Why Does Poor Funding Hurt Science?

Jun 13 2008 Published by under NIH Budgets and Economics

ERV has a really nice post up today explaining why she is going to give it her best shot at eventually becoming a PI, but that she will also be very happy with some other scientific career if the PI thing doesn't work out.

What do I wanna do?
Um, be a PI. Get to play in a lab forever. Contribute to my field. Be respected. Be loved by my students. hehehe My dream is to do research until I die, thus to have the opportunity to totally traumatize my grad students by letting them discover my cold, dead body slumped over the tissue culture hood one morning (ah, if I could only be there to laugh at them!!!)
But do I plan on being a PI? Do I hang my hopes and dreams on it? Will I be crushed if I cant be a PI?
Nope!


The reason she is not totally optimistic that she will get the opporunity to eventually be a PI is that the biomedical sciences funding situation currently--and for the foreseeable future--totally sucks ass.

There aint enough money for all the good ideas people think up. And contrary to the claims of Creationists, if you dont win grants, if you dont bring in money, you dont get tenure, and you dont get to be a PI forever and ever, and you cant use your 92-year-old dead body to traumatize your grad students.

We all have a gut instinct that this abysmally shitty funding situation and the consequent contraction of the PI population--with creative PIs failing to get tenure, losing their positions, or never even getting their first shot at independence--is really, really bad for science. But why?
ERV asserts a particular theory for why this is so bad:

[W]hat I worry about with this dismal funding climate are the lost ideas. The great ideas that arent getting funded. The great ideas that are never being tested. The great ideas that might be lost, over something as stupid as money.

Well, I've got a different theory. I disagree that the problem with poor funding is that some particular MASSIVE BREAKTHROUGH IDEEZ!@!!!111!!! will be forever lost if particular PIs drop out of the system.
Scientific progress does not really rely on the special unique genius of specific creative individuals. Scientific progress is made in the aggregate when lots of hard-working, bright, enthusiastic people try out all kinds of ideas and see where they lead. The more ideas that get tried out per unit time, the faster science progresses.
But it is absurd to think that certain scientific ideas will somehow "die" with one particular originator if that originator is not able--for example, due to funding problems--to bring the idea to fruition. This is one important way in which science differs from the arts and literature: science is constrained by physical reality and valid descriptions of that reality will eventually come to light completely irrespective of the fortunes of any one scientist.
So, shitty funding doesn't suck because it means some particular supergenius idea will die on the vine. It sucks because overall scientific progress gets slower the fewer people there are doing science.

30 responses so far

  • Flan says:

    ERV is optimistic because ERV is still young and not thinking about/looking for a job *right now*.

  • CC says:

    Did creationists steal her apostrophe key? If not, I'd suggest dusting it off, if only for things like "I think Im smart enough."
    So do I want to be a PI? YEAH! DUH! But will I be pissed if I 'have' to work in DC as a science adviser? LOL No! Will I be sulking if Im 'forced' to work with a private industry like the Venter Institute? AAAHH NOOO!! Will I be suicidal if I 'end up' getting a gig as a consultant for a bioanimation company like XVIVO? NOOOO!
    I really wish PIs would stop filling their trainees' heads with the idea that if your second postdoc doesn't work out, you can stroll into your "alternative career" and announce "Hey, losers, I'm stuck working with you!" I know people in various arms of the Venter empire and they're not there because they weren't smart enough to be PIs at Hillbilly State.
    And how many of these alleged "science policy adviser" positions exist? Let alone how many "bioanimation" jobs open up each year? The scary thing is that she thinks she's getting good career advice (and the even scarier thing is that relatively speaking, she probably is)!

  • Becca says:

    @CC-
    ok, so what do most PhD students in the life sciences end up doing? I know "alternative careers" are in fact the norm, but what are the most common job titles? When we vaguely allude to "industry", which companies do we mean?
    I don't need the best numbers in the world, but I've never even heard estimates.

  • juniorprof says:

    Well, I've got a different theory
    I've got a slight spin-off on your theory. I agree, it slows the progress of science but other nations will pick up the slack so that particular aspect is temporary. Look at China and India (and some Middle Eastern Nations) dumping money into research, they know exactly what they are doing, taking the chance to fill the void.
    What is particularly scary is what this will mean for economic opportunity in this country. The economic impact of a large biomedical research enterprise has been enormous but if it relocates to other areas the impact could be equally large in the opposite direction. Ours, for instance, is one of the only governments that has little control over health care costs. Imagine how expensive it could get if the progress occurs largely overseas...

