Tragedy of the NIH Commons

Jan 23 2013 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding, Postgraduate Training

From the San Diego Union Tribune:

...a fresh look under new Chancellor Pradeep Khosla. The discussions will last into next year and are likely to lead to expansion. Khosla has said that UCSD should be closer to UC Berkeley and UCLA when it comes to graduate student enrollment. About 30 percent of the students at those two schools are graduate students. The figure is roughly 20 percent at UCSD, and only about one-third of those students are Ph.D candidates.

Khosla told U-T San Diego that the campus probably could add 1,000 doctoral students at no additional cost because their tuition and stipends are paid from the research grants obtained by faculty. UCSD gets about $1 billion a year in research grants, ranking the campus among the top 10 nationally.

The part that I bolded tells the tale. The tale of our recent history during the NIH doubling in which all and sundry sought to increase their University standing and prestige "for free" on the Federal grant dime.

Khosla appears to be remarkably out of touch with current reality if he thinks this continues to be a winning strategy.

Perhaps he should survey his faculty and ask them who anticipates being able to swing more grad student positions (for 5-6 years) in the future based on their grants.

46 responses so far

  • Dave says:

    Prestige and pissing contests between campuses wins over the futures of the students they are bringing in. This is precisely why, from an objective stance, the NIH budget does not need to see any further increases. It has fueled greed and laziness in a lot of institutions, and they have become overly-reliant on NIH money whilst sitting on large and often untouched endowments.

  • More arrogance. I still think profs need to show the track records for students 2 years, 5 years, 10 years out before they get more. T32's have gotten serious about demonstrating what has happened to your trainees before they give more money.

    Spiny Norman: a great page.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    I love Dave's notion that his stance is objective.

    I do not think that word means what Dave thinks it means.

  • Dave says:

    What I meant was that if I was an outsider looking in, I don't see that the NIH needs a budget increase if the money is to be "wasted" in such a way as is described here. Funding more and more grad students is a complete waste in my opinion.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    Oh. You have evidence that NIH has been funding "more and more grad students" over, say, the last decade? Do tell.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    ...DM's (correct) point is not that NIH support is increasing. His point is that UCSD's proposed expansion in graduate education, predicated on a putative increase, is delusional.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    Ugh. Even more depressing than the crash that came after the doubling is the fact that university leadership seems to have learned absolutely nothing from it.

    If the NIH announced a new doubling today, universities across the country would be breaking ground on new research buildings (whether needed or not) by next week.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    Heck, our U is breaking ground on a series of new buildings now. I'm tempted to propose that the next one be named the Tulip Research Pavilion.

  • Dave says:

    Well, lets see:

    Spending on F31 grants went from $6,000 (thousand) in 2000 to $18,000 (thousand) in 2011. So, yeh, I would say the NIH is funding more and more grad students.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    So the NIH is spending more on F31 grants. That does not tell us whether NIH is funding more grad students overall. RO-1 support is flat or declining in inflation-adjusted dollars while at nearly all institutions grad stipends and tuition have increased markedly over the same interval. In our department the investigator-borne cost of educating has doubled in the last decade as institutional support has been gutted.

    We also need to look at T32 positions. How many of your institution's T32 programs have increased the number of trainees over the last decade?

  • bsci says:

    @Dave,
    NIH spending is at: http://report.nih.gov/NIHDatabook/Charts/Default.aspx?showm=Y&chartId=203&catId=2 and # of grants is at: http://report.nih.gov/NIHDatabook/Charts/Default.aspx?showm=Y&chartId=200&catId=2

    You started at 2000, which is in the middle of the budget doubling, rather than 2005, which is the end. From 2005-2012, all individual training grants (F30-33) went from $50,799 to $53,695 (thousands). This is 3,989 to 4,438 grants awarded. Just the F31 $14,620 to $17,985 (1,425 to 1,770 grants). For the same time window, the institutional training grants went from $137,330 to $123,185 (1032 to 813 grants). Just T32's have dropped from $126,103 to $100,635 (933 to 685 grants)

    The total spending on individual & institutional training grants dropped $11,249.

    Like others have said, you can't just look at F31s, and even then, when discussing the post-doubling world, it helps to start after the doubling ended.

  • drugmonkey says:

    In our department the investigator-borne cost of educating has doubled in the last decade as institutional support has been gutted.

    In particular, there has been an increase in the number of places that started charging student tuition and fees to the grants. Items that were basically waived by the University in my day....if they were even pretended to exist at all.

