Uh, Oh!

Jan 27 2009 Published by under NIH Budgets and Economics

I just received the following e-mail from one of my scientific societies:

Back $10 Billion for NIH in Economic Recovery
Contact Your Senators Immediately
Take action now to support $10 billion for the National Institutes of Health in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Senator Arlen Specter will introduce an amendment tomorrow when the Appropriations Committee considers the bill. The current version includes $3.5 billion for NIH, and the amendment would add $6.5 billion bringing the total to $10 billion.
Contact your senators immediately and urge them to be a champion for NIH. Go to:
http://capwiz.com/ram/utr/1/CGMHJQUAUE/HEAVJQVCYU/2828380471. It is particularly important for you to speak out if your senator is on the Appropriations Committee, listed below.

Jesus fucking christ! Have we learned nothing from the effects of the five-year doubling of the NIH budget!?!?!? Increasing the budget by about 1/3 in one fucking year!?!?!?
And let's be very, very clear. To the extent that we are pumping a huge bolus of money into the NIH budget over a short period of time, the vast majority of this money *must* go towards increasing the budgets of already awarded grants that have been slashed upon initial award, and then bled a little more with each non-competing renewal.
That is the only way to have the money contribute to long-term strength of the biomedical research enterprise. While the political pressure to use the vast majority of the money to dramatically expand paylines will be intense, doing so will only create another fucking "bubble"--just like the overly rapid doubling--with equally adverse long-term consequences.

34 responses so far

  • Dave says:

    I agree with what you say above, DM. But remember the text you quote from is only SFN pipe-dream, and not likely to become reality. Scuttlebutt from NIH staff says $3B of the economic stimulus is currently alloted to NIH, and that half of that will be distributed as short-term (2-year) R01-like things reviewed outside of cycle. RFA to be released early Feb. The other $1.5B is presumably going to special NIH programs or intramural stuff (e.g. it will be embezzled).

  • nm says:

    Surely the doubling wasn't the problem. It was the halving that came right after it?

  • Scuttlebutt from NIH staff says $3B of the economic stimulus is currently alloted to NIH, and that half of that will be distributed as short-term (2-year) R01-like things reviewed outside of cycle. RFA to be released early Feb. The other $1.5B is presumably going to special NIH programs or intramural stuff (e.g. it will be embezzled).

    This is staggeringly stupid. The vast majority of that money should go to retroactively restoring budgets of already-awarded grants to the levels recommended by study section.

  • becca says:

    Once again- give me the money! I'll find good ways to invest it that don't cause bubbles, I promise...

  • Dave says:

    CPP: I think it's also kind of retarded. But restoring budgets to the fantasies they might have been before is even more retarded. I mean seriously -- who asks for exactly $250k/year because they need exactly $250k/year?
    The problem with $500k/year (direct+indirect) for 2 years (which is what was actually said) is that this is useless unless you have a project proposal that spends a lot of money really fast. Unfortunately, these sorts of projects don't fix the biomedical research community's problems or accomplish much scientifically. At best, funding vomits are good for equipment grants or outsourced large-scale studies or sets of ready-to-go repetitive assays. Or they might be useful if you you already have ample support and are just fishing for a supplement. I suppose as an 'economic stimulus' it's OK if a billion dollars worth of PCR machines, antibodies, and mice or something get bought, but it's hard to imagine that something better couldn't have been done with the money. At the very least, how about postdoctoral fellowships to stem the scientific brain drain? Or maybe they should fund a crapload of R21s or something.
    Write your institute directors or congressperson(s) with specific suggestions. This is your tax money.

