The real problem with the NIH budget is the growth in the number of mouths at the trough

From the latest entry at the Rock Talk blog we find out the truth(r)!
These are data for the investigator-initiated Research Project Grants only and exclude the ARRA largesse. It shows the number of applications received in 1998 (25,000) and then the gradual increase to just under 50,000 applications for the 2011 FY. The color breakdown is for the number of increased applications that they attribute to increased numbers of applicants versus increased numbers of applications from existing PIs. I am not entirely sure how these numbers were calculated but the post indicates an increase from an average of 1.2 applications submitted per investigator to an average of 1.5 per investigator from 1998 to 2011. This relates in some way to the red band in the figure. This surprised many of us on the Twitters. I don't think I know of any active scientists who are submitting less than several NIH grant applications per year. If I did know of them I'd be kicking their butts! However, if we harken back to some data on either the NIGMS feedback loop (probably) or the Rock Talk blog (maybe; UPDATED, it was RockTalk) which showed the average NIH PI had only about 2 grants concurrently then we must consider that there are still a LOT of folks out there on a single grant at a time. Especially if they have long-term continuations going, sure, maybe there are a lot of PIs who only have to submit an application once every 5 years.
The post also indicates that there were 19,000 applicants in 1998 and this grew to 32,000 in 2011. Some 13,000 new mouths, a 68% increase in PIs seeking money from the NIH. Wowza. As always, we have a sort of fuzzy appreciation of what has been going on with the NIH / extramural research force relationship but seeing these numbers really brings it home.

These numbers make it really hard to sustain the notion that the "real problem" is greedy individual PIs who are receiving too many awards, for which presumably they have to submit more applications. The "real problem" is clearly that we have too many mouths to feed. The solution, consequently is not to further squeeze and constrain the good PIs with budget cuts, dismal success rates and limits on the number of grants, or grant dollars they can hold at a time.

The real solution is to make some hard decisions about which PIs to chase out of the system on a lasting basis.

By this, of course, I mean which type of PI, what size research operation, what type of environment. What do you think Dear Reader? What types of investigators would you advise the NIH to exclude? How are they to make a serious dent in the 68% overage of PIs?

108 responses so far

  • Chemjobber says:

    "How are they to make a serious dent in the 68% overage of PIs?"

    Thunderdome, of course. "Two PIs enter, 1 PI leaves!"

  • KILL THE POOR!!!!!1!1!!!!1!!

  • miko says:

    If only there had been some way to see this coming.

  • neuromusic says:

    remind me:

    why is this info only available at the whim of RockTalk or NCI or NIGMS to release? why can't we just FOIA the data (e.g., funding data for ALL the institutes)

  • becca says:

    I'll wager a goodly chunk of those new mouths are people whose primary gig is not NIH. Food scientists who used to get USDA funding and physicians who are hired primarily as clinicians are two of the groups I'm aware of.
    But mostly, it's terrifying.

  • KILL THE FOOD SCIENTISTS!!!!!!!111!1!111!!!11!!

  • whimple says:

    The big increase in number of applicants happened after the NIH budget doubling stopped in 2003? Say what? I think they got the color coding reversed.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Whimple, I agree that something seems funny about how they are defining "new applicants". Everyone entering after 1998, the "base"? If so, this is a lot less useful than it should be. There's only about 13,000 new applicants (net) by 2011. And almost every year has at least this many applications scored in the new applicants bin.

  • Virgil says:

    Get rid of the complimentary/alternative med institute, whatever it's called. You know, the one that pays good money to find out that prayer/yoga/acupuncture/ayurvedic green tea douches don't work when subjected to randomized placebo controlled trials. Yes, that one, fire them all. Make them beg to Deepak Chopra for funding. Or maybe they could just pray for funding? What's that? Prayer doesn't work... oops! Of course, old Franky Collins being a confirmed Magic Sky Fairy believer makes this very unlikely to happen.

    More realistically, limiting the number of applications per investigator could help... decrease the noise from the folks who submit 10 grants a year. Maybe limiting it to 3 submissions a year a year would force these individuals to put their best science in fewer proposals? And please don't come at me with the "every grant has my best science" line - that cannot possibly be true when you're cranking out 10 a year.

  • This makes some sense, as it took time for the institutions to build buildings and hire people when the doubling started. Five years from the start of the doubling doesn't sound so outlandish for the inflection point to occur.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Virgil,

    It fascinates me that you stick with your hypothesis when the data clearly point to something else.

  • It is pretty delusional to be shouting about limiting applications per applicant when the entire upshot of the OER statistics is that the issue is the number of applicants. I guess this is yet another symptom of "It's THOSE FUCKERS OVER THERE who are ruining everything and preventing me from getting THE R01 THAT I DESERVE!!!! KILL THE OTHER GUY!!!!!!!!!! NOT ME!!!!!!!!!!!!"

  • qaz says:

    What I want to know is what's the proportion of soft-money faculty before 1998 and after?

    During the doubling, my university (Big State Research U) announced its "secret plan" (that we were warned not to divulge to anyone else) -- they would build several new buildings and hire 100 new faculty, each of whom would bring in a million dollars a year from NIH which would solve the university's budget problem (which was that we were getting less money from the state).

    When I told my friend from another university (Fancy-Coast Research U), he told me that their dean had visited their department announcing that he had worked out a deal to get several dozen new faculty lines (soft-money, just start-up funds) for the medical school. The dean was apparently shocked to find that the departmental faculty were not happy about this additional competition. Looks like they were right.

    A five year delay of new buildings, new hires, getting into their new startup funds, and submitting new grants sounds just about right.

    Note - this is a scientific hypothesis and makes a very testable prediction. What are the proportions of hard-money and soft-money positions applying for grants before 1998 and among those 13,000 new mouths to feed?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    HAHAHAAAH "secret plan"! HAHHAAHAHHAHAAHHAH!!! Them and every freakin other University in the country!!!!!!

    (and yeah, you are probably right that much of the increase was from soft money. but becca's point is apt too. physicians, those who were used to getting money elsewhere and no doubt some increase from people in hard money jobs that simply had not had the pressure to win grants before)

  • but becca's point is apt too.

    KILL THE FOOD SCIENTISTS!!!!!!!!!!!!11!!1!!!11!!!

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    I don't know who these physicians that are technically clinicians are. At my institution regular faculty who are MDs are expected to bring in extramural funding for promotion. Their clinical time is not much higher than teaching time for faculty that do not see patients. Our true "clinical faculty" are not expected to secure extramural funding for promotion.

    I blame the food scientists.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Are you sure more of those research MDs weren't hired because of the doubling, Isis?

  • mikka says:

    "The real problem" is a military budget that is eating this country's future. Don't be so myopic, this is just a symptom of a very large tumor. If you don't like what's happened to NIH, just wait until the Republicans (and what the Democrats are becoming) get their hands on the social safety net.

  • me says:

    anybody on this blog from outside the US?......ive always been curious whether there are greener science pastures elsewhere.....n am def planning to search for those lands when postdoc slavedom arrives 4 me next year......if things arent likely to change.....maybe we should start a brain drain.....

  • miko says:

    I know where, but I'm not telling. All you US asst prof / postdoc rats are going down with the ship.

  • Dave's says:

    Looks like it has been essentially flat for the past six or seven years and I would expect a drop in the next couple of years as PIs "drop out of the workforce". I think a hard correction is in the future as natural selection will kicks in.

  • Could be that there was an increase in faculty in our clinical departments, like in basic science departments, but as far as I can see these "research MDs" are hard money folks with similar expectations for promotion as any other hard money faculty member.