  • mat says:

    http://www.sciencemag.org/site/feature/misc/webfeat/sotp/commons.xhtml

    From Hardin's 1968 Science article.

    "...the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another....But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons."

  • Dave says:

    Spiny - I don't know where the data is that correlates the number of students with the increase in funding. I have not been able to find NIH data on the number of pre-doctoral students that they have funded over the last 10 years (does it exist?). However, it is perhaps a fair assumption that a tripling of the F-budget would lead to more students.

    In any case, I think we agree on the point that institutions are going to have to step up their game in the years to come in terms of financial support. I think F.C at the NIH has made similar comments recently.

  • dsks says:

    "I don't know where the data is that correlates the number of students with the increase in funding"

    There's definitely a bump due to increased funding of grad students via regular PI NIH grants and non-NIH funding sources. The training/fellowship funding seems to have increased in a fairly constant fashion.

    http://report.nih.gov/nihdatabook/

  • dsks says:

    Oh, link doesn't go to graph directly. It's the "Primary mechanisms of graduate support in the biomedical sciences" graph I'm talking about.

    [Try this... DM]

  • Ola says:

    The real tragedy is that Khosla is probably well respected among his peers (i.e., the senior associate vice provost's assitant to the deputy dean for academic and research affairs types).

    As such, look for his comments to be reproduced nationwide by other institutions engaged in "benchmarking" (A.K.A. everyone else is doing it, so let's do it too, and call it "best practices"). That's the problem in higher edumacation - bad ideas spread rapidly among administrators, who rarely question their underlying logic.

  • bsci says:

    @dsks & @Dave, The number of graduate students supported by NIH is visible at:
    PRIMARY MECHANISMS OF NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH (NIH) SUPPORT FOR FULL-TIME GRADUATE STUDENTS
    http://report.nih.gov/NIHDatabook/Charts/Default.aspx?showm=Y&chartId=243&catId=19
    From 2005-2010, fellowships increased from 1,338 to 1,728, traineeships dropped from 5,212 to 4,946, Research assistantships increased from 13,727 to 13,923, and "other" dropped from 1,024 to 957. Adding that all up, the NIH was supporting 21301 grad students in 2005 and 21554 in 2010. Interprete a 1.2% increase in the number of NIH supported graduate students in any way you like.

    @Dave, Even if "10 years ago" is a nice arbitrary range, in a discussion about NIH allocations after the budget doubling, it helps to set the starting point at the end of the doubling (2005) rather than in the middle (2000).

  • drugmonkey says:

    Ok maybe I didn't pull the right figure that dsks was talking about. try

    http://report.nih.gov/NIHDatabook/Charts/Default.aspx?showm=Y&chartId=236&catId=19

    Which, if "research assistantships" means grant funding, shows what has Khosla salivating and where the problem lies for the rest of us.

  • becca says:

    "I'm tempted to propose that the next one be named the Tulip Research Pavilion"You, good person, win one internets.

    Trolling
    I, for one, blame Berkley. If they weren't such stuck up jackholes, UCSD wouldn't have a grad student class size envy issue.
    /Trolling

  • Dave says:

    Which, if "research assistantships" means grant funding, shows what has Khosla salivating and where the problem lies for the rest of us.

    Indeed.

  • WTFunds says:

    Indirects, meet your catalyst for change. His name is Khosla Paulson. His name is Khosla Paulson.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    @Becca, it is ALWAYS a good idea to blame Berkeley. Of course, when applicable it is an even BETTER idea to blame Stanford. Just sayin'.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    @Dave, I think you have a point we can agree on, at least within limits.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    "Indirects, meet your catalyst for change. His name is Khosla Paulson. His name is Khosla Paulson."

    B-I-N-G-O !

  • The institute where I work is in San Diego and is developing a relationship with UCSD. It is a good school but it really, really has a chip on its shoulder -- it feels that it should be considered in the same league as Berkeley or at least UCLA rather than lumped in with the "other UC campuses" like Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, etc. Yes, the 1,000 extra doctoral students is unrealistic no matter what, but you have to understand the "keeping up with the Joneses" motivation behind it.

  • bikemonkey says:

    So you are saying it is more UCSC than UCB?

  • If the goal is to shift more of the financial burden of performing biomedical research onto the institutions and off the NIH, then substantial amounts of NIH funding should be shifted from research project grants to pre-doc and post-doc training grants and fellowships. This is because the institutions get vastly lower indirect cost rates on fellowships and training grants than they do on RPGs.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    @bikemonkey: getting closer to UC Merced every day...

  • Spiny Norman says:

    I like the way you're thinking, CPP.

