Open Thread: Obama's freeze and the NIH (UPDATED)

Jan 29 2010 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, NIH Budgets and Economics

Had a letter come in to your friendly blogstaff today.

What are the implications (if any) of a three-year spending freeze by the Obama administration staring in 2011 on the NIH research budget (no money at all, no increase in money over 2010, a decrease vs. 2010)?

A couple of links to the story are here, here, here.
I don't really have much of a response beyond "bad". How about you?


UPDATE 020110:
Phew? ($1B, or about a 3% increase for NIH)

proposed-changesObama10.jpg
source

61 responses so far

  • whimple says:

    The NIH should implement a year-on-year decrease to the NRSA postdoctoral salary scale. It's better to have 3 unhappy postdocs than 2 happy ones and one unemployed one. Most research money goes to postdocs, so shaving their salaries can leverage up a lot of science.

  • Lamar says:

    you have to pay the bills eventually, and we've already loaded up the credit card on wars and other entitlements. I guess the question is how can we increase the influence of Big Science in DC? it doesn't seem to have a chance up against the military, insurance, oil, etc.

  • John Baskind says:

    Take a tip from the organized Gay/Lesbian community. Like scientists, they're generally shouldered aside by DC. Lobby the President. Forget about Congress. Perhaps, if Organized Science [OS] works really hard at getting to see and talk with the President. Who knows, Science might just get a sentence in next year's State of the Union address, and action in the following year. Better than hand-wringing , don't you think? OS may already be lobbying the President, but if so, OS needs to work harder and smarter. Both Ron Paul and Howard Dean are physicians; IMO, an MD is roughly the equivalent of a Masters in hard science. In politics, you have to fight for every cent. So, fight!

  • John Baskind says:

    correction to sig. under previous comment

  • leigh says:

    there are plenty of jobs with less shit-tastic hours that have actual benefits beyond health insurance, that pay about as much as a postdoc. (i'm approaching 30 and have yet to have a retirement plan of any kind, not to mention i'm in the hole for having spent 8 years in school.) decreasing the already depressing postdoc salary is just taking further advantage of people who have made questionable decisions. how low shall we go as cost of living increases? $30k? $25k? for a phd? that's approaching my personal line in the sand of "fuck this"
    so either way in that scenario, people are going to be leaving science. the variable is how you go about defeating them.

  • So much for science's rightful place. Fuck us all.

  • JD says:

    While I agree that the end of the stimulus funding coming at the same time as a freeze on discretionary funding is sub-optimal, it may also be a fairly brief period (3 years). Science will survive.
    I do think it is a good time to think about low cost work that could be done (maybe high effort to low fixed costs); some of this type of work can be very helpful to building foundations of science and can help leave people in a position to succeed at the end of the freeze.
    So I guess I am going for "don't panic" and "think constructively". Your mileage may, of course, vary.

  • Katharine says:

    What's Obama not freezing?

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    As I commented elsewhere, the freeze, when arrives, will expose the hidden unemployment in science. For years American universities, with the help of the NIH, have built a cheap, yet very qualified working force that carries the majority of the bench work in research labs. This approach to scientific research has created an anomally in which people with the highest academic degrees are being paid less than most beginning nurses out of nursing school. As is clear from commenters such as leigh, this anomally cannot continue unabated. wimple's idea is socialism-communism. If he want to pursue it, why not by reducing the salaries of fat, rich PIs to pay for a better salary to PDs? But of course, that won't happened.
    Let me give you an example how distorted the system is today (a true story): A clinical institute within a certain medical school has been searching for a new head. The leading candidate is a Chinese PI who has six (6) R01s and five Chinese superPDs who work for him for over 5 years. He received an offer from Cornell University, but rejected it because they were not willing to commit to five additional positions for his cadre of lab workers. How a PI of six R01s can run an institute while managing all his projects? How a head of an institue with mediocre English can serve in that position? How superPDs, who all will become assist.profs upon their loyal benefector's acceptance of the head job, could really do the job of an assist.prof when none of them can speak good enough English to communicate with non-Chinese peers? Can you see the problem? This American university is blinded by the six NIH grants that this PI brings with him. The hell with the institute's administration and the other faculty members who work there; the hell with the fact that his superPDs will never really learn to speak English, since their communication among themselves and with their boss is done in Chinese. The main consideration is the IDC that this PI going to bring to the university.
    Whether there will be more stimulus money or three-year freeze, until we all feel the pain of the Bush's Era great failings, the economic problems of the US must go through science, too. For a long time we burried our heads in the sand, paying peanuts to PDs, while promoting or, at least, accepting this crooked system as the best way to do science.
    Hopefully, the coming freeze and its consequences will make the scientific endeavore more efficient and leaner. For too long the engine of this endeavor, its scientists (mainly PDs), have been considered to be cheap labor force both by university administrations and many PIs. Contrary to whimple, I believe that the salary of three PDs should be given to only two PDs.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Last person with a grant, please turn off the lights when it runs out.