    What there are a lot of at my institution are these soft money, prof-not-quite positions where individuals are neither hard nor soft money faculty - they are given a title like "Research Scientist". They are given 100 sq ft of lab space under some faculty member and told that they are eligible for PI status and to get writing.

  • becca says:

    Don't kill the food scientists, unlike you like listeria in your cantaloupe. But for the love of god, fix USDA/FDA. And make them talk to CDC.

    That said, there's a lot of food research that industry *should* be funding, as it's in their own bloody interest. But if you think there's Big money in Big food, you're crazy. It's not like pharma.

    Isis-At my grad institution, there were some people who happened to have MDs (sometimes in addition to the PhD) who were faculty in a "basic science" department as part of the College of Medicine (the 501c(3) side). These folks didn't have clinical duties to speak of. Then there were the MDs in the "clinical science" departments as part of the Hospital (a for-profit entity), who are feeling the pinch to see ever more patients and have an ever harder time being 'allowed' to do research. Basically, they had to go big into NIH extramural funding, or go back to the clinic, in order to be seen as 'puling their weight' among their clinical colleagues. Pascale mentioned she was quite familiar with that problem, so I know it wasn't totally unique to where I was.
    I suppose you could argue only some of those associated with the College are "regular faculty", but (after some hemming and hawing) the clinical types could take on grad students and most taught a bit. And they are all able to enter the NIH applicant pool, which was my point.

  • [...] of a trailing spouse I Can’t Wait: Restroom Access Victory For Crohn’s, Colitis Sufferers The real problem with the NIH budget is the growth in the number of mouths at the trough [...]

  • DJMH says:

    miko August 10, 2012 at 12:38 pm
    If only there had been some way to see this coming.

    +13,000

  • drugmonkey says:

    I wonder if current trainees who are thinking about job hunting have thought about how their current job prospects would be in the glorious alternate Universe where the increase in mouths at the trough never occurred. Would you like to be competing against these folks?

  • miko says:

    Are you saying if it wasn't for shitty job prospects we wouldn't have no job prospects at all? Because universities wouldn't have done so much ridonkulous overbuilding/ hiring/ expanding? I don't think I understand the scenario.

    But I wouldn't know what to do with job prospects if I had them. It would just confuse me.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I'm suggesting the people who got those jobs would still be hanging around, trying to get a TT slot. You'all youngans would be further disadvantaged.

  • Michelle says:

    My husband's salary comes from grants. He's been applying for permanent (read: tenure-track) jobs for four years now, but hasn't gotten a single job offer yet, despite an enviable publication record and great recommendations. A few of his friends/cohorts have gotten permanent jobs---some in academia, others with industry or the government---but several others are doing what my husband is doing: working as a temporary researcher or serial post-doc with no job security. And you know what these employment-insecure folks are doing? APPLYING FOR GRANTS! Constantly. Every season, another proposal or two is submitted. And as more and more PhDs struggle to find more permanent positions, the number of folks applying for grants goes up and up.

    Fortunately, my husband *did* get funded, so his "job" will be secured through the time it takes for me to finish my PhD. What we'll do when I graduate, I have no idea...

  • Dave's says:

    "And as more and more PhDs struggle to find more permanent positions, the number of folks applying for grants goes up and up."

    But the figure doesn't really show that. There was a sharp increase around 04 - 05 , but since then it has been relatively stable.

    And all this chat about TT vs non-TT is pointless. The TT system is dead except in the elite institutions and so we may as well accept the new reality that a successful career can be had without TT and that, yes, it requires a lot of grant applications/support. Some folks here make it sound like a TT/permanent appointment relieves the pressure to get grants and that all this shit goes away. Obviously that is far from the reality and, if anything, it gets worse.

  • miko says:

    "I'm suggesting the people who got those jobs would still be hanging around, trying to get a TT slot. You'all youngans would be further disadvantaged."

    Since '04-'05? Surely they have more dignity and would have opened their food trucks by now.

  • anon says:

    Suggesting to cut the scientific workforce in the US by 68% is the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Growth should be a good thing. And should be expected. Even physioproffe has claimed that his fancy-pants U has increased the number of grad students in its program, with the expectation that many of these students would land TT faculty positions with their own independent research programs. What is needed is some sort of restructuring to accommodate the current budget setbacks. But cutting off the number of people at the feeding trough shouldn't be the solution. By this logic, why not just eliminate about a third of the NIH institutes, hmm? Who needs NIDA? We should just focus on curing cancer, and then maybe everything else will fall into place. OR, if you must eliminate folks, start with the oldest, first. After all, they are probably the most expensive. Or with the people who spend all their time blogging instead of doing their research.

  • miko says:

    I'll go on the record as being against funding stupid projects and anything proposed by a PI born on a weekend. And MD/PhDs are out. Make up your fucking mind. How close are we now?

    Next, abolish study sections and score proposals by:

    (PI's normalized h-index) * (# of presidents in the life time of most senior technician) / (# of grad students in the lab +1).

  • g says:

    At the society for neuroscience conference a couple of years ago, Francis Collins was saying that funding increased dramatically somewhat because of the buzz over the various "-omics" and technological advancement. Since the doubling, science has certainly increased the number of PIs and papers published every year, but we've not really seem any fantastic medical breakthroughs. There has been some incremental improvements in various areas, but no game changers like the science promoters promised. He then segued into how the NIH needs to do more translational work to justify its billions in funding every year.

    This is all fine and good, but I don't think the NIH is going to be anymore successful than industry in creating newer/better drugs and medical devices. The NIH is expensive and isn't producing changes that affect people on a day-to-day basis. Given current and projected governmental tax revenue shortfalls, I predict that the NIH is going to have essentially flat budgets for a long time.

    We have too many academic research buildings and PIs. It doesn't really make sense to have pharmaceutical-style, translational research occuring in the middle of nowhere, where their big industry is trucking and drinking in bars. Regions will have to focus and capitalize on their natural and historical advantages. PI numbers are going to go down-a lot.

    Without a new financial bubble or industry (i.e. the internet), the economy is looking like we're in for a japanese-like lost decade(s). That means no big increase in funding and the number of PIs must go down. Times are tough and they will get tougher.

    BTW, I am (was) a young scientist who is getting out while still young-ish.

  • Jack says:

    Every PI out there who has produced more than one Ph.D. or postdoc expecting them to get externally-funded research positions is contributing to the problem.

    It's been a pyramid scheme for a long time, folks. Anyone who didn't see this coming, or realize what the problem is 10 years ago, is a moron.

  • Grumble says:

    Does anyone have any speculation/hypotheses as to why the number of applications has been essentially flat for the last five years?

    As others have noted, colleges have been very greedy lately with establishing more soft money positions as an explicit investment: build a lab building, pay $$$ for lots of start-up packages, and sit back while the indirects pour in. If this has been happening over the last few years, why hasn't there been a concomitant increase in applications?

    Is the rate of attrition already equal to the rate of new faculty job generation?

  • Dave says:

    "Since the doubling, science has certainly increased the number of PIs and papers published every year, but we've not really seem any fantastic medical breakthroughs. There has been some incremental improvements in various areas, but no game changers like the science promoters promised."

    I think this a load of shite, personally. The idea that NIH-funded research has not produced any "breakthroughs" in 1o years is laughable. Someone has been listening to Paul Ryan a litle too much.......

    The primary goal of the NIH was never to stimulate the fucking economy, create jobs and/or line the pokets of big pharma/US government. It is a biomedical research funding agency with the sole aim of providing research grants to institutions so that they can carry out basic and clinical biomedical research. This research is focused on understanding human diseases and, ultimately, improving human health. That's it. If this mission becomes contaminated by right-wing demands for immediate profitability, return of investment etc etc, then we are all fucked.

