Congress Critters want to reduce the NIH salary cap

from Nature:

The 2012 spending bill would cut the salary cap by 17%, from US$199,700 to $165,300, for extramural scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health...

I was wondering when some Congress Critter would figure out s/he can make some hay out of attacking scientists for their exorbitant salaries.

Here's my question though. Since $250,000 per year is "middle class" according to the last round of political rhetoric which addressed the salary/class what justification should scientists be under attack?

[bit of a Twittersation going on as well, start here]
p.s. The vast majority of NIH funded PIs are way, waaaaaay under the salary cap, going by my experience. I would estimate that a disproportionate number of them are MD's as well. The theory on this latter is that they need to be bribed, I mean equivalently compensated, away from purely clinical careers. Agree or not, it needs to be considered.

p.p.s. While this sounds good on paper, in the immediate and medium term, this would roll back on those of us who are not BSD investigators making cap. Why? Because the Uni's would have to come up with the difference. Money being fungible, this means less cash for startup packages, bridging support, faculty senate pilot awards, paying for administrative staff, graduate student salaries....

p.p.p.s. Despite the pain, and the fact that some day I'd love to be at cap as it is right now, I'm actually in support of this. In the abstract. And if there were some way to stave off the immediate pain for junior folks (there isn't) I'd be a lot happier about it.

32 responses so far

  • Pascale says:

    I'm one of those MD scientists. In my case, I will not approach the current salary cap until I am near retirement age, simply because I chose a pediatric subspecialty instead of one in internal medicine or surgery. In those areas, with or without NIH funding, salaries will go waaaay above that cap.

    A whole bunch of NIH money goes into indirects. Why don't we see a drive to cap those at some national percentage? Why can the rate vary so much from institution to institution? Seems like this is a bigger pool to play with.

  • queenrandom says:

    My current running theory is that when they found out postdocs make the same as McD's managers, they realized they couldn't stagnate stipends anymore and turned their angry claws at PIs. At least, I *hope* they won't stagnate postdoc stipends anymore. It's probably a fruitless hope.

    In all seriousness, I think this has to do with their recent recommendation to cut the NIH budget while simultaneously saying (in the same damn sentence), and I quote, "the committee strongly urges NIH to explore creative ways to rethink the way it allocates its funding. The alternative ā€” continuing to nick away, little by little, at the success rate or the size of awards ā€” will inevitably have a negative impact on young investigators." Paying people less....reeeeeeal creative Congress, real creative.

  • Physician Scientist says:

    Let's see...Private practice pathology earns >$350K per year for a 4 day work week.

    Slogging away to get grant funding for a greatly decreased salary would make me think seriously about 10 years of private practice, socking away savings and then checking out.

    This is a good way to kill your physician-scientist pool.

  • whimple says:

    In my opinion the quality of research coming out of the physician-scientist pool doesn't justify an NIH-capped salary anyway. I don't think they'd be particularly missed if they went back to private practice, especially if we could support the salaries of two non-MD PIs instead.

  • won't stagnate postdoc stipends anymore

    Are yoiu fuckeing kidding with this gibberish??? Post-doc salaries/stipends have been *skyrocketing* over the last decade in comparison to the grant budgets that have to pay them.

  • queenrandom says:

    1.5% average yearly increase over 8 years is skyrocketing?! And in the past five years - average of 0.8% - two of those years with 0%? That's stagnant. And the T and F mechanisms used to fund them have been increasing by *exactly* the amount needed without coming out of PI's grant budgets. I get that funding is hard right now. But don't pretend it isn't hard for trainees too. This shit is hard for EVERYONE.

  • queenrandom says:

    Yeargh, no edit function. I meant to say the T and F mechanisms used to fund MANY of them (I realize not all are on T or F, duh).

  • DJMH says:

    I get that MDs could earn more doing MD things, but the rationale I was always given for why postdoc salaries are so low is "you're not in this for the money." oddly this sentiment is always directed at us disgruntledocs, and apparently never at the golden, untouchable, gods among us known as MDs.