  • Pascale says:

    I am losing all hope of ever getting funding again. The beauty of my MD is that my warm body will still be needed at my institution, even if I have to shut my lab down.
    I have loved doing science. I especially love communicating science. But as a PI who must see patients (I am one of two docs in my specialty in my region), I can never compete in productivity with the superlabs (with multiple R01s and post-docs).
    BTW, equating the MD to a master's in "hard science" is a bit too much of a generalization (see #3). Most of us MDs with labs have done research fellowships after residency (total post-BS time 10-12 years). While the amount of time required is less than the post-doctoral stints most PhDs do, that is because we bring value to our universities through clinical work as well as research grants. Hiring an MD with "less certain" grant potential is thus less risky than a PhD with less post-doctoral experience. Of course, that also makes the physician-scientist (even with MD-PhD) less likely to succeed in the lab because we can always take the clinical route (and may even be encouraged to do so). I like to think that seeing the science through a clinical lens brings a unique perspective and value, albeit one that study sections do not seem to appreciate.

  • Of course, that also makes the physician-scientist (even with MD-PhD) less likely to succeed in the lab because we can always take the clinical route (and may even be encouraged to do so).

    This is a serious problem for MD/PhDs. When PhD-only tenure-track or tenured medical school faculty hit a rough funding patch, they still get their full salaries and their departments/institutions always throw at least some money at them to try to tide them over, but without piling any additional non-research duties on them.
    In contrast, MD/PhDs with clinical privileges are simply forced to increase their clinical efforts to make up the lost grant support for their salaries (which tend to be substantially larger than PhD-only faculty). Of course, this shift of effort from research to clinic has the effect of making it even less likely that the MD/PhD PI is going to be able to make it past the rough funding patch and achieve their previous level of grant support. In many cases, the entire research programs of such PIs ends up petering out completely.

  • anne says:

    "The NIH should implement a year-on-year decrease to the NRSA postdoctoral salary scale".
    Thus, We'll help solving the major problem in the USA with science and the economy. I guess that post-docs will have to accommodate some time on Saturdays, before or after doing cell culture, to go and collect food stamps for the week.

  • whimple says:

    Contrary to whimple, I believe that the salary of three PDs should be given to only two PDs.
    This is so wrong. Postdoc and grad student as JOBS are supposed to suck. They are supposed to be training exercises, not permanent jobs.
    I guess that post-docs will have to accommodate some time on Saturdays, before or after doing cell culture, to go and collect food stamps for the week.
    No, you're supposed to stop being an exploited, underpaid, highly-educated chump and actually get on with your life.
    The leading candidate is a Chinese PI who has six (6) R01s and five Chinese superPDs who work for him for over 5 years.
    We have the identical situation here, except the PI with the 6 R01s is not Chinese, even though almost all of the recently AsstProf-converted former permadocs he brought with him are. Of course, having them be postdocs permanently isn't going to work, because postdocs can't apply for R01s. 🙂
    I like to think that seeing the science through a clinical lens brings a unique perspective and value, albeit one that study sections do not seem to appreciate.
    This is because the basic science oriented study sections are threatened by it. If the fly-pusher/yeast-grower/mouse-breeder/fish-spawner/worm-crawler crowd conceded that doing work with direct human relevance has value, the game they've been playing so successfully for so long, promising improved health to the public from NIH dollars and not delivering because their "basic science" studies never get validated in humans, becomes vulnerable. Instead, the lack of real-world human-beneficial productivity out of the NIH means that maintaining the NIH budget in a sustainable way just isn't a priority for the American taxpayer, the American Congress, or the Obama (or Bush before him) Adminstrations.

