the coming implosion of biomedical & health science research

The state of health science in the US today is not weak, but it is under threat. The main problems: 1. p-value hacking. 2. commoditization of adjunct and postdoc labor. 3. disincentives of null value results or replication. All of these things threaten the foundations of the increasingly unsustaiunable edifice that is modern health science, and all of them derive in one way or another from the same root problem: the only source of objective funding, untainted by corporate interests, is the NIH. In essence, health science is a zero-sum game.

This is why the Trump Administration preliminary budget proposal is ominous: it specifies an unprecedented 18% cut to the NIH budget.

As the image above illustrates, grant applications have grown almost twice as competitive over the years as NIH funding stayed constant. An 18% cut in this context is like an amputation.

There is only one possible outcome of this: labs will shrink. Health science research is going to be dramatically curtailed. Maybe there are benefits, in the long run, to this – but in the short run it will only worsen – severely – the problems that health science research currently faces. The question is, how resilient is the health science establishment? We are going to find out.

Even though I left academia, I will be marching for science on Earth Day.

Related: great article at The Atlantic that points out how private funding is a drop in the bucket compared to government support. In my opinion, public science funding is as critical and as irreplaceable as national defense.

NIH funding running dry

This isn’t exactly a surprise, but worth mentioning anyway:

Before the ink was dry on the government’s 2007 budget (or even completed for that matter), the Bush administration’s proposal for the 2008 budget was submitted on February 5th, and the news for biomedical researchers was not very good. According to sources the NIH is slated to receive a $500 million budget cut, before inflation is factored in—assuming a bill inflating their budget for 2007 passes through congress.

Making this even more dire for biomed researchers is the fact that over 10,000 NIH extramural grants are up for renewal in 2008. Those contending for extensions or renewals of such grants are now faced with double difficulty: less money to go around and more people vying for the same number of spaces. Constraints such as these have driven the average age of first-time grant recipients to over 40 years old, barely a young researcher anymore.

The simple truth is that the NIH is probably the single greatest investment of public funds apart from NASA in terms of knowledge generation for the benefit of society that the world has ever seen. Less funds mean less research; less Ph.D.s choosing an academic career; less innovation and less risk-taking. That means more orthodoxy, entrenched and defensive peer-review, and ultimately more echo-chambering.

Even with new funding programs aimed at transitioning postdocs to faculty, it’s hard to justify doing a post-doc to people in the field nowadays – if they have the flexibility, they can make more than double the salary working for industry. What does the future of our field, medical physics and MRI in particular, look like?