. ”

      This was nicely illustrated in the Lazebnik’s paper (“academic financial bubble” + conversion to pseudo-business):

      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4693515/figure/embr201541266-fig-0004/

      “The US federal government and many other funding agencies complement each research grant with a “bonus” of 20%–85% of the grant amount, to cover the so‐called indirect costs of research, including construction and the maintenance of buildings, utilities, and administration. The leadership of scientific institutions realized that using these bonuses to construct buildings would allow them to hire more researchers to bring more bonuses to build more buildings and so on.”

  24. I completely agree with many of the above comments about mid- and late-career investigators. In principle it’s a good thing to give early-career investigators preference in funding decisions (although there are a number of funding mechanisms for them only e.g., AHA, ACS, VA, March of Dimes, etc.). However, this should not be at the expense of more senior investigators. I have witnessed age bias during service on NIH study sections and have experienced it myself in grant reviews. This has had a significant, and largely unrecognized, effect on faculty composition. If there’s any lapse in funding, so very common in this climate, senior investigators are induced to either close their labs and retire or else see patients exclusively if they’re clinically trained. This leads to a situation in which 90% of faculty (or more) are Assistant Professors.

  25. I consider myself mid level career due to my age and the fact that I have had 3 NIH grants (one 5 year R01 that ended last year that was not renewed).

    I agree with many of the above comments as well especially:
    1. Stop supporting faculty salaries. I am in a clinical department where the expectation is 85% grant funding. If the NIH did not pay may salary then my institute would need to make a decision. Invest in me or not. If not, then I will move on.
    2. Cap the F&A rate at 20%. The current F&A rates are excessively high at many institutes and because more and more research is done at the level of bioinformatics and data analysis, the relationship between direct cost and facilities cost is not always linear.
    3. Perform random audits on F&A expenses. Where does that money really go?

  26. I suspect that many of the people complaining about too much competition are in fact contributing to this problem of competition by virtue of the number of graduate students that they train.

    Universities have multiple incentives to train large numbers of students because the students are inexpensive labor for research and teaching. But after they graduate, they become your competition.

    Solution: NIH should create incentives for universities to train smaller numbers of graduate students and to commit more strongly to their longterm success.

    1) Create training grants with more money for the program if they agree to train fewer students. Create rewards for programs that do a good job of training students who go on to sustain funding over time–a 1% kickback to the institution that trained someone who later gets an R01 at a different institution, 2% kickback if they get their grant renewed once, 3% kickback if they get it renewed a second time.

    2) Institute penalties for training students who leave the research work force–$1,000 penalty from the department’s overall budget for each year a PhD student spends as a post-doc, $5,000 penalty for each student who becomes a non-research academic (such as full-time teaching) for their first job after post-doc, $10,000 penalty if the PhD student leaves academics entirely after post-doc.

    3) Give NIH more control over the workforce supply by establishing NRSAs as the preferred funding mechanism for graduate students. Create a mechanism for former NRSA recipients to have a different pay-line when their R01 grants get scored compared to non-NRSA recipients. Create and enforce a rule that universities must notify applicants to their grad programs that they are being accepted to a non-NRSA funded program that will disadvantage them for later funding.

    • “2) Institute penalties for training students who leave the research work force–$1,000 penalty from the department’s overall budget for each year a PhD student spends as a post-doc, $5,000 penalty for each student who becomes a non-research academic (such as full-time teaching) for their first job after post-doc, $10,000 penalty if the PhD student leaves academics entirely after post-doc.”

      This is meaningless: from the point of PI/institution spending it’s just equivalent to a tiny and insignificant increase over the current salary/expenses.

  27. It’s good idea to support early-career investigator but I still feel it’s not the role of NIH to “Socialize” NIH funding and pick Grants winners not on its merit and by age, address and race. I think we are asking so much of NIH on subsidizing all researchers’ work without emphasizing enough on the role of universities on supporting their own staff. Just walking around any campus in major cities, you find nice buildings supported partly by NIH’s F&A rates! It’s absurd to expect NIH to fund a wealthy private university with huge endowment to continue pay for salaries of their faculty through grants!

  28. I have a close colleague who is a midcareer investigator and just lost all prior funding. Had a score of 11% on an R01 resubmission. Was not funded by NCI because the topic was not applied enough. Is this an example of support for the next generation of researchers?!

  29. I don’t have much to add to the comments above, most all of which I agree with. These structural problems within the universities, i.e. scientific community which NIH supports, follow the societal trends. The poster child is Bob Redfield, recently appointed director of CDC. While on faculty at Univ Maryland SOM his salary was >$800,000/yr. Where does it come from? A small portion from NIH funds and clinical service. the rest does not fall from the sky. It is taken from money that should go to support faculty engaged in research and teaching. And he is not alone- far from it. There are many in admin in the million $$ club- this is public data. So rather than staying up at night, why doesn’t the NIH take action to rescue the scientific community/universities from their own greed before it is too late! Or is the NIH beholden to these special interests?

    • Excellent point. “Middle management” has mushroomed over the past 2 decades and no doubt this burgeoning cottage industry of research “oversight” drives up cost. NIH bears major responsibility for this problem due to the never ending implementation of “rules, guidelines and approvals” linked to animals, biosafety, human studies and reagent validation. While this oversight may serve to placate politicians and keep the lawyers from the door, it comes at a huge cost to the research enterprise and fuels the current and growing perception that “research costs money”. The pending downfall of academic research will lead to a loss of US prestige and world standing in medicine and science.

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