NPR on the NIH Grant situation

Sep 10 2014 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding, Public Health

In the event that you missed it, NPR has been running stories on the current situation with NIH-funded biomedical research in the US. These seem to be mostly the work of Richard Harris, so many thanks to him for telling these stories to the public. You will note that these are not issues new to this readership for the most part. The themes are familiar and, perhaps necessarily, latch onto one position and therefore lack breadth and dimension. Those familiar with my views on "the real problem" with respect to NIH funding will see many things I object to in terms of truthy sounding assertions that don't hold water on examination. Still, I am positively delighted that this extensive series is being brought to the NPR audience.

Enjoy.

When Scientists Give Up

"When I was a very young scientist, I told myself I would only work on the hardest questions because those were the ones that were worth working on," he says. "And it has been to my advantage and my detriment."

Over the years, he has written a blizzard of grant proposals, but he couldn't convince his peers that his edgy ideas were worth taking a risk on. So, as the last of his funding dried up, he quit his academic job.

"I shouldn't be a grocer right now," he says with a note of anger in his voice. "I should be training students. I should be doing deeper research. And I can't. I don't have an outlet for it."

U.S. Science Suffering From Booms And Busts In Funding

"If I don't get another NIH grant, say, within the next year, then I will have to let some people go in my lab. And that's a fact," Waterland says. "And there could be a point at which I'm not able to keep a lab."

He notes that the hallway in his laboratory's building is starting to feel like a ghost town as funding for his colleagues dries up. He misses the energy of that lost camaraderie.

"The only people who can survive in this environment are people who are absolutely passionate about what they're doing and have the self-confidence and competitiveness to just go back again and again and just persistently apply for funding," Waterland says.He has applied for eight grants and has been rejected time and again. He's still hoping that his grant for the obesity research will get renewed — next year.

Built In Better Times, University Labs Now Lack Research Funding

PAULA STEPHAN: In many ways, the research university that's evolved today is much like a shopping mall.

HARRIS: She says think of universities as mall owners and individual scientists as the shopkeepers. Scientists get research grants and then pay rent to the universities out of that money. When grant funding doubled between 1998 and 2003, construction cranes went up all over the country to build more lab space.

STEPHAN: Universities were exuberant. They thought that they could keep running this kind of scheme - where the NIH budget would keep going up, and they could keep hiring more people.

HARRIS: But that didn't happen. After the NIH budget doubled, it stagnated. In fact it's declined more than 20 percent when you take inflation into account.

STEPHAN: We greatly overbuilt the shopping malls.

By The Numbers: Search NIH Grant Data By Institution (support site for the pieces by Richard Harris)

113 responses so far

  • My lab is Spencer's Gifts.

  • qaz says:

    Of course the shopping malls are also empty of stores.

  • Shopping malls have the "Dead Mall" phenomenon, where a newer prettier mall sucks away most of the stores from an existing mall, leaving the older mall largely empty with a few borderline businesses that could never have paid the rent when the mall was at its prime. Does the same thing happen with universities? Maybe I'm reading too much into the shopping mall metaphor.

  • pinus says:

    The narrative that 'I am too smart and edgy for the nih' sure plays well, and it is great to draw attention to the funding crunch. but I also think it is bullshit.

  • dsks says:

    We're all too smart and edgy for this racket.

    Especially me. My awesomeness intimidates reviewers.

  • pinus says:

    oh yeah, mine too, so much that they just reject it with lengthy amounts of reasons. I really need to chill out so they can be nicer.

  • drugmonkey says:

    The narrative that 'I am too smart and edgy for the nih' sure plays well, and it is great to draw attention to the funding crunch. but I also think it is bullshit.

    I am saddened by this as well but it sure as heck seems to be the only take that the media thinks will sell. Francis Collins too for that matter.

    Sure, it is a harder path to convince the public and the Congress that science advances by the long slow slog and not only by some AMAZING BREAKTHRU!!!!!11!!! paper. I mean, don't you think Congress ever asks Collins why each AMAZING FINDING hasn't cured cancer? Why can't there be a voice of reason in this process saying "hey, we've created a lot of helpful therapies for different types of cancer via a lot of hard, unsexxy work so let's fund more of that".

  • Established PI says:

    NPR highlighted the right problem with the wrong people. I am sorry, but it is pretty hard to imagine that someone with such terrific ideas is left with no other employment options other than running a grocery store.

  • It does happen, Established PI -- think of Douglas Prasher, who was the first to clone GFP and understand why it was important -- he lost funding, left science, and was found working as a shuttle bus driver for a car dealer when Chalfie and Tsien got the Nobel for GFP in 2008. But yeah, "I don't have funding because nobody recognizes my brilliance" isn't a very convincing argument in most cases.

  • mytchondria says:

    Actually I disagree with Established PI, if only because I had the opportunity to listen to the whole interview. There are some folks who were interviewed who had REALLY good funding but couldn't follow the stuff that they wanted to (one dood from UVA wanted to develop in vivo screens for anthrax but had to stick to traditional microbio after training at Berkley and some place in France that sounded cool, but was likely filled with french people).
    I love that they are continuing the series, but sadly was driving with Mini and Jr in the car when it came on. They both got very quiet and scared. They seemed to feel better (ish) when I told them mommy can always run a meth lab if funding hits the skids.
    I also think of CPP's lab as more of that weird mall place where they sell corn dogs and fries by the pound.

