Most of my Readers are aware that the NIH budget allocation from Congress plays a big role in our careers and how they have unfolded over years or even decades.
One of the touchstone events is the "doubling interval" in which the Congress committed to double the size of the NIH budget over the course of 10 years. This resulted in large year-over-year increases from 1994 to 2003 after which the NIH budget was essentially flatlined for the next dozen years. This is in current dollars so, as we've discussed on this blog, inflation means that the NIH budget shrunk in purchasing power over the post-doubling interval. ARRA stimulus funding in Fiscal Years 2009 and 2010 were mere blips, which alleviated acute pain but did little for the longer term issues.
One interesting thing about being me is that my NIH geekery has limits and I don't always appreciate everything fully the first time I see it. Sometimes it is because I am, like many of us, blinded by a sort of confirmation bias. I am by no means alone in seeing confirmation of my positions in data and statistics about the NIH that others view entirely differently. Sometimes it is because an earlier trend gets fixed in my minds and I don't always see the way five or ten additional years worth of data may change my thinking.
One of these issues is related to the data showing the production of PhDs each year by US domestic degree granting institutions. Our good blog friend Michael Hendricks posted this graph on the Twitters today. He, as I usually do, interprets this to show the evils of the doubling interval when it comes to regulating the size of the workforce. The first half of the doubling interval did indeed correlate with a steep increase in the rate of annual biomedical PhD generation without a similar trend for doctoral production in other areas. I typically use this steep increase in PhD production as part of my argument that our current stress in staying funded is related to too many mouths at the trough. We generated all these PhDs during the late 90s onward and gee, shocker, lots of these people want faculty level jobs competing for a fixed amount of NIH funding. Retirement and death of the existing pool of NIH PIs has not kept pace with this production, from what I can tell.
My usual eye tends to skip over a couple of key facts. The steep increase in PhD production started several years before the doubling even started. It was in full swing during a time just prior to the doubling passing Congress when the faculty were crying loudly about how horrible the NIH grant getting had become. I know because I was in graduate school in there somewhere.
The year-over-year PhD production actually stabilized during the latter half of the doubling interval. This was followed after the NIH budget flatlined by another increase in the rate of year-over-year PhD production!
So I think Michael Hendricks' current view, and my prior view, on the meaning of the PhD production numbers and how it relates to major changes in the NIH budget allocation cannot be true.
Sustained increase in the NIH budget actually produced stability in PhD numbers. It was the stressful times in which NIH grant getting was perceived to be ruinous and terrible that led to increased numbers of PhDs being generated by the US doctoral institutions.
There are probably many reasons for this relationship. I would not be surprised in the least if bad general economic times led more people to want to go to grad school and booming economic times led to fewer. These general trends are very likely related to the willingness of the Congress to give NIH more or less money.
But I would also not be surprised in the least if stressful grant funding conditions led the professors who participate in graduate training to be even more fond of this source of cut rate labor than they are in flush times.