  • Fuck whimple's crap about decreasing postdoc pay, how about they drop the maximum income that a PI can get from NIH grants a little. Or propose that a PI must put at least 15-20% effort into each R01, or limit the years of renewal of an R01 (I know a fucker that has carried two R01's for nearly 30 years each). I know a trainee position is not supposed to be permanent but living hand to mouth while a PI rolls off for a weekend getaway to their mountain home in a new Benz is bullshit (note I'm a grad student, not a PD).

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    Medicine-related NIH-funded research ala whimple - throw out animal studies, bring in Tuskegee-type research (or maybe Mengale-type experimentation?).

  • Me says:

    This approach to scientific research has created an anomally in which people with the highest academic degrees are being paid less than most beginning nurses out of nursing school.
    There's no anomaly. Nurses are paid more because people value their work, and there aren't enough people going into the profession. If you want more money, and maybe actually want to help people instead of bullshit about it in the intro to your grant proposals, become a nurse! Why is it some people can manage to get a Ph.D. in science, but then seem so stupid when it comes to simple economics and career planning?
    I'm tired of whining by scientists. Taxpayers are NOT obligated to support you just because you spent a long time in school. Grow up.

  • Solomon Rivlin says:

    You, you're huffing and puffing for no reason - I'm with you; we have too many postdocs and that's why they are being paid peanuts - HIDDEN UNEMPLOYMENT!

  • another young FSP says:

    Median income for a 4-person family in most states is in the $55k to $65k range (see http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/4person.html). If you and your spouse are both first year postdocs on the NIH scale (currently $37k), you're at ~$74k and already making more than the median for a couple with 2 kids. If you take a look at incomes for 1- or 2- person families (ie without kids yet), you're well above it.
    You're hardly on food stamps.
    Being a postdoc isn't supposed to be a permanent position. It's entry level in science. And it pays that way. If you get your first Asst Prof position, you'll make ~40% more than you did as a postdoc - it's not the golden ticket.
    If you're in it for the salary, go into industry; my friends who did this make a lot more money than I do. But I like my job more. Just like I did when I was a postdoc.
    Of course, all of this is irrelevant to the original post. What do I think a spending freeze will do to NIH budgets? Well, part of that depends on how many of the hiring freeze stories at universities and medical centers are true. If universities aren't coming up with the startup packages and positions that bring in new people with new grant submissions, then most likely NIH funding paylines stay where they are - which hurts, but isn't going to stop science from happening.
    Universities and med centers will have to find new ways of subsidizing budgets and continuing the non-research missions of the institutions with fewer people - this will include increased teaching loads for PhDs, increased clinical work for relevant MDs. Yes, we'll all have to work harder.
    Facilities will get older and less well maintained. Including our lab space. We'll all complain a lot.
    And we'll all live, because we all have it better than a lot of the US population - we're employed, presumably doing something that we find fulfilling.

