The Institutional Squeeze: As if the NIH budget wasn't enough bad news

It's been a rough patch over the past two or three years for many NIH-funded research programs. This is not news. The NIH budget flatlines, combined with inflation in the cost of doing biomedical research (BRDPI is a well understood acronym by now), resulted in a budget that undoubled the doubling period. The growth in the research infrastructure that was facilitated by the doubling of the NIH budget had to be pared back. Painfully.
In many ways we are starting to partially adjust. PIs have closed or slimmed their shops. Departed all-soft-money jobs for lower profile institutions with hard money. Left for industry. Decreased the size of their labs. The NIH grant pressure has (seemingly) slackened a bit. Whether because of the reduced demand, because NIH ICs finally got their houses in order and smoothed the payout stream or because some of the 5yr commitments from the end of the doubling finally started to subside I don't know. Things seem ever so slightly better in the past 6-9 mo.
And now, the other shoe is falling. The local Universities are going broke and putting another squeeze on the research scientists.


Going broke may be a bit excessive, but as the Economist detailed, Universities that rely on income from huge endowments to keep the lights on are feeling the pinch. Harvard is freezing salaries and new hires and talk of 10% cuts are rumored. Yale, long touted to have a genius investor/manager at the helm of their investment portfolio, recently announced that they are hurting as well. One of the largest state University systems is belt-tightening and professors are unhappy.
These are but a few examples. I have been hearing near weekly from colleagues at various US institutions about the latest problem. Hiring freezes announced. Cutbacks requested. Salary freezes and reductions announced. Institutional support funds are disappearing. Major infrastructure promises (read: lab space) rescinded.
People are very, very concerned. And make no mistake, this affects the research output in a myriad of ways.
It is interesting that earlier in the year the NIH was talking, here and there, about shifting the funding burden back towards the local institutions. Of requiring more of the much bandied "institutional commitment" in partnership with NIH awards. These recent moves by the local institutions shows that there is no magic pool of local leprechaun gold just waiting to help the NIH fund the research it wants in these economic times.
There is very little constructive to say since the economic woes are at root of this. At the least PIs, you should understand that you are not alone. Many Universities are in trouble and putting the squeeze on their research labs. "Where's my overhead?" "I finally got my grants funded and I want the space you committed to, dammit!" "Fire all those bloody administrators and vice-deans of whatsit you just hired, we're the *golden goose you idiots!" .... I hear this all the time. (No, not just coming out of my mouth.) Most of us are in the same boat or soon will be.
How about you, DearReader? Is your institution flush with cash and laughing at everyone else?
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*Update: No really, the golden goose.

26 responses so far

  • These recent moves by the local institutions shows that there is no magic pool of local leprechaun gold just waiting to help the NIH fund the research it wants in these economic times.

    Ain't that the motherfucking truth!

  • DSKS says:

    "...there is no magic pool of local leprechaun gold"
    Nevertheless, let's just say that I'm still hoping those rumours about the Jesuits sitting on a hoard of Aztec gold are completely true.

  • BiophysicsMonkey says:

    Inside Higher Ed. recently reported on academic work force trends from 2005 - 2007.
    Employees in administration increased by 10%, those classified as "Research/Instruction/Public service" increased by 5% and those classified as "Research" declined by 5%.
    There's something a bit worrying about those numbers.

  • Is your institution flush with cash and laughing at everyone else?
    Negative. We've just absorbed a 10% cut in state funds that our large, land-grant university had already received and was told to give back and we are just waiting to find out how much will be cut from next year's budget - we've been warned to expect anything up to 20%. Things are so bad that admin boffins at both dept and institutional levels have been sending emails and holding seminars asking for ideas of where to trim spending.
    Somehow we are expected to continue to provide a quality education, expand our programs and admit more students with less administrative support, less teaching faculty and less space. A sad state of affairs indeed. Maybe the university presidents could band together and fly first class to DC to ask for help ...

  • cashmoney says:

    Not relevant to research but some of the smaller private colleges are in absolute panic mode. The letters they are sending to their alumni, parents, current students and staff try to reassure that they have it all covered but that's a sham.
    I wonder when the first college bankruptcies will start hitting the news.
    (And you can be sure they will not be hiring any young faculty in the near future...sorry postdocs!)

  • Joseph Delaney says:

    So what is the solution? It can't just be recent economic woes as the NIH has had some funding issues for a while now. Is there ever going to be a stable equilibrium?

  • D says:

    Maybe the university presidents could band together and fly first class to DC to ask for help ...

    Sorry, but even I can't do much for this situation (looking at the 10% pay cut just received on top of deferred promotion etc.)

  • juniorprof says:

    Sky is falling in my neck of the woods. Thankfully, being at the bottom of the payscale apparently exempts you from being asked to take a pay cut. We'll see what happens around here but the indications don't look good. It also doesn't help to lose your education supporting governor to the Obama cabinet and get stuck with a quasi-creationist as your new head of the state.

  • DSKS says:

    "(And you can be sure they will not be hiring any young faculty in the near future...sorry postdocs!)"
    Tell me about it. Still, most of us are still under the max age limit for joining the Navy, so there's hope for us yet.

  • drdrA says:

    'get stuck with a quasi-creationist as your new head of the state.'
    Juniorprof- I feel your pain. Bigtime.

