… in the Minneapolis Star Tribune notes that the most charitable description of what’s been going on at the clubby University of Minnesota medical school would be “bizarre.”
Friday, September 14, 2007
Mr. B. has posted previously on the apparent lack of understanding of the implications of the NIH funding situation at BigU. See for example: "If You Build It, Grants Will Come."
Today Mr. B. downloaded a commentary from Nature with the intention of posting some excerpts, see below. He discovered, though, that the good folks at the Pioneer Press had already beaten him to the punch. It is hard to compete with pros.
Nature 449, 141-142 (13 September 2007)
Universities and the money fix
Brian C. Martinson1
- Brian C. Martinson is at HealthPartners Research Foundation, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55440-1524, USA.
Funding woes plague US biomedical researchers. But calls for more funding ignore the structural problems that push universities to produce too many scientists, argues Brian C. Martinson.
What is it that poses the most potent threat to the future of biomedical research — a lack of resources, or our failure to manage the level of competition for available resources? The answer to this question is vital if society is to gain maximum benefit from the public money invested in biomedical research.
In my view, it is time to ask the biggest beneficiaries of NIH largesse — the universities and academic health centres — to find ways to balance supply and demand that better reflect their obligations to researchers and society.
The doubling of the NIH budget between 1998 and 2003 was intended to increase success rates in obtaining NIH grants3, which have been declining since the mid-1970s. Yet, the budget rise did not have its intended effect, and by 2003, grant-application success rates were slightly worse than before. What happened? The budgetary increases were swamped by an equally large escalation in the number of NIH applicants and applications (see graph, below)4. In 1998, there were about 19,000 scientists applying for competing awards; in 2006 there were approximately 34,000.
Even before the doubling in funding, the Bayh–Dole act of 1980 created incentives for universities to grow their NIH workforce by permitting employers to own the inventions their employees created with federal funding.
The average age at which PhD scientists earn their first independent support from the NIH has increased steadily6, from 34 in 1970 to 42 in 2006.
With academic faculty members seen as revenue generators, they are encouraged in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to expend greater effort on lucrative activities: this has made research a preferred activity over teaching or patient care. It also means they must spend a substantial amount of time writing grants. This arrangement generally works in the universities' favour, but the downsides of the dependence on NIH funding are becoming harder to ignore.
For too long now, financial incentives to the universities have been aligned to promote unlimited growth in the number of biomedical researchers seeking funding from the federal government, despite the realities of finite resources.
We need to look at both the supply and the demand sides of the NIH funding equation. Most who worry about these issues have focused on the size or distribution of the pool of NIH dollars. Far fewer have given consideration to the size or dynamics of the population of biomedical researchers living on NIH funding. Few have overtly asked the question — are there too many biomedical scientists?
In the short term these arrangements may benefit universities, but in the longer term, such extreme levels of competition for funding are unsustainable. And they may already be doing harm. Difficult funding decisions are increasing ill will, perceptions of injustice, and eroding the bases of ethical behaviour among academics.
The imbalance between the supply of NIH funding and the potentially unlimited demand for grants threatens the future of US biomedical science.
Calls for further increases to the NIH budget are a facile response from institutions overly dependent on NIH dollars. But they are an incomplete, and potentially dangerous, answer to the problems of excessive competition. And although short-term NIH budget increases to make up for inflation-related declines since 2003 seem reasonable, further increases risk fuelling, rather than reducing, demand.
Universities have benefited handsomely from the efforts of senior faculty members in securing NIH grants during their careers, perhaps those same universities could now return the favour by taking full responsibility for paying these faculty salaries in their later years. This would serve the dual purpose of getting them off the NIH dole, and encouraging them to share their knowledge with their younger colleagues through more teaching.
This won't be easy. Given the levels of dependency on NIH money, it is akin to asking an addict to give up an easy fix.
An implicit assumption underpinning the current system of funding is that having more biomedical scientists automatically leads to greater innovation and more breakthroughs. Yet what is needed is not necessarily more people, but more time, space and freedom for existing researchers to ask questions in new ways, to be willing and able to take risks, and to innovate rather than simply writing safe, incremental grants. The excessive competition for NIH funds discourages this kind of risk-taking, and ultimately reduces opportunities for the sort of creative thinking that leads to major scientific breakthroughs.