  • becca says:

    "Too smart and edgy for NIH" is a little truthy, but there's a bigger truth of "too intellectual and risky for government funding". Generally speaking, we've got a problem of a shifting cultural zeitgeist, and scarcity mindsets plague long term investments like research. It's not about one individual's special snowflakeness of not getting funding, it's about the trends.

    Established PI- I could tell you how wrong you are, but the most common reason people say things like that is that they haven't actually put their superspecialsnowflake skills to the test in the labor market recently. Or, occasionally, they've *never* put their skills to the test in the labor market under the conditions most people have to. One really key detail in that story is that he grew up in a trailer park in Pennsylvania. In contrast, most natural scientists come from families with significantly above average incomes.

  • Datahound says:

    I gather there are more NPR stories coming next week. A major challenge in putting together these stories is identifying individuals who are willing to tell their stories to a reporter and then share them on such a visible stage. We should encourage our colleagues to step up and tell their stories.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    "Too smart and edgy for NIH" is a little truthy, but there's a bigger truth of "too intellectual and risky for government funding".

    Translation: "I don't know how to make a simple case for my idea."

    Alternatively: "I'm too stupid to realize that Specific Aims are malleable, and that the Map (the proposal) need not correspond precisely to the operational Territory."

    Seriously. If you get the grant and use it in the same general area, and do BETTER work than you'd proposed, what study section is going to ding you for that when you come up for renewal? Alternatively, if it's worked out THAT well, why not scuttle the renewal, and use the Results to write a NEW proposal on what should, by now, be a slam dunk?

    If you're actually as smart as you think you are, that is.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    Addendum: Should be obvious, but my snark is NOT pointed at Doc Becca.

  • Datahound says:

    With regard to the "risky" versus "safe" application discussion, my own N=1 story involves two consecutive applications that I wrote some time ago. The first was quite creative and out there (involving synthesizing proteins from all D-amino acids) which struggled in peer review and ended up getting picked up for a small R55 award (thanks, NIGMS). This led to support for one postdoc and a few publications (which continue to be cited and opened a field with its own Wikipedia listing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racemic_crystallography). This was followed by an application that was much more closely aligned with the previous work from our lab. This received a much better score even though I think it was much less exciting.

    With that said, I wholeheartedly agree with DM that the actual story of how most science progresses (incremental progresses building on others work as well as your own) gets lost in the hype of "breakthroughs."

  • Spiny Norman says:

    I'd not realized you had published on that as early as 1993, Datahound. Elegant, elegant stuff.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    That part where Patterson mentioned the amount of Federal funding ($5-6 million) that has gone into his education/training and research is also something that I think about whenever I read articles about minorities and women leaking out of the STEM pipeline. What a waste of Federal funding it represents if highly specialized and trained people can't continue to conduct scientific research or use their training in some other meaningful way.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    LS- until you remember that "trainees" are in fact the labor force. We may lament a factory having to lay off skilled workers but we don't try to claim everything they were paid and used in raw material, energy and factory square footage was all just their training expense.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Spiny- there is more than one "becca" on the internets.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    @DM - yes, but even if you factor out the raw material, etc. and just calculate stipends/salaries, cost of benefits (or just health insurance, for trainees, unfortunately), and tuition/training costs paid on the Federal dime and then multiply that cost by the number of individuals who "leaked out" of the STEM pipeline, as well as the numbers of years invested per person, it still amounts to a pretty sizable lost investment when one considers the individuals who leave science. Not to mention the brain drain (which is another loss).

    On another note: whatever happened to Patterson (and the others interviewed), at least he's talking about it. That takes courage. And, it also takes kindness - he's helping to inform the public about the effects of cuts to NIH funding, even though it doesn't directly benefit him. That's admirable and doesn't deserve the snark that some folks seem to directing at his comments.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I am more frustrated with the story the media feels compelled to tell about the NIH troubles then with the individual's complaining.

  • yes, but even if you factor out the raw material, etc. and just calculate stipends/salaries, cost of benefits (or just health insurance, for trainees, unfortunately), and tuition/training costs paid on the Federal dime and then multiply that cost by the number of individuals who "leaked out" of the STEM pipeline, as well as the numbers of years invested per person, it still amounts to a pretty sizable lost investment when one considers the individuals who leave science. Not to mention the brain drain (which is another loss)

    This analysis is ignoring a huge factor: the offsetting value added to the scientific enterprise by the efforts of these individuals while they were supported by NIH funds.

  • Ola says:

    I like the mall analogy...

    Deans = mall cops
    Department admins = gift wrap center
    Guy who drives the floor polisher = himself
    Med Center CEO announcing new strategic plan = cheerleader show/local radio booth
    Old people walking the corridors aimlessly
    Flashy shop with young good looking assistants and free glossy catalog = glam lab
    Some cars in parking lot way too nice for this gig, wonder who they belong to?
    Coffee bar on every corner
    Orange-brown paint scheme, shoddy construction, leaky roof
    Weird lab/shop in the corner run by hippy, nobody dares go in there
    Rapidly being superseded by online/outsourcing efforts
    Shoplifting, especially after hours

    ... I could go on

  • Morgan Price says:

    "it is pretty hard to imagine that someone with such terrific ideas is left with no other employment options other than running a grocery store" -- I get the impression that hundreds of solid labs have shut down over the last few years. Does anyone know what do the PIs do afterwards if they don't retire? So far I've only heard a few anecdotes. Besides the bus driver and grocery store manager mentioned above, I've heard a couple stories of former PIs becoming programmers or patent agents.

  • qaz says:

    Taking a job as a patent agent when you can't get the university job you want has a very long history....