  • Schlupp says:

    CC, what exactly do you mean? Since PhDs have consistently lower unemplyment rates than other people, it would be strange to announce that they have a particularly hard time when it comes to jobs. And since most PhDs do end up outside academia, I would be really interested where they are, if not in alternative careers.

  • bob koepp says:

    "The more ideas that get tried out per unit time, the faster science progresses."
    I don't think the history of science supports this claim. But that might depend on different ideas about how progress is measured. Also, if we could devise a system for weighting ideas that reflects their influence on the subsequent course or researh, I suspect that we'd find relatively few "big ideas" account for most of what progress there is.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Imagine how expensive it could get if the progress occurs largely overseas...
    Good point. Take the example of HIV/AIDS therapy drugs. They were/are hugely expensive when considered in the context of developing world countries in which AIDS and HIV infection rates were/are skyrocketing.
    Our US-developed (taxpayer funded to large extent, btw) drugs were costly because that is the way our system works. We put partial breakthroughs into the hands of private industry for final development and they try to make as much money as possible. In the case of HIV/AIDS the situation was so dire as to motivate countries to violate or break all kinds of traditional international intellectual property laws so as to be able to provide the needed drugs as cheaply as possible.
    This is not a new story and you've heard it before.
    My point is that suppose we were faced with another country developing a critical medical breakthrough, I dunno, say cures for Alzheimer's Disease and Parkinson's Disease. And then suppose that country decided to withhold that new technology from the US or other country just because they didn't like 'em.
    Is this a Michael Crichton novel scenario that could never happen?

  • bleh says:

    CC, get with the times. it's not entirely necessary to use correct grammar/spelling/capitalization on a blog. unless that's your thing. shrug.

  • School Marm says:

    Mr. bleh,
    There is no reason to congratulate anyone on his or her dismal application of commonly understood rules of spelling, grammar and/or capitalization. Blogs are written communicative endeavors and as such they are weakened by poor use of communication standards. If one wishes to write like an uneducated dunce that is his or her choice but it greatly reduces the impact of the writing.
    HTH, HAND,
    School Marm

  • Mr. bleh says:

    dear school marm, i'm glad we agree.
    as for the topic at hand, i agree with physioprof's post. i'd say most giants (in science) during the past 50 yrs have faced adversity far greater than poor funding levels alone. we should work together to convince congress and the public at hand to increase support for scientific research, for example through public outreach (coalitions geared toward congress, pop science (news, magazines, etc), and better PR. of course, a new president might be helpful as well.

  • juniorprof says:

    suppose that country decided to withhold that new technology from the US or other country just because they didn't like 'em.
    Exactly, payback's a bitch.

  • whimple says:

    Scientific progress does not really rely on the special unique genius of specific creative individuals. Scientific progress is made in the aggregate when lots of hard-working, bright, enthusiastic people try out all kinds of ideas and see where they lead. The more ideas that get tried out per unit time, the faster science progresses.
    There are "ideas" and then there are "IDEAS". Scientific progress sucks ass when lots of different people are testing their "ideas". I think the concept that scientific progress is largely dependent on competent people digging away with their shovels is flat-out wrong.
    We had a talk from Judah Folkman (R.I.P.) recently. Angiogenesis is important for cancer treatment... that's an IDEA. That took individual brilliance, not group plogging.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    whimple, I think you overestimate the degree to which one can differentiate ideas from IDEAS in advance.

  • PhysioProf says:

    The notion that, had Folkman not pioneered our understanding of the role of angiogenesis in cancer, no one else would have is fucking ridiculous.