  • Dave says:

    Actually, now that I think about it, the situation will likely be sillier than even I imagined, on a larger scale. How about this...
    NIH throws out billions, which are predictably sucked up mostly by those who don't really need it. What do PI's that don't really need the money do with it? 1) They outsource 10 years worth of data-gathering and reagent generation. A bazillion commercial yeast two hybrid assays are run and antibodies generated. 2) PI hires every freaking Chinese and Indian postdoc that sends him an email, and then puts them to work for exactly 1.8 years.
    Why is that so bad? Because all the bazillion assays will get done in Korea or using consumables made in Finland or China, and the Chinese and Indian postdocs will go home to a country that still has 7% GDP growth and increasing investment in science, but with Big American U on their CV. Personally, I don't care, but some republican will hear about this, find out that 2 billion American taxpayer economic stimulus dollars went straight toward enriching people we're economically jealous of, and shout holy hell. NIH will then get crap for misusing their blob of money, and when the republicans take back over congress the NIH budget will be flat for another decade.

  • DSKS says:

    "Once again- give me the money! I'll find good ways to invest it that don't cause bubbles, I promise..."
    Damn right. To hell with these naysayers, I welcome this bailout. After all, the lab badly needs a new jet plane, because I'm done with slumming it to conferences on Southwest with the rest of the smelly proles.

  • Orac says:

    And let's be very, very clear. To the extent that we are pumping a huge bolus of money into the NIH budget over a short period of time, the vast majority of this money *must* go towards increasing the budgets of already awarded grants that have been slashed upon initial award, and then bled a little more with each non-competing renewal.

    Actually, I have to wonder what on earth other than this it could be spent on. After all, by law the NIH must spend all of its budget every year. It can't use a bolus of money like that to fund new grants of more than a year because the out year commitments would squeeze out any new grants in the years after the $10 billion goes away. "Have we learned nothing from the NIH budget doubling?" indeed! What we need is a sustainable plan to increase the NIH budget more gradually to try to get the paylines up to a more reasonable range (like 15th to 20th percentile) in a way that the whole thing doesn't go through booms of 30th percentile funding followed by busts of sub-10th percentile funding.

  • MattXIV says:

    Jesus fucking christ! Have we learned nothing from the effects of the five-year doubling of the NIH budget!?!?!? Increasing the budget by about 1/3 in one fucking year!?!?!?

    It's even worse than that - stimulus spending is supposed to be eliminated once the economy recovers, so it's not just a sudden increase, it's a sudden increase that will likely be followed by a cut in a few years.
    Beyond the hell it's going to play on funding expectations for researchers, it doesn't make sense as stimulus from the political economy direction. Good stimulus candidates spend the money allocated for them as soon as possible and can be promptly withdrawn once the economy starts recovering. Aggregate demand stimulus relies on price stickiness - goods reprice somewhere in the ballpark of 6 months for goods and slightly under annually for wages. As prices adjust, the stimulus effect resides and is replaced with increased inflation, which is why the level of spending that is appropriate during a economic downturn will be harmful if sustained in the long run. Anything that it's not ok to cut back on once the economy recovers shouldn't be considered for a stimulus package.
    In the shoes of someone reliant on NIH funding, I'd lobby to have funding growth rates tracking a GDP growth rate rolling average or something comparable written into legislation, which would provide steady growth and keep the amount of NIH funding as % of GDP roughly constant.

  • I'm happy for $10 billion to be pumped into the NIH in one hit ... as long as I get all of my grants funded on the first try! In all seriousness, jacking up the budget in one go is a short term, quick fix solution that will only lead to long term problems when PIs don't get refunded. Agreed, the first priority should be to help those whose grants were slashed after already being awarded. After that, it would be nice to any leftover funds go toward promoting more new/early-career investigators (it's pretty obvious that this is where I find myself) as between shrinking start up funds, freezing hires, increased teaching loads, increased operating costs etc, getting started as a new investigator is getting more and more difficult with each passing minute.

  • anonymous says:

    I really want to support the $10 billion increase for the NIH, but I just can't get past the other 815 billion dollars of pork in that so-called economic recovery bill.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I am hearing things that lead me to believe NIH ICs are looking at just what you would expect- nonrecurring places to put the money. Read: big ticket equipment handouts. Gee, who do you think they are going to give those to?