  • Brain says:

    I've met Patterson, he is definitely a brilliant guy. I think he also switched fields from what he was doing as post-doc. This makes it harder because reviewers are not familiar with you or your work. You also don't have the network of colleagues that gets you invited as speakers, on study sections etc.

  • eeke says:

    "One really key detail in that story is that he grew up in a trailer park in Pennsylvania. In contrast, most natural scientists come from families with significantly above average incomes."

    becca - how is this relevant? And what is the evidence for the second comment? Are you suggesting that because this person did not come from a privileged background he was not entitled to succeeding in academic science? wtf? Have you ever heard of Michael Faraday? Mario Capecchi? Look them up.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    @CPP - I would definitely count that as part of the lost investment, as the individuals who "leak out" can no longer contribute in that way once they have left science. The dollars of funding were specifically given to those individuals for highly specialized training (although some people prefer to think of it as mere labor). That's what I meant by brain drain. The dollar amount invested is one issue, but the loss of each unique, creative mind that could have continued to make valuable intellectual contributions to science and the synergy and collaboration that is established among highly specialized members of the scientific community (from trainees to PIs) breaks down when members leave.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    That last sentence should read: "... but there's also the loss of each unique creative mind...." There should also be a comma in that sentence. As you can tell, I'm working on a paper draft right now and haven't had enough caffeine this morning.

  • dsks says:

    The problem we have is that a lot of non-scientists - not without justification I should point out given how things are Out There - will respond to these revelations with less than the sympathy we might wish for.

    It's tough, and it's not always fair. The best we can do is put in our best game and roll with the punches. If that doesn't cut it...

    ... well, I figure the people regularly riding my bus will at least be well learned in the basics of physiology and pharmacology.

  • hpmcmf says:

    hahahahha, he sounds like cpp's brother

  • Davis Sharp says:

    Obviously the biomedical research enterprise is important for health, knowledge, and the economy, but when someone talks about the amount that taxpayers have invested in him, it give off a "too big to fail" vibe. That's not the message that ought to be going out to taxpayers or Congress.

  • Joe says:

    I didn't hear the NPR story, but a friend of mine was describing it to me. He said it made the NIH look like idiots, funding projects on things we already know and not funding projects that will lead to progress. So this radio story may have done more harm than good.

    We are producing many more scientists than we are funding to do science, and that should be the story. Ask anyone coming out of a study section meeting, and they will tell you that there were 30 or 40 proposals in a 100 proposal stack that should definitely be done, while only 10 got a fundable score. The problem is not that there aren't great ideas, well-reasoned, significant, and supported by preliminary data. The problem is that legislators in their zeal to cut spending are not carefully considering the need, opportunities, and value of scientific research. Thus we have many well-trained scientists, many well-equipped labs, and many great ideas for research, and we are not using them for the betterment of humanity.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I know I always harp on this in threads like this one, but let's not place all the blame on congress and the NIH and let institutions off the hook. Things wouldn't be nearly this bad if medical schools had managed their growth with an eye to sustainability, instead of using the doubling to simply expand as much as possible as fast as possible.

  • Dave says:

    Boring stuff from NPR. Nothing new there. You can almost feel the collective eye-roll from the general public. They have become weary/bored of these stories, and the more examples the media pull out of their asses, the less effect it has. Plus the focus is always on the NIH, when I happen to think that it goes much, much deeper than that.

    I think we need to be more focused on solutions, and there needs to be some urgency, if anybody really cares that is ('it wont affect me, and after the great cull, paylines will go up, so I will be mustard'). It's clear congress isn't going to do anything, and institutions - if they are anything like mine - are increasingly seeing research as a luxury that they just cannot afford. We are seeing yearly 10% salary cuts for faculty now if they do not bring in enough funding. That's for 'tenured' faculty. Research faculty get one year (with a salary cut) to shape up, or they are done. This can include faculty with R01s, VA Merits, foundation grants etc that are not covering enough of their salary. It's becoming very difficult for me to see how this situation doesn't deteriorate rapidly in the next 5 years.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    institutions - if they are anything like mine - are increasingly seeing research as a luxury that they just cannot afford.

    So far, my institution continues to view research as a core component of its mission, and continues to subsidize it from clinical, endowment, and other income.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    So, the NIH should cull the bottom 100 Universities. Just stop funding anything there at all.

    Discuss.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Lady Scientist- whether people want to view trainees as Labor or don't want to is entirely beside the point. Science "trainees" ARE the Labor in this job sector / industry.

    Tricking them into seeing themselves as "trainees" is what underpins the exploitation of them as a class.

  • Dave says:

    So far, my institution continues to view research as a core component of its mission, and continues to subsidize it from clinical, endowment, and other income

    That's how it started here, using clinical revenue to keep things ticking over. But we got a new Dean, who is of course an MD, and a 'compensation plan' was promptly drawn up by the lawyers and implemented fully this year and last. Formal salary requirements (and processes for salary reductions) were set-up for tenure/TT and non-tenure track faculty. Tenured folk must get 50% salary from grants; non-tenure 100%. Divisions can no longer use 'ultra soft-money' to prop-up under-funded investigators (things like indirect returns etc). Typically, as long as there was money somewhere in the division pot, it could be used at the discretion of each division chief for faculty salaries, but the bean counters have all but stopped that. When there aren't enough grants to go round, they come in and start the process.

