Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Crisis of Research Funding in the US

There's a crisis going on today in US research labs.  Brilliant researchers are trying hard to stay afloat with research budget cuts and stiff competition for grants.  This post is mainly aimed for US-based readers, but US-based research, particularly biomedical health-related research, impacts the entire world.  It's good for everybody when we push the boundaries of human knowledge through research, but unfortunately it is getting harder and harder to do that.  I want to talk a little bit about what's going on.  If you are interested, read more after the jump....



This blog is not meant to be partisan in any way, and I hope that the views I express are relatively neutral.  We're going to talk about research funding in the US, but this post is not about blaming any particular group of people or party.  The opinions I am going to express are about the consequences of the decline in US funding for research, not about why it is the way it is or who is to blame.  There's plenty of blame on both sides of the fence.  However, Democrats and Republicans in the US should both be able to agree on the issue that the US government needs to improve funding for research, now more than ever.  Also, my views expressed here are my own, and not the views of any institution or agency to which I may be affiliated or otherwise involved with. 

The US government is a major force driving scientific research

Most of the scientific research that goes on at colleges and universities in the US is funded by either the National Institutes of Health (NIH, mainly for biologically-related research with disease relevance), the National Science Foundation (NSF, mainly for other areas like geology, astronomy, physics, etc.), or other government agencies (the Department of Defense, etc.).  The government  funds a majority of the research that goes into creating the discoveries that get developed later on by companies into products that affect your life.  Research, particularly health-related research, affects us all.  This is an example of government money going toward the public good.

Research funding should not be a partisan thing.  Republicans and Democrats alike both get cancer, have heart attacks, or can be born with genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis.  I think you're crazy if you don't think that it is a good thing to spend money on trying to treat diseases and improve people's lives.  Research is something that affects all of us.  If you take into account the fact that NIH and NSF money even results in some research that improves our military and bio-terrorism defense, research is something that also protects all of us.      
My background is in biology, so I will focus on the NIH issues, but the same is true for all fields of science: we need more basic science research to discover new things to spur industry and keep our competitive edge as a country.  I would argue that scientific research, particularly biomedical research, is one of the last great industries that this country has left.  People come from all over the world to work in US research labs, because the science and technology in them are cutting edge.  However, to maintain a position at the cutting edge requires money.  Scientific research isn't cheap, but if you discover a new way to drill for oil or if you discover a new drug (just as random examples), the amount of money that can be gained in the long run is enormously worth the cost.  Other countries, like China, know this and are increasing their investment in biological research every year, while, as we will discuss below, the US is decreasing funding for biological research.  If we keep going down and they keep going up, what do you think is eventually going to happen?  We won't be number 1 in science and innovation anymore.      

The impact of the sequester and budget cuts    

The NIH budget (about $30 billion) makes up only about 1% of the total US budget.  That's a small investment for what we get out of it.  Then, the NIH took an approximately $1.6 billion dollar cut in the 2013 fiscal year due to the sequestration.  This has been very scary in the world of biomedical research.  About a week ago, The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, FASEB, released a factsheet (link opens a PDF) detailing the value of federally funded research, and two weeks ago they released an analysis (link goes to a webpage) of NIH research funding trends.  FASEB is conglomeration of many scientific groups like the American Physiological Society, the American Society for Human Genetics, and many others.  It is worth taking a look at the FASEB website and their analysis, particularly if you've never thought about the issue before.  Two major conclusions the reached are

"In constant dollars (adjusted for inflation), the NIH budget in FY 2013 is at its lowest level since FY 2000."


"NIH awards [grants] are expected to drop from the 9,032 made in FY 2012 to an estimated 8,283 in FY 2013 (an 8.3 percent decrease)."

That means that about 800 grants that would have been funded in 2012 weren't funded in 2013.  Many scientists depend on these grants for their jobs.  I understand the idea of cutting government spending and waste, but is this really the direction that we want to go in?  Is this where we want to cut?  There's strict competition for these NIH grants, and by cutting them out, you are telling a lot of very smart people that their likely very promising research projects have to be scrapped because there is no money.  The FASEB study concludes that

"Additional cuts to the NIH and NSF budget will hurt our quality of life and severely undermine U.S. innovation and development.” 

I like that FASEB put this data out there for people to see, and wish it would have gotten more press, but I think that the last quote is a massive understatement to say the least.  The bottom line is that, right now, talented scientists and engineers are losing their jobs because grants aren't being funded, or they are leaving their jobs because they don't see a future in a career in research.  One of those people might have come up with a new breakthrough cancer treatment or a discovered something amazing about the universe.  We'll never know, though.  I find this pretty sad. 

The odds of a scientist scoring an NIH grant are falling to around 10% or below in most cases.  It is likely going to get worse that that.  Don't get me wrong, some competition is good, but the problem is that only funding the top 10% of these grants means that many really good, maybe even great, grants don't get funded.  It's not like all of the unfunded grants are bad.  Many are indeed great, written by scientists who may be brilliant and may make brilliant discoveries if given the opportunity, but the study sections (the committees of other scientists who review the grants and decide how they are scored) have to make tough decisions.  There's only so much money to hand out.   

This sometimes results in the end of people's scientific careers.  Some people go to science/research jobs in industry, and that's great, but competition for those jobs is fierce as well.  The ramifications of the low funding rates go even further, as there are many smart young scientists that look around and say "Am I crazy for trying to stay in this business?  Do I want my 5-6 years of graduate school and 5ish years of postdoctoral research to go to naught at the flip of a coin?" and they get out.  I've seen it first hand.  I've thought about doing it many times.

Stay on board or hop off the train?

It's a tough business.  I understand that the economy is bad and that all businesses are tough, but it really bothers me to see so many smart people who like science jump ship because they think the future is too grim.  I can't say that I blame them at all.  Francis Collins (the NIH director) has famously said, regarding the current budget cuts scaring away young scientists, "If they go away, they won't come back."  That's true, more so if you know how the business of science works.  Once you get out of research for any length of time, rarely do you go back.  When you aren't in the game, your skills get out of date and there's always someone younger who is more current who gets hired instead.  Chasing brilliant people out of science isn't temporary.  There's also an idea of a clear progression in academic research, from undergraduate student to graduate student to postdoctoral researcher to faculty member.  Once you diverge from that path, there's often difficulty getting back on when those in charge think that maybe you just aren't dedicated enough to tough it out, when the reality was that you just wanted to try to make a little more money to pay for your kid's braces.  It's a tough world for everybody.  If you dhop off the train, it is terribly hard to catch back up with it if you want to try to get back on.      

However, this post isn't really about the careers or potential careers of those lost scientists.  Many of them actually end up making a lot more money outside of academia, working in management consulting or marketing.  A lot of physics or math PhDs go on to do thing like software design or work on Wall Street.  I'm not going to debate their fate, though just as many end up grossly underemployed.

More importantly, though, what I want you to think about is how losing their talent for science and research impacts the competitiveness of our economy, the safety of our country, and the health of our citizens, all through lost innovation.    

So, what's the point? 

Why did I write such a grim-sounding post?  The reason is that I hope that I made some impression on you that a) funding for research has declined, b) this is driving people out of science, and c) this will negatively impact the US in many areas.  If you want to start emailing your congressman or senator or join an advocacy group, that's cool, but I mainly just hope that you think about research as an important issue.  When you hear about congress voting on budget cuts, pay attention to what they say about research.  Also, when it comes time to vote, pay attention to what the candidate thinks about research funding.  Be aware of what is going on in your country, because it will impact you.  There's no doubting that.             
Some links to articles that are worth reading about the subject:


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