  • Grumble says:

    " bad ideas spread rapidly among administrators, who rarely question their underlying logic."

    Except, as pointed out by mat's little quote about the herdsmen on the commons, the administrators' "bad ideas" are perfectly rational. It makes complete sense to expand faculty (and therefore student) numbers because it's the faculty who get the R01s that bring in the indirects. There is no incentive not to "invest" this way - at least until the point at which the average grant income per faculty becomes less than the average faculty salary. Right now, it's still greater, so build, baby, build!

  • @Spiny
    One of my closest friends was initial faculty at Merced. I actually have to give Merced credit -- my friend thought he was entering a purely PUI (to use DM's term) institution, but he has grad students and everything. And he actually has tenure now, so who's laughing? (says me, mr. soft money).

  • Spiny Norman says:

    I was just kidding. I actually don't think that the airs that the "top" UC campuses put on are particularly well justified. And as the newest and youngest campus, UC Merced is unavoidably going to be the whipping-child of the system. Especially with their new interdisciplinary program in methamphetamine studies. (Kidding!)

  • neuromusic says:

    let's not forget that another way to increase the % of students at UCSD that are grad students is to cut the # of undergrads.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Hahhahahhaha, good one. Cut undergrads. Right.

  • gingerest says:

    As long as we're blue-skying, why not go whole hog? How much could the grad student population be increased if UC adopted the Australian system and required that a PhD be finished in three years?

  • Dave says:

    Yea -- cut NIH funding. They clearly have more than enough to do the research, since their able to misappropriate so much research funds. If those institutions want to support grad students, that expense should be written in to the grants. And the dean's pay raise and office remodel and the boozy departmental/program retreats? Those too.

    I am amazed that no high-profile investigative reporters have dug into NIH expenditures and institutional overhead.

    Doesn't FOX news know that science and academia is full of lefties? Wouldn't they love to expose the waste and lies?

  • Dave says:

    Damn, I hate it when I misspell 'they're'. Forget everything I've ever written. I'm a moron.

  • Grumble says:

    Dave - Indirects somehow magically become "institutional funds" that the NIH neither monitors (AFAIK) nor restricts the use of. So, to an extent, I agree with you that there could/should be some more oversight. In the larger context, the whole soft money "ecosystem" that NIH has set up and facilitated really needs to be re-examined. It would be painful to have this be a consequence of media outrage, but if that's what it takes, the end result might be a good thing. Or the result might be massive cuts in NIH funding that translate into massive faculty lay-offs. Who knows.

  • Dave says:

    As long as we're blue-skying, why not go whole hog? How much could the grad student population be increased if UC adopted the Australian system and required that a PhD be finished in three years?

    It's not just Australia. But this would require a re-structuring of the undergraduate system here in the US. The reason (in part) biomedical PhD programs are longer here is because often the students are not very advanced in terms of their subject knowledge, primarily because of the much broader education you guys get here during your undergrad. Taking a year of physiology or molecular biology, for example, is not enough when students from other countries may have been studying these topics for 3+ years as a single major before their PhD starts.

    This is not in any way a criticism as I think there are many advantages to the US undergrad system, but it just means that fresh grad students do need a good couple of years of classes to get up to speed.

  • Dave says:

    The NIH has no interest in overseeing anything, especially institutional expenditure. As they have made clear on numerous occasions, they just bank roll the operation. They don't set the rules.

  • dsks says:

    "But this would require a re-structuring of the undergraduate system here in the US."

    It needs to be done. Too many credit hours required, and a lot of those in electives ridiculously removed from the primary area of study.

    Yeah, I get the whole "broaden the experience" spiel, but I'm not convinced the motive is so noble. In sales, they call it "bundling" and the primary objective is usually to squeeze revenue from customers by piling in fluff they don't need and charging them for it. I think UGs are getting taken for a bit of a ride on the elective thing.

    "I think there are many advantages to the US undergrad system"

    Yes, the options for undergraduate research are exceptional here compared to the opportunities I got in the UK when I was an undergrad (we had one semester of a highly constrictive thesis project in which my mentor went to great lengths to prevent me from touching anything worth more than fifty quid). Indeed, it actually argues further for shortening the PhD length, because a lot of undergraduates going into grad school have already got a decent bit of hands on experience under their belt, and yet the poor fuckers are still plonked on a conveyor belt of further courses and course work before they actually get to sit in front of the bench and do something useful.

  • Dave says:

    I did a "sandwich" degree in the UK in which I took a year out and moved to the US to do undergraduate research. That's how few opportunities for undegrad research there were in the UK.

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