    Our small division has lost two tenured full professors this year because of this, and an asst-prof has met with the admin to start his 'process'. An awful lot of research-track people are facing fairly draconian salary cuts across the department. In the last three years, about 10 well-known senior PIs with consistent funding left for other institutions that offered them better support. Faculty from one internationally recognized institute walked out en masse, and re-grouped at another school in another state.

    And now clinical revenue is not looking so hot. They blame Obamacare for lower reimbursements, but the main reason is they built huge fancy new clinical buildings that they can't pay for and that patients in the community apparently don't want to go to. Our endowment is a joke. We have had a famous fancy-pants consultancy firm here for a year or more, telling us what we already know, we have had a new website made, and a different consultancy firm is coming in to assess our fucking per diem rates. Now the school is requesting an increase in their F&As from congress as well. It's unbelievable and it must sound like I'm making this shit up, but we are looking like ground zero for the decimation of soft-money research unfortunately.

    In short, it's a royal fucking mess. It's becoming very real, and very scary for everyone. Morale is absolutely horrific. I've never experienced anything like it.

  • Dave says:

    So, the NIH should cull the bottom 100 Universities

    Whether they should or not is neither here nor there. It will most likely happen regardless.

  • becca says:

    "Spiny- there is more than one "becca" on the internets."

    We. Are. LEGION.

    @eeke- you misunderstood me, my bad.
    1st) evidence for the assertion about family of origin SES of scientists: http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2014/03/18/289013884/who-had-richer-parents-doctors-or-arists (it's actually "physical, life and social scientists" who have an average family income in the 70th%).
    2nd) What I think that fact means is that most people you talk to in scientific careers have a comparatively large amount of social and financial capital in their lives. Basically, scientists disproportionately are the sort of people who are likely to see many options other than grocer because of their peer groups, because they have an economic cushion, and sometimes directly because of their family/social connections.

    I offer that simply as a response to the odiously Privileged "well you couldn't have been any good at anything if you ended up a grocer" mentality. Actually, I suspect it's also a reason that things have actually gotten very bad indeed in scientific careers, without people hardly noticing for a surprisingly long time. *Enough* people who got chewed up and spit out by the academic science racket landed on their feet that people thought it had something to do with Majickal SuperUnicornSmartnessSnowflake TransferableSkills we all develop, instead of the aristocracy looking after it's own.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    @ DM - Oh, so I see - it's all a big fat scam to lure idiots into low-paying jobs with long hours that are mere expendable cogs in the larger scientific machine.

    @ Academic Lurker - that is an excellent point.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    @ Dave - I'm at a well-ranked research-oriented medical school and facing the same thing. Faculty - tenured and not, are expected to pay 70% of their salaries from grants. I heard something similar about my grad institution, as well, which was another well-ranked private university - tenured faculty in the medical school and affiliated departments are expected to pay 90% of their salaries from grants (I believe that's what I heard). So, it's happening everywhere, I think.

    The MDs, at least at my current institution, are the best set-up for research here, as they don't entirely depend on research for their livelihoods. Unfortunately, most of them lack the training to do strong basic science research (yes, even after fellowships).

  • Lady Scientist says:

    @ becca - great point. It's funny how many kids I interviewed in the past for technician jobs who still live at home (on their parents' dime) and are looking to go to either grad or med school (wanting the job to get the experience on their resumes). I've noticed a distinct difference in how work is viewed by that set of kids and the kids I've hired who have had blue collar jobs. The latter tend to take the work more seriously and appreciate the opportunity to learn.

  • mistressoftheanimals says:

    @Becca "Spiny- there is more than one "becca" on the internets." We. Are. LEGION.

    You are replicating like fucking rabbits. Like hopping bunnies. It spells doom for the non-Becca legions of the world.

  • mistressoftheanimals says:

    @DM "So, the NIH should cull the bottom 100 Universities. Just stop funding anything there at all. "

    "Do it to Julia!"

  • Dave says:

    The MDs, at least at my current institution, are the best set-up for research here, as they don't entirely depend on research for their livelihoods

    Not here. Unless the MDs here have grants that specifically pay a portion of their salaries, they are no longer allowed to do research. They are being forced to see more and more patients and bring in the revenue. Sure, they will still have a job, but many MDs really want to do research.

  • Grumble says:

    @Spiny Norman: ""Too smart and edgy for NIH" is a little truthy, but there's a bigger truth of "too intellectual and risky for government funding".

    Translation: "I don't know how to make a simple case for my idea."

    [and more castigation of people who have difficulty getting grants]"

    Please enter this into your calculus: some people are brilliant and do excellent work, yet are terrible at writing grants.

    You can snark all you want, but the loss of their work and insights is a loss to all of us. It is better that the gold is not dumped out with the slag, even if it means keeping more of the slag.

    @Dave: "An awful lot of research-track people are facing fairly draconian salary cuts across the department. "

    I wonder, when salary reduction for grant-poor faculty becomes the norm, will that reduce the demand for academic research positions? Seems to me that this trend is the first part of a slow and painful correction in our niche of the labor market.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    @ Dave - I'm seeing a lot of MDs leaving basic science research because of the clinical requirements, as well. Fortunately for them, many of them can still conduct clinical research, if they're interested. It's still time-consuming work (of course), but different from running a basic science lab.

