Gen X will never live up to its scientific potential

Mar 04 2015 Published by under Anger, NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics, NIH Careerism

The NIH Director, Francis Collins, was speaking to Congress this week and was widely quoted as lamenting the fate of junior scientists. As per this Sam Stein bit in HuffPo:

“This is the issue that wakes me up at night when I try to contemplate the future of where biomedical research can go in the United States,” Collins said. “They are finding themselves in a situation that is the least supportive of that vision in 50 years. They look ahead of them and see the more senior scientists struggling to keep their labs going and suffering rejection after rejection of grants that previously would have been supportive. And they wonder, 'Do we really want to sign up for that?' And many of them, regrettably, are making the decision to walk away.”

Obviously he is talking about trainees and perhaps the very newest of assistant professors, aka ESI qualified NIH applicants.

This goes along with a continued trend from the NIH. To wring their collective hands over those who are in their mid to late 30s and younger. To take some steps to help them out, most definitively with special paylines for the Early Stage Investigators who must be no more than 10 years away from the PhD award. To nod sagely about "eating our seed corn" as if they have the slightest clue what that might mean and whether it actually applies here (it doesn't).

It ignores another trend from the NIH, i.e. working busily to shore up the ability of the oldest guard of scientists to remain funded. You know about the Emeritus award they are considering. You have observed how well the very oldest slice of our PI applicant pool is treated at study section. And you have seen how NIGMS, the IC most serious about this workforce stability stuff*, put the oldsters at the front of the line with their MIRA initiative. Of course, the second in line (and in fact the only ones in line) for this little MIRA project are, you guessed it, ESIs.

We plan to issue a MIRA funding opportunity for early stage investigators as quickly as possible. We hope the first application due date will be sometime this summer.

As per usual, the demographic of the mid-career investigator is overlooked.

One of the comments on the NIGMS MIRA post is heart breaking and incredibly truthful. BioScientist wrote:

However, I have genuine concerns about the idea to roll it out first to either well-funded labs or early stage investigators. From what I can see, where it is most needed is in mid-career labs that do not have multiple R01’s, which in many cases are imploding in the present environment. These are the PI’s who are writing 10 grants to get 1 funded right now. The well-funded empires are doing just fine, and I have not found the PI’s of such labs to be the egalitarian types would would give up a dime so that someone else could keep a lab running.

For ESI’s, this could be an interesting experiment in how to launch successful careers. Many of us who endured the system of the last decade are discouraged and demoralized. Personally, I will never live up to my scientific potential after so many years of wasting time on failed proposals and preliminary results for projects that were never funded.

emphasis added. As if I have to do so.

Do you wonder why the current greybearded and silver haired people who remain powerful in science are so keen to cry over the poor, poor Millennial generation of scientists and wring their hands over the future of science, all the while doing nothing about the present of science?

Because the Boomers (and a few years' worth of pre-War folks) cannot acknowledge what they have done to the Gen X scientists. Some of the charges are as follows.

1) Extended graduate school training from 4 years to 6+. Sure they used all sorts of very truthy sounding excuses about mastering different domains, getting those three publications in CNS journals, the collaborative nature of vertically ascending science, etc. But they accomplished it...and their own successes prove it unneeded.

2) Extended postdoctoral "training". The moved us from where even two years as a postdoc prior to professorial appointment was slightly suspicious (in the early to mid 1970s) to a situation in which two sequential 3-5 year postdocs are viewed as the necessary minimum (just a few years ago, prior to the ESI foofraw). The oldest generation oversaw this.

3) Even during the NIH doubling, they grabbed all the grants and kept beating up the newly appointed GenX scientists with Stock Critiques, sent them around the airport traffic pattern in endless revisions and with "good scores" that were clearly unfundable. Anything to delay entry and preserve their expanding empires.

3) The R29 FIRST was dismantled** but was replaced by a NI check box. It supposedly took the oldster power brokers 10 years to realize was to the benefit of, you guessed it, themselves. I.e. those highly established scientists that simply didn't have NIH funding yet. It took me about 3 hours of my first study section meeting to see this.

4) ...aaaand what do you know? By the time the old guard power brokers "realized" this NI problem, they were able to fix it with a time-limited ESI designation tagged to the time of PhD award, instead of the time of Asst Prof appointment. This conveniently skipped right over the Gen X scientists.

So what did this accomplish? Well, on the trainee end of the screw-job this just meant more time in which a venerated or even hard charging mid career lab head could benefit from the intellectual contributions of the Gen X scientists. Pretty much like intellectual vampires. The crediting system whereby author lines expanded and the senior author got all the glory was refined and elaborated from the 1990s through the Naughties as the NIH budget doubled. The number of "postdocs" supported on research grants soared through the roof. And the new models, conceptual breakthroughs and new theoretical approaches continued to give subsequent grant largesse and subsequent paper / finding laurels to the lab head. While the Gen X scientists continued as postdocs, or were shelled out of the system or manged to get a job but couldn't get funded very easily.

I was there. I know who did the actual work in the labs in my fields of interest. I know the way a finding or paper or model resulted in the lab head having copious funding for a decade and a half, verging on two decades now. I know which of those scientists of my generation failed to make it big. There are a lot of them that will never achieve their promise. A lot who had to bail entirely on the career after what would have been a career-making paper as a trainee, if they were just a generation older. I can point to very few of the Gen X people in my fields of closest interest who have hit mid career with anything like the funding, verve and accomplishment of even some of the more, shall we say, pedestrian*** members of the generation just prior to mine****. Actually, come to think of it, I am hard pressed to point to a single one.

I am not suggesting the older folks who benefited had no right to do so. I am not saying they didn't deserve any credit, nor am I claiming they didn't contribute intellectually.

At all.

I am saying that they (as a generation) arranged things so that they got ALL OF the credit and benefit of the collaborative breakthroughs. And this is not right. They did not suffer a similar fate at the hands of their more-senior colleagues because times were very different. Expansive. Lab sizes were smaller and the trainees were more consistently encouraged to fly away and shine on their own. This is what happened through the 70s and 80s when they were transitioning. And yet they have the nerve to call us riff raff. To question our commitment to science in oh so many ways. To continue to credit themselves for breakthroughs and advances that rested on the intellectual labors of a younger generation that they now disparage.

Some of us are surviving. Yes. This is obvious. Some of us are thriving. Some of us squeaking by on fumes and prayers. Some Most of us yo-yo between these extremes.

As the comment said, however, we will never reach our potential as scientists. Not in the way we witnessed the generation or two before us reach theirs. Not as a generation and not as the vast majority of individuals. Ever. It cannot be recovered.

Do you wonder why we are angry at each and every NIH initiative that comes down the pike that is explicitly designed to skip over our generation of scientists, yet again?

This is why.

__
*yeah. This is as good as it gets.

**for good reason, it had problems

***to be clear, I count myself in this category

****Who managed to get past the noob-abuse and hazing ritual juuuuuuust as the doubling hit stride. This is the generation that managed to land the last few R29s, for reference*****.

*****In truth, those who were never eligible for either R29 or ESI designation makes a much better and tighter demarcation than Gen X versus the Boomers and Millennials when it comes to this stuff. But it is pretty damn inside baseball to use such terms....

Related Reading: Does anybody want to be president? Anyone?

207 responses so far

  • Grumble says:

    "they (as a generation) arranged things so that they got ALL OF the credit and benefit of the collaborative breakthroughs."

    Uhh... did they arrange it that way? Like, get together at a secret Protocols of the Elders of Science conclave and decide "this is how we screw the kids over and keep all the fame, glory and money for ourselves"?

    Come on.

    As CPP would say, "Kill the Olllllldses!"

  • odyssey says:

    Uhh... did they arrange it that way? Like, get together at a secret Protocols of the Elders of Science conclave and decide "this is how we screw the kids over and keep all the fame, glory and money for ourselves"?

    No, but they operated (and operate) with no regard for following generations.

    So they may as well have.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Intention is soooo far beside the point Grumbie. You know this.

  • I'm solidly GenX and agree with a lot of Boomer blame, but really, the Millennials have it far, far, worse than we do. They have basically all the same disadvantages we do, plus they are burdened by student debt, which in our generation was basically something only people with private universities worried about because tuition was like $1000 a semester in state.

  • jmz4 says:

    Just to make sure I've got my timeline straight, you're basically talking about people hired as faculty between 1998 (R29 ends) and 2008 (ESI begins)? So grad school start around 88-98, and so born somewhere around 63-73 and aged 42-52 now?
    Do you think that maybe this mid-career cull is intentional? Does it serve any useful purpose?

    I've personally noticed that that range of investigators seems to be the one that disappears into the background the most often. Younger ones are hailed as hot, young guns, and older ones as intellectual giants (neither is usually true). Maybe it's because they're all writing grants, but yeah, the sense of bitterness I get from them is quite real.

  • Greg says:

    If you adopt as a governing principle that the NIH extramural research budget is supposed to fund academic welfare, then there ALWAYS will be whining with regard to how this welfare is distributed. Old vs. young. Emeriti vs. ESI. Black vs. Asians. Hispanic vs. white. Men vs. women. Large institutions vs. small institutions.

    Make the process as blind as possible, and simply strive to fund the best science. A practical idea how to make it sufficiently blind: restrict peer review to assessing ideas and approaches only. Then, POs can evaluate the credentials, environments, budgets and the rest.

  • drugmonkey says:

    JB- first, we're not talking about the stuff outside of the NIH game at the moment. Second, I don't disagree that they have it harder right now. You may recall I have posted on not feeling sorry for GenX in the past.

    But the Millenials are the ones that Francis Collins is losing sleep over and GenX is not. Any fixes at present target everyone *except* mid career types. There is a need for some balance in the discussion. There is also a need to keep the focus on new Boomer-favoring initiatives.

  • Science Grunt says:

    This shows how little NIH cares about the wellbeing of the ecosystem. Collins, upon is seeing "more senior scientists struggling to keep their labs going" fears that students will not want to pursue this career and wants to increase programs to attract millenials to get into science. Alternatively, NIH could take that money and *support* the struggling senior scientists. The fact that trainees are running away from science is great because the market is saturated.

    Thanks for writing this, as a millenial I didn't appreciate the challenges the previous generation faced and are facing. It's clear that the problem you guys are facing is different (and worse) from ours. You're having trouble sustaining the career you guys started because while we're having trouble starting careers.

  • JustAGrad says:

    Thanks for this post. I'm a millennial, but it has been certainly clear to me that the GenXers have really been screwed. I see it and hear it from the faculty that I work with (except my own PI who managed to thrive despite being right in this mid-career stage). These professors are the only ones I see who appear truly distraught over funding and academia as we know it. They tell me I'm lucky to be new because I can take advantage of ESI once I graduate, but it's clear that we're all screwed.

    At this point, all I can do is to try to be as knowledgable about grantsmanship and funding trends as I can so I can hopefully hit the ground running if I'm destined to be a prof. Fortunately, I'm in engineering and postdocs aren't completely out of hand yet (though I'm starting to see asst. prof. job openings that require a minimum of 2 years as a postdoc).

  • datahound says:

    With regard to MIRA, my understanding is that the reason it is being rolled out first to those with multiple NIGMS grants because the deal is that the awardees will get less supported (supposedly 80% ish) in exchange for more supposed stability. This only works if they are willing to accept this deal and the goal is to save money to allow NIGMS to support more investigators (including those in mid-career). I am waiting to see how this turns out.

    I do not have any details about the supposed ESI plan in terms of funding level, etc. Here, the catch is presumably that the PI cannot apply for additional NIGMS support.

    I know Jon Lorsch imagines this as something that would be available to all NIGMS R01-type applicants, but I do not know any details about the plan.

  • mytchondria says:

    Ouch. I never really understood where you stood on the midcareer lab situation Ted. I thought you were a bit of the school 'well, at least they had a chance compared to those hung in post doc limbo forever'.
    Well said Ted. Well said.

  • Juan Lopez says:

    The cull going on now is also going to affect the type of scientist left. 20 years from now when the boomers have finally retired, the environment will be very different. There will be some Gen Xrs that will have survived, and they will be sharp. They will write grants in an evening, with preliminary data fitting for 20 grants. Perhaps some will actually be scientists, but most will be only enterpreneurs, dedicating to polishing their image and selling snake oil. As someone has said " The best of us didn't make it", will apply to science.

    People will not believe that there was a time that kids got into science because it was fun, and it was a way to make the world better.

    I am a Gen Xer, and it's hard, but I don't envy the Millenials. At least I lived to see some science before it went extinct. They will only have the pollution and debt.

    And then the Republicans will be happy.

  • Emaderton3 says:

    Isn't the average age of a faculty member getting their first R01 42 years? So, say you enter graduate school at the age of 22. You take 6 years to get your Ph.D. Then, you post-doc for 6 years before landing your first faculty position. So, that makes you 34 years old. Somehow you managed to maintain your job in some manner for the next 8 years (maybe foundation/private funding, startup, teaching, etc.). But, ESI status is only 10 years from when you got your Ph.D. So, it is possible that the "average" 42 year old getting their first R01 is well beyond ESI stage. Along with what DM is saying then, wouldn't it make sense to also emphasize mid-career scientists in some way?

  • Emaderton3 says:

    And by the way, the millenials are screwed for other reasons. I and others I know have noticed a trend of entitlement, need for immediate satisfaction, and need for doing things the quickest/easiest route from some in this group. That will not mesh well with the slow, painful process of applying for grants, absorbing criticism, and resubmitting. Rinse and repeat, over and over again . . .