  • Sally says:

    Look--this bill isn't about doing good policy, it's about throwing $1 trillion at Democratic constituencies before opposition can build. So just take what NIH can get and be happy. Otherwise it's just funding roads projects that never made the cut when funding had to make economic sense, free health care for non-citizens, tax "rebates" (welfare) to people already paying no income taxes, etc. Better it go to biomedical research. SOME of it will be used usefully.
    Of course, in a sensible world the trillion would not be spent and NIH funding would increase in a sustained and logical way, but that is not an option here. It's a lobbyist/special interest orgy and NIH may as well play or be shut out when the Dems wake up and their is no more money left to waste.

  • Stephanie Z says:

    Oh, yes. I remember those good old days when only the things that made sense got funded. It was such a great way of stopping the country from going to war. :p

  • Klem says:

    The 2008 US National Institute of Health budget was around USD 29 billion and for the National Science Foundation around USD 6.4 billion.
    The US Department of Defense is requesting in 2009 about USD 80 billion for research & development. The Department of Energy is requesting in 2009 USD 23 billion to develop and maintain nuclear warheads. [Wikipedia: Military budget of the US]
    A December 2008 report by Jeffrey Miron, Harvard Economics Dept, estimates that ending drug prohibition in the US and regulating and taxing currently contraband drugs would add USD 76.8 billion to local, state, and federal budgets. [The Budgetary Implications of Drug Prohibition]
    US academic scientists should definitely be asking for more funding. Current US salaries for entry-level scientists (ie grad students, post-docs) are pathetic and could be doubled immediately.

  • Alex says:

    I largely agree with CPP that the creation of another bubble is bad for science. Moreover, basic research is a long term investment, not a place to look for quick stimulus. A friend has argued that if this money were used to keep postdocs employed it could be a way to keep them from flooding the job market because universities and companies start doing better. I see that argument, but a flood of funding for postdocs produces a flood of people who continue their training with the goal of pursuing PI jobs that will continue to be scarce even after the recovery. There might be more PI jobs after the recovery than there are now, but these things will never be abundant.

  • JSinger says:

    nm:
    Surely the doubling wasn't the problem. It was the halving that came right after it?
    Well, yeah. The problem is that the doubling always ends and stasis or slower growth (c'mon, there was no "halving") always follows it. Which grown-ups at the NIH (not in the Stemwedelian sense, but anyone with a bit of mature judgment) should have foreseen, instead of refusing to model a decline to anything less than, what was it, 3% growth because the alternatives were "too painful to contemplate".
    Sally:
    Better it go to biomedical research. SOME of it will be used usefully.
    You're missing the point, which is that introducing bubbles into NIH growth is disastrous, and what created the current mess. Too much money isn't inefficient, it's dangerous.
    I'm glad to see PhysioProf at least has learned the lesson of the Clinton/Bush doubling. But I'm still not sure how only increasing currently funded grants helps the situation. As long as it brings new trainees into the system, which increases of this size necessarily would, it still creates Teh Broken Pipeline! in 3-5 years.

  • anon says:

    How about flipping the question? Is there a way to spend a large bolus of money on medical research without replicating the problems that followed the doubling? Where can money be spent that won't just create more people asking for money when the bolus ends? Is there any infrastructure that would have long term benefits without the negatives?
    The first thought that comes to mind are things like large scale data-sharing and informatics systems that would require signifiant money to create and write the software for, but might need less money to keep running.

  • becca says:

    Flipping it around another way...who better to get screwed by the government? Or how can we prepare for it?
    What I mean is, if the government goes and decides it's politically savvy to push "green collar jobs" and invests a ton of money in Detroit to convert factories to solar panel plants (or whatever), and then industry decides it simply doesn't want to locate in Detroit, easy money or no... then when the federal money dries up, those people, now trained for two industries that aren't hiring, are going to be even more bitter than they are now. Maybe even more bitter than used up postdocs and grad students.
    If we were to cultivate an environment that encouraged trainees to be well-rounded people with a life out of science (in flush economic times and tight ones) then maybe leaving science wouldn't seem as horrible as it does. I mean, we all love this stuff, but as long as the wonky "sacrifice everything now, maybe get [unlikely] reward later" model predominates, things are gonna suck for a large chunk of the scientific workforce.

