Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Is the Biomedical Research Bubble

About to Burst?

(How will this affect the University of Minnesota?)

I have been concerned about this problem for some time, especially as it relates to a commitment at the University to this area.  If funding collapses the university may be left in an untenable situation, due to unwise investments.   It would be best not to place all of our eggs in one basket as our endowment manager hopefully learned last year.

For some background, please see:

If You Build It, Grants Will Come? Or, Could Someone at BigU Please Be Honest and Responsible About Expansion of Biomedical Research?

Trees Do Not Grow to The Sky or, Why the State Legislature Should Not Write a Blank Check to BigU for Biomedical Research Buildings 
Now comes other thoughts of a bubble about to burst...

The United States still reels from the aftermath of the financial crisis. Many of us in the biomedical-research community, meanwhile, fear that our field may face a recession of its own in the not-too-distant future.

...biomedical research is endangered by its precarious position atop a bubble of unsustainable financial practices. The unrestricted grant-making policies of the National Institutes of Health inflate the number of biomedical researchers in a fashion that cannot be matched by the availability of research funds and might eventually lead to a shortage of financial support for biomedical research.

The trouble begins with how lead scientists must often scrounge for money to keep their research programs alive. Grantees' home institutions—that is, universities and research institutes—typically pay principal investigators' salaries and start-up costs for a limited period of time, after which the lead scientists are expected to attract external backing that will cover their programs, including their salaries. 

Enter the NIH—the primary agency that supports fundamental biomedical research in the United States—and other organizations, which provide money not only for materials, equipment, and stipends for research assistants, but also for the salaries of principal investigators once their start-up money has run out.

... for universities and research institutes to continually bring new researchers onboard depends on the assumption that new money will keep getting into the system and that the flow of new money will satisfy ever-increasing growth. That, however, is rarely the case, whether one is dealing with start-up Internet companies, the subprime-loan market—or scientific research. In fact, the flexibility of the NIH budget and its potential growth are highly limited, as the NIH budget has been flat since 2003.

Because ... institutional lust for expanding research and getting a larger piece of the NIH budget, it is expected that an increasing number of new, externally paid faculty positions will open and put increasing pressure on the NIH's extramural funding. This is the money that the NIH gives to research institutions and universities to support studies conducted outside of the institute.

...any future increase in available NIH funds is limited, so the inevitable result of this unbalanced growth is ... Studies will run short on funding, research centers and laboratories will close, and scientists, research assistants, and support-staff members will lose their livelihoods.

To avoid such a recession in biomedical research, universities, research institutions, and the NIH must work together to ensure that any growth in the number of principal-investigator positions reflects the predicted growth in available financial resources.

One solution is to change the NIH's grant-making policy to require that a principal investigator's salary—or at least a substantial part of it—be paid for by the investigator's home institution. The National Science Foundation has already adopted such a policy, providing no more than two months' salary for a P.I. per year.

...universities and research institutions, if forced to bear the financial burden of hiring and paying investigators themselves, would plan their hiring strategies far more carefully. Because an investigator without funds for materials and research assistants is of little use, home institutions would also be forced to consider the present and future availability of research grants. That extra consideration, in turn, would ensure a better balance between the aspirations of universities and research institutions, and the ability of the NIH to subsidize those ambitions.

President Bruininks, Dean Cerra, and the Board of Regents: Are you listening?

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