  • Namnezia says:

    This post definitely resonates with me. Writing 10 proposals to get 1 funded and running one's lab on fumes is not the way to do the best science. I have so many projects abandoned at the preliminary stage because the proposals never got funded and there was no one to do the experiments. My lab is still running and we're still publishing, but I'm not sure how long I can sustain it. And I can't plan long-term projects, establish new collaborations or seek any sense of stability, because we're always a year away from running out of money. As long as I can keep money trickling in, I'll keep doing as much science as I can. And it is not impossible to do well in this environment, I have friends from grad school who have big, well funded labs, a ton of glam publications, postdocs knocking on their doors. And I think that maybe I should have picked a different subfield, or embraced a shiny new technique, or schmoozed some more with BSDs at Gordon Conferences and I would have been way more successful. But alas, I didn't. And I do sometimes feel like I failed, even though by many external metrics I haven't.

    I do wonder what I would do if I was forced to shut down the lab? Teach more? Become an administrator? I've begun to start thinking of alternative ways to be productive without running a lab. Maybe when I get a sabbatical I'll take the time to go learn to code and spend my time doing analyses on other people's experimental data. Who knows.

  • Ass(isstant) Prof says:

    "Personally, I will never live up to my scientific potential after so many years of wasting time on failed proposals and preliminary results for projects that were never funded."

    Being on the young end of X-ers, I'm living this one. I took a research-heavy position at a PUI with aspirations of being bigger due to a very solid startup and 75% hard money. I've heard this is part of the problem--all those not-MRIs with the audacity to try and compete for external funding. I'm getting by, with a small NSF grant and P-subproject. But, yeah. Definitely not near the full potential.

    I was recently asked what I tell my students interested in research now. I tell them that once the boomers die, and the X-ers are 90% culled, someone will have to do the research.

    Of course, JL could be right as well, and science itself will go extinct.

  • "The fact that trainees are running away from science is great because the market is saturated."

    This isn't great for science. It may be that a smaller proportion of those going into science will be our brightest and most capable minds. Trainees running away is a suboptimal solution to the biomedical workforce problem.

  • Dave says:

    After seeing four more of my junior colleagues get their marching orders this week via fucking campus mail from a fucking senior accountant that's sits in a fucking office around the corner, the timing of this post is spot on for me. But what's the point? There are so many problems in our chosen career that it's hard to see the light. Reaching my potential and keeping my lab open is the least of my worries to be perfectly frank. Staying off unemployment in the coming years would be an achievement at this point.

    What bothers me most these days is that the senior boomer PIs see what's happening and don't say a fucking thing. They don't challenge the leadership, they don't question the corporatization of academia. Nothing. Why? I guess because they're funded and they will be alright.

  • Busy says:

    In my field we just recently (last five years) started losing the best research candidates to industry pre-grad school. The truly smart kids see the future as described by DM and take a pass, so nearly by definition almost any one in grad school isn't very smart: not smart enough to tell that there is no job at the end.

    What do you tell to a star undergraduate with great research potential when they tell you they have a standing offer in industry for $130-160K a year?

    "Stay, it will be a fun 6 years followed by at least another fun 4 years of postdoc?"

    I'm sorry Dave, but I can't do that.

  • Dave says:

    Don't have to apologize to me. I'm on your side.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Well mytchondria therein lies the rub. I am *also* of the opinion that those is us GenXers who made it over the hurdle had a lot of advantages compared with the kids these days. The true effect of the K99 and ESI programs are yet to be fully realized. We inherited a system in which we get to follow a Boomerish path if we manage to assemble their levels of funding and decent trainees. Yet to be seen what the current Asst Profs will face when they hit midcareer and start ranting about how I am the bad guy.

  • Also Anon says:

    "Personally, I will never live up to my scientific potential after so many years of wasting time on failed proposals and preliminary results for projects that were never funded."

    I don't understand why anyone who truly believes this would remain in science. Perhaps I'm just deluded, but as long as I'm in the game, I have to believe. Otherwise, what's the point? No one can predict the future. People don't have expiration dates.

    Of course, I haven't spent my whole life in academia, and as an engineer, I have industry options. So perhaps the knowledge that I *can* walk away if I really want to colors my perspective. But then again, most people can walk away too....

  • Stochastic Sam says:

    re: "I'm sorry Dave"

    Dave Bowman: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
    HAL: I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062622/quotes

  • Ben says:

    I think one point made by drugmonkey in the comments bears repeating- the future isn't the death of academic science per se, but "boomertown forever". A structural change in science relative to previous generations where there are a handful of extremely well funded professors who make the grade, and a lot of people leaving the career along the way. I suspect that there will be other undesirable downstream effects (like an increasing prevalence of academic dynasties, increased barriers to diversity) which will come hand in hand with this further stratification.

  • Cynric says:

    There are trickle down effects too. I'm mid career (with the caveat that the career may end abruptly at any point), and recently had a chat with my talented and industrious postdocs about fellowship applications and how to be competitive for faculty positions.

    There was an uncomfortable pause, and then they said "actually, we've been watching you and [Dr Peer], and we don't want your job anymore."

  • Namnezia says:

    Cynric - yea, I think watching me constantly write grants and pinch pennies has definitely discouraged my trainees to seek academic research positions.

  • becca says:

    I was trying to figure out what was bothering me about this. I think it's that, much as we all are prone to discuss the unemployment line, it's millennials I see on it. We are the food stamp PhD generation. When a Gen X er, sadly, mulls over "Teaching or administration, what shall I do?" I see Millennials saying "retail or lifeguarding, I'd better take 3 jobs to supplement SNAP".
    Not being able to have a career in academic science stinks, and research is poorer for not cultivating talent from many sources. But finding out careers went extinct before you got to start one is a bigger disruption. And really, DM? Really? You're just going to ignore everything outside the NIH game? it's super disingenuous to say "I'm not counting student loans"... Millennials have those loans so tenured profs "can always go into administration". And do you know how hard it is to make payments on them when you've only got a gig as a postdoc half the time since you graduated?
    Yes, it's weird how "the future of research" is just now keeping people up at night. No, I do not believe the boomers last acts are gonna be to ensure millennials hit the ground running. You can't run through this magnitude of excrement.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    Excellent rant. I'm another mid-career GenXer, and I've been witnessing the carnage and couldn't honestly recommend this career path to young folks starting out. I've been lucky in that I've got tenure at a hard money institution and I've found a niche where I can do reasonably high impact work with a tiny lab. Even so the constant grant writing churn and the number of exciting ideas we couldn't follow up due to funding issues is demoralizing.

    If I hear one more 60+ PI say "Well it's always been tough. No one ever had it easy"...

    For the people saying "the taxpayers don't owe you a career", it's not about anyone being owed a career. Wild boom-bust cycles are bad for everyone. Labs get set up at great expense and then shut down just as they begin to hit their stride. Promising ideas get some initial investigation and then are abandoned for lack of resources. The constant instability wastes money as well as people.

  • ProgamOfficerBob says:

    As a gen-x scientists who sits in the meetings when some of these issues are being discussed, I can tell you the blame lies at the feet of the scientific oligarchs. The grey haired 60+. They feign to care about these issues, but when suggestions for meaningful policy form are broached, they scream bloody murder.

  • crystaldoc says:

    "Personally, I will never live up to my scientific potential after so many years of wasting time on failed proposals and preliminary results for projects that were never funded."
    Yes.

    "I don't understand why anyone who truly believes this would remain in science ... But then again, most people can walk away too...."
    Yeah, bullshit and bullshit again. As a newly minted PhD back in 1999, maybe I had some transferable skills, but now, after 6 years postdoc and 10 years struggling to keep a small lab afloat at a research institute, I am pretty specialized. As in, I specialize in writing credible grant applications for one particular institute within one particular government agency, targeted to one or a few particular study sections. I specialize in directing research projects that employ a modest arsenal of fairly pedestrian scientific techniques, not any newest hottest -omics, and making data happen despite the limitations (talent and motivation-wise) of the techs and trainees that I am able to recruit. I specialize in writing scientific papers, mainly for a small number of society-level journals in my field of expertise. I specialize in critical reading of manuscripts and proposals in my areas of interest and offering thoughtful and insightful reviews in the service of my professional society and granting agency. I am an admitted mid-career "small town grocer", and quite possibly represent an endangered species.
    If I could identify an alt career that would pay me 70% of my current salary, take advantage of these skills I have worked hard to develop, but allow me to walk away from this fucking grant game, I would be all over that shit.

  • […] a day and age where the interactions among generations is highly visible and more contentious than  in the past, anything that is a positive step should be welcomed. But I  am concerned this […]

  • BugDoc says:

    "As a gen-x scientists who sits in the meetings when some of these issues are being discussed, I can tell you the blame lies at the feet of the scientific oligarchs. The grey haired 60+. They feign to care about these issues, but when suggestions for meaningful policy form are broached, they scream bloody murder."

    It is disappointing to see yet more taskforce reports and white papers with the same recommendations that result in (wait for it...) no action. Sadly, for exactly the reasons described in this post, the GenX faculty are probably the only cohort that is senior enough and disgruntled enough to take action. At least I hope we are.

  • becca says:

    "If I could identify an alt career that would pay me 70% of my current salary, take advantage of these skills I have worked hard to develop, but allow me to walk away from this fucking grant game, I would be all over that shit."

    Ditto. Except my salary is 43k.

  • drugmonkey says:

    So sad. This is *such* a great career for the practicioners and for society. When it works, that is. I want to unbreak it. I want you all to help unbreak it.

  • Dave says:

    If I could identify an alt career that would pay me 70% of my current salary, take advantage of these skills I have worked hard to develop, but allow me to walk away from this fucking grant game, I would be all over that shit

    Yeh me too. If I'm honest with myself I have gone from a seriously die-hard, would-do-anything-for-this-career type of person, to someone who is completely and utterly disillusioned by the whole game. I guess I have survived better than most, but the change in my mindset in the last few years is upsetting to me. Never did I believe that my love for science and academic research would be destroyed by accountants, politicians, deans, and passive senior colleagues, but it has been. It just seems so hopeless right now, and I'm fucked off with it.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I always harp on this in these threads, but I will emphasize again that it's decisions by individual institutions that have caused the crisis as much as the NIH, probably more in fact.

    My own extreme solution would be more centralized control. It would be nice if the NIH could let universities and research institutes know that they will take a very dim view of institutions that are throwing up yet more new research buildings with the idea that they'll be able to pay for it all with soft money. That's probably politically impossible, unfortunately.

  • BW says:

    "What do you tell to a star undergraduate with great research potential when they tell you they have a standing offer in industry for $130-160K a year?"

    This might be the most ill-informed quote i have ever read on this blog. I have never heard of single life science undegrad who got an offer in this salary range from industry after graduating. The fact is industry jobs are difficult to get, require you to have a boss, and don't pay nearly as much as you imagine.

    Academia isn't nearly as bad as you all are making it out to be. Seriously.

  • panchophd says:

    "Because the Boomers (and a few years' worth of pre-War folks) cannot acknowledge what they have done to the Gen X scientists."

    Wait, decision-making senior PIs and Admin admitting they made a mistake? Ha!

    Those that do admit mistakes are swiftly banished to an office in the bowels of the building....

  • drugmonkey says:

    This is about the cognitive dissonance involved with realizing your part in a collective action. A result of an evolving cultural hegemony. It is not all about Snidely Whiplash intentionally committing egregious intentional acts of thievery and sabotage. We need to be very clear about this or it devolves into useless fighting about personal responsibility for things that are not the direct result of highly specific individual acts.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    It is not all about Snidely Whiplash intentionally committing egregious intentional acts of thievery and sabotage.

    Although I admit I'm tempted to shout "Curses! Foiled again!" when I get an unfundable score.

  • Dave says:

    I always harp on this in these threads, but I will emphasize again that it's decisions by individual institutions that have caused the crisis as much as the NIH, probably more in fact.

    Couldn't agree more.

  • […] This is about the cognitive dissonance involved with realizing your part in a collective action. […]

  • Amboceptor says:

    There are trickle down effects too. I'm mid career (with the caveat that the career may end abruptly at any point), and recently had a chat with my talented and industrious postdocs about fellowship applications and how to be competitive for faculty positions.

    There was an uncomfortable pause, and then they said "actually, we've been watching you and [Dr Peer], and we don't want your job anymore."

    Absolutely, this is the conversation now. That and "After my postdoc I'm going to look for jobs in industry"... "After my postdoc I'm hoping to work for the FDA"... "After my postdoc I'm hoping to work in a diagnostic lab". People feel an attachment to the academic lab, a need to do a postdoc because we like getting recognition in the form of publications. Rarely with a hope of taking the place of the boss.

  • former staff scientist says:

    I find it very hypocritical for an NIH director to lament the fact that talented young people are walking away from a career in the biomedical sciences without acknowledging the role the NIH had in creating the train wreck that we are now witnessing. The NIH has been exploiting grad students as a source of cheap labor for decades now, and knowingly encouraging a massive overproduction of Ph.D.s in the process. You can only operate a pyramid scam for so long before people wise-up. If the NIH were serious about solving the problem they have created, they would propose a way to strictly limit the number of new “trainees.” They could start by imposing limits on the number of grad students that can be supported by NIH funds. But, of course, they are not serious about that; they are just sorry that an increasing number of people are becoming aware of their scam.

  • ProgamOfficerBob says:

    We are past the point of identifying the crisis. We all know there is a crisis and better describing the root causes, while a fun exercise, is kind of moot. Any meaningful reform must come from substantial policy changes from the NIH. This is going to take political willpower going up against the powerful establishment. It won't be easy.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I disagree in the strongest possible terms that examination of the true root causes is "moot".

