Raising the NIH pay-line to 20%

I bet that title got your attention.
In the good ol’ days our funding record made the United States look like the land of milk and honey. As Bruce Alberts’ and colleague wrote in PNAS earlier this year:

“The United States has traditionally been viewed as the land of opportunity for young scientists, offering the most talented of them the chance to test their own ideas, raise radically new questions, and forge original paths to the answers. This feature of our system has drawn many of our most able young people to scientific careers, while simultaneously attracting outstanding young people to the United States from around the world.”

Well, those days are no more. Now young investigators are 6 times less likely to win an NIH grant than they were 30 years ago:

Percentage of NIH R01 Principal Investigators aged 36 and younger and aged 66 and older, 1980–2010 (from: http://acd.od.nih.gov/biomedical_research_wgreport.pdf)

So what can be done about it? As a junior researcher, I think about this issue a lot – mostly because I’m selfish and want to know when and where my next academic “meal” is coming from. So it pleases me to see that others (read: those with more clout) are organizing workshops to try and right the ship.

Earlier this year, Alberts et al put out a call to arms, and by the end of June, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison had already held a workshop and published recommendations. Like any good doctors, they identified both the symptoms and the core problems, and then put forth their recommendations for treating the core problems, which were:

1) Too many researchers vying for too few dollars.
2) Too many postdocs competing for too few faculty positions.

Here, I’ll just focus on the first and leave the 2nd, very personal, “Too many postdocs competing for too few faculty positions” (a.k.a. the “Too many Cooks”) problem for another day.
Too many researchers vying for too few dollars.
They propose that NIH limit the amount of funding an individual researcher can get both in salary (capping the salary from a grant to 50%) and in research funding (to, say, $1M a year). This would spread the wealth around to other, deserving researchers. Who would pick up the slack (e.g., the other 50% salary), you say? Universities would be forced to pony-up some cash and demonstrate a “long-term institutional commitment”. Ok, I’m cool with some of these changes, particularly the part where Universities start giving scientists more internal money for research and salary. But I don’t think these proposed changes could have prepared me for what came next:

More radically, we suggest that the NIH raise the pay-line to 20%, regardless of the funds available

WHOA! This would be a huge change – essentially doubling the number of grants that get funded. But where is this extra money going to come from? In short, it won’t come from anywhere, the funds will just get spread out across more projects and distributed based on the scores that investigators earned:

“For example, those with higher scores might receive close to their full request, while those with lower scores might receive only half the amount requested (and be expected to achieve half of the aims listed in the application).”

As stated, this is a pretty radical idea and it would force many researchers to learn how to stretch a penny (rather than do half of the work that they proposed, which no one will do since half of the grant is already probably complete prior to the submission – the “preliminary data”). So, do we think this is the drastic change that is needed? Will more and better research get funded? Or will deserving researchers just end up with less money and only be able afford half-assed research? Who knows, but one thing that is certain is that “doing nothing is not an option”:

” The stakes are enormous: the current environment is beginning to erode the remarkable opportunities created over past decades to advance our understanding of biological systems and to improve the health of the public”

Alberts, B., Kirschner, M. W., Tilghman, S. & Varmus, H. 2015. Opinion: Addressing systemic problems in the biomedical research enterprise. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112, 1912–3.
Kimble, J., Bement, W. M., Chang, Q., Cox, B. L., Drinkwater, N. R., Gourse, R. L., Hoskins, A. A., Huttenlocher, A., Kreeger, P. K., Lambert, P. F., Mailick, M. R., Miyamoto, S., Moss, R. L., O’Connor-Giles, K. M., Roopra, A., Saha, K. & Seidel, H. S. 2015. Strategies from UW-Madison for rescuing biomedical research in the US. eLife, 4, e09305.

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