  • TreeFish says:

    I have lucked out (and will blog about it starting this spring), and have gotten 3 excellent Euro postdocs from great labs. No Americans even applied.
    As I see it, the best thing to do with post docs is to (1) not change the current scheme. It's working. The best are given the most opportunity. (2) Subsidize drug companies etc. to hire the post docs so that they are not 'really' leaving the public science scene, but merely dipping their toes in the water to see if they like it. You can call it the private/public fusion fellowship.
    Otherwise, the handful of truly good/great American post docs that are out there will end up being thrown out with the bathwater. I think we need to stratify the post docs implicitly, by giving those who really aren't going to end up running labs anyway a soft landing by greasing the skids for their eventual privately funded 'pick up.' In the absence of such action, we either screw the great post docs (short term, before they become PIs) or provide false hope to those that just don't have the chops for this gig.

  • anon says:

    My understanding of the freeze is that it's a freeze on the total discretionary spending + inflation. It doesn't mean every organization is frozen just that the total sum is frozen.
    Assuming it actually happens, it means that various government organizations will be fighting to enlarge or keep their piece of the pie. The "+ inflation" also means that it wouldn't have to be an inflation-adjusted decrease like the past decade.

  • Lamar says:

    true, scientists have it good, and I personally feel I make plenty of money as a postdoc. it's just natural to try to bargain for more, for the future. for example, a bunker-buster bomb costs $145,600. a few less of those and a few more R01s would be nice. how to make this argument to the government/taxpayer is a challenge, though.

  • whimple says:

    Fuck whimple's crap about decreasing postdoc pay, how about they drop the maximum income that a PI can get from NIH grants a little. Or propose that a PI must put at least 15-20% effort into each R01, or limit the years of renewal of an R01...
    The ideas are not mutually exclusive. I'm in favor of every one of these suggestions too.

  • Namnezia says:

    Genomic repairman says:

    I know a trainee position is not supposed to be permanent but living hand to mouth while a PI rolls off for a weekend getaway to their mountain home in a new Benz is bullshit (note I'm a grad student, not a PD).

    Could you please tell me where I can get this cushy PI job? Because I find myself struggling to keep my kids in school, pay my mortgage, keep our crappy car running, all while my postdocs go off for nice vacations in Thailand and other such far-off locales.

  • Anonymous says:

    Namnezia,
    Are you an Assistant Professor at a Basic Science School ?.

  • whimple says:

    ... a PI rolls off for a weekend getaway to their mountain home in a new Benz
    These kinds of highly visible excesses from empire-builder PIs certainly doesn't help the public perception that their tax dollars are well-spent at the NIH.

  • Having a weekend home and a decent car is a "highly visible excess"??? What are you people, a bunch of fucking commies???

  • Namnezia says:

    Yes.

  • Namnezia says:

    Well I guess it won't be as bad, from the NYT:

    WASHINGTON — President Obama will send a $3.8 trillion budget to Congress on Monday for the coming fiscal year that would increase financing for education and for civilian research programs by more than 6 percent and provide $25 billion for cash-starved states, even as he seeks to freeze much domestic spending for the rest of his term.
    The budget for the 2011 fiscal year, which begins in October, will identify the winners and losers behind Mr. Obama’s proposal for a three-year freeze of a portion of the budget. Many programs at the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Energy Department are in line for increases, along with the Census Bureau.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/31/us/politics/31budget.html

  • YIPPY! I just gassed up the fucking Bentley, I got a case of MFJ in the back seat, and I'm cruising up to my mountain chalet!!

  • El Picador says:

    Where you been dude? We're lighting cohibas with twennies in the outdoor energy wasting hottub after a long day on our custom hotrod snowmachines so we can fit in with the local rednecks!

  • Karl says:

    Whimple: Why are training positions supposed to suck?

  • whimple says:

    Whimple: Why are training positions supposed to suck?
    They're supposed to suck when used as permanent jobs instead of as training positions. Academic medical-research postdoc is a prototype example. Postdocs are essentially completely trained in everything they could ever learn from a lab experience in any given PI's lab after 2, or at most 3 years. Longer than that and the postdoctoral position that was supposed to be for training the postdoc, has instead morphed into a role as production for the PI.