    If we do not realize how we got to this point and illustrate all of the things that happened, essentially under the conscious level of the system, we are doomed to continue screwing up and are unlikely to propose the initiatives best-suited to cause favorable change.

  • Established PI says:

    There are deep structural problems in the biomedical science enterprise and many different factors that contributed to the situation in which we find ourselves. It is going to require fundamental changes to grants, training and institutional policy and the process will be slow, chaotic and painful. There have already been casualties in the form of closed labs and careers cut short (or never begun) and there will be more labs and even departments and institutions who may get kicked out of the game. Some of the scientific societies are grappling with this and they need your help and participation.

    Instead of taking the easy way out and choosing a scapegoat (everything is the fault of scheming, selfish boomers), you should find a way to be part of the solution. Venting to fellow scientists on blogs under cover of a pseudonym is fine for airing and sharing your views with fellow-sufferers but does not influence policy makers.

    I would be interested to know how many of the dreadful and sad stories here occur at hard money versus med schools/soft money institutions, basic science versus clinical department. In my own MRU, things are a bit tough in the basic science departments but, if anything, it is the millenials and very senior faculty who are in the most trouble. Personally, I am happy to see the seniors retire and am glad we have put additional measures in place to help out junior faculty. It is a very different story in the clinical departments, where the cull is in full swing. Anyone who watched the skyrocketing number of soft-money faculty during the NIH doubling should have seen this coming.

    Jon Lorsch is trying to address the problem by making more money available for individual investigators. Look at the latest stats - they are not funding grants from big shots with single percentile scores so that they can spread the wealth (and trust me, they are howling). Would you like to see this in your IC? Speak up.

  • ProgamOfficerBob says:

    I can point to commissions, task forces, study groups, publications, editorials, etc all which can describe the reasons for the current state of biomedical research. It's this mentality "let's do another study to find out how we got here" is what the executives at NIH and their advisory boards do to delay making policy decisions.

  • Established PI says:

    @POB - it takes individuals who are willing to do something bold. Lorsch took a lot of flak for pulling the plug on structural genomics, even though many in the community had been urging NIGMS to put an end to it. I hear plenty of rumors about how many people he has pissed off inside the NIH. Collins knew what Jon had in mind, so that must indicate that Collins was in favor of it. Lorsch also wants to tackle the question of graduate student training, so it will be interesting to see what he does about this issue. He certainly doesn't seem to be afraid of pissing people off. The NIH needs to hear from members of the community that they approve of the changes (if indeed they do) and that they would like to see these policies extended to other institutes. Of course, I don't mean to minimize the problem you point to, namely repeated studies that keep saying the same thing (although I still remember the Tilghman study that said we weren't training enough Ph.D.s - sheesh!).

  • Dave says:

    I would be interested to know how many of the dreadful and sad stories here occur at hard money versus med schools/soft money institutions, basic science versus clinical department.

    Does it really matter?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Venting to fellow scientists on blogs under cover of a pseudonym is fine for airing and sharing your views with fellow-sufferers but does not influence policy makers.

    1) Yes it does.

    2) Why does everyone always act as though the fact that I exist on the internet in a pseud persona this somehow means that I do not exist or take actions in IRL meatpuppet form?

  • Established PI says:

    Dave - it doesn't matter in a human sense (bad either way) but it does matter in a policy sense. The question is whether the dreadfully low paylines are disproportionately impacting faculty who only can hold on to their jobs as long as they have active funding. I know of only one junior scientist in the basic sciences at my institution who is being shown the door for lack of funding, but this is far more common in our clinical departments.

    One of the proposals that has been kicked around is to reduce the proportion of salary that can be recovered from NIH grants, which will drastically reduce the number of scientists doing research in clinical departments at many universities. The result will be more money for the fewer labs that remain, but it would be a brutal transition.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Instead of taking the easy way out and choosing a scapegoat (everything is the fault of scheming, selfish boomers), you should find a way to be part of the solution.

    I am fairly certain you have been reading my blog for a long enough time now to understand that I continually point to the fact that there is no "easy way out" and that pointing at any particular scapegoat in good old "Do it to Julia" fashion is highly flawed.

    Consequently I conclude that you are likely one of the Boomers that participated in generating the current state of affairs and are reflexively butthurt about having this pointed out to you.

    I submit that your reaction here is precisely the damn problem. That further motivates my ratcheting rhetoric to drive it into your selfishly Boomer thick heads that you, yes you, need to get real about the data and facts that underlie my charges. You need to face up to the advantages that have accrued to you through your generational privileges, regardless of any relative disadvantage you may have experienced relative to other Boomer peers. You need to face up to the effects the culture you evolved have had on subsequent generations of scientists. You need to stop excusing yourself with crocodile tears about the Millennials since that lets you off the hook. You need to look yourself in the mirror and say "what am I going to sacrifice?".

    If you can't come up with anything...... yeah.

  • Juniorprof says:

    The only solution to this that I see is for Institutions to get serious about supporting the scientific research enterprise that makes their name on the world stage through increased salary support for their PIs, real tuition waivers for their students and the use of IDCs for actual IDC reasons (like animal care). I have been on the med school track where life was miserable all around me and now at the research undergrad institution where people "sacrifice" some portion of their devotion to research to teach (and I mean serious 2/2 teaching loads) and have full salary support. Life is not perfect, but people are not endlessly trapped in the rat race and have time to be creative. Most labs are thriving in terms of productivity but few are the 2 R01 that you need at the med school. Moreover, they find that the "sacrifice" of teaching actually invigorates them and exposes them to "naive" ideas of brilliant young minds that offer amazing insight into the problems we work on... my 2cents.

  • drugmonkey says:

    The trouble with these prescriptions, jp, is that they leave out the money part. Who is supposed to pay for this? Why should anyone else pay for the NIH's requested product? Is leaving research to those States and Private Unis that agree to shoulder the cost of Federal projects a good idea for scientific advance?

    These questions need serious answers.

  • Established PI says:

    DM - I have been reading your blog for about 6 months or so, so I am generally aware of the tenor of your arguments (and yes, of course I am a boomer). This time, however, I think you are off the mark and venting rather than constructively analyzing the situation or pointing the way to a course of action that has some chance, however tiny, of succeeding. Also, you do your cause no favor by engaging in accusations and name-calling. Complex problems like the biomedical funding crisis rarely have single causes, yet you want to lay all the blame at the feet of my generational cohort.

    Your claim is that it is your generation, the GenXers, have been hardest hit and most neglected. That is not what I see at my institution or among colleagues in my field. From my vantage point, you are arguing that your cohort is the one that needs the most help, whereas from mine I see the millenials as being in the deepest trouble. If you want to convince me that I should be lobbying harder for your generation and not for millenials, how about some additional data instead of more name-calling? Perhaps our friend Datahound could weigh in on this and provide some information.

    Ultimately, the select few who were lucky enough to get a faculty position in the first place need to join forces to improve the overall situation, not get caught up in a circular firing squad.

  • Science Grunt says:

    "The trouble with these prescriptions, jp, is that they leave out the money part. Who is supposed to pay for this?"

    The teaching part comes from tuition. The smaller scale research will come from smaller grants or private grants or state grants.

    "Why should anyone else pay for the NIH's requested product?"

    Either the requested product has short term economic value and people will pay for the development (VCs, etc) or it doesn't have short term economic value and it will just not be produced until NIH steps up the grant.

    "Is leaving research to those States and Private Unis that agree to shoulder the cost of Federal projects a good idea for scientific advance?"

    Is the scientific advance more important than the quality of lives of the scientists doing that advance? In other words, how do you feel about all the deaths in the Hoover Dam?

  • drugmonkey says:

    EPI-

    I do not lay all the blame at the feet of the Boomers at all. Sometimes I hold them responsible though. Like this week.

    Re "trouble". Yes, I am not only talking about mere survival here. "Living up to our potential" was in the title for a reason. If you don't understand what midcareer peoe are feeling, maybe go talk to them. About where they thought they should be right now, not about whether they have a grant.

    And talk to the riffraff. Not just a few stars, GlamourHounda and the HHMI Priviligentsia.

  • Juniorprof says:

    NIt's requested product cannot be separated from the research missions of these universities. It is that product that brings in the prestige that drives enrollment and tuition costs.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Oh piffle. That is sophistry of the highest order. It is like saying lockheed's interest in jet plane design cannot be dissociated from the DoD's interest in killing the hell out of other people.

  • Juniorprof says:

    You can work on your solution. I'll work on mine

  • drugmonkey says:

    "What works best for me surely is best for everyone" is a sign of Boomerism. You should get that looked at.

  • Juniorprof says:

    Haha. I will. But seriously I doubt at this stage that there is a single solution. I do believe though that a multitude of smaller changes to the system can make the system better and reduce the burden of the rat race on people we would all like to see achieve their potential so the grey beards can live to 130.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Agree that many changes are necessary

  • Grumble says:

    "If I could identify an alt career that would pay me 70% of my current salary, take advantage of these skills I have worked hard to develop, but allow me to walk away from this fucking grant game, I would be all over that shit."

    That career is called, "Professor at a small liberal arts college." 70%? Check. Takes advantage of grant and research skills? Check, 'cause you can do some research when you have time and if you can eke out some money for it.

  • Philapodia says:

    Father Bear Graybeard reads an article by Professor Actual Factual in the local newspaper, warning that Bear Country is in serious trouble because of declining research investment. Papa Bear Graybeard responds "piffle". After all, he tells the cubs, look how beautiful it is in my lab, my little minions scurrying around!

    Brother Bear points out that the hard work they're seeing is actually a result of fear of never being able to sustain a career in science if they don't get (or fabricate) glam-worthy data.

    "Piffle", Father Bear Graybeard again replies.

  • drugmonkey says:

    "Or fabricate".

    Damn.

  • Busy says:

    It is disappointing to see yet more taskforce reports and white papers with the same recommendations that result in (wait for it...) no action.

    Hear, hear. In my field one the main society journals is dying. A grand committee of BSDs and BTVs was assembled to chart a new purpose and collectively they decided to change the font of the journal. Ok, I exaggerate, but not by much at all. In fact from the outside there have been exactly zero changes.

    Who was put in charge of the journal? one of the people who took it into such sorry state to begin with.

  • jmz4 says:

    "Why should anyone else pay for the NIH's requested product?"
    -Why should the NIH pay a premium to institutions that don't maintain their own research staff?
    There probably are some good examples (clinical work, for example, done at real live hospitals), but you can't tell me that the NIH shouldn't be favoring people that have some salary support over people that have none, all other things being equal. Same for places with high IDC rates.

    Another thing the NIH should focus on is reducing the cost of research. We all know there is price-gouging and inefficiency baked into a lot of the science we do (e.g. order a whole 100ul of an antibody that may or may not work), each IC should take a look at where they might be able to divert some funds (hopefully by contracting a lab) to reduce costs for their researchers.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Yes, bean counting the antibodies is definitely something that the NIH needs to look into from the very top on down.

    SMH.

  • drugmonkey says:

    but you can't tell me that the NIH shouldn't be favoring people that have some salary support over people that have none, all other things being equal. Same for places with high IDC rates.

    Sure I can.

    The NIH shouldn't be favoring people that have some salary support over people that have none. Nor should they be favoring places with high, low or intermediate IDC rates.

    I notice you didn't actually answer the question though. Nobody ever does.

  • BenK says:

    As someone from Ecology and Evolution, I'm supposed to take a long, broad, population- and demographic view.

    Let me be frank: Comparing among the present four or so generations is short-sighted. The kind of science and science funding that we are discussing follows the GI-bill and military-industrial-academic complex bloom of the Cold War.

    Some other influential factors include the doctor draft during Vietnam. Medical school had also been completely revamped following the 1918 flu. The land-grant schools had matured and the entire southern and rural educational system had been rewritten in the teens. For that matter, rural electrification and the mechanization of the midwest was still rewriting agriculture and literacy rates, just as robots and supply chain management have more recently rewritten manufacturing and retail.

    I don't have the space to weave all these together, but this is clear: there was no steady state now decayed into chaos. We might all be able to remember professors who were trained in the Depression. They probably remembered echoes of the first generation to teach in the state universities (funded from the 1862 Act). These were Arrowsmith MD people.

    In retrospect, there were some pretty lush years following WWII; but they had their own issues. I don't think that any generation has been able to properly equip the next in the sciences, not since the Enlightenment. This sort of post about R29s and so on is good in that it is informational - it reduces delusions of abundance and prevents disillusionment and moderates disappointment. But there is no point in imaging an cabal, not matter how it feels over at a study section.

    Collectively, we will try different strategies to adjust and accomplish our personal aims. That's robust - diversity seeking local optima. Hopefully we will find a number of walled gardens which each have an appropriate carrying capacity and provide the relevant resources to our individual needs. That's trying to be positive - don't bother providing a counterpoint, because the alternatives are pretty obvious and somewhat Hobbesian.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    DM - We all agree on the problems and have seen enough white papers. How about starting a thread with some concrete action items to create a sustainable research enterprise, and see if the community would rally around even one of them, with a vigorous lobbying campaign to actually enact change. I will start with the following menu of possible options:
    1) NIH gradually phases in a 50% max level of salary support for PI's.
    2) NIH eliminates student tuition off of R01s
    3) NIH performs a comprehensive & transparent review of content area funding categories
    4) reduce all R01 apps to 6 pages, and have 5 reviewers perform initial triage review, dropping the highest and lowest scores. Triage 67% of all apps and enter the remainder into a lottery.
    5) NIH eliminates all F and T award mechanisms

  • Juniorprof says:

    Neuroconservative and I agree. And I would start with point 2 and part T of point 5.

