The Great Academic Biomedical Science Cull(TM)

Oct 27 2011 Published by under Careers

Over at RockTalk there's an interesting discussion going on about how the NIH should best manage biomedical science in these fiscally-challenging times. Times are tough in academic science. The funding rate at the NIH appears to be down at the single digit levels (i.e. <10%). After NIH's doubling and the related increase in the number of faculty in the biomedical sciences, this abysmal funding rate means a great many labs are floundering. A great many very, very good proposals are going unfunded.

There are many, many comments over at RockTalk on that post. Many offer possible solutions. Many others appear to consist of primarily whining about the system.* While addressing a comment the inimitable DrugMonkey offered up the following nugget:

Your colleague’s situation is indeed sad….but every indication is that this is the intentional outcome from the NIH perspective. They need to shrink the pool of applicant PIs.

They need to shrink the pool of applicant PIs.

i.e. Funding levels are very, very low and likely to stay that way for quite some time.

Or get worse.

The NIH simply cannot afford to support the academic biomedical research enterprise at the same level to which we've all become accustomed. The result, whether a deliberate move by the NIH or not, is going to be quite a few labs going under.** We will see a reduction in the number of PI's working in the biomedical sciences. It's already beginning to happen.

I find this very scary, but I fully intend to survive. How about you?

* Whining won't change the system and won't keep you funded.
** Obviously for the individuals in those labs this is a very bad thing. Most likely for the science as well.

17 responses so far

  • seamonkey says:

    Not a PI, just a lowly third year grad student in a clinical psychiatry research group. Our docs scramble but usually get funded eventually. One of our collaborators is a new prof in the neuro dept at the main university. He does amazing work. Last R01 submission just missed the cut. We had a chat while planning some upcoming experiments. He thinks there is a chance that he may not see funding until 2015. And the end of that conversation is when I decided to jump off the ship before it goes underwater. Breaks my heart, but the future sure is bleak. What's left, going back to med school? Blech.

  • DJMH says:

    It wouldn't be such a shame to lose the 5-10% least productive PIs. There is surely some deadwood out there. The shame is that the climate is so depressing that a lot of potential PIs who could be excellent will choose to do something else rather than submit to this merry go round.

    • survivor says:

      Well, the problem is not that the 5-10 % of least productively/creative PIs will go, that is built in to the NIH funding system from the start. The problem is that 80-90% of the base will go. Since those are the folks that train the grad students who provide our industrial workforce as well as the postdocs in that top 10%, the US biomedical research enterprise is floundering at the same time that other countries such as China are putting massive resources into this area. At some point, they will catch up and surpass us. By that time it will be too late and we will see the fate of Germany at the turn of the 20th century. Anyone up for learning Chinese to publish in the best journals???

  • Glfadkt says:

    Sadly, accumulating evidence suggests that I may be one of the victims... After many years of grant funding success, I'm getting tired of repeatedly being punched in the gut by yet another reviewer. It's hard to make yourself continue to beat your head against the wall. And on top of that, our MRU has discontinued bridge funding and seed funding for individual PIs.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    I think we have to face up to the fact that it isn't going to be "the least productive 5-10%" DJMH. The process is too random for that. We're going to lose some good, some bad and some ugly before we're done here.

    • DJMH says:

      Yeah, that's what I was trying to say--it would be livable if it were just that, but the climate is so unpleasant that many, many decent people will throw up their hands and get out.

  • BKProf says:

    I agree that we're going to be losing far more than 5-10%. Until very recently, my department at a highly-ranked R1 enjoyed really solid funding levels. At any given time, pretty much everyone in the department had at least one R01. Right now, I would say the proportion of those with active R01's is down to about half the PIs. People are surviving on limited bridge funds and very small awards. I personally recently have gone from 2+ R01's to just hanging on by my fingernails. I'm just hoping to keep one good person employed in the lab over the next year so I don't go completely under. It's a really sad time for biomedical science.

  • odyssey says:

    It's those on or entering TT that are most at risk. The question is how do we avoid the extinction of the young?

  • Pascale says:

    I'm a senior person who is transitioning out of bench science. The payline is ridiculous, and is going to lead to a loss of diversity of thought - anyone with a novel approach antithetical to the big machine labs is unlikely to be funded. After all, the proposals are judged by those successful peers who may not believe anything that doesn't conform to their own hypothesis. Only proposals received with unbridled enthusiasm will score highly enough to get funded, not those with any degree of disbelief.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    As you know, it's not just NIH. I am hoping to survive this by diversifying as much as I can. Of course, that means writing even more grants than I already am, which will directly affect my productivity. With luck, this won't result in a death spiral but I don't know any other way to pull this off.

  • MM says:

    I think this is going to hurt both newly hired professors and post-docs coming up to the job market the most (start-up money? adjustments to tenure decisions based on the current funding situation?). We're going to lose our upcoming crop of scientists, of which I will most likely be a casualty.

  • Girlpostdoc says:

    Well that seals it. Industry just looks better and better. And it may be a case of grass is greener... so what, I say, show me the money!

  • odyssey says:

    Of course one could take the opposite view - NIH/NSF are still giving out money and someone has to get it. May as well be me.

  • [...] last post probably depressed a few people. Hopefully it got even more thinking. And the smart ones [...]

  • [...] Math VI: The system needs an overhaul for sure. From grad student training through to PI's (which one way or another seems to be in the works). But even if we got rid of all the deadwood tomorrow, that [...]