  • Dave says:

    I wonder, when salary reduction for grant-poor faculty becomes the norm, will that reduce the demand for academic research positions,

    There is no demand for pure research (soft-money) positions as far as I can tell. Just a reduction-in-force, essentially. The only positions that will be filled, or kept filled, will be tenure/tenure-track jobs that have hard money support guaranteed for the life of the position. These are, and will be, few and far between because the institution/department will have to make sure they can at least pay the salaries permanently, irrespective of external grant support. This ties is to what DM is getting at, because most small and less prestigious schools wont be able to do this, and may just stop competing and give up on research altogether. Sounds dramatic, but I don't see any other outcome that is sustainable.

  • rxnm says:

    "*Enough* people who got chewed up and spit out by the academic science racket landed on their feet that people thought it had something to do with Majickal SuperUnicornSmartnessSnowflake TransferableSkills we all develop, instead of the aristocracy looking after it's own."

    This is exactly right, and why it's so fucking exasperating when NIH (or unis, or SfN, etc) tout getting a science PhD by pointing to post-graduation any-job-having rates as proof that getting a PhD is still a good idea.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    A theory I've seen floated around here before is that a lot of formerly modest teaching oriented institutions developed delusions of grandeur about becoming research powerhouses during the doubling, and that this is where a lot of the overloading of the system came from.

    Is there evidence to back that up?

  • BugDoc says:

    @Lady Scientist: tenured faculty in the medical school and affiliated departments are expected to pay 90% of their salaries from grants

    This is true in clinical departments at my med school as well....which BTW are hiring and considering some PhD only candidates!!! The fact that they think any new investigator is going to cover 90% of their salary from grants within a few years suggests an unbelievable level of denial.

  • drugmonkey says:

    AL- I'd call that more hypothesis than theory, m'self.

    My thought is that while some of the totalPI and total institutes applying / funded numbers hint at this Rockey never provided enough historical length to look before and after the doubling.

  • Dave says:

    This is exactly right, and why it's so fucking exasperating when NIH (or unis, or SfN, etc) tout getting a science PhD by pointing to post-graduation any-job-having rates as proof that getting a PhD is still a good idea.

    Yeh and more to the point, why is federal money being used to train scientists when they will never actually be scientists. It is a waste of cash monies. You rarely need a PhD for an 'alt-career' and I'm not buying the transferable skills chat, when most grad students are chained to the bench 24/7 doing manual labor that has little to no use outside of science. That time would be better spent learning construction.

  • mytchondria says:

    "So, the NIH should cull the bottom 100 Universities. Just stop funding anything there at all."
    Ted, sometimes your wackaloonness surprises even me. There is that pesky 'environment' score that will cut your 'nads off if your Uni doesn't actually buy into the investing in research idea.
    As a top 100-er, our problem is not that we over hired or even that we don't have bridge funding for people who gapped. It's that we built a bunch brick and morter of shitte in the last 15 years with the goal of bringing the best and the brightest. We are mortgaged to the fuckken gills and without indirects to pay for the bonds we took, we were forced to rely on our University side (I'm medical center side - where 80% of the bio med research is) to bail us out when the economy tanked.
    As a special 'fuckke you very much' the Chancellor deposed the Vice Chancellor of the medical center and told the new dood (who was promoted from within) he would need to be giving the University 10% of our revenue forthwith.
    Did I mention that these aren't great times to be pulling in revenue from patients? So, um, good luck getting any money from your medical centers cuz even if they don't have douchtard Chancellors, economic revenues from clinical care are fuckked kids. And super fuckked if you are in one of the 20ish states that took a pass on Obamacare.

  • drugmonkey says:

    wait, but if states passed on Obama care they should be rolling in clinical simoleons, no?

  • Dave says:

    Medicare/Medicaid reimbursements have gone down, regardless of whether a state expanded participation.

  • Dave says:

    But, of course, healthcare costs were/still are too high, and one could make a very strong case that the government is the only one that pays anything close to what a procedure actually costs, or should cost.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Yes I feel certain your average person with a broken leg is not happy about paying extra for his cast so that Asst Rsch Professor Smith can keep working on the Gertzin pathway which may or may not lead to a cure for varmuspox in 40 years.

  • Dave says:

    He might be a believer.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    @ BugDoc - I definitely hear ya. Clinical departments and medical schools are, for the most part, run by MDs. They have different training and experiences than PhDs, which can sometimes lead to somewhat unreasonable expectations for the PhDs on faculty.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    My medical school is doing well clinically because it, together with its affiliated medical center, bought out most of the independent practices in our state, and now has effectively a state-wide monopoly on the provision of sophisticated medical care.

  • hpmcmf says:

    That's fantastic CPP. I am pretty sure that you guys will have a very positive impact on healthcare in the region, other than a positive influence on the public view of basic research. Congrats and keep the good work.

  • hpmcmf says:

    Wow dsks!. That's so funny. A good way to put it. I can understand 'cause I've been there before. Not anymore. But that is science. Anyway, an excellent way to start the weekend. TGIF.

  • Dave says:

    CPP it sounds like you have better management where you are. Do you have many soft money faculty?

  • Ageing PI says:

    I'm an ageing PI (PhD) who has been running a research group at a major research/medical center in the NE for the last 25 years. We PhD's are required to obtain 100% salary support for ourselves, plus grants to support all the post-docs/techs etc. This requires that I maintain at least 3 RO1 equivalents plus assorted bits and pieces. The institute then sucks up the indirects (around 71%) to keep the place running. My institutes answer to the current funding crisis is basically: (i) there's no money for bridge funding; and (ii) no money to support my salary; and (iii) anyway, MDs can do research while still bringing in clinical revenue. Until NIH limits PI salary on NIH grants, as NSF already does, this nonsense will continue. PI salary needs to be limited to 50% max across all NIH grants (forcing institutes to provide hard cash), and there should be no indirect costs on PI salary (thus reducing the overall total cost per grant, but not the money going to the PI for research). This way, I could easily run the lab on 2RO1s, freeing up money for new investigators, and freeing me to actually think about the science rather than endless grant writing.
    Of course, many of you will see me as the problem (too many RO1s). The solution is to address the bloated indirect costs and PI salary on grants, and force institutes to be at least partial funders of the research from which they benefit.