  • coldone says:

    Wow. I read this blog and many others throughout my PhD and postdoc, and have watched the struggles of professors, and the struggles of those in my field trying to become professors for years. It has shaped my future dramatically.

    It is so depressing. Literally, I fell into a depression less than a year into my postdoc, trying to make my life work with a professor spouse and a couple of kids, living thousands of miles away from my postdoc lab, traveling back and forth. I am trying desperately to pull out of my depression and my depressing situation, with moderate success.

    This year I'd had enough. I decided to abandon any hope of a primary research career - the research prof jobs are way too hard to get, require way too many years of postdoc "training", and are too stressful when you get them. Industry was a bust because those jobs are also hard to get, and trying to coordinate a position for a prof spouse in a different field at the same time seemed close to impossible, logistically.

    So my spouse and I went on the faculty job market (3rd time for spouse) this year, and only applied at primarily undergraduate schools advertising positions for each of us (that made the list fairly short!). We lucked the HELL out and got jobs at the same SLAC, starting in the fall. My spouse is leaving a job at a research institution and taking a $40K paycut. I'll be making a massive $7K more than my postdoc salary. We are crossing our fingers that this move will afford us the lifestyle that we want for our family: stable scientific jobs at a decent school in a nice town, overtime not required, a little research on the side, okay wages, and - most importantly - we will not be killing ourselves writing unsuccessful grant proposals and worried that we'll lose our jobs. I'll apply for grants, and it'll be icing on the cake if I ever get one.

    So thank you for all these discussions. Yes, they can be depressing, but they reflect reality. The candor of those who have these discussions has kept my eyes open, and has led me not to the place I thought I would be (I don't think that place exists anymore!), but to what I think is going to be a pretty happy place, nonetheless.

  • BugDoc says:

    So you're going to leave it all up to NIH to do something, N-c? That strategy is leading us to new & improved biosketches and Emeritus awards. What are we as faculty going to do? Change has to start with every person & every institution.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Disagree strongly, BugDoc. We need (at least) a couple of large, macro-level structural changes that will serve to align interests across relevant parties and institutions. Focusing on the individual-level, "Be the change you want to see" stuff is unicorn hunting.

  • rxnm says:

    I like those ideas, N-c.

  • BugDoc says:

    I'm not arguing against what you propose. But many others have made similar suggestions over the last 10 years. I think the data would clearly suggest that expecting NIH to lead the change we want to see is the real unicorn.

  • BenK says:

    Kinetics and statics. A path that requires coordinated change among conflicted individuals and broken institutions can't be walked. An end result that includes no system reconfiguration won't suffice.

  • Lucky thus far says:

    Drugmonkey describes my situation to a t. The "writing ten grants to hope one gets funded" - yep. And I made the mistake of getting an R01 'too early,' maybe -it got me the t-t job, but lost me early investigator status. Then I also erred in doing an extended senior postdoc... so the normal 'ten years past PhD' went by two years into the job. Getting funded now in my tenure year? All but impossible, it seems, despite excellent record objectively thus far.

    Ah well. It was a two decades to here from the start of grad school; only cost me maybe a million bucks or so versus going into industry...

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    I see your point, BugDoc, and I definitely do not want to wait for someone like Sally Rockey to figure this out. I am hoping that this community could initiate a proactive campaign around one specific action item that could be pushed in a concerted fashion towards the highest levels. As can be seen in these comments threads, we have the ear of some powerful people; if (relative) consensus could be achieved for even a single action item, enough momentum could be generated to formally place it on the table.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    I think BenK is agreeing with me...

  • drugmonkey says:

    I agree N-C but as you know I've been at this 8 years and have yet to budge the needle very far off of "do it to Julia, not me, Julia!"

    (Including inside the confines of my own head)

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    DM - could you set up a post where people vote on each of the 5 proposals I listed above? I would be interested to see if any of them generated overwhelmingly positive response. If so, then it *might* not be a "do it to Julia" proposal (insofar as the potential Julias would have voted against it). Ultimately, though, someone's ox will get gored in the current Malthusian environment.

  • K99er says:

    jmz4 made a point that I think about all the time - "Another thing the NIH should focus on is reducing the cost of research."

    Why isn't the NIH involved in producing cheap basic reagents that everybody uses like antibodies against HA, myc, FLAG, GFP, GAPDH, etc, or the most common restriction enzymes, or taq polymerase? Instead we're paying a fortune to Life Technologies for this stuff that takes very little expertise to produce. There should also be some kind of legal penalty for companies like Santa Cruz who collect obscene amounts of NIH money, but are infamous for selling antibodies that don't work.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Yeah I'll do a poll tomorrow N-c.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    thanks, DM! that will be cool

  • jipkin says:

    6) Increase NIH funding to $90 billion.

    One can dream, after all.

  • LIZR says:

    K99er - NIH has funded an initiative to produce high-quality monoclonal antibodies: http://commonfund.nih.gov/proteincapture/overview

    The first of these antibodies are available from the Developmental Studies Hybridoma Bank. The DSHB already sells multiple different GFP antibodies ($35 per aliquot). Taq polymerase is off patent, and many labs make their own. You can fill your fish aquarium with it if you want to. It is certainly possible reduce reagent expenditures and stretch your money a bit further. But the antibody initiative aside, do you really want NIH to become a purveyor of reagents?

    Our current funding woes boil down to too many labs given NIH's fiscal resources. Or as DM puts it "the tragedy of the [eRA] commons."

  • drugmonkey says:

    BugDoc-

    Are you imagining personal pledges from PIs? Like "I'll train no more graduate students"? Or "I will not apply for grants past the NIGMS scrutiny level"? Or "I'll only hire one postdoc at a time and get the grunt work done with career techs"? Or, "We will stop Glamour Houndng and strive to publish 80% of the data we generate, interesting or not"?

    These are personal decisions that could certainly help. But only if lots of us were doing this. Otherwise we are just handicapping ourselves. Which might be some people's decision but it won't bring most people along.

  • […] go read the long discussion happening over at drugmonkey about how the current funding situation affects early career scientists and current grad students […]

  • Spiny Norman says:

    I'm genuinely unsure whether Collins is bright enough to understand why the problems before us have developed or his culpability in those processes.

    I realize he cloned CFTR before someone else managed to do it, and he's good at looking after his own political interests. But every time he opens his mouth I see a profoundly shallow and stupid man, moving his lips.

  • Crystaldoc says:

    Personally, I like N-C's options 1,2,5.

    Please let's be clear that those calling to fix things by making reagents cheaper are not the same people that have ever had to budget to support a lab! In most fields of NIH supported research, personnel costs account overwhelmingly for the lion's share of the budget. NIH is already structured to minimize these costs, with research done in the trenches by too many (relatively) low paid trainees. Restructuring to get the "grunt work done with career techs", as I agree is what achieving a stable work force calls for, is going to make the science far *more* expensive, not less. At my institution with its rigid pay scale, my BS level career tech with 10 yrs experience makes 50k and with the Cadillac benefits costs me over 70k. She is great and I do not begrudge her a comfortable living wage, only hope I can maintain funding to keep her over the long term and wish I could afford more like her. But really, that is more than a postdoc costs that will tend to be more motivated by needing results and willing to put in longer hours, not to mention having a PhD and greater understanding of the fundamental basis of our work that the degree represents. Restructuring the biomedical workforce to a sustainable model = less science for the money. Antibody cost is trivial by comparison.

  • BugDoc says:

    "Are you imagining personal pledges from PIs? Like "I'll train no more graduate students"? "

    Nope - that would be futile & ridiculous. I'm talking about changing SOP for graduate training. Instead of figuring out how many students institutions can afford on our grants every year, we should act like scientists and use the available data to make these decisions. Despite what Alberts, et al, say, there is plenty of data to show that we are training too many students. Admit 20% fewer to our programs over the next several years, even if other institutions insist on taking more. Even if the faculty scream about it (and they will). Do more than pay lip service to non-academic professional development, so that the students we train are highly competitive for lots of different jobs and celebrate their success. Have institutions move some of the funds they currently use to support students to internal awards that staff scientists can apply for. Use the screaming faculty as leverage to make a case that institutions can't keep hiring endlessly. Will it be hard? For sure. Impossible? I don't think so. The writing is on the wall.

    I'd love to see most of N-c's list happen & will gladly join any group advocating for those actions. I'm just done with all the wishful thinking and waiting for the current generation of "leaders" at NIH to lead. I'm pretty sure you are all sick of that too.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    You can add me to the list of people who would sign on to N-C's 5 points. The only thing I would add is some sort of change to make it less attractive for universities to put up new research buildings every 5 years whether they need them or not.

  • qaz says:

    Wow. Go do real work for one day, and come back to find I've missed a whole conversation.

    I think we need to recognize that this isn't really a problem with NIH. This is a problem with the US community, and the lack of infrastructure spending. The reason universities (and other research institutions) turned to soft-money jobs was because the other money sources have vanished. The reason paylines are so low is because NIH doesn't have the money to pay for the science. (See earlier data on how the current NIH budget is significantly BELOW what it would have been at a steady economic increase rate.)

    I heard a thing on NPR's FreshAir a few days ago lamenting the massive increase in the cost of college, with little to no recognition or admission that college has always been expensive, but that the state (feds, states, cities) used to pay for a large portion of it. Having people with a college education is no longer seen as a public good that helps our society, but only as a private good that helps that person get more salary (which it often doesn't).

    NIH's policies are a problem, yes, and may be the easier ones for scientists like us to fix, but the real problem is that we are not spending the money to fund 50% (or even 25%) of the proposed projects. It's a surprisingly anti-capitalist perspective to say that we need to limit the money we are investing in our future. Science always turns out to be a good investment over the long haul. Every major boom that we've seen in the US economy in the last century+ has come from massive governmental investment in science, education, and infrastructure ([thanks BenK for that insightful history]) that opens up new ways for businesses to work. I don't know how to change that, but we need to recognize that, yes, we can get NIH to be more fair, but the real problem isn't NIH, it's the fact that even in a time when interest rates are near zero, the governments won't invest.

    The problem with N-C''s 5 steps is that it assumes the money exists out there already and just isn't being used properly, so all NIH needs to do is force the recalcitrant universities to pony up. Unfortunately, there's no money there to steal back.

    The problem isn't NIH. It's the loss of investment in the community.

    Whether that can be laid at the feet of the baby boomers as well, is I suppose, another question.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    But qaz, isn't the fact that the biomedical research enterprise went into almost immediate crisis as soon as the doubling ended pretty strong evidence that "more money" on its own won't solve the problem?

    I'm all in favor of more investment in science and the NIH budget should absolutely keep up with inflation at a minimum. But I think it's clear that any increased investment has to come with changes to how we spend it. At this point I think that repeating the doubling and making all the same mistakes over again would be worse than just keeping budgets flat and letting the Malthusian solution take care of things.

  • Kevin. says:

    It just occurred to me we're all fucked. (I admit I'm slow)

    Those of us on 9 months salary are fucked because we're mortgaging the undergraduate's future by raising tuition paid for by crippling student loans.

    Those at med schools and soft money positions are fucked because NIH resources in real terms are dwindling.

  • qaz says:

    AL - When they planned the doubling, they planned for the consequences of slowing down with a +6% annual increase after the doubling, and estimated that slowing down with a +3% annual increase would cause disaster as it would not be able to sustain the buildup caused by the delay from the doubling. Instead we got a -3% annual decrease followed by a -6% annual decrease after the stock market crash scared the politicals.

    The doubling turned out to be perfectly designed to destroy NIH's system - add a lot of short-term investment (which leads to private investment) and then no long-term investment (which leads that private investment into disuse).

    What we need is a New Deal or Great Society reinvestment that provides sustained investment in the infrastructure of our society for a long time.

    The real question is whether we think there is a limited number of useful scientists in our society (so we only need to provide for a small cadre of elite GlamourHounds) or whether we think that we should let the population of people who really want to do science actually do that science.

  • former staff scientist says:

    Coldone, good luck to you. I saw the writing on the wall at the end of my postdoc 10 years ago and also took a job at a SLAC (took me a minute to decode that). My 9 month salary was actually a small pay cut relative to my postdoc salary, but since I had a grant, I was able to pay myself summer salary for a few years. My wife eventually found a full time job at a nearby community college. I doubt you will regret your decision. I certainly do not, especially after reading this blog.

    "Restructuring the biomedical workforce to a sustainable model = less science for the money."
    Yup. And that is why the NIH does not want to change the current system. And with the ever increasing awareness of the pyramid scam, that is also why there is a race to the bottom with each new incoming class of grad students.

  • drugmonkey says:

    qaz- you are thinking like the NIH has been thinking. "We deserve more money and if we wait around long enough and whine to Congress loud enough we will eventually get more money. So stay the course and look busy in the mean time."

    We need to be the agents of change. personally. Yes BugDoc, those department/program level changes in grad admissions are what I am talking about. But it requires personally weaning ourselves off the free labor, paying for professional scientists to do our work and consequently accepting we will never produce the way we want to.

  • DJMH says:

    Totally disagree with N-c point 5. F and T grants cost the NIH far, far less than funding those same people off of R01s and the like, because 8% IDCs vs 50%+ IDCs. So my solution is to put a lot MORE funds into at least Fs, probably also some Ts, and thereby give youngsters more independence from shitty PIs. Hate the lab? Leave it, with your money.

