It isn't your imagination. The recent ups and downs in biomedical research funding have made for turbulent times in academic laboratories across the US. Jennifer Couzin-Frankel points out in her overview article to an imaginatively reported "News Focus" section last week in Science on the work force and funding crisis in biomedical science that the NIH budget doubled between 1998 and 2003 from around $14 billion to $27 billion but remained essentially flat for the next five years. The 2009 federal stimulus package created a bump in spending of an additional $10.4 billion but the "regular" NIH budget continued to lose altitude as inflation ate away at the actual value of flat funding. Then came last year's heart-stopping federal shutdown and the sickening 5% across the board sequester nose dive. The net result is that the number of R01 principal investigators (PI) has remained virtually static over the last 13 years: NIH funded 20,458 PIs in 2000 and 21,511 PIs in 2013.
Either it's getting awfully crowded in campus labs or there is significant outflow. For graduate students and postdocs wondering what all this means for them, we highly recommend a startling infographic just posted on our COMPASS Points blog by Jessica Polka. Called "Where will a biology PhD take you?", Polka's graphic reveals at a glance what everyone has long suspected: The traditional career route of grad student to postdoc to academic research PI is no long the default. "A faculty job is an 'alternative' career," Polka declares, adding that fewer than 8% of those entering biology PhD careers will reach the lofty post of faculty PI. Fortunately there are alternatives to the now "alternative" career of faculty PI to be found elsewhere. Still, this is a graphic that should be pasted up in academic labs across the country, right next to the fire extinguishers.