  • Dave says:

    Of course, many of you will see me as the problem (too many RO1s)

    They will, but it's a distraction. There are very few investigators like you with >1 R01. Others will argue your group is too large etc etc.

    PI salary needs to be limited to 50% max across all NIH grants (forcing institutes to provide hard cash), and there should be no indirect costs on PI salary (thus reducing the overall total cost per grant, but not the money going to the PI for research)

    I happen to agree completely. If we are talking solutions, this is one that can be initiated right away.

  • drugmonkey says:

    And where is this magical Unicorn Fairy money to pay 50% of salary to come from? Especially when cutting indirects puts further pressure on nonFederal sources?

    Somehow this never seems to be explained by anyone calling for this particular solution to the problem.

    You both seem to be on softmoney....are you saying you shouldn't be in science?

  • Dave says:

    And where is this magical Unicorn Fairy money to pay 50% of salary to come from

    Nowhere. People will lose jobs, but their losing them anyway. But this is about sustainability of academic research.

    You both seem to be on softmoney....are you saying you shouldn't be in science?

    I certainly don't expect to be doing this in 5 years time. I definitely don't expect to be doing it in a soft-money position. I'm OK with that.

  • mh says:

    "And where is this magical Unicorn Fairy money to pay 50% of salary to come from? "

    When you don't have money to pay people, you stop hiring. Instead of ramping up construction and hiring with the delusion that shit will pay for itself.

    Actually, I don't even know if administrators are deluded. You cut the ribbon on a bunch of new labs, it goes on your resume, you move on to a med center in a bigger city.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    @ Aging PI - excellent comments, although I have the same reservation as DM.

    @ Dave - well, what about other people who want to stay in academic science? Again, weeding out people who can't support themselves entirely (more-or-less) on grant funding does damage to the scientific enterprise - it kills productive collaborations, not to mention careers in bloom, and, for some people, their livelihoods and family life (esp. for those with 2-body problems that are challenging). It's harsh for those of us who have few sustainable career options like, say, clinical practice. There's industry, but even that option can be location-specific and unstable.

    Obviously, the solution *should* be that Federal funding for our area of science needs to increase to sustain what it started and the number of accepted graduate students in programs around the country should be decreased. After that: need more labor for your lab? Hire a tech, and pay for their salary out of your own damn funds.

    Of course, Federal funding isn't going to increase with Republicans and Teabaggers dominating Congress, so it's all wishful thinking at this point.

  • Dave says:

    Obviously, the solution *should* be that Federal funding for our area of science needs to increase to sustain what it started and the number of accepted graduate students in programs around the country should be decreased

    So, kill the graduate students, but preserve your job? You're falling in to the same old trap, and you can't have it both ways. Your solution also does not deal with the current, right-now problems, which I think are much more urgent than you seem to acknowledge.

    There is plenty of federal funding ($30 billion), and it's not going up, and will more than likely continue to go down. So what are you going to do? Write your 'congress critter'? Good luck with that. Even if the NIH budget went up 10% next year, do you think that will make a big difference in how schools treat faculty? Do you think it will improve your career prospects? Things are too far gone for that. And if you think this is just because of the Teabaggers, you are mistaken. Public opinion is changing and the NIH budget is not high on the agenda. The only members of congress who reallllly give a shit, and will go to bat for the NIH, are those in and around the Maryland district. You don't have to be a genius to figure out why.

    We need to think of other real solutions that factor in 'worst-case scenario' continual reductions in federal funding, and invariably that means that a lot of scientists will lose their jobs.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    When you don't have money to pay people, you stop hiring. Instead of ramping up construction and hiring with the delusion that shit will pay for itself.

    Right. I know DM is arguing that an immediate change to "alright, from now on 50% of everyone's salaries will come from institutional hard money" would basically be a death sentence for most basic biomedical research departments in the country. OK, so maybe an instant transition is unworkable. But there does need to be some kind of disincentive to just throw up new buildings and expand like crazy until the money runs out, and then start closing down labs.

    What depresses me most about the doubling the problems that resulted from it is that, as far as I can see, if there were a new doubling the people in charge at the institutional level would behave exactly the same way they behaved during the last one. Without mechanisms to force these folks to change their behavior, more money for NIH won't do any good.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    @ Dave - no, I don't think that improved funding will change the way that my department "treats" me, but it may change what we can do about our situations in departments currently. It would be naive to suggest that large structural changes can realistically be implemented in medical schools and academic institutions around the country. That can only happen if there is a mandate or pressure from a a higher power (such as the NIH) that forces things in another direction. There are other structural problems in academia, in general, that need to be resolved, as well, that are part of the same problem.

    Decreasing *acceptance* levels into graduate programs doesn't hurt current grad students - it just pushes people to consider their "alt career" options earlier, if they don't get into a program (and perhaps spares them some shitty experiences in grad school). All that would happen is that the threshold for acceptance would be shifted.

    Your point about public opinion is a good one.