  • bsci says:

    becca,
    Anyone who tells you to ""sacrifice everything now, maybe get [unlikely] reward later" is a bad mentor.
    There are sacrifices. Income is not maximized, but many people don't choose jobs based on maximum income and I'd venture to say that income is never maximized in academia. I've seen enough top faculty at top schools jump ship for much higher salaries in industry. The corollary is that if someone is paying you less than a livable wage and saying it's a short-term sacrifice, that person is abusing you. Grad school in science isn't about building retirement savings, but it shouldn't be about taking out loans or starving either.
    As for work, I've seen too many people put their life on hold for grad school and postdoc and it rarely ends up looking good. Everyone makes choices and no one can do what they want all the time, but that doesn't mean sacrificing everything.

  • Dave says:

    I second what bsci says. I say this over and over and over again to science trainees: If you do not love what you are doing, change careers NOW. Nothing magical happens when you get your PhD, or a faculty position, or tenure...

  • bsci says:

    I'm not sure I'd go as far as Dave. If you like science/research, but are in an abusive situation (i.e. not getting a livable wage or being told that you should have a social life until after PhD/postdoc/tenure) then that's a bad situation. The grass really might be greener in other places. (sorry for the tangent on the larger topic of this thread)

  • Hey, things could be worse. Check out this post by T Ryan Gregory about yesterday's Canadian budget...

  • Becca says:

    I love science... I don't love what I'm doing most of the time. I still haven't figured out why that is. I may be temprementally unsuited for research.
    I think not loving what I'm doing is related to not feeling good at it. I don't know if I still think I'm good at science in some abstract way, or if the "personal mastery" vs. "enjoyment" relationship is different for "science" and "my job".
    Or possibly I'm just agonizing over Major Life Choices which interfere with viewing my (perfectly reasonable for a single grad student) stipend as a livable wage...

  • Dave says:

    "Or possibly I'm just agonizing over Major Life Choices which interfere with viewing my (perfectly reasonable for a single grad student) stipend as a livable wage...
    Before about 50 years ago, most people PAID to get to do what you do. Seriously, ask yourself: If you won the lottery, would you spend some of the prize money to set up a lab and solve scientific mysteries? If you weren't in school, would you spend your own money to buy books and journals because they're just really damn interesting?
    If your answer to these questions is not a definite yes, you are wasting your life and wasting other people's time. Find something you love.

  • bsci says:

    If your answer to these questions is not a definite yes, you are wasting your life and wasting other people's time. Find something you love.
    Dave, That's way overboard. Academic science is a career. It's a career that many people feel passionate about and will accept lower salaries and some hardships to participate in, but it's still a career. Why is it not acceptable to love science and love doing science, but give lottery winnings to charity?
    Also, please remember that the vase majority of science PhDs are NOT faculty at primarily research universities. What if someone dreams of getting a PhD and using that knowledge to found a company? How about if someone wants to work at a primarily teach college or even high school? Are those wasting people's time?
    Becca is clearly trying to figure out her priorities and where she's fit best and be happiest. Saying there is only one true way and only one acceptable mindset doesn't is unproductive and false.

  • Dave says:

    Teaching and biotech and whatever is great, bsci. But you still gotta love it. In fact, you gotta love science even MORE if you want to be a teacher, lest not only your life suck, but you suck the life out of your students.
    And I make no apologies for being over-the-top here. What's the point of posting unless one has an opinion?