  • Grumble says:

    "There has been some incremental improvements in various areas, but no game changers like the science promoters promised."

    I agree with Dave that this is complete BS. It's not too hard to find lists of fantastic recent advances, for instance here. One example is a 40% drop in deaths from heart disease from 2000 to 2009 - despite the epidemic of obesity. Other examples include treatments for cancer tailored to individuals' unique genetic make-up, and HIV treatments that have greatly limited deaths from AIDS. None of these would have happened without NIH-funded research. Ask the people who would be dead today if it weren't for this research whether that research was "game-changing".

  • g says:

    @Dave:
    Francis Collins, the head of the NIH, was saying this. Do you think that the average voter and/or legislator is concerned with advancing science just for the sake of knowledge? People want something from their investment. No ordinary person or politician gives a shit about optogenetics or microarrays. They want cures for cancer and Alzheimer's.

    The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which allocated $10 billion to be spent by the NIH, was intended to prop up and stimulate the economy affected by NIH funding.

    Biomedical scientists have definitely spent a lot of money and have had more papers published, but there has not been a gigantic breakthrough that changes how we treat diseases in a way that everyday Americans can appreciate. This isn't placing blame. I am being realistic. Biomedical science is tricky and expensive-diseases are terribly complex, people are living longer, many patients have co-morbid disorders and chronic diseases, etc. Scientists will need to do a better job justifying their expense.

    I am also curious as to what you consider to be the "breakthroughs" that biomedical science has produced in the past 10 years that will affect everyday Americans. As a scientist, I recognize all sorts of really cool and amazing advancements in so many fields. As a logical person, I recognize that many of these scientific advancements don't really have an effect in the clinic. I am not the only one to recognize this. Hence, there has been a huge push for translational science.

  • drugmonkey says:

    HAART for AIDS hasn't been dramatic enough for you? It took place during the doubling. Of you don't think this was a game-changer than how can we possibly credit any of your opinions?

  • drugmonkey says:

    genome sequencing an assorted related tech will now usher in personalized medicine- definite game-changer. Already some dramatic success stories there with many more to come.

  • antistokes says:

    "genome sequencing an assorted related tech will now usher in personalized medicine- definite game-changer. Already some dramatic success stories there with many more to come."

    Dear MDs:

    The map is not the territory. The genotype is not the phenotype. Please stop obsessing over PCR; it's really just one little biochemical that tells me nothing about the structural biochemistry of tumor cells and their micro/nano-environments. Please learn quantum mechanics if you really want molecular interpretations and solutions for disease.

    Yes, I can read your PNAS articles. I also read everything from J.Chem.Phys.B. to medical magazines for fun. I consider Physical Review Letters to be "tricky", and arXiv makes my poor little chemist head hurt.

    I'm 30. I've just wrapped up my 3 year postdoc using physical chemistry to help detect brain tumor borders, and see that the assistant professor calls now want you to write a mini-grant as part of the proposal.

    I already have one written, since I could see this coming a mile away. All my chemistry profs hated the MD/PhDs, since they were neither one thing nor the other. And these are the people that are on the review boards for grants.

    Medicine is NOT science, it is science-based. You don't have time do see all the patients that will be flooding the clinics as the population gets older. Please do your job, let me do mine, and let's meet and talk about what I discovered in the lab and how you can apply it in your clinic to help your patients.

    Sincerely,
    A Chemist

  • CD0 says:

    I thought that we were discussing about the NIH. The H stands for health and when I have health problems, I do not go to a chemist. Stating that Medicine is not Science is an aberration and reveals absolute ignorance of what an endocrinologist or a nephrologist, for instance, do every day. If you think that simply the amount and the type of serum that a patient receives in a hospital is something random and has no scientific basis, next time you get sick, go to Tom Cruise.
    I agree that we need team science, to incorporate new technologies for the management of patients. However, segregating the people who are most aware of the needs of patients and clinical challenges in favor of people with a background in organic or inorganic chemistry won’t likely bring us too far. For instance, there is considerable waste of resources in the field of nanotechnology, in my opinion, which is driven by chemists and engineers. Multiple probes and beautiful materials with interesting physical properties that are useless in the clinic, because nobody bothers to evaluate whether they are toxic or impossible to administer to multicellular organisms.

  • miko says:

    "No ordinary person or politician gives a shit about optogenetics or microarrays. They want cures for cancer and Alzheimer's."

    That's hilarious. Ever single aspect of the medical/infotech/energy industry has its roots in basic research, almost all of it incomprehensible or boring to "ordinary" people. Yes, most people can't grasp this (or move under their own power for 30 minutes a day, stop eating twinkies, or quit smoking, all of which would do them a fuck lot more good than anything biomedicine will ever come up with), and that's one big reason we don't have a direct democracy. We elect individuals who are in the position and have the duty to educate themselves about how broad investment in basic research was the foundation for every single fucking technical advance of the 20th century. For a few decades, there was broad support for research investment from both parties, and this is the time of unprecedented technological and economic expansion. Coincidence?

    Now, of course, one party wants to rewrite history and give credit for the achievements of public investment to those who profited from it. They have sold their souls to the crazy fuckwit wing of their party and sent a critical mass of proud know-nothings to congress. The system could fall apart. I think it's likely the US will stop investing in basic research in the near term, but will try to keep developing "translational" and "applied" research. This might work for a while, but is built on nothing and will stagnate without curiosity-fueled discovery.

    The entire non-military R&D budget of the US is peanuts, which is why I'm working on GMO weaponized fruit flies.

  • g says:

    @Drugmonkey:
    I was talking about things within the last 10-ish years, since the doubling. HAART is an amazing therapeutic strategy developed by clinicians.

    The "many more to come" is part of the problem. There hasn't been that much and there hasn't been enough coming. Genome-wide association studies were sold as being a panacea to cure disease. The reality is that there may be rare diseases which are caused by one gene mutation, but the vast majority of illnesses and diseases are caused by hundreds of genetic variants. We are basically spending lots of money proving that diseases are very complicated and lots of genes are involved.

    Now this isn't the scientists' fault. Things are complicated, but biomedical science has been oversold. Perhaps we need to focus more on how basic science is necessary for incremental advancements that people can use to create companies.

    In looking at the future game-changers in healthcare, we need to recognize that people live for a long time now and there are a lot of good drugs. What we need most is more preventitive care and to get people to eat more veggies and exercise. None of these things involve crazy amounts of biomedical science research or new drugs. This should be somewhat frightening for biomedical scientists who depend on the governmental largess to support their careers.

  • cyclopropylpyrazole says:

    Looking at the data, unlike the NSF, which has gone to an unofficial “one proposal/investigator/year” policy, this won’t work at the NIH because there are just too many investigators. The next question the NIH faces is how to reduce the number of proposals without disadvantaging the ESI folks and the successful old boys. From earlier comments Rockney has made like (I’m paraphrasing) “institutions could limit the number of applications they send us” my guess is they will limit the number of proposals/institution, forcing the institutions themselves to triage grants. XX proposals/year/university (XX = 20-30?) or something like that seems to be in the cards. Likely renewals would be exempted to protect the current successful researchers, and something will have to be done to help ESI folks (guaranteed 2 grants/year maybe?). Universities would have to set up review committees to review grants before NIH submission if they had too many proposals. From the NIH perspective this saves government dollars and indirects could be justified as part of the review process now. Hope I’m wrong but this hypothesis fits the data so far…

  • Dave says:

    I could also mention multiple advances in diabetes/obesity treatmnent and management that are affecting peoples lives RIGHT NOW and are a direct result of NIH funding in the last decade. It is simply untrue to state that no significant advances have been made. Period.