    My plan hinges on the fact that the average total costs for 1 R01 are sufficient for 10 Fs. That seems like a way, way better deal...it would mean that most labs could operate on 1 R01, have a few students/PDs paid off their own Fs, and use the dwindling real-dollar R01 money for PI salary, reagents, and foreigners. Invokes cost-sharing from the universities, which damn straight.

  • drugmonkey says:

    This has the seeds of a good plan DJMH but there is the danger of more of the same. I.e. PIs with mega labs in which they can support "postdocs" on Rmech dollars *and* get disproportional access to fellowship trainees.

    How do we break this habit?

  • Dave says:

    So my solution is to put a lot MORE funds into at least Fs, probably also some Ts, and thereby give youngsters more independence from shitty PIs.

    I'm struggling to see how that would get more youngsters into independent positions with their own lab. It just seems to me that it would continue the status quo, but just shift the money around a little bit. It's easy to imagine a few big labs with lots of subordinate, pseudo-independent minions running around on Ts and Fs, but what happens after those grants are finished? It will be even harder for those people to get an R01 because you've moved a lot of that money to Ts and Fs. Can they apply for another one, or do they move to a K?

  • DJMH says:

    1. Freeing up money is freeing up money. Don't we all agree about that? Can any of you fund 10 students or postdocs off of 1 R01? My plan does.

    2. "Independence" doesn't refer to the trainees gaining independent positions, but the fact that since they are not wholly dependent on their PI for money, they are less likely to have to tolerate abuse. Of course when you write an NRSA, you should be planning on staying in that lab, but if a situation badly deteriorates, or if you have a big personal issue like your spouse gets a job across the country, you can usually petition your PO to leave, with the money.

    3. If it's possible to run a good lab on 1 R01, (a) I think fewer PIs will apply for a 2nd, given how hard it is to get one (am I wrong about this? maybe), and (b) the NIH would have a leg to stand on when it discourages study sections from giving more money to people who already have it. That's my best answer to you DM...maybe you can help improve it. 2 R01-equiv max as either official or unofficial policy? Is that unreasonable, in a world where say half the trainees have their own Fs?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Yeah the 3 was the best I could come up with. It has a chance of working.

    what about the PO who isn't keen when the postdoc wants to move from a NIMH lab to a NCI lab? How would that be handled? I think ICs are going to be worried about their scientific domains and will need some reassurances (OR the heavy hand of the OD taking them all over)

  • DJMH says:

    Yes, this would definitely shift some power into the hands of POs making decisions about NRSA transferability. Agreed that that would have to be handled carefully, to have them all working from at least approximately the same principles.

    But to be clear, I don't think NRSAs should be licenses for the trainees to up and move any time the fancy strikes them. I think they should work more or less as they do now. Maybe DataHound has stats on how often trainees with NRSAs jump ship? I don't think it's high frequency, anecdotally. I can think of one I know off the top of my head where partner moved. Mostly, people pick a lab and stay in it.

  • Have to say that of the 5 point plan, I like #4 the best:

    4) reduce all R01 apps to 6 pages, and have 5 reviewers perform initial triage review, dropping the highest and lowest scores. Triage 67% of all apps and enter the remainder into a lottery.

    I proposed very something similar, though there would probably have to be a cap on the total number of applications a single PI can submit.

    If nothing else, the well-connected would have fewer advantages.

  • qaz says:

    DM - I am definitely not thinking like NIH. NIH thinks there's nothing wrong (except that now the Boomers and their kids are starting to miss grants). If NIH was thinking like me, they would start lobbying the way DOD does (by doing PR and telling congress the world will end if they don't get mor' money) whether it gets declared as legal lobbying or not. If NIH was thinking like me, they'd be selling science like it was the coolest thing since sliced bread. If NIH was thinking like me, every university and research institute would be lobbying their state and federal congress people pointing out the number of jobs lost with each cut to NIH. (Instead of what most universities say, which is "it's fine, we'll figure out how to live with less".) Maybe when the Chinese launch Sputnik....

    However, I agree with you. I don't honestly think that there's a hope in hell of changing Congress, sad as that makes me. So we're left with trying to figure out how to distribute the scraps we're given as fair and equitable as possible.

    Unfortunately, the discussion keeps coming back to Julia, this time Julia being all those grad students and postdocs who want to do science. (Of course, this started because GenX complained that NIH was doing-it-to-them.)

  • BugDoc says:

    "the discussion keeps coming back to Julia, this time Julia being all those grad students and postdocs who want to do science".

    I don't think trying to fix the training system for future generations should count as "doing it to Julia". There is no enterprise in the world that supports unlimited numbers of participants. Limiting tax-payer supported training slots to prevent the expansion of the current academic pyramid scheme and to promote the success of future trainees is a necessary mechanism for downsizing the whole community, since most agree that there are too many scientists applying for too little money.

  • rxnm says:

    Julia does not start at conception, it starts at PhD candidacy.

  • qaz says:

    BugDoc - by the same logic, you could say that no enterprise supports unlimited numbers of faculty.

    This discussion is about how to downsize the community (something I think is a major mistake, but probably not fixable in this current political climate). So we have to downsize someone. You have suggested to downsize the graduate students.

    As I pointed out in the other thread, limiting the graduate student pool is going to encourage privilege and luck. One of things that I noticed (being chair of admissions of our graduate program through the crash of the economy and the concomitant growth in number of applications) is that we no longer have room to take the unfortunate student who stumbled. (This occurs for two reasons. (1) We no longer have room for a student who fails. A student who fails can bring down a faculty member on the edge of funding. This means that we can't take any risks. (2) There are now too many students who didn't stumble.) For all the "grit" crap that's being put forward now, the students who win are the ones who are brilliant, had the privilege to learn how to play the game, AND have grit. This is how privilege gets maintained. We limit the pool to a size that only fits the top privileged students, knocking out the non-top privileged students and the top unprivleged students together.

    And, by the way, I hope everyone remembers that it is very difficult to predict long-term success at entry into graduate school.

    Rather than limiting the graduate student pool, let's make graduate student life into a decent job for a 25 year old college graduate and make it into appropriate training for many potential career paths.

  • jmz4 says:

    "Yes, bean counting the antibodies is definitely something that the NIH needs to look into from the very top on down. "
    -What? No, but putting an intern on assignment for a couple of months to put together a website so that people can get antibody information from a non-commercial source wouldn't be a waste of money. Nor would a bank where you could order small trial aliquots. Or registering ongoing mouse experiments so that people can request and reserve unused tissue (using the NIH to blind the process, of course). Sometimes a little centralized investment goes a long way.

    "I notice you didn't actually answer the question though. Nobody ever does."
    Fair enough. Why should anyone else pay for the NIH's requested product? I'm assuming you mean because the NIH commissions Universities to conduct research, they have the responsibility of paying those salaries (or that portion dedicated to the contracted research).
    The short answer is because they can. Universities can and do derive benefits from faculty and the research they perform. They will pay money to retain them. The NIH can use this leverage to shift costs off themselves, and if they're serious about investing the taxpayer's money wisely, then they will.

  • DJMH says:

    jmz4, you know about Neuromab, right? NIH-funded antibody production specifically for neuro applications.

  • Dave says:

    Freeing up money is freeing up money. Don't we all agree about that? Can any of you fund 10 students or postdocs off of 1 R01? My plan does

    I guess I just don't understand why you want to free up money for trainees at the expense of R01s. That seems backwards to me. Sure, I would like to see students and post-docs on their own funds, that would be awesome. But not at the expense of R01 funding. That's madness. These kids will have an even harder time making it to the next step than we all do at the moment.

    I'm not feeling it DJMH.

  • Joe says:

    @qaz "I hope everyone remembers that it is very difficult to predict long-term success at entry into graduate school. "
    This is exactly right and needs to be considered when figuring out how to limit the grad student pool. Many times at my MRU, I have heard my colleagues comment that they would not have been admitted into our grad program, and that is the case for me as well. The grades and scores that get you into highly-selective programs and that get you training-grant slots are not necessarily what lead to success in science.

  • jmz4 says:

    @DJMH
    I did not, but thanks for the info. These sorts of projects are great. They provide steady funding to labs (I imagine), and a valuable resource to the communities. I wonder if there's any way to get them added on top of regular NIH budgets as pork by soliciting congress critters directly. Do these kind of things fall under a single type of project code?

    Does anyone know if it's possible for appropriations to the NIH to occur outside of the annual budget?

  • DJMH says:

    Dave: you're not getting it. The reason everyone wants two R01s is because they have to fund their students and postdocs off of those grants. By far the biggest cost to the grants is personnel, in part because personnel costs have gone up while R grants stay the same size. If you relieve say half the personnel costs, everyone needs fewer R01s (or equivalent) to run their labs.

    Also, math. Because of the 8% IDC on Fs, cutting 1 typical R01 from the NIH budget frees up money for 10, read them TEN, trainees. So let's say at your institution, three people in your dept lose their 2nd R01, but there are 30 funded grad students or postdocs as a result. How is that not a win? Let's say the people who lost their 2nd R01 for our thought experiment each take 4 of those trainees, for a total of 12, which is more or less how many people they would have been able to fund off of their R01s. That leaves 18 trainees, now funded through MAGIC MONEY THAT IS REAL, ready to join any of your labs. Wouldn't you like a free postdoc or two? Wouldn't you try really hard to create a good work environment to keep them? Wouldn't it be nice not to be trying to write and keep a 2nd R01, since your lab would be happily ticking along with just 1?

  • DJMH says:

    @jmz4, appears to be a U24, if you go to project reporter and look up jim trimmer, who runs this effort. You can type that in (U24 into the "R01" field) to see what other kinds of projects come up...eg at NINDS there's an epilepsy physiology database and a parkinsons brain resource thing.

  • BugDoc says:

    "BugDoc - by the same logic, you could say that no enterprise supports unlimited numbers of faculty."

    Got it in one, qaz.

    "Rather than limiting the graduate student pool, let's make graduate student life into a decent job for a 25 year old college graduate and make it into appropriate training for many potential career paths."

    Getting guaranteed the equivalent of about 50K$/year (avg value of tuition, stipend, benefits) for 5 or more years and an advanced degree is not a bad deal for a 25 yr old college graduate in my opinion. I'm all in for training students for different career paths and am taking concrete steps to do that for our students. But let's not imagine that there are lots of industry jobs, government jobs, policy jobs sitting around empty. The data just don't support that (at least those task force reports are good for something). Industry is downsizing. Government budgets are being cut. Where are all the awesome well paying jobs for the many many graduate students we are training?

  • […] time commenter Neuro-conservative offered up some specific action items for fixing the NIH. Which of these is of highest priority to […]

  • drugmonkey says:

    The short answer is because they can.

    and that, my friend, is the nihilistic answer to any and all of your or anyone else's complaints or observations.

    "That's the way it is, tough beans, chumpo".

    This is not an answer that satisfies a question or leads to avenues for advancing.

  • Dave says:

    So let's say at your institution, three people in your dept lose their 2nd R01, but there are 30 funded grad students or postdocs as a result. How is that not a win?

    I'm coming at it from a different angle. Again, what do we do with all these additional kids now in the system? Where do they go?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Because of the 8% IDC on Fs, cutting 1 typical R01 from the NIH budget frees up money for 10, read them TEN, trainees. ...How is that not a win?

    siiiiigh.

    Again with this presumption that IDC has nothing to do with the true cost of research and that it is some sort of piggy bank for the people concerned with their own lab's direct costs to raid.

    It's as idiotic as those people proposing that on a per-PI basis, each subsequent award should have lower IDC because that PI's institutional space is more or less fixed. These arguments just don't understand that IDC negotiation is amortized across the whole University (or relevant subunit where subset negotiations take place) and the whole University is the applicant and recipient of individual awards anyway.

    Drop the IDC load off of the R-mechs by divorcing trainee salaries and you will see a renegotiation upward of the rates on the remaining portion of the R-mechs.

  • former staff scientist says:

    "Getting guaranteed the equivalent of about 50K$/year (avg value of tuition, stipend, benefits) for 5 or more years and an advanced degree is not a bad deal for a 25 yr old college graduate in my opinion."

    Since the Ph.D. degree itself will end up being worthless for many of its recipients (most if you count those who never advance beyond a permanent postdoc), it is hardly fair to include the cost of tuition as benefit of grad school. That is kind of like saying at the end of 5-7 years, we are going to give you a large poo-poo platter, and the good news is it's free! Some people may love science enough that they are happy with their salaries topping out at ~50K as a permanent postdoc, but I doubt most people aspire to that when they start graduate school, let alone retrain for an alternative career.

  • DJMH says:

    Dave: these are not *additional* people in the system. The difference is that where before, maybe 10% of your trainees have NRSAs, now 50% do. Or something like that.

    DM, yeah that's a concern. Yes, the plan forces more cost-sharing onto the universities. I don't have a magic solution there. Hoping that by providing a tangible reason for the NIH to limit R01s per customer, some of the frantic grant grind will be reduced...

  • MnkyMnd says:

    How about we get industry to pull their weight by sponsoring PhDships? Those students are trained in a lab and do summers in industry. Would also encourage collaborations imo.

  • drugmonkey says:

    You think the postdoc-ification of industry has been a positive thing? Are you bonkers?

  • BugDoc says:

    "it is hardly fair to include the cost of tuition as benefit of grad school"

    Since real money has to be paid on their behalf, I think it's entirely fair to count it. Would it be more fair to pay them the very real 50K$, have them pay taxes on it, and then pay their own tuition?

