Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Biomedical Research Brain Drain Continues

Although the NIH budget will go up slightly this year, inflation plus years of stagnant funding is culling more and more good scientists. Funding percentiles remain in the 10% range and the total number of investigator-initiated grants is going down and down (1). The NIH and the academic institutions it supports need to face up to what is clearly a permanently altered funding landscape and go into a salvage mode. In order to maintain the viability of US biomedical science two things need to be given priority.

First, truly talented young scientists must be given every advantage. The NIH currently does provide a small ‘edge’ for first time awardees. However, this does not persist after the first funded grant and thus the duration is really not long enough for a young investigator to get a career going.

Second, highly skilled mature investigators need some stability so that one failed grant application does not imperil their careers.

The US (particularly the NIH) is unique in the world in that science funding is judged and awarded almost purely on the content of individual grants with only limited consideration of the career development path of the applicant. In these days of sub 10% funding, a single reviewer who has a minor technical quibble about a proposal can torpedo the grant and possibly also the applicant’s career.  In many other countries more weight is given to the long-term accomplishments of senior investigators and to the promise of junior investigators. Incorporating considerations of career development in grant review would work toward preservation of human potential in science. Clearly there is a danger of elitism here, but high quality science is inherently an elite activity and surely an appropriate degree of fairness can be built into the process.

Another needed change is that US academic institutions must get their hands out of the cookie jar of indirect costs returns. Sure it costs money to provide facilities for researchers, but universities have charged and over charged for those facilities and have diverted massive amounts of indirect costs from grants to totally inappropriate expenses including university golf courses, parking decks, bus systems and fancy digs for administrators. That money needs to be used to directly support science!

Finally, universities need to exhibit restraint both in the hiring of new science faculty and in the training of students. We are producing far more science PhDs than can possibly find productive careers in this time of diminished funding in academia and the wholesale evisceration of basic research in the pharmaceutical industry. 

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