  • miko says:

    "Universities would have to set up review committees to review grants before NIH submission if they had too many proposals."

    AKA "Can I polish your Bentley, Exalted Dean Sub-Provost McNuggets, B.A.?" = the death of science.

  • becca says:

    "In looking at the future game-changers in healthcare, we need to recognize that people live for a long time now and there are a lot of good drugs."
    Well, or we could look to the 6 billion people in the world for whom that isn't true. Ya know. If y'all get bored with lifestyle diseases. Heck, just come on over to antibiotic development, because all those great drugs we have? Aren't staying great. You really think the public doesn't want a solution for multidrug resistant gonorrhea?
    Also, if you want people to eat more veggies, don't kill the food scientists.

    Yeah. But all that is not necessarily as glamorous as curing cancer and Alzheimer's. But it's work that needs doing. Frankly, saying we've got more scientists than we need is like saying we've got more roads than we need. It's only rabid bat guano unhinged antitax fanatics who could say that with a straight face (unless you're saying we don't need more roads, because we should all have personal solar jetpacks. Cause I'm totes behind personal solar jetpacks. But you really think the rabid antitaxers can give you a jetpack????! I'm betting on the engineers).

    That said, I'm with you on genomic sciences. If genome sciences revolutionizes medicine, it might well be because it's Big Data forces better computing, and that spills over to public health information (outbreaks of diseases)/private health information (electronic recordkeeping ad infinitum). It won't be because Finding All The Genes SOLVES All The Diseases.

  • antistokes says:

    "I thought that we were discussing about the NIH. The H stands for health and when I have health problems, I do not go to a chemist."

    Actually, the chemistry program I was in trains people in physics so they can work the X-rays, MRIs, etc that are a part of most standard diagnosis. So, you are kind of asking a chemist when you go in for these tests. (And yes, I have sat in on a few diagnosis meetings with neurosurgeons, neuropathologists, et al. They are incredibly intelligent people, but they cannot be doing research in a lab and at the same time be in an operating room removing a tumor. Hard to be in two places at once, really.) Also there are a few chemists with Nobels in medicine.

    I think the whole field of genetics has been a bit over-sold, and until you can tell me exactly which biomolecule the gene is encoding, and where exactly in the cell they wind up being located on a nanometer level, I remain skeptical. I used to love genetics, but that was when I was 20 years old and thought mutagenesis was fun. Physicists refer to molecular biology as "acronym land", since it seems to them to just involve memorizing a bunch of vocabulary, plus a lot of lab work that could really be done by a technician. I try to tell them that there is slightly more to it than that these days, what with all the protein crystallography work that's getting done now, but they tend to not believe anything unless there's an equation involved. And even then, they will usually argue with you about it....

  • Richard Gordon says:

    Well folks, there's a simple solution to the dilemma: divide the pot evenly amongst all qualified to apply. The big labs that contribute to the pyramid scheme would be on an equal footing with the new Assistant Prof. Don't like cutting them back so much? Then divide 50% amongst the masses, and let them compete for the rest. The point is simple: we don't know who is going to make those big breakthroughs everyone says they want, so we'd best keep all these bright people in the game, instead of chopping off heads until the brain pool is down to size. We should celebrate the fact that we have so many people wanting to do science, rather than wring our hands about having too many bright mouths to feed. Read about it in Gordon, R. & B.J. Poulin (2009). Cost of the NSERC science grant peer review system exceeds the cost of giving every qualified researcher a baseline grant. Accountability in Research: Policies and Quality Assurance 16(1), 1-28. PDF requests: DickGordonCan@gmail.com

  • NIH_funded_food_scientist says:

    Sorry I'm late to the the party, but as a long time reader and lurker, I had to speak up on this one, as I'm a food scientist with NIH funding. To put it simply: piss off.

    My current position is hard money, so my two NIH grants go much farther now than when I was a soft money postdoc in a med school. On top of the majority of my salary being covered, our indirect rate is 14 percentage points lower.

    If you want to address the problem, end the myth that soft money positions can be fully covered by NIH grants. Make the institution cover some fraction of all those Asst Prof (Research) positions.

  • Grumble says:

    Exactly, Richard Gordon. I've thought for a long time that some large portion of the NIH budget should be allocated by simple division, instead of by the current system of prolonged, psychologically draining and expensive competitions that must be endured repeatedly in order for a PI to fund his/her lab.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    we don't know who is going to make those big breakthroughs everyone says they want, so we'd best keep all these bright people in the game,

    What good does it do to "keep all those bright people in the game" if none of them has any resources to actually play the game?

    Make the institution cover some fraction of all those Asst Prof (Research) positions.

    Given that State and Federal taxes are payed by the same people (the US taxpayers), where is this money supposed to come from? And why would it be more efficient (in our pipe dream of increased taxpayer largesse) to devolve it to the States rather than the Fed? Or are you suggesting we should shrink back to the number of profs that the various States are willing to float and let them all grow their lab operations to many grants each?

    I think the whole field of genetics has been a bit over-sold, and until you can tell me exactly which biomolecule the gene is encoding, and where exactly in the cell they wind up being located on a nanometer level, I remain skeptical.

    Everyone is "skeptical" about the latest hoopla in basic research because the outcome is less than 1:1 between next-great-thing in basic science and lasting, game-changing advances in Health. Since we scientists know the historical relationship we should know better than to fall into this short term, running for Congress type of thinking.

    Universities would have to set up review committees to review grants before NIH submission if they had too many proposals. From the NIH perspective this saves government dollars

    The conservatism in current grant review at NIH is bad enough. Imagine throwing in an extra layer of local political clout to muddy the waters...what a disaster.

    HAART is an amazing therapeutic strategy developed by clinicians.

    You are deranged. The anti-HIV drug compounds were not created by a "strategy developed by clinicians". They were hard won advances based on basic viral and immunological science. The application of these in the clinic for optimal effect was indeed by clinical science and clinical practice. This is called a translational success.

    I was talking about things within the last 10-ish years, since the doubling.
    first you discount what happened during the doubling (which was a decade, long time) because it is too long ago. now you seem to think all of the people who launched a career and built a lab because of the doubling all instantly disappeared? and are playing really dumb pool with respect to the time lag between basic biomedical science findings and the recognition that a game-changing advance in health has been attained?

    Dude, goalpost moving and asserting "no true scotsman" is a stupid way to make your point. it convinces nobody.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    some large portion of the NIH budget should be allocated by simple division, instead of by the current system of prolonged, psychologically draining and expensive competitions that must be endured repeatedly in order for a PI to fund his/her lab.

    Are the French big players in your field? Are they the Game-Changers for the most part?

  • antistokes says:

    "Everyone is "skeptical" about the latest hoopla in basic research because the outcome is less than 1:1 between next-great-thing in basic science and lasting, game-changing advances in Health."

    Heck, dude, I'm a protein chemist. Everyone except me in the lab I was in for grad school went into nice drug making jobs with Pfizer; I'm the only "academic holdout" from my year. And yes, we are skeptical, that is kind of the f*cking job description. Especially if I want to impress Old Men that are Physical Chemists that started many different fields, back in the "good old days". I mean, I totally fear them and all, but they ahhhh. Don't really know genetics/molecular biology. Just a loooot of Math and Physics.

    Actually, the TAs I used to work with relentlessly made fun of the pre-meds we taught and *graded* as being "idiots who just wanted to memorize things". My "lab kids" tended to do better than most on the exams, since I did pre-med track as an undergrad and I get that it takes a lot of work and memorization. Actually, a lot of the kids I TA'd seemed to do a lot better on their organic chemistry tests, since I broke the tutorial sessions down into small working groups and went around and answered their questions on the retro synthetic analysis and electron pushing diagrams.

