The NIH Un-Doubling

Jun 16 2008 Published by under NIH Budgets and Economics

As I mentioned in a prior post, a presentation from the CPDD lobbyist, Ed Long (of Capitol Associates) put me on to a most interesting analysis of the NIH budget. One that I hadn't seen before and one that makes a frightening point.
The doubling of the NIH budget has been completely reversed. Read on to find out how.


An article by Heinig et alia was published in 2007 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Heinig SJ, Krakower JY, Dickler HB, Korn D. Sustaining the engine of U.S. biomedical discovery. N Engl J Med. 2007 Sep 6;357(10):1042-7. [Publisher Link]

One of the key points of the article is captured in a representation of the NIH budget in constant dollars with an adjustment for inflation based on a economic segment-relevant index*. Now, we're used to seeing the most-recent few years of budgets represented in some sort of inflation-adjusted manner. We're used to seeing the way that a flat budget is really a declining buying-power budget.
What is new is the representation of the long term trends across the past 40 years. The effect of the NIH doubling period has been almost entirely erased, bringing the NIH budget back in line with the pre-doubling trends for about 3.34% annual growth.
Heinig07-NIHbudget-trend.jpeg.jpg

Figure 1. NIH Appropriations (Adjusted for Inflation in Biomedical Research) from 1965 through 2007, the President's Request for 2008, and Projected Historical Trends through 2010.
All values have been adjusted according to the Biomedical Research and Development Price Index on the basis of a standard set of relevant goods and services (with 1998 as the base year).* The trend line indicates average real annual growth between fiscal years 1971 and 1998 (3.34%), with projected growth (dashed line) at the same rate. The red square indicates the president's proposed NIH budget for fiscal year 2008, also adjusted for inflation in biomedical research.

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* NIH Office of Budget. Biomedical research and development price index (BRDPI). Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health, February 5, 2007. (Accessed August 16, 2007, at http://officeofbudget.od.nih.gov/UI/GDP_FromGenBudget.htm.)

23 responses so far

  • juniorprof says:

    Thanks for tracking this down. DIscouraging data but also quite useful for talking about where the problem lies.

  • bioephemera says:

    Thanks much - now when someone doesn't understand this concept, I can just send them to your post!

  • Nat Blair says:

    That graph really has some cognitive impact.
    Not of the good kind, but it sure is stunning in it's clarity.
    *sigh*

  • bill says:

    We are so fucked.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Probably the most profound thing I'm learning is the severity of this down-cycle. I've been comforting myself with the "it's all cyclical" thing. People were whining in the early 90s when I was in grad school. More recently, I've heard people refer to sitting on study section reviews in the early 80s from which zero grants got funded. No biggie, it's all cyclical.
    I have been only half-believing my more-senior colleagues who shake their heads and say "Yeah DM....but this one is much worse".
    Well, this graph says this downturn is worse all right. Much worse.

  • whimple says:

    For what it's worth, I think that the coming crash will at least happen fast (maybe the next one or two years). This year we reduced the number of first-year grad students accepted into our multi-disciplinary program by one third, because we can't place all the new students in funded labs at the old level of acceptance. There will likely be a wave of new investigators denied tenure (fired) for not getting R01 funding. For those that survive, it will probably be pretty pleasant immediately afterwards as competition for funding does a steep decline (although the lack of peer-aged colleagues will be a bit of a bummer). My main concern is that the NIH doubling got the fat-cats accustomed to multiple and larger R01s. If that doesn't go back as well, there will have to be an even greater reduction in investigators.
    Of course, if the NIH budget stays flat through the incoming presidential administration as well, then everyone can just go home.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Oh, I think there has already been some adjusting whimple. Perhaps not the true fat-cats....they are still getting their money. It perhaps the mid-cats and the wanna-be-fat cats who have adjusted to a new reality. FWIW, we've seen 20-30% fewer apps in the past few rounds on the study section on which I serve in comparison to when I first started reviewing.

  • PhysioProf says:

    I think you may be misinterpreting the reason for fewer applications. My guess is that what is starting to happen is attrition of an echelon of investigators/institutions that were just able to compete when paylines were >20% and now no longer can. Research assistant professors from Northwest Jabip Regional Health Sciences University who got grants during the doubling have left the system. I have no evidence for this, it's just a guess.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I think you may be misinterpreting the reason for fewer applications.
    I'm not making a strong assertion on this. There are many possible reasons for what I've been seeing. It could be a unique property of my study section, of our typical applicant, a statistical anomaly, a subtle change in CSR grant assignments or a whole host of other things.
    attrition of an echelon of investigators/institutions that were just able to compete when paylines were >20% and now no longer can.
    Qualitatively, I can't say that I notice a glaring lack of applications from smaller institutions, smaller labs or what might be viewed as obscure investigators. Although I do seem to notice that the efforts of NIMH to drive away their basic behavioral / cognitive researchers seem to be working-this may be confirmation bias on my part, I realize. Nevertheless, this might be one segment that has been disappearing.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Well, I can tell you that at my institution, the pressure to obtain multiple R01s is not slackening. Most PIs, including myself, keep blasting new R01 apps out there, looking for their third and fourth ones. My personal philosophy is, if I've got the preliminary data that indicates a new research direction is going to be fruitful, and I need R01 resources to pursue that direction, then fuck-it, I'm applying.
    While this varies by institute, NINDS does not have any explicit policy that prevents this. It is worth pointing out, also, that the new $1,000,000 "limit"--if for direct costs--doesn't even come into play until you are applying for your fifth maxed-out modular R01.