  • I meant to say the T and F mechanisms used to fund MANY of them (I realize not all are on T or F, duh).

    Yeah, for values of "MANY" that equal "almost none". The vast majority of NIH R01 grant funds go to paying post-docs and other non-PI scientists.

    1.5% average yearly increase over 8 years is skyrocketing?!

    Of course it is. Take a look outside your little self-aggrandizing bubble at wages in other sectors of the US economy.

  • Physician Scientist says:

    You are such a moron....

    David Livingston, M.D.
    Bruce Beutler, M.D.
    Harold Varmus, M.D.
    Brian Druker, M.D.
    Peter Agre, M.D.

    I could go on and on, but clearly we are a better scientific community if these people are doing private practice.

  • whimple says:

    PS: No, I'm in total agreement with you. Let's definitely keep these five MDs doing top-shelf science, and just send the other overpriced MD scientists back to private practice. Is that what you meant?

  • Physician Scientist says:

    Should I list more? I could go on forever as the list of elite scientists is essentially 50/50 MD v. Ph.D.

    It is helpful to have clinically trained people doing research because they approach problems in a different manner. Its helpful to have a dialogue between those clinically trained, those scientifically trained and those trained in both. You'll lose a more clinical perspective if you drive clinically trained people into private practice. You may want the entire scientific endeavor to consist of determining the air flight velocity of the african swallow, but my own bias is that I'd like to see a good proportion of NIH funded work going toward curing disease.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Oh nonsense Physician Scientist. Most of the best respected MD scientists do basic work that is not fundamentally distinguishable from that of their PhD counterparts. Some of them may make a good show of their clinical training background as "motivation" but c'mon. that's storytelling.

    If you want to convince us, you need to partition by those who were/are actually doing clinical studies at a time and in a way that requires that they personally are an MD (i.e., it isn't just for convenience of certain IRB requirements or whatnot). of the first few MD scientists I know best, they all could very well be PhDs and it would make no impact on their science. zero.

  • Physician Scientist says:

    You have a point Drug Monkey as I myself no longer do any clinical work. I have found that the broad training of medical school, the seeing disease in patients, the diagnosis of disease histologically (I'm clinically training in Pathology) has greatly informed my science and has given me a much broader perspective than my equally intelligent PhD colleagues. The broad training really has helped me, and I suspect that the MDs you are referring to might give you a similar answer.

    At any rate, the thought that you'd want to drive physicians from research careers is absurd.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I have found that the broad training of medical school, the seeing disease in patients, the diagnosis of disease histologically (I'm clinically training in Pathology) has greatly informed my science and has given me a much broader perspective than my equally intelligent PhD colleagues.

    I get you, I do...but realize that this is all handwavy, unprovable rationale that is VERY hard to turn into a reason why we need to triple PI salaries to keep MD's from leaving academic science.

    Note that this is even before we start to throw down the reasons that PhD trained scientists sneer at MDs for their lack of scientific training....

    see how easy it is to slip into "do-it-to-that-other-guy" folks?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Take a look outside your little self-aggrandizing bubble at wages in other sectors of the US economy.

    or even within. I've seen plenty of local institutions that froze raises and may even have (tried to) put in paycuts (see, "furlough") which affected PIs and permanent staff like techs. Yet many of such places still stuck to the NRSA payscale- certainly for people on Ts and Fs, frequently for new-hires and oftentimes for existing nonNRSA postdocs as well. Raise-wise*, postdocs have been sitting the prettiest in the last few years going by what I've seen.

    *yes, the baseline is not the same, duh.

  • If the goal is to infuse basic research with a clinical perspective, it is a lot cheaper to pay the salaries of PhD PIs who work in medical schools than it is to pay the much higher salaries of MD/PhDs or MDs. I know that being in a medical school as a basic scientist PhD has had a major influence on my basic research directions, and has even led me into some real translational research.

  • whimple says:

    Love CPP. He's the Dos Equis Man of science!