  • g says:

    Most of the anti-retroviral drugs were discovered in the 90's. HAART is a therapeutic strategy of using multiple drugs with different targets.

    "I was talking about things within the last 10-ish years, since the doubling.
    first you discount what happened during the doubling (which was a decade, long time) because it is too long ago. now you seem to think all of the people who launched a career and built a lab because of the doubling all instantly disappeared? and are playing really dumb pool with respect to the time lag between basic biomedical science findings and the recognition that a game-changing advance in health has been attained?

    Dude, goalpost moving and asserting "no true scotsman" is a stupid way to make your point. it convinces nobody."

    I never was talking about anything other than after the doubling.

    Here is what I initially said: "At the society for neuroscience conference a couple of years ago, Francis Collins was saying that funding increased dramatically somewhat because of the buzz over the various "-omics" and technological advancement. Since the doubling, science has certainly increased the number of PIs and papers published every year, but we've not really seem any fantastic medical breakthroughs. There has been some incremental improvements in various areas, but no game changers like the science promoters promised. He then segued into how the NIH needs to do more translational work to justify its billions in funding every year."

    There are many people in science and working hard. I don't think that government funding is going to improve in the next 10-15 years because I think we are in for a japanese-style lost decade. Without any amazing breakthroughs, scientists are going to have a hard time justifying their costs. In the US, our biggest medical needs are basically to get people to get more preventative care, exercise, sleep, and eat more veggies. This doesn't take much biomedical research investment to accomplish. That all is bad news for academic biomedical scientists.

    FWIW, I am not trying to start a flame war, this is my opinion. I am a young scientist who is getting out of science. That means less competition! So many people don't understand how science and medicine works. It is really complicated and very expensive. If the general public had to pick between a shortfall of $40 billion in medicare/caid or funding the NIH, what would they pick? I love science, but I don't think that people would keep the NIH. Things are going to stabilize at some point. I just don't think that it will be anytime soon.

  • Richard Gordon says:

    RG: we don't know who is going to make those big breakthroughs everyone says they want, so we'd best keep all these bright people in the game,

    DrugMonkey: What good does it do to "keep all those bright people in the game" if none of them has any resources to actually play the game?

    Reply: Never heard of a mixed portfolio? There is a big difference between $0 funding and $modest, baseline funding. Yes, split a substantial part of the pot equally, and you will see "a thousand flowers bloom" to quote Mao, or 50,000 motivated people for NIH. Every $1 billion will support 50,000 bright people with $20,000 each. I understand that this is a pittance for those of you who are well funded, but a boon for those who have $0. Yes, let 50,000 flowers bloom.

  • mikka says:

    I wish I could agree with you RG, but having 50,000 labs with an annual budget of $20K is practically asking every other country in the world to help themselves to our lunch.
    Pittance is an understatement.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    The notion that Universities are going to put out full salary support for Assistant Professors with the expectation they will get a mere $20,000 in NIH grant support is ludicrously out of touch with reality.

  • GAATTC says:

    The America First approach:

    1. NIH is supported by taxpayers. therefore we should stop supporting grad students/post-docs who have no intention of staying in the US. Take a look at websites for Universities in Korea, India and China and note how much taxpayer money went into training these guys only for them to take this training away.

    2. Limit R01 funding to those who have been in the US for 20 years. 'mercia first baby!

    Although not directly related to the America First mindset, we should (3) Cap indirect costs to say, 25%.

    And just like that we can support a few more R01s per year.

  • We should have a separate system of lab-based, as opposed to project-based, funding and it should be modeled like European soccer. You enter at a low tier as an assistant prof right out of postdoc - say $100k/year - reviewed after 3 years for possible small bump. Then, after 5 five years, you go for more stringent review and placement into funding tier based on progress in previous 5 years. Then, every 2 years, everyone in a tier is reviewed with top 20% getting promoted to next funding tier, and bottom 20% getting relegated. Five levels: $100k,$200k,$300k,$400k,$500k. If you enter this system, you agree to only take money from this system.

  • Grumble says:

    "Are the French big players in your field? Are they the Game-Changers for the most part?"

    As it turns out, yes, there are a few French big shots in my field. The number is, to a first approximation, proportionally similar to the number of Americans (French big shots / Total Euros of French Neuroscience Funding = American Big Shots / NIH Budget). Oh, and there are a few Germans and a bunch of Canadians. And a Korean or two. Oh yeah, and some Japanese. So far no one from Papua New Guinea, though. Maybe that's because the New Guineans haven't been spending on neuroscience at all lately.

    The point being, of course, that funding levels per PI are lower in all the above-named countries than in the USA, yet it's only the ones that spend $0 that have no well-known highly productive scientists in my field.

    That said, I don't advocate the extreme of offering $20,000 per lab, and no more. I advocate something like 1/2 to 1 R01 per lab, guaranteed, just for having a good publication record. Anything above that should be won in a competition.

  • Grumble says:

    ...and that competition could look just like what Michael Eisen posted while I was writing my post. Or it could look different.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Perhaps I should have asked "how many French postdocs have you known as they tried to gain a permanent, truly independent position in France".

    I have known several and the sinecure-funding-for-life system is brutal and feudal. No effin' thanks. Horrible for turnover an opportunity for noobs, way I've seen it.

  • drugmonkey says:

    ME-

    That simply doesn't work for certain kinds of work. Human subjects would be right the heck out. It also doesn't make sense that a more deserving noob wouldn't get the money that a Noonan "deserves" through a mediocre but lengthy career. Bad recipe.

    Hey, how come none of the HHMI dudes I've ever known eschew NIH funds? Maybe we should start by banning those BSDs from seeking NIh grants?

  • Richard Gordon says:

    Well, I said that baseline funding would be $20,000 PER $1 billion set aside for baseline grants for 50,000 people. The NIH budget is $30,900,000,000.
    “More than 80% of the NIH's funding is awarded through almost 50,000 competitive grants to more than 300,000 researchers at more than 2,500 universities, medical schools, and other research institutions in every state and around the world” http://www.nih.gov/about/budget.htm. So the average grant is $494,400. Let’s suppose that half of the total budget were spread out equally. The problem is estimating how many people are qualified to apply (including the maligned food researchers). Total applications to NIH in fiscal 2011 was 67,641, of which 13,590 were awarded, a “success rate” of 20.1%, and a total of $5,199,704,826: http://report.nih.gov/success_rates/index.aspx. If we assume a steady state, then there are 50,000 funded grants at any given time, and with 13,590 given out per year each lasts an average of 3.7 years, or $133,622 per year. The number of Principle Investigators per grant in 2007 was 1.4: http://report.nih.gov/UploadDocs/Enumeration_DataReport_20081219.pdf. So the 50,000 grants are supporting 70,000 PIs. How many potential PIs are out there? Hard to say, since only applicants, not those who have given up or never applied, are reported. To guesstimate this number, we have to turn to labor statistics:
    Medical Scientists: # jobs in 2010 = 100,000 http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/medical-scientists.htm
    Microbiologists: 20,300 jobs http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/microbiologists.htm
    Biochemists and Biophysicists: 25,100 jobs http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Life-Physical-and-Social-Science/Biochemists-and-biophysicists.htm
    Let’s assume this misses some categories, and round up to 150,000 people eligible to apply to NIH as PIs. This means that the number of eligible people is roughly twice that of the number supported. So if all eligible people were supported by baseline funding, instead of competition, the average grant would be roughly $230,720.