  • DJMH says:

    DM, most government contracts are bidded out with respect to cost. A soft-money place that will put $70K of an R01 just to PI salary, and take another 70% overhead in the process, is a less efficient use of federal dollars than a hard money place where only $30K of the R01 are PI salary, and overhead is only 50%. So the burden is on the soft-money and high-overhead places (not that those are necessarily one and the same) to explain why they should ever get research money.

  • Ageing PI says:

    I agree that many institutes will find it difficult to raise money to support a significant fraction of PI salary. Its going to involve cost cutting on the admin side, the loss of many PIs and their labs, a reduction in new start ups and no new buildings. At my institute, we have no plan to deal with the current funding decline, a situation common across the US. In fact, we have just completed a new research building which will be open for business in january 2015! It seems totally insane to me. Either way, its going to get a lot more ugly and more people are going to lose their labs and jobs. Better that we have a planned restructuring of research than to let the whole enterprise slowly bleed to death.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    Do you have many soft money faculty?

    Depends what you mean by soft money. We have very few faculty who must support pretty much all their salaries with grants and who lose their salaries and jobs coextensively as they lose grant funding. However, all of us are expected to cover about 2/3 to 3/4 of our salaries. But if we fail to cover that amount, we still get paid our full salaries.

    There is a mechanism for reducing people's salaries gradually over time if they are chronically underfunded, but I've never seen or heard of it being used. We have old dudes who haven't had grants in over a decade who are still getting their full salaries. In my younger days, I used to complain about that, because it represents resources that can't be devoted to supporting productive researchers. Now I have a more nuanced view.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Hahahaha I bet you do!

  • rxnm says:

    "nuance" is one of those things people with job/career security like to talk about.

  • rxnm says:

    that sounded insulting, so I will fully admit how much more "nuanced" my view on graduate students has become since becoming a PI.

  • Dave says:

    ...as far as I can see, if there were a new doubling the people in charge at the institutional level would behave exactly the same way they behaved during the last one

    Which is why anyone calling for more money from congress (or, worse, to write to congress) just doesn't get it.

    The funny thing is we also are still building new labs and facilities. We get told that it is 'already paid for', or was part of a 'gift', and most of the old faculty senate boys (who were the last to get real tenure) smile, nod, and tell everyone else to stop moaning. Then you go talk to the accountants and realize that the major issue with new building is the depreciation and maintenance cost, which the school is responsible for every year. It can make a huge difference to the bottom line, yet most faculty don't care and so unabashed campus gentrification continues!!!!

  • dsks says:

    "So the burden is on the soft-money and high-overhead places (not that those are necessarily one and the same) to explain why they should ever get research money."

    They're an easy group to target, but I'd be interested to know what fraction of the NIH's labor-related expenses is used to pay softmoney PI salaries as opposed to grad student training/compensation and postdocs.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    So the problem is the grad students and the postdocs and the PIs and the oldster greybeards and the young upstarts and the people at non-prestigious flyover country schools and the people at fancy pants elite schools who are gobbling up all the RO1s...

    I believe what we've established in this thread is everyone needs to be fired except me.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    Thank you, CPP, for rubbing it in our faces that it sucks for us, but not for you.

  • BugDoc says:

    @academiclurker: all joking aside, you are absolutely right. There is not going to be a single bandaid for this problem. Everybody is going to bleed more before we get to a sustainable equilibrium. There have been lots of interesting solutions proposed here on this blog and elsewhere, but the knee-jerk response to any suggestion seems to be "oh, so someone else is going to have to suffer but not you?". The answer is every group is going to suffer: institutions, faculty, postdocs, students, etc, and the sooner we admit it, get all of our institutional leaders to face up to it and get on with the operation, the better.

    As for who will come up with the fairy unicorn money to underwrite faculty salaries, a 5 year phase-in plan to get to 50% max salary supported by NIH will get the fairy unicorns setting money aside pretty quickly for the best, and good luck to the rest.

  • drugmonkey says:

    It isn't knee-jerk. It is a well considered response to the same old same old suggestions that never take it all the way down. I preferore complete descriptions of the "obvious solution".

  • drugmonkey says:

    In public Universities, they are the same taxpayers supporting salaries so..... Except now you are limiting the Federal desire for scientific progress to those States who have a clue. Bad idea, IMO. Shrinks the diversity of the enterprise.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Med schools diverting clinical dollars in some way----oh yeah that makes sense. Tax the sick for basic science? No thanks.

  • Robert says:

    I question this entire system of highly qualified scholars fighting each other for grants like starving urchins over the last crust of bread.

    The time that is wasted in seeking out these grants . . . it's almost incomprehensible.

    Suppose grants ran on a different system -- individuals were funded directly, rather than piecemeal by project. Once every five years a scientists would submit a portfolio of what they've done and what they're planning to do. Then they would be funded at one of several preset levels; I-VIII (say) based on their expected needs for the projects they are working on or are planning to do.

    And then that's it. You do what you want to do with your funding and are held accountable (barring gross misconduct) only when you re-up in five years. Once you're out, you're out for five years.

    It's kinda out there, I realize -- thoughts?

  • GAATTC says:

    I've trained 7 grad students, and all but one has gone (or is going) into non traditional careers. I'm curious as to how that equates with other PIs? A few more years of this may clear (or reduce) the glut of post-docs in academic purgatory.

    On a different topic, my place has recently advertised for an Asst. Prof, hard money, with no need for funding in hand. We've received a bunch of applications, but it is curious how few of the applicants are from people born in America. This tells me that 1) Americans are getting out of the game and/or 2) Americans don't want a job in a flyover state.

