Frequent commenter pinus has alerted me to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed which reports an interview with NIH Director Francis Collins. In comments, he appears to be warning local institutions that they are going to have to stop with the soft-money jobs and find a way to start supporting investigators themselves. Particularly the younger investigators.
Dr. Collins also said he wanted universities to steer more money to younger researchers, to avoid letting their researchers rely solely on federal grants
because there isn't going to be as much federal money anymore...
the NIH, the nation's largest provider of money for academic research, is warning universities that federal support will almost certainly decline after last year's infusion of money from the stimulus measure.
Expanding on the theme...
Some universities are also becoming too reliant on NIH money, allowing faculty members to obtain all of their income from federal research grants, Dr. Collins said.
Such faculty members run at least three or four research projects at a time, and "that turns that investigator into a grant-writing machine perhaps more than a doing-of-science machine," Dr. Collins said. The practice suggests that the university is overreaching rather than investing in its core areas of expertise, he said.
Aha, I can spot a buzz phrase when I hear one. "core areas of expertise". What the hell is that supposed to mean? Either he is talking about investigators working on too broad an array of projects within on laboratory (given the comment about 3-4 projects) or about Universities simply having too many NIH-funded investigators working on too broad an array of subjects.
The first possibility is ever so slightly out of touch because IMO it takes something close to $500K in direct costs to run even a moderately decent laboratory program in most areas. Given the $250K modular cap, this means that people are going to have multiple awards focused on the same
topic of interest core area of expertise. Figure out a way to off load big chunks of salary from the NIH dime to the University dime and you will drop the number of awards, yes. But this has nothing to do with focus on core areas of expertise within the laboratory.
The second possibility is arguable...but I wonder about economy of scale issues and the continuing enthusiasm for translational and cross-disciplinary work. The larger research Universities pull off some big wins precisely because there is a broad array of local expertise, Core facilities featuring really big ticket equipment that is running around the clock on a wide diversity of projects, etc...all the way down to amortization of the security guard and janitorial costs across a larger workforce.
Director Collins also is aware of the age problem.
But Dr. Collins said he was looking more at universities themselves, saying that the age bias actually originates with institutions that don't allow their younger researchers to apply for grants.
The NIH has been encouraging universities to adopt strategies such as the fellowships run by the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. There, scientists are given laboratory space and guidance immediately after they get their doctoral degrees, Dr. Collins said.
Dr. Collins said he recognized the risk "that you'll take a talented person and throw them out before they can swim, and ultimately have somebody who just crashes and burns." But the Whitehead Institute experience shows that there are truly talented and deserving researchers at younger age levels who currently get "shoved into a postdoc position that might go on five, six, seven years."
Oh, good thing we have this little Whitehead experience to inform us. Because, you know, the fact that two scientific generations ago everybody got their jobs within three years of defending the PhD and they didn't "crash and burn" couldn't possibly tell us anything. The fact that we are talking about people being in their mid 30s or older by the time they have to "swim"...yeah, that doesn't tell us anything. It is just insanity to pretend that there is some sort of weird risk here. As always, I want to see the data. What on earth supports the notion that these dang kids these days will "crash and burn" if they are given the opportunity for independent laboratory research at age 28 instead of age 38? Where. Are. The. DATA?????*
One final thing really irritated me. It runs along my general critique of the NIH when it pretends not to want to dictate to local Universities and research institutions.
"There's a whole lot of ideas people have floated, and it doesn't look as if so far we're making much progress, so this is a hard problem," he said.
Yeah, real mystery here
dude Director. Look, the NIH does all kinds of things that are essentially absolute mandates to Universities. You gotta be square with animal and human subjects regulations or you aren't getting any money. You have to do all the accounting stuff and supply progress reports. Your overhead rate is negotiated. It delves into scientific and specific grant-mechanism issues too. "Evidence of institutional support" for certain things like shared-equipment grants comes to mind. There are other policies large and small which work out to effective dictation of local behavior.
The concept is thoroughly established. So if the NIH is serious, there is a pretty simple way to do this. Just tell Big FancyPants U that they will be receiving a scheduled plan for improvement of their hard money and/or junior faculty ranks in the biomedical departments. The benchmarks for increasing their percentages will be met or the NIH will apply across the board cuts to each and every research grant at the University. On a progressive schedule over the next, say, 5 year interval. Or the NIH could just refuse to award any new grants (again, the awards are to the institution, not the investigator, remember?)
If you think the Universities wouldn't snap into line post-haste you haven't been paying attention to the dependence on the federal dime.
Now, I'm not saying this is necessarily a good idea and it would be unbelievably disruptive to the current research force. People entrenched in the current soft-money economy would be losing their jobs. Mid-career people would be hit hardest, I would assume. That means me and many of my readers so....yeah. But what I really can't stand is the NIH selectively throwing up its hands and lamenting "what can we do, it is all the fault of the Universities".
I find that totally disingenuous. They enjoy a tremendous power of the purse. They use it for some things and have done so for decades. Why not for this?
Okay, now that you are all fired up..the deflation.
Any new restrictions in that area, however, "would have to be phased in over a fairly long period of time because many universities and faculty members would find that quite disruptive," he said.
Yeah, they (the NIH) say this every time the subject of reeling in the soft-money issue comes up. Because so many high-profile research institutes and Medical schools are up to their ears in the soft-money practice. All across the
country Congressional districts. And there would be such a political outcry if the NIH really tried to face down the Universities...it is no wonder they tread lightly.
*I know, I know, I'm being unreasonable. But you see this assertion made either overtly or implicitly all the time. It is never backed up by a serious rationale that considers that you only learn some things by doing, that Mozart was dead for 7 years by the time he got his first R01, opportunity cost of truncating an independent career by 10 yrs...the list goes on. And yet we don't even start from a data based observation that those who got a major grant at age 28 are somehow less capable than those who got it at age 38.