  • E-Rook says:

    There are jobs out there for the PhD in biomedical sciences outside of academia, it's just that the graduate needs to cultivate skills and experiences that would land them those jobs. Being a pipette monkey who is awesome-sauce at pouring one's own acrylamide gels for five years will not qualify someone for a $50K+ job in industry (or government, policy, etc). They need transferable skills. Let me rephrase that -- they need DEMONSTRABLE transferable skills. Which means they need to have a list of accomplishments during grad school (and no, ambidextriously changing tissue culture media, while impressive to the undergrads, isn't useful for the staff scientist position in biotech).

    When I talk to youngsters, I tell them to look at job ads right now for the job they will want. Look at what qualifications are required. Will being here (at this school, in this program, in this lab, on this project) give them those qualifications (or lead them down that path)? The next question is, will your program, advisor, and committee allow you to cultivate some extra transferable skills? Like scripting/software developing/coding, graphic design, editing/writing, policy/public service, teaching/instructing/leading, organizing/managing? Can that be built into the student's experience while still serving the pipette-monkey role required to get the damned work done?

    I argue that this is feasible. I am an example (with stutters & missteps along the way). But I've witnessed a terrible disservices to grad students by tut-tutting at the ones who do these extra service things because they "distract" from their research -- but they are building skills/accomplishments for jobs outside of post-doc-professorships. Which is EXACTLY what we should be encouraging.

  • BugDoc says:

    "they are building skills/accomplishments for jobs outside of post-doc-professorships. Which is EXACTLY what we should be encouraging."

    Right on the money, E-rook, especially the part about demonstrable transferable skills. This is absolutely doable. But there still aren't tons of non-academic jobs out there. See 2012 WaPo article that is similar to many studies out there: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/us-pushes-for-more-scientists-but-the-jobs-arent-there/2012/07/07/gJQAZJpQUW_story.html. No matter how we slice that pie, we just can't train as many graduate students as we all got used to.

  • BenK says:

    To reinforce the message here, we can recall the history of the NIH, its present organization, and campus. The NIH was originally the clinical laboratory for the Marine Health Service, which established hospitals to treat the merchant marine and then was also tasked with providing diagnostic services to check immigrants for contagious disease. This later became the Public Health Service.

    The NIH campus, meanwhile, is based around the former library and quarters for the Army Surgeon General. The library became the National Library of Medicine. Across the street is the recently renamed Bethesda National Naval Hospital (now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center).

    The research mission of the NIH, the PHS, and in fact Walter Reed, were secondary occupations of people otherwise engaged in healthcare. Just as the academic research community had a 'day job' teaching; and military and industrial research has always had a day job as well. In fact, the X-ray crystallography that led to the Nobel Prize at the Naval Research Laboratory was secondary to the use of X-rays for finding cracks in large metal cannon and ship hulls (quality control).

    What's important about all this? Researchers have typically been tied to a community of practice that does a less glamorous, less scalable, task. Something that needs to be done day in and day out, that produces a product of value to a customer. Basic research has been, at best, an enhancement, and sometimes simply a perk of the job. Value creation may be on long timelines retrospectively, but the short term benefits of employing the person (captured value) have also been sufficient to justify the salary.

    The increase in the federal government research budget upended this situation and created a strange mess, if you will. Suddenly, scientists and doctors who didn't want to practice medicine could get their salaries paid plus overhead by a bureaucracy tasked with nothing more than handing out money and writing reports. Scientific prestige became the currency of certain program managers; but still, there were people harvesting short term, reliable value from employing the scientists. The universities, with overhead. But there are great risks to being a contractor with only one viable client - competition for that client when times are good and the collapse of that same client when times are tough. It is much less problematic, it turns out, to be a direct employee.

    I am tempted to analyze the defense industry for comparison; but that would take quite a bit of space. Let me simply suggest that the rethinking required to fix our national research enterprise is much more grand than some juggling of paylines. Individual scientists, I think, will need to authentically embrace underlying professions, just at the time that medicine and education are being challenged as well. The other real option is to go directly to patrons (foundations) and the people (crowd funding) - but these have shown limited appetite for 'academic' science.

  • jipkin says:

    qaz makes an interesting point: "For all the "grit" crap that's being put forward now, the students who win are the ones who are brilliant, had the privilege to learn how to play the game, AND have grit. This is how privilege gets maintained. We limit the pool to a size that only fits the top privileged students, knocking out the non-top privileged students and the top unprivleged students together."

    I've seen the people who propose shrinking the grad student population admit that basically this will end up meaning fewer people doing science for the same money, ergo less science. But what about if this means that the pool of scientists starts trending whiter, maler, more Ivy League, etc? Is this also an unavoidable consequence that we'll just have to live with?

  • anonymous postdoc (shrew) says:

    jipkin: "But what about if this means that the pool of scientists starts trending whiter, maler, more Ivy League, etc? Is this also an unavoidable consequence that we'll just have to live with?"

    For most of its existence, science has been the purview of the white male hobbyist, so if it goes back to being that way, I don't think any of us should be surprised. Just dismayed. But I don't think it will.

    I followed science as a way out of an...uncertain...economic position from my family life, and even as a postdoc it has brought me more stability and support than most other careers I could have chosen. I did not have the family support to pursue something that doesn't pay, like journalism, or doesn't pay immediately, like medical school. Any other graduate degree would have entailed taking out so many loans that I would be...just one more millennial student loan horror story. I have mentored several of my recent undergraduates from similar economic backgrounds into high-profile PhD programs, with the strict admonishment that they investigate all careers and not expect to be a professor. I really don't like the idea of cutting back on PhD admissions for this reason. Right now, a biomedical PhD is still a great option for someone whose family sucks.

    It is true that my earnings, and especially my retirement, are miles behind someone who got a job at Deloitte right out of undergrad, but those are the jobs white male Ivy League types are seeking out anyway. This is another millennial-Gen X difference. My Gen X husband got a coding job right out of college, and that job is still being staffed by a Gen X person today. The Boomers may have prevented Gen X's potential by keeping them in a holding pattern of lower-level jobs, but by keeping lower-level jobs full, millennials of modest means are kept out of any job. The up-or-out nature of science just makes this trend more egregious, because the people who couldn't move up at an arbitrary juncture don't keep a low level job, they just disappear (from academic science).

  • Former Staff Scientist says:

    "Since real money has to be paid on their behalf, I think it's entirely fair to count it. Would it be more fair to pay them the very real 50K$, have them pay taxes on it, and then pay their own tuition?"

    BugDoc, I think you have hit on the solution to this giant mess. The PhD degree is the only advanced degree I am aware of where people actually get paid to earn it. (That more than anything says a lot about the value of the degree.) Why shouldn't people have to pay tuition to attend graduate school? If people had to pay, they would likely do their homework first to see if the degree would pay off. When they discover that the probability of that is very low, the massive overproduction of PhDs would be solved overnight. Eventually, the demand might actually rise sufficiently to regain some people's interest.

  • drugmonkey says:

    BenK-
    What underlying professions do those that fulfill other government desires "authentically embrace"?

  • BenK says:

    Drugmonkey -
    I'm not quite sure I understand your question, but I'll give it a shot and then you can correct me if I've misunderstood.

    If you mean: what government jobs lend themselves to performing (biomedical) research in conjunction with their primary duties in the same way that the practice of medicine/public health and education have traditionally?

    They traditionally include fishery and forestry 'management' - largely observation and enforcement of regulation, enforcement of standards (NIST, FDA, USDA), assessment of tax base, regulation of interstate commerce, weather and economic forecasts (USDA again, NOAA), and forensics (DOJ, DOE, among others).

  • So, Ben, to a considerable extent, you're arguing for a de facto shift from extramural to intramural funding (e.g., NIH, instead of handing out funding, funds projects internally)?

    I do agree with this:

    "But there are great risks to being a contractor with only one viable client - competition for that client when times are good and the collapse of that same client when times are tough. It is much less problematic, it turns out, to be a direct employee. "

  • BenK says:

    Mike;
    It's interesting you put it that way, it makes sense to think about the role of the NIH within the research environment I'm groping towards. I can provide some suggestions, but I don't pretend to have the ear of anyone who could make serious changes.

    I certainly think that the NIH should continue to do some things that it has done extremely well and inimitably. Pubmed, NLM, NCBI, and a host of actual research resources; and probably the clinical center (joint with WRNMMC to the greatest extent possible). I'm not sure whether to term these 'intramural' or 'extramural' per se. I think of most of them as 'outward facing.'

    I'm inclined, personally, to suggest that the NIH should deploy intramural basic research funding in a different way than I perceive is traditional. I suggest that program officers whose primary mission is program management might have their own intramural research efforts funded for '20% time' if you will. As for extramural funding, the NIH might step in when something 'big' needs funding (such as comparative effectiveness research in a disease or treatment modality). The process of funding individual researchers through renewable R01s has proven problematic; and creating a limited universe of highly prestigious intramural NIH principal investigators may be desirable, but I don't think of it as the ideal way of leveraging public funding for the support of biomedical research.

    However, my main point was not directed at the NIH itself. I was mostly addressing the individual (biomedical scientist) who probably should be looking into the future with a sense of general unease.

    How can the individual cope with the sudden deterioration of this particularly prominent and well-regard career path? The most common strategy seems to be to double down and make it even more competitive. This is a poison pill, for individuals and the community. Sustainable science, if you will, requires a different expectation from scientists of themselves and others.

  • drugmonkey says:

    So actually this sounds like the NIH creating a parallel version of HHMI .

  • Ben–I guess I look at this very differently: extramural scientists are de facto government contractors, although often with unspecified contractual outcomes (e.g., grant 'deliverables').

    If we scientists admitted that, we might approach the whole funding fustercluck differently.

  • BenK says:

    Mike;
    I've done grant oversight and contract oversight for the government. My very informed opinion is that extramural NIH scientists are not in an environment of being a contractor. Your point about deliverables is one excellent piece of evidence for my claim.

    If they were contractors, then we would have a very different charlie-foxtrot, similar to the one in the defense industry. The government does say that it wants a robust defense industrial base, but the reward system for KOs and the DFAR instead push towards winner-take-all, cost overruns, consolidations, and so on.

    A stronger claim could be made that universities are de facto contractors with their negotiated indirect rates; that they are cost plus contractor on an IDIQ of sorts. Once again, though, stretching the categories to make it fit provides us with more than enough reason to think it broken and no particular handle on solutions.

    As scientists, if we want to admit to being contractors and then act like it, that suggests we should go in the direction of the SBIR/STTR shops and get out of the non-profit sector altogether.

  • drugmonkey says:

    You are engaging in ridiculous intentional point missing here, BenK.

    Specificity of the product and the number of entities that are hired to provide it matter not one bit to the overall concept here.

    The NIH wants something done and it pays non(Federal)government entiries to provide it. Period, done, end of story. All else is mere detail.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Oh and btw, the NIH *does* fund things that they consider to be straight-up contracts. The differences from an R01 are really not that significant.

  • ProfDuder says:

    I've got a question. Why don't NIH proposals and especially contracts compete on total costs? Study sections look at direct costs, but never total costs.

    University of South Carolina Medical School has an indirect cost rate of 33.5%.
    The Salk Institute is at 90%.

    You could get almost 1.5 as much research done in South Carolina compared to San Diego.

  • MoBio says:

    @DM you said:

    "Oh and btw, the NIH *does* fund things that they consider to be straight-up contracts. The differences from an R01 are really not that significant."
    Perhaps you should ask someone who's had both?

    There are vast differences between NIH contracts and RO1s. Deliverables, milestones, 'payment on delivery', monthly reports, special subcontracting requirements, and so on.

    No product, no $$.

    With an RO1 on other hand....

  • drugmonkey says:

    No science pubs and you won't get any more R01 grants. There is no difference here that is relevant to my central point.

  • BenK says:

    DrugMonkey;
    I intend that Mike and I are collaboratively searching for refined understanding. There's a bit of a dialectic - I propose, he affirms partially and pokes holes, he proposes, iterate.

    MoBio provides accurate information.

    There is more:
    If NIH R01s were contracts, there is no way study sections would be allowed under the FAR. Source Selection and Evaluation Boards are a closed, inherently governmental process. The request for proposal must be detailed; typical selection requirements are best value or lowest cost technically acceptable.

    We might think of this as a kind of regulatory capture, where the scientists from the institutions that are seeking the funding have inserted themselves directly into the process of award, oversight, and termination. But this overlooks the historical context, I think; grants are more or less gifts, with minimal oversight. If they are a nice supplement to shift the course of research a little this way or that, they tend to work because the interests of the grantee and granter are fundamentally aligned.

    However, as they become sustenance and provide the whole of funding in a cost plus environment for institutions, all this is distorted. Now, to keep the interests of the grantee and granter in line, the accountability structure of contracts really would be needed. Unfortunately, with grants, it can only be simulated.

    All the accountability is up-front, in a one-time model; or in-between rounds, if we want to think of it as a game theory 'repeated game.' If you want grants to act like contracts, obtaining reliable products but without any oversight during execution (no EVM, no cost accounting, etc) - with all the accountability is up front, the application process must be arduous and costly; periods of performance short. At the same time, telegraphing clear expectations in a research environment under a grant giving mechanism is difficult. The mangling of the grant/contract system creates problems with efficiency - writing grant proposals takes an increasing amount of time, tolerances become smaller, insecurity (due to short periods of performance, high competition, and uncertainty in communication of expectations) eats at the sustaining quality of the funding.

    We all see the symptoms.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Gifts??!!!???

    You are not even trying at all.