  • whimple says:

    The notion that, had Folkman not pioneered our understanding of the role of angiogenesis in cancer, no one else would have is fucking ridiculous.
    Sure, but that's not what I said. How much longer do you think it would have taken for the concept of angiogenesis to take hold the way it has today without Folkman?
    IDEAS: revolutionary if true, but thought to be false.
    ideas: interesting if true, and thought to be true.
    The NIH acknowledges that it has a problem funding too many 'ideas' and not enough 'IDEAS', it just hasn't figured out what to do about it; the NIH is trying Pioneer awards (http://nihroadmap.nih.gov/highrisk/), but I'm not sure they're going to get what they claim they want to get out of this program.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Who knows how much longer it would have taken for the role of angiogenesis in cancer to come to light if Folkman had not figured it out? A few years? Do you doubt we would know by now?
    Here's an example of this that immediately comes to mind. Axel and Buck won the Nobel Prize for identifying the family of putative mammalian olfactory receptor proteins in 1991. They did it using a very clever PCR-based technique that focused on gene families with many diverse members (if I recall correctly).
    If they had never done this, the family would have nonetheless immediately come to light as soon as the first mammalian genome was sequenced, which occurred about 10 years later. In the grand scheme of things, 10 years is bupkis.
    As somebody pointed out upthread, our ability to distinguish "ideas" from "IDEAS" a priori is pretty much nil. That is why the only way to make science progress faster is to fund more science and more scientists. Trying to pick the science that is going to end up being important in the future is a fool's errand.
    Here is an example of this principle in action. Another Nobel Prize was awarded to Peter Agre for his discovery of the water-conducting channel aquaporin. He discovered aquaporin because he was engaged in trying to figure out what the fuck this highly abundant band on SDS-PAGE gels of red blood cell membranes was.
    Do you think NIH would give some fucking huge-ass IDEA!!!!!11!-seeking Pioneer Award to a dude who is trying to figure out what some mysterious band on a fucking SDS-PAGE gel is? Of course not! Science progresses and big discoveries are made in large part because lots and lots of people are trying to figure out what some seemingly obscure mysterious thingy is.

  • whimple says:

    Here is an example of this principle in action. Another Nobel Prize was awarded to Peter Agre for his discovery of the water-conducting channel aquaporin. He discovered aquaporin because he was engaged in trying to figure out what the fuck this highly abundant band on SDS-PAGE gels of red blood cell membranes was.
    So... he wrote his R01 that lead to the Nobel Prize winning work: I see this really abundant band on an SDS-PAGE gel of red blood cell membranes. give me money so I can figure out what the fuck it is.
    or... is this not how this went down?

  • PhysioProf says:

    So... he wrote his R01 that lead to the Nobel Prize winning work: I see this really abundant band on an SDS-PAGE gel of red blood cell membranes. give me money so I can figure out what the fuck it is.
    or... is this not how this went down?

    I have no clue whether he had an R01 or not to fund that work, but he sure as fuck would not have been awarded a Pioneer or EUREKA award to do so. R01s fund large numbers of investigators to pursue "ideas"; all these fancy-ass Pioneer, EUREKA, and other awards are supposed to fund "IDEAS".
    My point is two-fold: (1) Nobody has the faintest clue how to separate IDEAS from ideas before they come to fruition, and so any plan to identify a priori and fund IDEAS to the exclusion of ideas is doomed to failure. (2) The best way to ensure a maximal rate of scientific progress is to fund as many scientists pursuing as many ideas/IDEAS (who the fuck knows which is which ahead of time?) as possible.
    I'm not sure why you seem to be having so much trouble understanding what I am saying. Maybe someone else can explain it better?

  • Paul Orwin says:

    A quick glance at CRISP tells the tale. Dr. Agre was looking at membrane defects in rbc for a cause of hemolytic anemia, and he discovered aquaporins - as Physioprof notes, it is not trivial to separate the wheat from the chaff, and the prize is more or less for the recognition of the wheat (a dense band on your membrane SDS-PAGE), not for the prediction of what will be wheat. To his credit, his subsequent NIH activity shows that he immediately understood the importance of what they had found.

  • bob koepp says:

    I can easily understand how working scientists would favor a "scattergun approach" to funding policies, but I don't think the historical evidence can support that as a rational policy -- we're talking about economic rationality here; return on investment and all that dismal stuff.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    bob, I think your comment betrays a woeful underappreciation for the relative successes of more- directed vs less-directed traditions. Likely also the degree to which directed programs (big Pharma, say) depend on the less directed basic research. Our medical successes in the US are not merely a result of size and raw $$.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    PP's science and discoveries? may be driven by their practicality. This is what you get then when funding of science is aimed only at new practical discoveries, a boken system. The great scientific discoveries were and are never about their practicality. The majority of them, throughout history, had no practical use when first discovered. To attempt to predict the practicality of a discovery yet to be discovered is redicoulus and is probably one of the main reasons funding of life sciences in the US today fails misearably in achieving its goals.