    Alternatively, if 50% of the NIH budget went evenly to all 150,000 eligible PIs, they would get an average baseline grant of $103,000 per year. The balance would be competed for by the big spenders. Let’s guess there are 40,000 who want more than the baseline, and we give the other 50% of the NIH budget to them. They would get an additional $386,250 per year, or an average total of $489,250 per year per PI.

    These are rough calculations, but make my point: baseline funding is possible, and has the benefit of allowing a hell of a lot more innovation than the current system.

  • drugmonkey says:

    $103K is a lot more than $20K. And $230K is even better. That might get me on board. So which is it? And how are you making those decisions about who enters in the first place?

  • miko says:

    Or, we use RG's system for the entire NIH budget, then if you're hot shit and want more money, you get it elsewhere. HHMI, disease foundations, philanthropic billionaires, batshit billionaires who want to conquer death. You could be the pet scientist of some facebook douche.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Waitaminit. your calculations are based on total costs so your $103K base is more like $66K direct costs. Not enough.

  • Richard Gordon says:

    DrugMonkey:

    Eligibility: http://grants.nih.gov/grants/grant_basics.htm#eligible

    Obviously this could be subject to change. I'm not on top of those issues.

    Direct costs vs overhead: again, my professor career was (I just retired) in Canada, where grants didn't have overheads (though this is changing). Kickbacks from a university administration to the PI are a common practice, as far as I know. As far as administrations' share of the pot goes, consider:

    Ginsberg, B. (2011). The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, Oxford Univ Pr.

    Both of these issues are wide open for discussion. If you assume a flat NIH budget for the foreseeable future, then policies other than "chop off their heads" for the "unsuccessful" applicants can be discussed, with real quantitation. That takes work, not bullshitting.

    Miko: not a bad idea.

  • whimple says:

    I wish I could agree with you RG, but having 50,000 labs with an annual budget of $20K is practically asking every other country in the world to help themselves to our lunch.
    Pittance is an understatement.

    Too short-sighted.

    75% of grant direct cost dollars go to pay the salary/benefits of people doing the bench work. If you don't need to pay those salaries, because these people are undergraduates for example, that is a significant force multiplier on your direct cost dollars. So give $20k to the people that earn their salary teaching undergrads, and use the $20k to support undergraduate level research projects. This could very well be money that yields an excellent return on investment.

  • rs says:

    I am on board with RG (or any other system which allows people to focus more on science rather than on getting money for doing science). I know writing grants is part of my job description, but when this becomes a major part, there is a serious problem with the system.

  • Richard Gordon says:

    Reply to whimple:
    That's $20,000 per each $1 billion invested in 50,000 people. See above. It becomes substantial when multiple $billions are invested in baseline grants.

    The generosity of the USA in funding is probably unsurpassed and certainly not reciprocated here in Canada. Here's the core policy:

    "In general, foreign institutions and international organizations, including public or private non-profit or for-profit organizations, are eligible to apply for research project grants."
    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/grant_basics.htm#eligible

    However, according to http://report.nih.gov/award/index.cfm#tab1,
    Foreign 345 $136,885,907
    Total 39,401 $16,628,282,451
    which is 0.88% by number and $0.82% by cost, so there is no cash cow here to milk.

    Reply to rs:
    Note the title of our article (NSERC = Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council, Canada):

    Gordon, R. & B.J. Poulin (2009). Cost of the NSERC science grant peer review system exceeds the cost of giving every qualified researcher a baseline grant. Accountability in Research: Policies and Quality Assurance 16(1), 1-28.

    Perhaps you'd like to write a similar analysis of NIH? In:

    Gordon, R. (1996). Viewpoint: a rough analysis of funding inequity in the Faculty of Medicine, University of Manitoba. Prairie Med. J. 66(3), 131-132.

    I estimated that research productivity would rise 50% if no one had to write grant applications. Copies on request: DickGordonCan@gmail.com

  • becca says:

    "Are the French big players in your field? Are they the Game-Changers for the most part?"
    They are in Listeria. But you could argue the HHMI monies going to Cossart don't hurt.

    Anyway, the baseline funding calculations are illuminating. I wonder if 103k/year is enough to Do Some Neat Science, but not enough to Strongly Incentivize Universities to Chase More Researchers?
    Does anyone have any realistic ideas of how much it costs to recruit a faculty member? Assuming they are a theoretical fizzycyst or something (that is, how much does it cost with absolute minimal startups and no new lab space)? How low would the ROI from NIH have to get before universities will stop expanding?
    On the other hand, at the moment there are probably enough postdocs floating around that the universities can make the basically free move to 'promote' them to 'research professors' and increase the number of people going after NIH funding without ever putting anything into it. If the unis can more than clear the cost of the salary via the NIH indirects, they'll never have a reason to stop hiring.

    So...indirect cost reform. Basically, if your university is building new buildings, your indirect cost ratio needs to be cut in half until it stops building (and, more importantly, stops hiring). Odds are extremely high this will tank my personal career (since nobody will be hiring for a while), but it might help solve the problem in the long run.
    To prevent people like me from getting squished in the future, you need fewer people in the pool. If you can shift from students to techs and produce fewer credentialed people going after the NIH $$, it'll go a huge way. The real question is, could it be possible to maintain research productivity at least at 80% or so, while going to the more humane system of "real jobs for people with Bachelor's degrees, very few grad school slots"? On the one hand, you loose the frantic working pace of grad students who fear for their existence. On the other hand, if you get a good experienced tech you can make an awful lot more progress on some types of science.

  • Joe says:

    @Becca "Basically, if your university is building new buildings, your indirect cost ratio needs to be cut in half until it stops building (and, more importantly, stops hiring)."
    Note that often funds for buildings come from donations and are a very separate budget. Rich folks want to be able to point at something and say look at what I did. We need to convince people that funding a position, endowing a professorship or traineeship is just as great.

    "On the other hand, if you get a good experienced tech you can make an awful lot more progress on some types of science."
    I love my techs, but they can't write papers or proposals. Also, they don't come up with the breakthrough ideas. They just don't have the background knowledge or the ambition. Maybe they need a better incentive. I just don't think you get to 80% of current productivity without the hungry trainees.

  • deekva says:

    Universities are going to stop hiring, in fact it's already happened at most public institutions with the downturn in state support. But the birthrate is slower, college is fast becoming too expensive, there just won't be butts in seats to justify that many faculty at the undergrad level which is the base of the enrollment pyramid. And therein lies another rub for science funding: fewer college educated = fewer science literate = less public & political support for science.

  • Grumble says:

    "So...indirect cost reform. Basically, if your university is building new buildings, your indirect cost ratio needs to be cut in half until it stops building (and, more importantly, stops hiring). "

    The problem is that the indirect cost system that motivates all these new buildings and soft-money positions is actually a good thing that increases scientific productivity and benefits society. It's really the best of public/private partnership: colleges drum up private money to build buildings and provide start-up for new hires, so federal money doesn't have to be used for that aspect of getting science done.

    On the other hand, given that the NIH budget is not going to increase in the forseeable future, perhaps the solution would be to lower indirects for now, until the budget enters another expansionary phase. When that happens, increase indirects again so colleges are motivated to get private donors to start chipping in again.

  • miko says:

    @DM, yes I hear stuff like that a lot and definitely varies by field. A physicist friend literally did not believe that it mattered where I published, because it shouldn't. But then there's this on a K99 app:

    Two out of the three referees made comments like “excellent publication record, but competing candidates have Cell, Mol. Cell, Nature Med papers”. All my papers are in top society level journals. It was almost like they were saying it apologetically. Regardless, that was game over for me. http://rxnm.wordpress.com/2012/08/07/the-function-of-early-career-awards/#comment-227

    Which I also hear (or see) all the freakin' time. I think my field is probably one of the worst, but it is impossible to avoid that this matters HUGELY for postdocs looking for jobs and money, especially in the absence of pedigree, and there is simply no way around it except to wait for change from the top. Which has never happened in the history of the world.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I didn't mean to imply my "field" was uniquely blind to IF. Just a single study section culture during a period of time. It might have changed.