  • leigh says:

    but there are forces at work here beyond preventing a postdoc from feeling "too comfortable" and wanting to stick around rather than up their game. 2-3 years as a postdoc, from what i've seen, isn't enough to land a "real" job anymore.
    and @19, medians are nice numbers to play with, but considering the cost of living in some localities is far and away NOWHERE NEAR the median, living near the median isn't quite so great as you make it sound. i'm not asking for much in the salary department, really- just the ability to do more than barely make ends meet would be cool.

  • another young FSP says:

    Leigh@34:
    The point of using a median income is that there are a lot of people in that high-cost area making less than you. I was a postdoc in one of the expensive metropolitan areas - NIH salary is enough that you can pay rent on a lower end apartment, furnish your apartment with used furniture, go out to shows or to eat occasionally, and still be able to fly across the country for vacations. And you have enough security that you never have to worry about whether you'll be able to pay a utility bill. It's possible that my definition of "barely making ends meet" is influenced by the number of non-scientists I know, most of whom had much less disposable income than my postdoc self.
    If salary-to-cost of living ratio is the most important aspect of your postdoc - choose a high-quality research group in a cheap area of the country. There are plenty of them, and I know a number of PIs who say they are not filling postdoc positions because they can't get qualified applicants.

  • Namnezia says:

    Whimple says:

    Longer than that and the postdoctoral position that was supposed to be for training the postdoc, has instead morphed into a role as production for the PI.

    I agree with you, however if the sole purpose of graduate student and postdoc positions is to provide training, then who is supposed to play the main production role in the lab? From this point of view, the lab exists to provide a training environment for postdocs and students and the doing of the science is an incidental by-product. In my view it is not unreasonable for a PI to expect several productive years out of a postdoc. Yes, you will learn all you need in two years (during which most postdocs are not super productive), but why wouldn't a PI expect the postdoc to stay on for another couple of years to produce science? Not just for the PI, but also for the postdoc who benefits from added publications. In an academic setting in the US there is no good position for someone to "produce" science without being a trainee. I guess the PI is supposed to be the main producer, and I would love to have more time to spend in the lab doing experiments, but obviously this becomes increasingly difficult over time.

  • Not all PI's are making bank but we have the issue of the superPI's (3+ R01's) who tend to screw us over by not paying our tuition on time and leaving us to pay the exorbitant late fees to the graduate school, send us off to conferences and not authorize per diem for us off the travel funds from there grants, and last but not least refuse to buy a shared for computer for trainees but instead order a Louis Vitton laptop bag. These are the PI's that chap my ass the ones who could give a shit about mentoring trainees as long as papers roll out the lab with their name on them and they keep renewing their grants. Not all PI's are like this thank goodness though.
    I agree with whimple that the postdoc position should be a temporary trainee program but with the jacked up system in place it seems there are an abundance of postdocs in a holding pattern (as is the case in my lab with a postdoc/instuctor). Unfortunately for a lot of these folks there is nowhere to go. It is as if some rungs on the middle of the career ladder got kicked out and now they are stuck halfway up the ladder.
    @Namnezia,
    I don't think training and production are mutually exclusive but the postdoc should also not be considered the indentured servant of the PI either.
    @CPP,
    when you get back, let me know and I'll detail the bentley and get rid of the empty bottles in the back.

  • Actually it is the success that the PI's that give me hope, I have no disdain or wealth envy for them. I see them as folks who got their asses kicked early but who were really productive and have turned themselves and their scientific aspirations into success. My issue is those PI's who do not hold up the mentoring end of the bargain. I have much luck with my PI who allows me to do a wealth of things to gain knowledge on the process of the research like letting me help write sections of grants (which he heavily edits because I'm the fucktard newbie trainee), review manuscripts, and help write a review article. My other trainees are not so lucky however.