  • drugmonkey says:

    7???? For glory's sake WHY???

  • GAATTC says:

    Over the span of 13 years DM... How many of your students stayed with academic research?

  • drugmonkey says:

    I am asking why you trained 7 PhDs and if you have, at any point, wondered if perhaps you should not have trained more than replacement value.

  • MoBio says:

    @7: As I (and others likely) have previously posted: this aries from PI to PI.

    my rate is around 50% in bona fide tenure track positions; the rest are have 'real jobs' in Pharma...for what it's worth they all are in the types of positions they wanted with perhaps one exception.

  • dsks says:

    "I am asking why you trained 7 PhDs and if you have, at any point, wondered if perhaps you should not have trained more than replacement value."

    The problem their institutional and grant funding source pressure to take on grad students. The NSF is arguably worse for this than the NIH. There is a true cost of taking a principled stand on this issue, unfortunately, because the incentives are all out of whack.

  • GAATTC says:

    Well nobody has replaced me yet... and may not... I'll answer more fully on the other thread...

  • Lady Scientist says:

    One wonders how many grad students and postdocs DM has trained with his 50 bazillion R01's....

    "Replacement value" totaly made me laugh. DM seems to be trolling for self-interested assholes.

  • BikeMonkey says:

    Exactly dsks. Finally someone willing to look at facts.

  • Grumble says:

    @Robert: "Suppose grants ran on a different system -- individuals were funded directly, rather than piecemeal by project. Once every five years a scientists would submit a portfolio of what they've done and what they're planning to do. Then they would be funded at one of several preset levels; I-VIII (say) based on their expected needs for the projects they are working on or are planning to do."

    I've been proposing exactly the same thing for years (not that anyone listens). The common criticism around here is that it would be hard for new investigators to break into the system because they don't have a track record, but I think it would be pretty easy to include alternative mechanisms for them.

    In fact, Collins seems to want to head in this direction with his various "fund people not projects" initiatives. But the problem is that unless it's done a large scale, the people who get funded are only the whiz-bang types who would probably end up getting Hughes positions eventually anyway. It needs to be much broader to include the rest of us, but there is no sign that NIH is interested in going in that direction.

  • BikeMonkey says:

    Two Words: INSERM

  • Grumble says:

    Huh? INSERM is either one word or ten, none of which are relevant to the discussion.

  • New Hire says:

    As I understand it, in Canada there are exceptionally few mechanisms to pay your own salary via a grant. As such, nearly all positions (at least outside Quebec) are hard money and loss of a grant post-tenure won't result in your job going up in smoke nor a decrease in income - though it will result in your work life getting more miserable. The difference appears to be that money is funnelled to the institutions via a direct subsidy rather than indirect subsidy via the granting scheme. This has upsides and downsides but I thought I'd throw it out there ...

  • AcademicLurker says:

    The difference appears to be that money is funnelled to the institutions via a direct subsidy rather than indirect subsidy via the granting scheme.

    Does this mean that the government gives money to the institutions, which then decide which internal projects to fund? That could lead to some pretty epically ugly faculty and administrative politics.

  • New Hire says:

    No. The funding of the projects is done based on peer-reviewed competitions that award operating funds just like in the US. But the operating funds requested cannot include the salary of the PI. The salary of the PI must be guaranteed by the institution. This system works even if there is not enough teaching (as in med schools) because the PI salary is taken care of partly by a direct transfer of money from the state to each institution (that is, all universities of note in Canada are essentially 'public', generally speaking, Canadian universities get about 2/3 of their funding from the government and 1/3 from tuition fees).

  • Lady Scientist says:

    Wow, not only does Canada have a better healthcare system, but their academic biomed (and other scientific) research positions seem to be more suitable for faculty in terms of health, quality of life, and productivity. Socialism has its perks, eh?

    BTW, I live in a "red" state and proudly identify myself as a Socialist whenever anyone asks my political orientation. So, Socialism is not a bad thing in my book.

  • Grumble says:

    It would certainly be interesting to compare Canadian scientists' productivity per dollar spent (including indirect government support of faculty salaries) vs Americans'.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    That is a great idea, Grumble. Maybe the NIH should investigate how our "Socialist" neighbors to the north compare. In the meantime, I'm going to try to see how long it takes for me to get shot by some gun nutter just because I identify as Socialist. Could really kill my productivity (pun intended)!

  • […] I’ve blogged about this before, and the tl;dr version is that it forgets to measure opportunity cost. Getting into a good grad school requires well-above average grades, and therefore the people in these programs are positioned to do well with or without the PhD. There’s a second, more sinister level which is that – compared to our contemporaries in medicine and law – people entering PhD programs are disproportionately white and middle-class. A few years ago this actually spurred the NIH to actively demand that more minorities be recruited into graduate programs (if anyone has a link for this please comment; I remember it being a huge issue around 2006-2009). As Dr. Becca puts it: […]

  • Lady Scientist says:

    Some things to potentially survey when comparing productivity:
    1.) the percentage of Canadian vs. American publications retracted from journals,
    2.) citation counts or impact for Canadian vs. American original research articles, and
    3.) types of journals in which studies are published (high vs low impact factor journal). Do American research groups favor the high impact factor journals because they potentially may increase the likelihood of greater funding/job stability?

  • Dave says:

    7???? For glory's sake WHY???

    Becauseproductivity for PI

  • […] has been an active set of discussions about these stories and related topics over at Drugmonkey (here, here, here, and […]

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