  • becca says:

    "Before about 50 years ago, most people PAID to get to do what you do."
    Ah yes. The GoodOldDays(tm). During which time people who's gonads come with an expiration date weren't allowed to do science very much. Not to mention the classist implications of making people pay to do it...
    "If you won the lottery, would you spend some of the prize money to set up a lab and solve scientific mysteries? "
    One thing that's cool about the area I'm in is this little new Center for Applied Research. Our pharmacology department just moved over there (it's across the street from our medical center). If I won the lottery, the only question is whether I'd join forces with OneWorldHealth and get to curing some malaria, hard-core, or whether I'd take a relaxed (albeit perhaps not more lesuirely) route to my PhD without having to worry about being funded.
    "If you weren't in school, would you spend your own money to buy books and journals because they're just really damn interesting?" I can't imagine choosing to live anywhere without a good library, so not necessarily. But we all have different places on the "too much stuff" continuum, and if I won a very large lottery I suppose I'd be able to build that dreamhouse with a library so big you'd need a little gokart to get from one end to the other (is it sad that some of my dreams haven't changed since the fourth grade?).
    Those answers are the easy ones. It's the "given my limited talents, where can I apply my love of science to the greatest effect [without driving myself crazier in the process]?" that is the tricky part.

  • neurolover says:

    I think Dave is over the top suggesting that science has to be the same kind of vocation that becoming a nun or priest or something like that is.
    But, I do think that "I love science... I don't love what I'm doing most of the time" is a danger sign. Not because you have to be a nun, but because a lot of science is more than the same. It's true, that the bench work itself decreases as you become a PI, and might even disappear. But, you're going to have to spend a lot of time doing it yourself before you get to that point. And a lot of the other stuff, the insecurity, the rejection, the feeling that of lack of mastery*, the politics, the adversarial situations all stay and don't go away. Some of them get harder some of them a bit esier.
    *FSP (Female Science Professor) had a good post on the "lack of mastery" pointing out that almost by definition doing science means that you're going to feel a lack of mastery. That's the whole point of science, that we're wading into a world we don't understand. No one has mastery. Nothing makes sense. That's it's beauty, but creates a constant sense of inferiority, like failing a test over and over again. Yeah, no one else is passing, but one has to be able to deal with the trauma of getting F's over and over again.

  • bsci says:

    I think the other issue that Dave brushes aside is that saying "I love science" is about as descriptive as saying "I love sports." You might like only certain sports and hate others. You might love being a coach and be an good coach despite being a poor and unfocused player. Sports might not consume your life, but you can focus on the parts you do love and inspire others.
    The "love of science" one needs to be an academic research is different from the love of science needed for an industry job or for teaching. It's not loving science more or less. It's loving different aspects of the scientific process. Yes there are similarities, but you can't draw overarching conclusions based on dislike of one aspect of science. Sorry for stating the obvious, but it seems like it wasn't as obvious as I thought.

  • Dave says:

    Neurolover might like this essay...
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18492790

  • Becca says:

    I don't hate benchwork, I just don't love it. It takes a good deal of discipline to do it most of the time. Once I've started an experiment, I generally want to see how it comes out, but starting it can involve totally excessive procrastination. I know I can't be the only grad student that happens to, but I wonder if it is a negative sign. (as a reference point for my personality- I procrastinate everything, even things I love... so I don't think you can conclude I hate benchwork... but it is worth examining whether there's a negative sign).
    bsci- I think for me, I'm still puzzled as to what kind of work environment I'll feel most comfortable in; what my strengths/weaknesses are; as well as figuring out which aspects of the scientific process I love most. I think that a good scientific career path is something that balances all those sorts of forces for someone... and I've yet to see anything that looks quite right (though probably lots of unremarkable job descriptions would work, given the right circumstances).
    Dave- I heart that essay. It inspired a speech of mine, because I think a lot of it applies more broadly than scientific research. But it's also an attitude that reflects a level of optimisim that is not first nature to me. Frankly, I think it's a little twisted that there are PIs out there (and I'm not naming any names mind you) who want their students to have completely internalized the glorious scientific pursuits of critical thinking and skepticism, but want students to only apply this to their science, and never to their scientific careers in the context of questioning the party lines about research uni TT jobs.

  • neurolover says:

    Ah yes -- that was the essay that inspired the discussion I remembered from FSP.

  • DSKS says:

    "That's its beauty, but creates a constant sense of inferiority, like failing a test over and over again."
    Not me, dude. I go into the lab every morning with the firm conviction that nature doesn't know what the hell its talking about.

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