  • BenK says:

    From Google (i.e. definition of grant)

    noun
    noun: grant; plural noun: grants
    1.
    a sum of money given by an organization, especially a government, for a particular purpose.

    synonyms: endowment, subvention, award, donation, bursary, allowance, subsidy, contribution, handout, allocation, gift; scholarship

  • AcademicLurker says:

    DM, I've worked on projects for the FDA that are run much more on the "contract" model. It's is very very different from the kind of relatively free form research that's done on R01s. As BenK points out, there are specific deliverables (not just "new knowledge" or "publications"), specific target dates and milestones and frequent meetings with agency representatives. No one who has worked on such projects would mistake an R01 for a contract. It's a different beast.

  • drugmonkey says:

    AL- No duh the particulars are different. That is not the point here (although the supposed deliverables and nonpayment etc is highly debatable when it comes to new fighter jets and new software programs for the FBI).

    The Federal government asks a nonFederal government entity to provide a thing. It pays for that thing.

    How do grants differ in the least little bit on this essential concept?

  • drugmonkey says:

    That's nice BenK. Now explain in your own words how the essential concept differs.

  • MoBio says:

    No one who has actually received an NIH contract would agree that it is 'essentially the same as an RO1'

  • BenK says:

    DrugMonkey;
    I see from your prior post why this is a freighted issue for you.

    I think you should re-read my comment in which I explain how grants are currently being used for a purpose to which they are ill-suited and how this is causing serious distortions. I think you can find there a sympathetic explanation of our collective scientific plight, that does justice to the question Mike raised about intra- and extra-mural. We are covering the same topic you did in your own post; you think that you really are a government employee and subject to sufficient direction and oversight. I think that you would be happier as a government employee because the mechanisms of direction and oversight would be much less burdensome. Doing this all through 'grants' is a disaster.

    If you care to get in the weeds about IPAs and the general ban on personal service contracts, I can discuss the mechanisms of supervision from GS through contractor to grantee; we can cover GFE, Demo, Term-Perm, and related topics. There's quite a bit to explore there.

  • drugmonkey says:

    "A freighted issue". Nice try to make this about me rather than the facts.

    What gift is 1) asked for and 2) given with expectation of a return ?

  • drugmonkey says:

    And btw, I am trying to get you to see why not understanding the true nature of extramural grant sustems has created the distortions that are of central concern to most of us.

  • Jonathan says:

    "Does anyone know if it's possible for appropriations to the NIH to occur outside of the annual budget?"

    Yes, and the answer is absolutely not. Why would you think this would be possible?

  • drugmonkey says:

    MoBio- do you so assiduously seek to avoid seeing the forest to obsess over the trees in your own work? Somehow I doubt that.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    Obviously grants aren't gifts, as DM's "What if I spend the money on a yacht?" hypothetical demonstrates.

    But it is worth noting that the extramural NIH system bears approximately no resemblance to other areas that are generally designated as government contracts, e.g., construction, military & etc.

  • MoBio says:

    @DM: I guess you'd have to ask those in my lab

    The point here is that there are many here who likely read this who would take your assertion as a revealed truth "that an RO1 is essentially equivalent to an NIH contract"...there are so many substantive differences as BenK and others have made.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Of course there is a resemblance. The NIH puts out requests for proposals to do a thing, also known as FOA. The applicant institutions then send in a proposal for what they plan to do to satisfy that Federal government request for a thing. Which are competitively reviewed. The Federal government then funds some of those proposals to do the things that have been proposed.

    If you don't do the thing as proposed, they will not pay you. Violate the congressional directives, switch species say, without prior OLAW approval, try to buy a yacht for no apparent reason... and they will not pay you. Grants are not given to the extramural institution in advance, the institution is reimbursed for approved expenditures. NIH can refuse to reimburse costs if they diverge from what the NIH expects to receive as services rendered or goods provided.

    If you do not make progress on the thing as the Federal government agency expects you to do and they will not pay you any more. You are obliged to give a formal progress report each and every year which describes what you have been doing. The Fed is able to stop paying the intended duration of the award if they choose.

    These are the fundamental principles at stake. They do not differ in any fundamental way from what you think of as a true government contract except for the fact the extramural providers do not get to utterly unashamedly and unapologetically write in a profit line.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I guess you'd have to ask those in my lab

    I can read your papers. That was a rhetorical question. I don't think that you do, quite the contrary.

    there are so many substantive differences as BenK and others have made.

    context, dude context. This is not about whether a contract is a more of a pain in the posterior to complete and administer than is a typical R01. Nor is it about the degree of bean-counting involved on the part of the Federal representative.

    It is about the underlying philosophy of whether it is reasonable, consistent, ethical or moral for one agency of the Federal government to obtain its goods and services under an expectation that the provider of that service pay for half of it. Or whether it is reasonable, consistent, ethical or moral for that one agency to use clever trick to avoid significant worker protections* for those people who are in the trenches fulfilling their desires and requests. It is fundamentally important to compare this one area of Federal expenditure with all of the other ones to see if there is any reason to excuse bad behavior. I find that there is not.

    *do you think if the private contractors of the defense industry were systematically using up 22-38 year old workers and then consistently squeezing them out to save money hiring a fresh crop of young workers that this wouldn't be a scandal? The only part of the Fed I can think that acts this way is.... the actual military itself. Warfighters. And the military has the excuse of physical capability to perform the job, unlike science where that capability/age relationship is in the other direction.

  • I find myself in the unusual position of being a peacemaker. First, regarding NIH contracts versus grants, I've had both, and contracts are really much more specific in terms of what's expected.

    That being said, I agree with DrugMonkey's basic point:

    "It is about the underlying philosophy of whether it is reasonable, consistent, ethical or moral for one agency of the Federal government to obtain its goods and services under an expectation that the provider of that service pay for half of it. Or whether it is reasonable, consistent, ethical or moral for that one agency to use clever trick to avoid significant worker protections* for those people who are in the trenches fulfilling their desires and requests. It is fundamentally important to compare this one area of Federal expenditure with all of the other ones to see if there is any reason to excuse bad behavior. I find that there is not."

    Until scientists get some swagger and start acting like other contractors in terms of political expectations, we will be devalued. When it comes to government funding, the meek rarely inherit the earth.

  • Jonathan says:

    It's a spectrum. You have R grants, U cooperative mechanisms, and finally contracts, with increasing management from NIH across that spectrum, but drugmonkey's philiosphical point remains: even an R award is the government procuring a service from a contractor (the university), it's just done with much more hands-off oversight and without clearly defined products. Refusing to see that is just being needlessly obtuse.

  • BenK says:

    Mike;
    KBR, Halliburton, Tunnell Gov't Services - these are not necessarily representative of the defense contracting industry as a whole. The industry as a whole is very cyclical; and individuals in that industry regularly find themselves in trouble.

    The equivalent of KBR and friends would be Stanford, Caltech, etc; with other defense contractors parallel to other universities - some large and lumbering, some more specialized, etc. The high-profile elite specialty shops like the SkunkWorks might be parallel to the FFRDCs or even spinoffs like Draper and SRI; they have similar sets of institutional advantages and disadvantages (often national security provides both a niche market and heavy overhead requirements).

    If scientists want to be 'protected' the way other government contractors are 'protected' they should go into that eyes open. The government uses contractors not because of some longstanding ethical obligation to them, but as a method of avoiding obligations - as compared to hiring civilians.

    While we are on that topic, it would be good to remind people of the debate about military salaries and pensions. These are the people to whom the government feels the strongest degree of obligation; and they are represented by officials at the highest levels, are identified by the flag waving populace as beloved - but there is still wrangling about dollars and cents. Scientists as a community will never get the level of political support the soldiers have; and military compensation is up for debate.

    This would give me pause about any strategy that relies on collective political action to secure long-term financial support. Individually and collectively, scientists need to be more creative about how they stabilize their sustenance.

  • jmz4 says:

    "and that, my friend, is the nihilistic answer to any and all of your or anyone else's complaints or observations. "
    -Well, I said it was the short answer. The answer as to whether or not they should offload costs on to Universities is a determination NIH has to make based on whether it hurts or helps the biomedical research infrastructure as a whole. Making that determination will require a lot of math, and more data than we really have access to right now. You're making the fee for service equation into some sort of moral prerogative, which, given the parallels you're drawing to contracting, seems ridiculous. Negotiate fees for service. If someone is willing to take 50%, give it to them. If someone is willing to take 50% even though you mandate they pay their employees X, that's fine too. As long as you are not physically forcing them into a contract, ethics and morality doesn't enter into it. The only ethical burden they need concern themselves with is whether it causes biomedical research to thrive.
    I have a feeling what I'm supposed to take from your comments is that this sort of cost-sharing will shaft the workforce, putting everyone in the same plight as postdocs (unreliable benefits and salary). There are other fixes to that.

    "unlike science where that capability/age relationship is in the other direction."
    -Got data to back that up?

    "Yes, and the answer is absolutely not. Why would you think this would be possible?"
    -I dunno, because Congress can more or less pass whatever laws it wants (usually). It directed a bunch of money to the NIH under the stimulus bill, which was an extra-budgetary endeavor. I'm saying, can we start bugging our Congress people to put riders for projects to be carried out by the NIH through the normal grant process, but outside of their annual budget appropriation. Let's say a Congressperson from Seattle wants the NIH to study methadone efficacy, could she put that in a random bill, like they do when they want to build a bridge in Alaska, and have that bill send 20 million over to do it?
    They commission studies from the GAO and CBO all the time, right? Someone has to pay them. Would this just open the way for legislative control of research, though? Might not be the best idea, could waste a lot of cash trying to cure homosexuals and prove intelligent design.

    BenK:
    The problem with your argument that "grants are ill-suited" as primary sources of salary support and stability ignores the rather more important fact that they are extremely well-suited for fostering incredible independent science. There's no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, here. You can provide tweaks to the granting system to balance the workforce and provide more long-term stability to the workers without completely decimating the system. To put all the funding under intramural control of a few PO's risks all the ills of scientific hierarchies and their attendant nepotism (e.g. Lysenko in the Soviet Union).
    It also ignores certain changing realities of the biomedical research program. When you have to read hundreds of papers and manage half a dozen people to run a productive lab, you don't have the time to also be a park ranger or USDA inspector and still function efficiently. When the questions were few and the equipment simple, this may have been the case (and may still be in some fields), but not now, not in any intensive area of biomedical research. Say what you will about the grant grind, but at least it causes you to focus on your research and know your field.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    I am very surprised to see that so many interpreted option #1 as suggesting the institutional support would be in exchange for clinical/teaching/service effort, such that research would effectively become a part-time endeavor for investigators.

    I guess some institutions would do this, although they would be shooting themselves (or, more accurately, their investigators) in the foot.

    I probably shouldn't under-estimate the capacity of administrators to be short-sighted, but a lot of institutions simply aren't going to have that amount of work available to be done.

    Perhaps if I amended the option to be more like 20-30%, rather than 50%? But then I'm not sure it would have the intended effect.

  • drugmonkey says:

    What did you think it meant N-c?

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    An institutional commitment to the investigator. Maybe I have a weird perspective from the way I was taught by my postdoc mentor -- this was the attitude at that institution (at least at that time, at least for Full Profs) -- that it would be unseemly to ask for full PI salary support (ie, full salary for the %effort listed) on a grant. That the seriousness of the institution was seen to be reflected by its commitment to its senior investigators. I recognized at the time that it was a bit unusual, but in my experience reviewing grants it is not entirely unique, especially for BSD-level investigators. I was hoping that would become the standard for investigators in general.

  • drugmonkey says:

    As in they pay the 50% salary for their Prof to do nothing other than research?

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    correct

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    maybe one token morning of clinic for the MD's, a bit of teaching for the PhDs, but nothing more than 5-10%

  • drugmonkey says:

    That stuff you are smoking must be of high quality.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    What if it was 25%, rather than 50%. Is that so crazy? See the following example of a modest investigator:

    Let's say the PI has a salary of $100K. With fringe, maybe $130K. So, 25% would be $32.5K.

    PI has a single R01, full modular, with cut=$225K. F&A rate of 60% yields $135K IDC.

    So the salary commitment would eat about a quarter of the indirects (fungibly speaking). PI is still a net plus to the institution, no?

  • qaz says:

    N-C, all you have done is shifted the PI salary into IDC. Assuming that IDC is relatively correct in its assessment (*), then pulling IDC to pay salaries is going to require a major increase in IDC, which just hides the salaries away where they can't be audited. (Sounds like a really bad idea to me.)

    * This is a debate that DM has been leading for a long time - is IDC correctly estimating the cost of doing research, underestimating or overestimating? Actually figuring this out is complicated, but it is very clear that there isn't "left over"/"unused" IDC to pay professor's salaries.

    We could say that in order to get federal dollars, a state has to kick in some percentage of a faculty salary (**), but as DM points out that's just moving some of the taxes we are paying away from the feds and into the states. (Right now, I'm less convinced that's a bad thing.)

    ** There are a lot of federal programs that work this way. Highway and transportation dollars for example which are often contingent on state investment.

    But by far the most likely effect of limiting salary recovery to 50% would be to destroy the soft-money position and force us back to the old professorship model (teach some, clinic some, research some). Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing can be debated. (There are good arguments on both sides.)

  • […] other places). Feared consequences of these depressing funding rates is that many scientists will fail to reach their potential (by DrugMonkey) or even leave science altogether. But, while I agree both of these consequences may […]

  • dsks says:

    "These are the people to whom the government feels the strongest degree of obligation; and they are represented by officials at the highest levels, are identified by the flag waving populace as beloved - but there is still wrangling about dollars and cents. Scientists as a community will never get the level of political support the soldiers have; and military compensation is up for debate."