  • becca says:

    Grumble- part of the question is- do we have the infrastructure we need? Right now, it seems to me we have more people and buildings than we have money to keep them going.
    This depends on the specific location, of course. But I don't see a lot of point in adding ever shinier bells and whistles to buildings in Boston. You're completely right that there's nothing *inherently* wrong with indirects incentivizing expansion; but if the problem comes down to "mouths at the trough", we have to do something.

    Joe-You are right, but money is fungible and I don't think this is insurmountable. Also, I'm pretty sure universities should just stop naming things after people (NB: for the unfamiliar, I'm at Penn State. Don't get me started on statues).

    deekva- if a college education is necessary to be sufficiently scientifically literate to support the idea of basic research, we have already failed utterly as a society. If you're going to have compulsory education at all, why wouldn't that level of scientific understanding be part of it?

  • Dave says:

    @miko - thanks for the cross-post ;)

  • whimple says:

    Note that often funds for buildings come from donations and are a very separate budget.
    Agree with becca that money is cash and Unis love to pretend the dollar bills have "exclusive use of X" printed on them to justify all kinds of shenanigans. Case in point above.

  • Alex says:

    Does anyone have any realistic ideas of how much it costs to recruit a faculty member? Assuming they are a theoretical fizzycyst or something (that is, how much does it cost with absolute minimal startups and no new lab space)?

    I'm a theoretical physicist (though on biomed-relevant projects). Not at an R1, but I can give you an idea of what an R1 theorist would cost:

    To be productive, they need a postdoc, just like any other scientist. Depending on local salaries and benefits, a nice round number for a postdoc would be $50k/year, just to estimate. Assume that the start-up supports, say, 3 years of a postdoc. So far $150k.

    Theorists need grad students, just like any other scientist. A lot of theoretical physics grad students TA most of the time (being a TA for advanced theory classes is good for the student), but a good mentor will support them at least some of the time. Let's say that they support the students 50% and have 2 students, so for a 3-year start-up you need 3 years of a student. The cost of a student depends on tuition (some institutions make the PI pay tuition for grad students, some don't, some only charge tuition until they advance to candidacy, depends on the school), but let's guesstimate $30-35k/year for stipend, some benefits, some tuition. That's $100k over 3 years.

    Equipment: Some just need a chalkboard, but some need good computing resources. In truly high-end computation there's no upper bound on cost, but nowadays $50k can get you something pretty good for mid-tier work. You won't wow the world with the latest and greatest massive simulation, but you'll be able to do some pretty decent Monte Carlo simulations to validate whatever model you wrote down on your chalkboard.

    So far $300k.

    Toss in travel, some cost over-runs (e.g. a student needs a bit more funding because TA slots are sparse), miscellaneous expenses, and we're looking at a $350k start-up package. Many theorists could do well with less, but that's a decent figure to work from.

    Another physics-centric point, since somebody mentioned donors and buildings vs. endowed positions. Newton was Lucasian Chair of Mathematics. Until recently, it was Stephen Hawking. An endowed gift supporting substantial scientific achievements for 350 years. Yes, Cambridge has buildings that old, but things aren't built to last these days. I concur that endowing a professorship or traineeship has real potential to advance science. Faculty don't (usually) spend their time writing grants to put up buildings. They write grants mostly for salaries. Free them from some of that burden, and I think there's real potential to unleash creativity.

    Imagine a donor was persuaded to put $20 million into supporting grad students instead of a new building. Figuring 4% return (I hear that's a bit low, but let's be conservative), that's $800k/year. Student costs vary as I discussed above, but donors have leverage, so let's say the school is persuaded to wave tuition. Depending on benefit costs, that could easily be 20 or more students per year. If a decent-sized program has roughly 80-100 grad students at any given time (some will call that number way too high, a few will call it way too low), that's 20-25% of the students supported.

    Imagine the freedom a program would have if a large fraction of the students were supported like that. Name the department after the donor. That's an investment in the students, and also an investment in faculty, because their grant-writing burden is somewhat eased.

  • drugmonkey says:

    uh-huh. free students just means faculty would say "woo-hoo, three for free, now let me write for another two and I'll really kick some butt!!!".

  • Alex says:

    I wonder what it would take to change culture so that people looked at that sort of gift as an opportunity to focus a bit less on grant writing and a bit more on other aspects of the conduct of science. (I know you've argued before that writing the grant is intimately entwined with planning and thinking through the project, so I'm not trying to pick any fights over whether there's a valid dichotomy there, but I think you know what I mean.)

    My best guess: The department that I got my PhD from has an unusual policy. Grants don't get you tenure, only papers do. I've seen them put that into practice, giving tenure to a guy who published some great work but brought in little money. (Interestingly, he also did an amazing job on teaching...) The department has supposedly encountered some resistance from Deans and Provosts, but the department has an outstanding funding track record overall, a very high ranking, and numerous awards and accolades. They can get away with it, so they do it. The money is a means by which they do science, rather than doing science as a means to get grants. It works for them. And I should add that they weren't always so highly-ranked. They climbed very high by putting the research achievements first and then asking what resources it would take to get there, rather than looking at grants and asking what it would take to get them.

    I have no idea how to sell that to most Deans...

  • Grumble says:

    From your mouth to my dean's ear, Alex. Except he's already been told stories along these lines and had these arguments presented to him, and he doesn't give a flying fuck. For him, it's all about the money. I gather that my dean is not unusual, and that's unfortunate.

  • Mike Holloway says:

    No, the solution is not to maintain the large labs and get rid of the small fry. The large labs have created the problem. Look at the rise in NIH budget next to the rise in applications (http://www.aaas.org/spp/rd/nih04c.htm, for instance). "Do you know what you get if you feed a tribble too much?" The spike in applications doesn't follow on more soft money. The spike follows on more money churning out more PhDs.

  • Alex says:

    Regarding this by Whimple:
    So give $20k to the people that earn their salary teaching undergrads, and use the $20k to support undergraduate level research projects. This could very well be money that yields an excellent return on investment.</i.

    Imagine a world where any lab with productive undergrads (we can discuss how to measure "productive") gets a small allotment like that every year, and the result is that we churn out large numbers of undergrads who have done real, original, research projects. I'm not talking about some crappy little senior project done in their spare time, nor am I talking about spending 10 weeks at an REU and then leaving once they've climbed the learning curve. I'm talking about students who spend a couple years (including at least one summer) really tackling a question that nobody knows the answer to. That would do more for our workforce than churning out PhDs, and it would probably also be more beneficial than a lot of curricular reform projects (which are focused on better ways to learn what's already known). I'm talking about graduating BS recipients who have done real science.

    There's no general strategy to achieve productivity with undergrads and small bits of money. It's easier in some fields than in others, and easier with some techniques than with others. But some of us have found ways to do it. Theoretical physics has a reputation for being too hard for undergreads, but last summer my students produced a highly-optimized algorithm for solving a class of problems of biomedical relevance. This summer they're benchmarking refinements to that algorithm, building a cluster, and also running simulations of some poorly-studied systems on the side. With that sort of experience, and the confidence they get from having done most of it on their own, they'll be a boon for the workforce.

    The world doesn't need another bumper crop of PhDs. It needs BS recipients with the confidence to tackle new problems and learn techniques on their own.