  • leigh says:

    funny, i just got an email from the university president detailing the status of private bigname u. endowment way down, just like everyone else. the expected talk of cuts? oh, well, they're gonna talk about the situation when they develop their budget for next fiscal year. there may be some cuts.
    that email was full to the brim with overarching positive talk, in the typical bigname u ignore-the-problem tradition, which makes me smell a rat.

  • jobless says:

    I was a junior PI in a government lab, and on soft money. I got laid off a couple months ago. I had been squeaking by this year on ever-diminishing funds and then my institute just took my remaining money away to help cover the salaries of the permanent staff further up the food chain, can they do that?? WTF?? I haven't been able to find a job anywhere, not even in industry as the companies in my field are also laying off. Any advice? Is starbucks hiring?

  • pinus says:

    current institute (large private school) has people tightening belts, but they keep on telling everybody that their money situation is solid. but when you read what they say, you see it is actually shifty accounting trying to smooth over losses. but people buy it, that is all that matters to them I guess.
    new institute (large public school) had an across the board cut (not more than 10% I believe). Some plans have slowed down, but they are still hiring. Another (large public) school that was recruiting me had a hiring freeze. I am thinking this may be one crappy year to be looking for a job. glad I ignored people who told me to wait a year. šŸ™‚

  • juniorprof says:

    to quote Dr Freeride: "ping"

  • Lamar says:

    Deans, Provosts, etc. still getting new $100K bonuses, $250K pensions, etc. so it can't be that bad. just recruit more $20K grad students.

  • juniorprof says:

    Juniorprof- I feel your pain. Bigtime.
    DrdrA, I'm sure you do!!

  • Dave says:

    Anyone know how intramurally-funded researchers at NIH are faring?

  • whimple says:

    Anyone know how intramurally-funded researchers at NIH are faring?
    I have on excellent authority that at NIEHS anyway, they are doing quite badly. There has been a hiring freeze on for a while now, and budgets have been flat or cut, but salaries still get mandated yearly increases. You really don't want to cut people, because with the freeze, you won't be able to replace them. The salary increases then have to be paid out of supply money, with the result that although there might be people, there isn't enough money left to do experiments.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Whimple, everybody has to make those staff / supplies tradeoffs. Even without a freeze if you don't have the money for everything...

  • whimple says:

    Thanks for pointing that out. šŸ˜‰

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Just sayin' Intramural get a bit whiny and clueless sometimes.

  • drdrA says:

    With regard to what Pinus said about the job market this year- it is going to be a terrible year to be on the job market. Based on what I'm seeing with a high number of extremely competitive applicants, and now hiring freezes at various places- it is just all supply and shrinking demand. I don't envy anyone who is on the job market this year...

  • Dave says:

    Yes, it is a TERRIBLE time to be on the market.... in the U.S.
    Colleagues in Europe are still doing OK, from what I hear (with the caveat that 'doing fine' in Europe generally means they are working under constraints that make spoiled U.S. researchers howl). Anyone looking for a job should prepare for very few research positions, and be prepared for those to be extremely competitive. We had a search last year and most applicants had multiple pubs, at least one CNS. Every interviewee had multiple CNS publications and several already had a good history of funding. Our 4th place candidate, who did not get the job, had a history of several R01s and a string of Nature Neuroscience papers. And we are just a middle-range state university. But like most academic departments, 75% of salary is guaranteed. I heard from several PIs wondering why their golden postdocs were not even interviewed.
    But undergraduate enrollment is way up, and area 4-year undergrad schools seem to be in a hiring frenzy. So maybe it's just time for people to re-evaluate whether they really want to have a big lab and become professional grant writers and personnel managers. Postdocs often have illusions that all the PI does is go to meetings and schmooze while the underlings slave away. That's not true at all. We actually screw around on internets blog message boards while the underlings slave away

  • One of my post-docs has been getting e-mails from institutions he has applied to for tenure-track jobs stating that searches are canceled due to hiring freezes.

  • ecolite says:

    I don't think it is much better in Europe actually- I have been working there this year, and there are plenty of worried people there too. And similarly with Australasia- heaps of funding cuts, redundancies . . .just thinking about it I am off for a christmas drink. . .

  • Dave says:

    Our institution has a 'hiring freeze', but this really means 'no new searches'. 'Opportunity hires' are still taking place. For example, the dean told us our department is getting no new hires despite our pleas that we need certain types of people to keep pace with certain fields and to offset retires. But suddenly we got a CV for a candidate and the dean saying: "Here's someone you might want to consider." Fortunately for our department, this person is an excellent candidate with exactly the expertise we happen to be looking for in our department. So it was a no brainer to make an offer. But why did the dean send us this C.V.? The candidate is a black woman.
    The administration always has money tucked away for opportunities like this, or retention deals, etc. It's just a matter of getting them to tap into their hidden pot of money. Basically, this woman was the right person at the right time. One way to get a job right now is to be the right person at the right time. Are you on soft money but willing to manage a facility for some hard money support? Can you teach some understaffed classes for hard money? Do you currently have a big grant? If so, now is the time to threaten to leave unless you get a better deal. No new searches does not necessarily mean no new hires. If you can teach, right now is especially good to take on some teaching duties because enrollments are up but faculty numbers are down. Be the person they need.

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