    The only dollars and cents wrangling I've seen in re military compensation is about salaries and health care at the enlisted ranks. A grossly inflated officer class and out of control expansion in the numbers holding the rank of General (along with their expensive entourages) would argue heavily against the idea that government is pushing terribly hard to get value for money in that sphere.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Transportation dollars go to a very clear and exclusive local benefit. Like the way capital equipment doesn't get overhead b/c it has lasting local benefit to the University. The fruits of science, knowledge, are not local. They are Federal goods. Jet fighter planes are the far better analogy than transportation funds.

  • anonymous postdoc (shrew) says:

    "A grossly inflated officer class and out of control expansion in the numbers holding the rank of General"

    Sounds like a great way to describe the biomedical research career dilemma! Suggests to me that DM is super-duper right. Even the military may just be another highly specialized career class plagued by too many high ranking boomers.

  • BenK says:

    It's pretty far afield, but if we want to discuss the military career paths;
    first, it is incorrect that only enlisted health care and benefits are under discussion. Second, the GO/FO/SES ranks are up for reduction in force; but frankly, if there is a swelling, it is at the LTC/COL level and it probably isn't in the line. At one point, at least, Navy officers were 40% physicians. Add in the lawyers...

    Medical officers - are paid substantially more than the line officers, with the board pay and are given massive educational benefits (fellowships and the like).

    So, ironically, in a critique of the military personnel budget, it comes back around to biomedicine.

  • qaz says:

    DM: "Jet fighter planes are the far better analogy than transportation funds."

    I wonder what states put forward to get military bases stationed locally? I know they put huge amounts to get companies and sports stadiums (arguably foolishly). What do states do to get a new military base? Are military base locations dependent on state investment? (I really don't know.)

    If we're talking jet fighters specifically, then the decision of where to build jet fighters is dependent on the locations of companies that can build them. And states notoriously give massive tax give-away benefits to those companies with the hope of getting them to move to their state. (Again, I'm not defending those tax give-aways. They're usually monetary losses not wins for the states. But they do speak to a necessity of state investment to get federal dollars.)

  • AcademicLurker says:

    What do states do to get a new military base?

    My limited understanding is that the distribution of military bases is largely a historical artifact of the huge military expansion before and during WW2. There was a lot of horse trading, and the more powerful senators made a base in their state a condition of voting for the necessary funds.

    At least that's what I've heard.

  • becca says:

    DM- transportation dollars go mostly to highways. Fewer potholes for semis in flyoverlandia means California can sell it's raspberries to me even during the never ending Ice Of Doom part of the year. It's not as local as you paint it. And it's not like NIH dollars don't benefit Boston more than Sioux Falls. One might even say... you've presented zero basis for an assertion that benefits you.

  • BenK says:

    Many of the forts and naval facilities have historical reaches back to the Civil War and the wars of westward expansion. Very few actually reach back to 1812 or the revolutionary war. Those forts are typically museums and parks now.
    Other training camps were established for WWI.
    WWII typically selected from among those Forts and expanded the chosen. Then there have been repeated rounds of closure and consolidation.

    I've reviewed the history of the airbases, with which I am inherently less familiar.
    Some of them were military facilities as far back as a fort, but most were established either at WWI or WWII with a few coming up for the cold war. Many of them came from civil airfields. It seems that advocacy for location was typically driven by the cities; some cities even sold bonds, bought land and donated it to the federal government.

    The states argue very vociferously to avoid closure - via their Senators, typically. Their seniority permits horse-trading that substitutes for tax breaks or other incentives that are involved in corporate relocations.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    How does the knowledge of how to cure mouse cancer benefit New York more than Peoria, becca?

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    I think the recent history of military bases provides an instructive example for us. Military bases had a "doubling" during the 20th century, but at the end of the cold war there was a desire to retrench and close bases. However, there was no political will to close any particular base, and individual Senators were able to block any specific attempt. So the Senate collectively took control out of their own hands and empowered the independent Base Closing Commission -- a rare success story in recent legislative history.

  • E-Rook says:

    "It is about the underlying philosophy of whether it is reasonable, consistent, ethical or moral for one agency of the Federal government to obtain its goods and services under an expectation that the provider of that service pay for half of it. Or whether it is reasonable, consistent, ethical or moral for that one agency to use clever trick to avoid significant worker protections* for those people who are in the trenches fulfilling their desires and requests. It is fundamentally important to compare this one area of Federal expenditure with all of the other ones to see if there is any reason to excuse bad behavior. I find that there is not."

    The problem I have with this view is that a research grant is a grant, not a contract. It is a grant to do work (research) that the PI initiated, that the institution wants to do, and it wants the work done AT that institution. The institution and the PI want credit for the work, and they want to use the work to advance their interests.

    I understand the federal interest in biomedical research, yes. But I don't think the NIH, in the form of research project grants, should support the entirety of a professor's salary (or even 50% of it). When looking at jets/planes/tanks, one generally thinks of that as property that belongs to the military, for carrying out the DoD's missions . But when looking at the product of research (publications, trained citizens, advances that improve lives), one thinks of it as belonging to the investigator, the department, and the institution; to advance their missions. You don't think of the product as belonging to the NIH (unless it was work done intramurally). I think that's the difference, and I think that's why states should pay their investigators at least 50% at public universities, and the endowment (or whatever other source) should pay their investigators at private universities. I recall 60 second ad bits at football games at my undergrad institution, promoting the research done at the Big State U, it was most definitely promoting Big State's brand, NOT NIH or any other federal agency; when it was the fed that funded the work.

    The career path at a university is different than the career path at a contracting company too. The company can be nimble and adapt to new and changing needs. It can hire and fire at the drop of a hat. The workers can move quickly from one company to another. In academia, everything moves more slowly. A PI can't get a "contract" (grant) without an adequate "track record" as deemed by peer reviewers. But a company can get a contract if they can demonstrate they have the capability to do work best -- but they don't use the process of having competing contracting companies first evaluating the bids through a semi-anonymous system that takes 4 months to complete. They just negotiate the contract, if the agency doesn't like something, they change it. In academia, if an investigator wants to move to a different institution, she has to begin the complicated dance/ritual that takes 1-2 years to complete.

    My (long winded) point is that it scholarly research at academic institutions funded by research grants operates in a fundamentally different ecosystem than government contracting goods & services in other sectors and the analogy falls apart on closer examination.

  • Grumble says:

    Bingo, E Rook.

    The gov'mint doesn't buy my research the way it buys toilet paper for its bathrooms. Instead, it invests in a risky undertaking, and it wants others to share the risk.

    On top of that, it wants to fund more than it can afford. Like someone mentioned above, when the federal government wants to pay for all the expensive transportation projects it can't afford, it asks the states to chip in. That incentivizes the states to find the money, and more gets accomplished than if the feds did it all alone.

    You could argue, as DM does, that the nation's health is the federal government's business, not the states'. But states and localities benefit a lot from federal dollars spent on research in their communities. Is it really too much to ask for states and localities to contribute something to the pot to make this happen?

  • drugmonkey says:

    The problem I have with this view is that a research grant is a grant, not a contract. It is a grant to do work (research) that the PI initiated, that the institution wants to do, and it wants the work done AT that institution. The institution and the PI want credit for the work, and they want to use the work to advance their interests.

    Lockheed Martin seeks funding to do work on the Joint Strike Fighter that the workers initiated in the exact same sense. I.e., they like being in the profession of building jet fighters and had an idea that the Government would at some point pay them the do so, if they outcompete Boeing once a funding opportunity emerges*. The company itself wants to build fighters and wants the work done by Lockheed, not Boeing. Everybody wants to get credit for building the next awesome air-superiority machine and they sure as heck want to advance their "interests" (read, salaries and profits and professional standing) by doing so.

    Yammering on that "a grant is not a contract" just because you think it differs in some way is inferior to explaining how this is philosophically any different.

    *and of course they lobbied like heck to convince the gubbmint that a new fighter is actually needed. Not dissimilar to the BRAINI institutions and PIs lobbying for their boondoggle, I note.

  • drugmonkey says:

    But when looking at the product of research (publications, trained citizens, advances that improve lives), one thinks of it as belonging to the investigator, the department, and the institution; to advance their missions. You don't think of the product as belonging to the NIH (unless it was work done intramurally).

    *You* may think of the product this way but it doesn't make it so. Your list of publications, trained citizens and advances sound very much like something that cannot possibly "belong" to a University OR the NIH as institutions. It is a stretch to say it belongs to our country as a whole for that matter since these things now exist for the potential betterment of the entire planet.

    Even so, why does the fact that the outcome of funded research is a little less tangible than a jet fighter make any difference? To the extent that we can define it, there is nothing that gives ownership to the contractor or employees over the ownership of the entity that paid the bills for it to be accomplished.

  • […] we're discussing the amount of PI salary that should be rightfully paid by the NIH versus a local University lately, I have a grant review scenario to […]

  • Grumble says:

    Here's a thought:

    If the government cut IDC rates and used the money to award more grants, then, while there might be an initial shrinkage in number of institutions and faculty asking for grants, eventually the total amount of science being done would increase. That's because states and some private institute and foundations would re-prioritize their budgets to take up the slack (spend less on other things and/or raise more funds to pay for research). In the end, *more* research would get funded because the total pool of research funding would be bigger.

    Just the way that more bridges, roads and rail projects get funded when both the fed and state governments chip in than if only one of them does.

  • DJMH says:

    Here's a thought, how about cutting the C06 mechanism which appears to exist solely so that the NIH can produce "matching funds" for building and repairs, which I *thought* was supposed to be the whole point of IDC/institutional money?

    Sure, it's only about $200 million/yr, but that's about 430 R01s that surely we could use back.

    Examples of C06 funding:
    CENTRAL SANITATION FOR ANIMAL EQUIPMENT TO SUSTAIN BIOMEDICAL RESEARCH AT UCSD
    IMPROVEMENT OF UNIVERSITY OF OREGON ANIMAL RESEARCH FACILITIES

  • drugmonkey says:

    Are you saying the NIH should not worry about appropriate upgrading of animal facilities, DJMH? That surprises me.

  • Jonathan says:

    "-I dunno, because Congress can more or less pass whatever laws it wants (usually). "

    Have you actually been paying attention to the Congress we have, or is this some sort of idealistic daydreaming Schoolhouse Rock "America is the best democracy on the planet" type thing? Because Congress can't even pass the fucking appropriations bills they're supposed to (and haven't done for 19 years and counting).

  • DJMH says:

    DM, I am perplexed that building maintenance and upgrades are NIH's purview. It seems like that's exactly what IDCs should be used for, no?

    Anyhow, still with the IDCs, if they were folded into costs then PIs would suddenly have a reason to urge their institution to lower its IDC rate. So there would be *some* push against the deanletting.

  • thorazine says:

    Grumble - I agree with you regarding the final state (more research ends up getting funded, barring various second-order effects on the system) but I am not comfortable when I think about the transition period, and I worry that the effect on university support for research may be much greater than it seems like it should be.

    Of course, the current transition period being endured by NIH-(un)funded researchers is not exactly comfortable, either...

  • becca says:

    Drugmonkey- knowledge is not the only product of NIH grants. While the knowledge is produced, people have jobs. People in New York, not Peoria. There are long term benefits to that spending, and like most benefits there is a feed forward loop.

    Look, I'm perfectly comfortable with the idea transportation dollars from the federal government skew more local in benefit than NIH dollars, but most federal spending has some universal benefit. To argue otherwise is both incorrect AND beneficial to the tea party, so worth commenting on. In any case, I'm pretty sure there are actual experts on this who could run the numbers, for any given economic quantity you want to assign for the relative intangible of mouse cancer knowledge.

  • jmz4 says:

    "Have you actually been paying attention to the Congress we have, or is this some sort of idealistic daydreaming Schoolhouse Rock "America is the best democracy on the planet" type thing? Because Congress can't even pass the fucking appropriations bills they're supposed to (and haven't done for 19 years and counting)."
    -I mean, it was a hypothetical question regarding the actual ability of the NIH to receive earmarked money outside of their annual budget. So their inability to pass an appropriations bill is besides the point. The (usually) was acknowledging their current level of dysfunction. As historically unproductive as they are, they do still pass bills that make it into law (.5/day, give or take, for the 113th congress). Any of these can have amendments and pork tacked on them.

  • Ponto says:

    I understand your plight, but well, tough. Whinging will not help you, nor being a bigot. I know some of your best friends are old or gay or Black or whatever. Good for you! Lots of people do not have the life choices to spend years and money pursuing pointless educational goals.

    The saying is when going gets tough the tough gets going. Stop whining, start being brilliant and produce the goods. Being a bitter Ageist ain't the way.

    By the way most Gen whatevers are not worth a pinch of shit. Lazy good-for-nothings.

  • Masked Avenger says:

    The fact of the matter is that "the best and brightest" scientists of Gen-X were smart enough to get out of research, academic or otherwise, early in their careers. If we can get out and get paid for work even tangentially related to our interest and experience in science, it's a personal victory.

    The hell with the scientific establishment and their promotion of a necessarily unhealthy lifestyle (no sleep, too much stress, no money, no future... while "know-nothings" happily skate thru the world with their business degrees while grabbing armloads of cash). May their pyres burn bright against the night sky!

  • […] First, go read the long discussion happening over at drugmonkey about how the current funding situation affects early career scientists and current grad students […]

  • […] is part of the reason that Gen X will never live up to its scientific potential. The full benefit of the doubling was never made available to us in a competitive manner. […]

  • […] it came out about a year ago.  Aside from the fact it supports everything DM has to say (uh, see here but also see here for other issues of entitlement), there is additional value to understanding the […]

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