  • Alex says:

    Oops, forgot to close a tag. Do-over:

    Regarding this by Whimple:
    So give $20k to the people that earn their salary teaching undergrads, and use the $20k to support undergraduate level research projects. This could very well be money that yields an excellent return on investment.

    Imagine a world where any lab with productive undergrads (we can discuss how to measure "productive") gets a small allotment like that every year, and the result is that we churn out large numbers of undergrads who have done real, original, research projects. I'm not talking about some crappy little senior project done in their spare time, nor am I talking about spending 10 weeks at an REU and then leaving once they've climbed the learning curve. I'm talking about students who spend a couple years (including at least one summer) really tackling a question that nobody knows the answer to. That would do more for our workforce than churning out PhDs, and it would probably also be more beneficial than a lot of curricular reform projects (which are focused on better ways to learn what's already known). I'm talking about graduating BS recipients who have done real science.

    There's no general strategy to achieve productivity with undergrads and small bits of money. It's easier in some fields than in others, and easier with some techniques than with others. But some of us have found ways to do it. Theoretical physics has a reputation for being too hard for undergreads, but last summer my students produced a highly-optimized algorithm for solving a class of problems of biomedical relevance. This summer they're benchmarking refinements to that algorithm, building a cluster, and also running simulations of some poorly-studied systems on the side. With that sort of experience, and the confidence they get from having done most of it on their own, they'll be a boon for the workforce.

    The world doesn't need another bumper crop of PhDs. It needs BS recipients with the confidence to tackle new problems and learn techniques on their own.

  • drugmonkey says:

    MH: do you even bother to look at the data? The "large labs" have not created the problem. The expansion in number of 1-2 grant labs is the problem. The data show this quite clearly!

  • miko says:

    Unless all the 1-2 grant labs are the large lab spawn. Or spores. Or something else unflattering.

  • qaz says:

    DM writes: "The expansion in number of 1-2 grant labs is the problem. The data show this quite clearly!"

    We don't actually know this. We know that the increase is due to new people applying for grants, but we don't actually know who those people are. Are they new tenure-track faculty honestly trying to build new labs with hard-money salaries from universities? (Due to universities building new buildings?) Are they a baby-boom of postdocs hired during the doubling? Are they old faculty who were living over at USDA and NSF and DOE deciding to try to feed at the NIH trough? Are they new soft-money positions with no commitments from their universities? Are they glorified postdocs given labeled "independent" positions within big labs?

    I think it is definitely interesting that the problem with the application pool is lots of applicants rather than each applicant sending in more grants. (Not what I would have expected.) But that doesn't mean that we know who these people are.

    PS. In reference to some of the earlier proposals - if I had a guaranteed small lab funding, I would happily shrink my lab and never write a grant again. I would definitely not say "woo-hoo, three for free, now let me write for another two". I would say "woo-hoo, three for free, now let's do some science". The only reason that I try to keep multiple grants in the air (which means a big lab when things are good) is that I have to cover the variability. (To paraphrase CPP, anyone trying to keep a continuous operation going on a single grant is asking for trouble.)

  • drugmonkey says:

    The data I linked at Rock Talk in the update show the vast majority of PIs have one or two grants. I suppose all the growth since the doubling could have gone onto the 3-plus grant bin but this is ludicrous. We have to assume the null is a match for the overall stats.

  • qaz says:

    DM - The data from Rock Talk definitely implies that the vast majority of PIs have 1-2 grants, and that the increase is from more people applying for 1-2 grants, not from big PIs applying for a 5th grant. The question is who are these new PIs increasing the number of people applying for 1-2 grants. My point is that we don't know who they are, what their characteristics are, and whether it is a good thing or a bad thing that these new people are entering the applicant pool. (It could be a good thing if this is a broadening of the applicant pool. It could be a bad thing if this is just post-docs being told "if you can get funding, you get to be faculty in my big empire".) My point is that we don't know. And that its premature to suggest what to do about it until we do know.

  • Grumble says:

    It could be a good thing if this is a broadening of the applicant pool. It could be a bad thing if this is just post-docs being told "if you can get funding, you get to be faculty in my big empire".

    What's the difference? First of all, it's hard to get R01 funding and still be part of someone's "empire". Study sections pick up on this like hawks. But if you can demonstrate independence, you have a shot. So if you are a "glorified post-doc" (research adjunct assistant prof, or whatever) and you are given some independence and a corner of a lab and told that getting a R01 means you can stay there for 5 years (and have a better chance at getting a faculty job), you try to get an R01. And that is nothing more than "broadening the applicant pool."

    I'd be surprised if the growth in R01 applicants doesn't have something to do with this pool of applicants - but it's also probably due to the growth of soft money positions. Hard data on soft money would be nice... have studies been done to identify the numbers and characteristics of these over time?

  • [...] I predict that the number of applications that are rejected after this special scrutiny is going to be very, very small. One, maybe two per Fiscal Year per Institute or Center. At best. This will do nothing to feed all the hungry mouths. [...]

  • Julia says:

    The problem is neither money nor young smart scientists looking for it, rather it is that the government does not know science, can't discern junk data from good and continually gives money to academics who flush thousands of dollars down the drain. The problem is the fiefdom setup of science which allows single individuals to bend the truth very easily (for example omitting negative results from publication or including non-reproducible bunk science as preliminary data in proposals). The amount of money the government wastes on bad science or non science is staggering. The 'best' scientists are leading the way in this regard and think that their special stature as high profile academics entitle them to essentially make up science as they go. Thus leading to the 50-75% failure rate when such science is translated to the private sector (which has to abide by more stringent rules and their products actually have to work in more than one person's hands).

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Well that is quite the indictment Julia. Got any proof for any of that?

  • whimple says:

    While I don't agree that sloppy science is the main problem facing the NIH budget, Julia is not necessarily incorrect. See for example: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v483/n7391/full/483509a.html

    My default assumption is that most of the non-reproducibility is due to the statistics underlying the publishing of primarily positive results when many attempts (in different labs) have been made that resulted in negative results that failed to generate publications.

  • [...] is overwhelmingly clear that much of the quotidian difficulty vis a vis grant funding is that we have too many mouths at the NIH grant trough. The career progression for PhDs in biomedicine has experienced a long and steady process of delay, [...]

  • A. Postdoc says:

    @Michael Eisen

    to quote the end of your proposal for lab-based funding "If you enter this system, you agree to only take money from this system."

    Can I take this to mean that you don't like HHMI and the other systems that provide extra money? Or people that also get NSF funding?

    Or can I take this to mean that you are sick of professors starting companies. Because, it has pretty much ruined at least university, and at least one tiny niche field of science as every faculty member rushes to start companies based on their grad students' discoveries. I really hate this, but being a postdoc, I basically can't speak out against it, but I would enjoy it if you felt a similar way and would take up this cause.

  • [...] talk of the great USA science funding crunch, I don't really feel like I see evidence of it at the department level very much. (In the lives of [...]

  • [...] To me anyway. And it is somewhat useful in our considerations for how to fix the NIH. We have to reduce the number of mouths at the trough, this is obvious. I've proposed that we need a prospective approach for the medium to long term [...]

  • [...] post is relevant to our ongoing discussion of the RealProblemTM at the NIH and the consequent ObviousSolutions(R). A comment on a recent post [...]

  • [...] YHN, about their prior depiction of applicant and application numbers. My skepticism was based on my own myopia, given the types of investigators that I am around and know the [...]

  • […] interval of budget flatlining and therefore slipping purchasing power*) with dismal success rates. Too many mouths at the trough, is the way I put the situation, even if I don't specifically blame the doubling interval for […]

  • […] me, this is one of the most important problems facing science right now. Its partly the too many mouths at the trough problem. But I know that there are people, not just the BSD’s who think that its just natural […]

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