  • bill says:

    ok, so what do most PhD students in the life sciences end up doing?

    I keep asking this. I keep not getting any answers beyond vague hand-waving about "industry". As Schlupp points out, all the numbers I can find say that a majority of life science PhDs end up NOT doing research. What I want to know is, what *are* they doing?

  • juniorprof says:

    Well Bill, Here is a list of what all the PhD students from one Dept since 1999 are doing now.
    http://pharmacology.uthscsa.edu/graduate/Recent%20Graduates.html
    Most are still postdocs. Some are Profs. Some are working in a variety of different industries. A number are involved in patent law.

  • bill says:

    Thanks, juniorprof. Of the 32 graduates, I count:
    3 unknown
    3 research assistant
    4 industry positions
    2 patent law positions
    1 each "resident" and "instructor"
    6 assistant professor
    11 postdocs
    1 either postdoc or prof, not sure which
    That puts well over half still in academia, so either this is not typical or the rec'd wisdom that "most PhDs go elsewhere" is wrong.
    Now if only we could extend this to a decent sample size...

  • whimple says:

    My point is that the NIH R01-system doesn't allow for unstructured creative scientific play. After everyone's percent effort is divvied up to three significant figures between projects that the study section is sure will result in "progress in the field", when does anyone get to do the wacky stuff that probably won't go anywhere, but might turn out to make a huge difference?
    Here's the crux of the problem:
    The building next to where I work is filled with lung cancer and adult leukemia patients. To a first approximation, they're all going to die from their disease. Nothing I can propose in an R01 with a realistic chance of getting the stamp-of-approval from study section is going to help these people any time soon, and I think we can generalize that NONE of the R01's being funded by the NCI are going to really make a game changing difference for these people.
    New investigators get a lot of start-up money. In principle, this is a tremendous opportunity to go and do something really new (HHMI money does the same thing). But, you can't get tenure without an R01. You can't get an R01 by proposing to go out and do something really new. As a result, new investigators that are going to succeed in academic science are going to succeed by playing it safe, by proposing projects with which the study section is going to feel comfortable, rather than challenged.
    The positive reinforcement of new academics from NIH R01 funding short-term, science-is-a-business, project-management-software-using, crank-it-out investigators is destroying the kind of off-the-wall creativity from new people with new perspectives that could really jump science forward, rather than just creeping science along. (and the NIH knows this)

  • bob koepp says:

    DrugMonkey - First, don't be misled by my references to "economics" -- I'm not talking about financial returns on investment so much as returns in terms of scientific progress. My concern is that the notion of progress be operationalized in a way that reflects how particular ideas or experimental results influence the course of further inquiry.
    It's been more than 20 years since I actually studied the economics of scientific research, so maybe there are fairly recent analytic or experimental developments supporting your view of which I'm unaware. If so, please point me in the right direction and we'll see if my woeful underappreciation of the realities of research can be remedied.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    I fully agree with whimple as to where NIH funding leads. However, it is not the responsibility of the NIH to assure the retaining of academicians in academic institutions. Rather, it is the responsibility of the institutions themselves. Unfortunately, it is the choice of most research universities to rely exclusively on funding their research by federal agencies, funding that aims mainly at applied science, while completely abandoning creativity in science.
    One step that could change this dead-end direction toward which American academic science is heading and which must start within each university is to allocate a significant chunk (40-50%) of the overhead charged by universities to fund creative, off-the-wall science.

  • soap says:

    I disagree about creativity not being funded in science. The R01 is just a mechanism to get money. You don't actually have to do all the proposed projects. Once you get the money you are free to pursue whatever scientific pursuits money and your time can buy. The overall problem and relative "slowness" that ensue is because NIH doesn't have enough money. So, let's get that NIH budget increased, and we won't be as frazzled as we are now.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    soap, you are correct to a certain (small) extent about the ability of the PI to fund some other projects with NIH money. However, what you are suggesting, in essence, is to propose to the NIH one thing and do something else; or lying about the cost of the proposed project (overcharging for it) so you could do the creative science you really want to do. And you expect the public tax money to fund your smoking mirrors!?

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