  • whimple says:

    if the sole purpose of graduate student and postdoc positions is to provide training, then who is supposed to play the main production role in the lab?
    Fair question. Examine the history of academic science: the multiyear postdoc is a relatively recent invention. As little as one generation ago, postdocs were optional, or were for one year or so if the trainee wanted to enter a different field of study. Who was doing the production then? Usually the PI with extensive hands-on interaction with the trainees. Pretty old-school huh?
    You will learn all you need in two years (during which most postdocs are not super productive), but why wouldn't a PI expect the postdoc to stay on for another couple of years to produce science?
    I expect grad students to not be super productive in their first two years, mainly from wasted time in inefficient/irrelevant coursework, and then to ramp up productivity in their last two years. Without the coursework excuse and with an earned Ph.D. under their belt already, postdocs need to rapidly be brought up to speed and start being productive almost immediately upon arrival.

  • becca says:

    "Thus, We'll help solving the major problem in the USA with science and the economy. I guess that post-docs will have to accommodate some time on Saturdays, before or after doing cell culture, to go and collect food stamps for the week."
    Actually, on grad student salary, I qualify for state aid with childcare. On postdoc salary, I wouldn't, but still wouldn't make enough to afford daycare. I'm not sure I'd want a raise right now.
    "Having a weekend home and a decent car is a "highly visible excess"??? What are you people, a bunch of fucking commies???"
    Yes and yes.

  • physician scientist says:

    I went through a 4 year post-doc without my mentor picking up a dime of my salary or benefits. During your post-doc, you should also learn to write grants and you will be more motivated if there's an incentive (ie higher salary) if you are successful. What I'm reading on this blog is alot of people wanting to be taken care of by their PIs.

  • gnuma says:

    Sooooo....given that the above nytimes article says NIH/NSF will increase by 6%...how does this compare to previous years, excluding the stimulus? I seem to remember 3% last year...amiright? Nifty little chart anyone?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Thanks to Mad Hatter for alerting me to the Wired article http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/02/obama-science-budget

  • Namnezia says:

    Ugh. 3% isn't quite the 6% they had mentioned. Better than nothing. NSF made of nicely though (8%), I guess I should start working on getting that second NSF grant...

  • mas says:

    DM: For those too lazy or distracted to read the chart title, might be good to emphasize in your link (other than the ambiguous question mark): the budget linked to and discussed is PROPOSED, i.e. a starting point for negotiations.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    What? Are you saying this Democratic congress will not back the requests of this Democratic President?!?!?!?!??
    ..call your Congress Critter, folks.

  • another young FSP says:

    Received an unattributed forwarded message that says much of the NIH increase is going towards system priorities, and that actual investigator grants are still being cut in the proposed increase budget - have you seen anything on this?

  • gnuma says:

    I did hear the new senator of MA say he was fiscally conservative but socially moderate...the example given was that he supported a woman's ability to pay an abortion, but did not support govt $$ for that purpose.

  • I was thrilled to read on The Scientist website that the budget would be increased by one billion dollars. When I initially heard budget freeze - I was really worried the implications that it could have to further science within the NIH. Thankfully the NIH gets some additional funding.

  • Joe says:

    More and more of the U.S. budget is going toward social security, medicare, and medicaid. As the U.S. population ages, there will therefore be less money for science.
    I think biomedical researchers therefore need to stop working on things that might increase lifespan. Instead, maybe there should be an RFA for early identification and termination of people with terminal cancer. Or something like that.
    Logan's run had some decent ideas in it.

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  • The Other Dave says:

    Maybe it's well-deserved punishment...

    "WASHINGTON ­— Harvard, MIT, and a coalition of other powerhouse research institutions have thwarted a reform proposal by the Obama administration to slash the amount of government research money each school receives for overhead costs.

    The result is that about $10 billion a year, roughly a quarter of the nation’s university research budget, will continue to be channeled into such things as administrative salaries and building depreciation instead of directly into scientific studies.

    Critics say the system lacks accountability, unfairly rewards the biggest schools, and is an ineffective use of taxpayer research dollars in an era of fiscal austerity."

    http://www.boston.com/news/nation/2013/03/17/harvard-mit-thwart-effort-cap-overhead-payments/Ridc4YwDfkGlmWfUUJ0snI/story.html

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