  • Becca says:

    @PP-
    My feeling is that if you are going to be taking up multiple R01s, you have extra responsiblities to make sure you are managing all that work well -at least as well as if your grant had gone to somebody else.
    It's not just about having the preliminary data and the ability to do the science, it's about doing your part for the long-run. Are you providing good training? Do you provide stable jobs (within the constraints of the system)? Are you doing research that will enrich the field for years to come? It's exceptionally difficult (if not impossible) for the study sections to come up with a quantiative or reasonably objective way to measure your potential in these sorts of areas (on top of all the "is the science sound?" work they have to do!). So NIH isn't going to ask if you are doing these things. And your institution would much rather you get the money than somebody at another institution gets it, so they aren't going to ask. But, in the long run, I think the scientific community has an obligation to ask those questions of each other.
    Now, naturally, given The Awesomeness that is PP, I (of course) fully expect you to make excellent use of whatever funding you are awarded. I'm just saying, that you must hold yourself to a very high standard. More money => more responsibility (and in some respects, that is exponentially, not linearly).

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Interestingly Becca mo' money and mo' grants helps improve just about all of your measures.

  • River Tam says:

    I've been curious about the assumption the asst prof. ranks will be thinned during this down turn because fewer will have the requisite grants needed for tenure. In my field at least (NSF is my money-source, not NIH)it would seem that universities cannot afford to get rid of too many faculty because that would just increase teaching loads. Good luck to the university that increases it's teaching loads, it'll be hard to keep researchers (especially since so many other universities will be looking for replacements for all those recently fired untenured faculty!)

  • PiledHigher, Deeper says:

    it would seem that universities cannot afford to get rid of too many faculty because that would just increase teaching loads.
    I don't know what rock you've been living under for the past two decades (at least) but the universities are quite comfortable with offloading teaching hours on non-tenure track faculty.
    OTOH, I must say the scuttle butt and chatter, around the campfire but also from the NIH, is now shifting from "save the transitioning investigator" to "save the tenure seekers". I'm starting to hear some hand wringing about "the real problem" being the second round of grants that will take the investigator across the raging river Tenuria.

  • River Tam says:

    I don't know what rock you've been living under for the past two decades (at least) but the universities are quite comfortable with offloading teaching hours on non-tenure track faculty.
    I don't know about a rock, but I think your university operates differently from mine. We don't have money for lectures and the money for every tenure-track faculty member who is "fired" seems to be sucked up in another budget cut from the state. My advisor told me about an article in the Chronicles of Higher Education about how research faculty used to be concentrated in private and rich state universities before the baby boom generation and that the article predicted this contraction is occurring again. Has anyone else seen this article? I haven't found it but haven't been looking that hard either.

  • CCPhysicist says:

    It is only a "down cycle" if you thought that exponential growth was sustainable. [Obligatory reference here to Peak Oil, Bernie Madoff, and - most relevant of all - the housing bubble with house prices doubling in five years.] It is a return to modest (possibly sustainable) growth. It also reflects budget cuts (and a war) that eliminated the revenue that fed a surplus in the late 90's. All research funding is part of the discretionary budget that has always suffered in times like these.
    It would be interesting to see those data on a log graph (which would turn that exponential background growth curve into a straight line), which would expose what happened in the past for comparison to today.
    By the past I mean "ancient history" to most of you. What looks like a tiny bump before 1970 was a massive growth period for funding until the costs of Vietnam resulted in major cutbacks (the dip around 1970). The old normal would be a curve tangent to the 1975 appropriation. A log graph would make it easy to see where that line would be today. Probably close to the 2007 request.
    I don't know if the bio-med area has PhD-production and job-placement info like the AIP has. If so, a diligent person could reconstruct information like I put together for physics a few years back:
    http://doctorpion.blogspot.com/2007/07/physics-jobs-part-1.html
    (I really should take my own advice and make a log plot of the data in that key graph of PhD production.) Nothing about the problems being discussed in the bio-med community are new to me. It is just a repeat of what has happened many times in the past. What is unfortunate is that few faculty talk about it with their students, and few students even begin to comprehend what the competition is when the prime jobs are held for 50 years by persons who produce hundreds of "replacements" in that time period. Only one of those students is needed as a retirement replacement.

  • CCPhysicist says:

    Drug Monkey - People were complaining in the mid 90s because they were being funded well below the curve you would get if the 3.34% growth curve was drawn through the region from 1975 to 1980. That would be the "good old days" to someone in 1995.

  • Eronarn says:

    I've been doing research with Google Insights, and this inspired me to look this up because I'd noticed that enough students and scientists are searching for things like that for it to track accurately the academic year. The NIH grant one decreases in search amount by about 50% from 2004 to 2008 but then spikes to higher than it's ever been thanks to the stimulus announcements. Anyone have a data set for the graph in this post so I can compare these two more directly?

  • [...] NIH Grants. In the past I've posted the analysis that shows that the doubling of the NIH budget was rapidly un-doubled and fell back on the historical trend line. That analysis depended on the Biomedical Research and [...]

  • [...] pointed out some time ago that inflation "UnDoubled" the NIH budget rapidly in the wake of sustained Bush-era (now Obama-era) flatline budgets for the [...]

  • Earl says:

    I constantly emailed this weblog post page to all my friends, for the reason that if like to read it next my contacts will too.

  • […] NIH Grants. In the past I've posted the analysis that shows that the doubling of the NIH budget was rapidly un-doubled and fell back on the historical trend line. That analysis depended on the Biomedical Research and […]

  • […] Here is why it is bullshit to argue this- the magnitude of the downturn was lesser and it lasted for a shorter duration. Let us refer to the infamous Undoubling graph. […]

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