  • Benoit says:

    Salary takes a big chunk out of grants. In Canada PI salaries are not covered by grants; institutions pay the PIs with a stable salary. What a concept!

  • drugmonkey says:

    And Canada outstrips the US in the production of science! ....oh, wait.

  • Benoit says:

    Just making a comment about a different system. No need to be snarky. But per capita Canada does very well actually. Really, was that necessary?

  • looks like they reduced it to 179,700, which is Executive Level II within NIH. see

    This seems like a foolish way to cut NIH costs, if that's what they are attempting to do. It will just encourage higher-paid researchers to leave academia, or to get consulting work that will increase conflicts of interest, or perhaps other unintended consequences.

  • Dunno what will really happen, but what they are hoping is that institutions will involuntarily cost-share more of the salary expenses of their highest-paid PIs.

  • I am curious how this impacts grants that are funded now. Let's say a person who earned 200K gets a 20K pay cut (10%), because the salary cap has now been redefined. Does that person increase their % effort by 10% of their originally budgeted effort, and get the same money from that grant? Or is less money sent to them? I am curious how this plays out for people already funded.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Take the simple, if ridiculous case, of 100% effort on one grant. Also, let's stick with the numbers posted above (although I think the current legislation landed on about 180K?)

    The $34,400 difference can now not legally be expended on the dude's salary. The money does not disappear, however, it can still be expended on other grant-related activities. Like adding a technician* or something.... šŸ™‚

    *Hmm, what will advance the grant goals more, another tech added to the project or securing one of those MD scientists in preference to a mere PhD as the PI?

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    According to this website (not vouching for accuracy):

    The NIH salary cap on extramural grants was reduced from Executive Level I ($199,700 in 2011) to Executive Level II ($179,700). NIH is currently working on how this will be implemented since it has been many years since the salary level has decreased.

    I suspect this will be rolled out with each non-competing renewal. Note that the bill hasn't been formally signed yet, so there is no official notice on any NIH website that I could find.

    If Dr. Rockey is reading, I would be curious to know the total dollar amount of extramural funds that would be affected by this change.

  • Steve says:

    Whimple, the joke is when non-MD researchers are paid to do clinically relevant research. 98% don't have a clue when it comes to understanding diseases. I evaluate Ro1 proposals all the time from these non-MDs that make me chuckle more than a good Seinfeld episode. Most of them never really get it because they never see people with're probably one of them. And it is after all the National Institutes of Health.

  • Dan says:

    I hope you people realize what a fool Comrade Physioprof is. No intelligent, self respecting person would spend 10+ years of their life to obtain a PhD and then subject themselves to postdoctoral salaries. On the other end of the scale PIs were bilking the taxpayers by paying themselves more than US senators. If you think you can do better in private industry you're welcome to try. Both instances point to the inability of the NIH to set their own salary guidelines.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Th vast, vast majority of PIs do not "pay themselves"* more than a US Senator makes.

    *salaries are set by the hiring University, not the PI or the NIH.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    $174,000 for the curious.

    Current cap on salary paid from NIH grants is $179,700 and it is only a minority that hit this.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Also, Dan, I do know several people working at multiple industry settings who are my counterpart. Similar training, hired for jobs very similar to what I do. They indeed get paid Congressional level money and more. So in this case, yes private industry pays better. I have also, on the other end, seen what private industry pays techs that are appropriate for my lab. At least 50% higher...they come to us for stability reasons, however so there are trade offs.

  • Dan says:

    I understand that the majority of PIs aren't at the salary cap, though I know some who are, and I've heard enough whining. If they don't like it they can take their chances in the private sector, and good for them. I recommend it. And I agree with Stephen Salzberg that the new cap is not going to save much money, though I'd like to see that happen. Queenrandom is right--it's hard all around right now. Thats why it is a lot easier to justify raising salaries on the low end of the scale (postdocs) than the high end (senior PIs). But those who think that the cap is onerous don't need to persuade me. Ultimately they need to persuade taxpayers. Good luck with that...

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