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?

7 thoughts on “NIH funding running dry”

  1. I think part of the problem is that academics often act like the need for basic research allows them to research anything, regardless of relevance. Don’t get me wrong, I support basic research, but I met a solid-state NMR guy during grad school who spent most of his life examining the motions of acyl chains of different lipids. He’d at one additional carbon to a 20 carbon chain and try to get goverment funding for it. Does every acyl chain length really need to be examined?

    Maybe scientists are becoming lazy. They don’t want to learn a new area or even work on a new project, so they continue to request large amounts of money for projects that don’t warrant the attention.

    Of course, the fact that funding is non-existent for people who don’t have an established reputation in a field doesn’t help.

  2. NIH funding doesn’t need to be increased, it needs to be distributed better…much better. A new rule should be instituted where only one major grant (RO1) is awarded per investigator. If you look at the distribution these grants on a geographical basis (see NIH website) you will see that many Principal Investigators have 2 or more of these types of grants. Some even have 4 or 5. This is ridiculous. For one it cuts out the possibility of funding for many other PhD’s. For another it leads to scientific “inbreeding”. It is past time for the NIH to revamp its funding system and distribute funds more equitably.

  3. Thats an innovative though, cz. I quibble on some details but overall the idea seems right, though I also disagree that its sufficient.

    I agree that 4 or 5 separate R01 grants seems excessive – it implies that the lab is pursuing that many totally separate major projects simultaneously. Even the best PIs can probably only really devote the neccessary time to two major projects at most – increase beyond that and their finite time gets too finegrained to guide things effectively.

    I think the limit of one R01 is too draconian. Also keep in mind that many times the person at the top of the grant isnt necessarily the person who is actually driving the project; for reasons of seniority, or even for simple celebrity status (to increase approval chances) or other factors it might be prudent to use your big name to draw the funds in.

    A better approach would be multi-fold. Increased funding is still necessary. But there should also be a limit of 2 R01’s per individual PI, and maybe a maximum of 5 per department per institution. There also need to be increases in funding for lesser grants that even junior faculty can be competitive for. (Wasn’t there a new type of grant aimed at postdocs making the transition to faculty? someone refresh my memory…)

  4. I read about an institute that opened recently (?) that restricts PIs to at most two post-docs; they want PIs in the lab instead of becoming managers. If this were adopted more widely, it would limit the number of grants because the PI wouldn’t be able to keep up with so many projects.

  5. That sounds like a good approach. I still stand by one R01 per PI. If a PI really needs a second grant he/she can go to other sources (ACS, Komen, etc). If a PI is not actively involved in the work then they shouldn’t be running the grant. The 2-R01 thing really started when more and more university’s made that a requirement for tenure (really a grab for a bigger slice of the pie). There is a lot more that can be done.
    Here is something I posted last summer on another site Keep in mind that China recently passed the 1 trillion dollar mark regarding foreign cash reserves.

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