Opinion by Mark Peifer

Note:  Our current biomedical research enterprise in the US faces a number of significant challenges. Here I focus on one of them—the impact that a flat budget and funding inequities have on mid-career faculty. There are other critical issues. Among these, one of the most important is the unsustainable growth of soft-money or largely soft-money faculty positions at medical schools and research institutes. This played an important role in the reaction of many to the GSI proposal, who struggle to obtain enough grant support to cover 70-100% of their salaries. While I, in a College of Arts and Sciences position, have 75% salary support, many in medical schools are under severe pressure in this regard. Jon Lorsch of NIGMS has focused a great deal of attention on this issue in discussions with the AAMC and I think it also deserves the attention of the ASCB Council and the Public Policy Committee. However, here, I focus on the funding inequity issue.

My view

It’s an exceptionally exciting time for biomedical science, as new tools drive exciting discoveries about the living world and offer new treatment strategies for disease. Some nations, like China, are embracing these possibilities and increasing research investment. However, in the US the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been basically flat in inflation-adjusted dollars for well over a decade. Further, research dollars are distributed in a very unequal way— 1% of scientists get 11% of NIH funding, 10% get 40% [1]. As a result, we have watched tightened grant funding threaten the careers of early and especially mid-career scientists as they attempt to obtain or renew investigator-initiated research grants (R01s) in competition with the leaders of their fields. All of us know productive scientists who are faced with closing their labs. This is discouraging many of our best trainees from pursuing a research career. Simply put, it is a crisis [2-4].

I am on Council of NIGMS and have watched that institute take steps to try to alleviate this. By taking measures like closing down some “big science” programs, they have made slow but steady progress, with a resulting increase in success rates. As part of this effort, NIGMS and the Office of the Director did an exceptionally thorough analysis of the distribution of research project grants across the scientific spectrum, and how productivity and scientific impact scale with the amount of grant funding possessed by a PI (links to this data are in the petition below). I saw these data at our May Council meeting, when Jon Lorsch gave a very compelling presentation [1]. I would encourage everyone to review them. They can be seen at:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B-TGzynElXw4NlQ2QWZJejRYZmM/view

While no data source is perfect, the analysis was performed across many samples, using many different metrics [1]. Each analysis tells a similar story. First, it is clear that impactful science costs money—a lab without grant funding cannot have an impact. Second, the data suggest that at a certain level of grant funding, there are generally diminishing returns in scientific advances per unit dollar. Third, it is impossible to predict from where the most important discoveries will emerge—when I think about key experiments that shaped my own field, e.g., those underlying the Nobel Prizes to scientists like Wieschaus, Nusslein-Volhard, Horvitz, or Sulston, none were made by scientists running large, exceptionally well-funded labs. Thus, the best approach is to bet on the highest number of qualified investigators. Finally, the data reveal that highly funded labs are no more likely to produce trainees who go on to grant-funded careers and thus help drive forward biomedical science—as Jessica Polka points out in her commentary, the human capital produced by NIH dollars is as important as the scientific advances made. Since this analysis was done, an independent study by Yarden Katz and Ulrich Matter at Harvard [7] added further information about the impact of funding inequity, revealing that “funding inequality has been rising since 1985, with a small segment of investigators and institutes getting an increasing proportion of funds, and that investigators who start in the top funding ranks tend to stay there (which results in stasis, or lack of mobility)”. Thus, in simple terms, the system is set up so that the rich get richer and the rest suffer the consequences.

There has been much discussion of the statistical approaches used and what the curve really looks like at the far-right end—among the best funded elite. I think this issue is largely a moot one. As I noted above, what is absolutely clear to all of us is that in a lab with no funding, productivity is zero.

In response to these data, NIH proposed a bold solution—the Grant Support Index. This proposed to cap the number of concurrent grants NIH would provide to a single Investigator—roughly three Research Project Grants per lab head. They calculated this would affect only 3% of all investigators, and the funds freed up could fund 900 new grants for PIs who did not have other grant funding [1]. They also listened to community feedback and tweaked the formula to exempt training grants and encourage collaboration [1]. This change was bold, addressing a key issue head on. Of course, there was pushback, much of it seemingly from a small number of very well-funded scientists who were not willing to give up their hold on a disproportionate amount of NIH funds. Some of their rhetoric was heated—one was quoted in the Boston Globe [5] as saying “If you have a sports team, you want Tom Brady on the field every time. You don’t want the second string or the third string.”  However, NIH seemed to be moving ahead with this program.

I was thus stunned to learn that NIH abandoned the Grant Support Index before it even started [6]. In my view, this resulted from a concerted effort by a few very well-funded and powerful scientists threatened by this new approach, combined with a failure of the rest of us to vocally support the underlying idea, while at the same time pointing out needed tweaks. In fact, NIH had already made some changes that reduced issues with collaborative science and training grants (1). I would also suggest you take a look at the composition of the Advisory committee that made the decision to scrap the GSI—it was certainly not a group that represented the diversity of career stages affected by this critical decision. The reversal of the GSI policy suggests that a small number of powerful scientists can drive key policy decisions, to the detriment of the community and to the efficiency of the enterprise. This sends a severely demoralizing message to the whole field. Ask your junior colleagues, whose voices were largely ignored in this discussion—I think you’ll find that the vast majority of them support some sort of cap. A significant number of senior scientists also share these concerns. The other commentaries included here provide examples.

My ultimate goal is to develop a less highly skewed funding distribution, opening up the field to more talented folks of all ages, while ensuring that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely. I think some sort of cap, that ensures dollars are redistributed from the exceptionally well-funded few to support investigators who have no funding, is key. The GSI provided a route forward, which I continue to support. However, other mechanisms that reach this goal, including a dollar cap on funding (some have suggested $1 million/investigator), similar to the NIGMS 750K policy, would also be a reasonable approach. The approach suggested here by Tom Pollards to limit lab size would also be a way forward. All need to recognize that different sorts of science are more or less expensive, but some sort of cap is, in my mind essential.

While other new initiatives, like the proposed NGRI, to support early-career scientists are welcome, they cannot have the same impact because they do not put a cap at the top. Without this, we may be simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Two critical differences make the Next Generation Researcher Initiative (NGRI) much less effective than the Grant Support Index. First, no source was designated for the funds needed. About 70% of all NIH-funded researchers have a single grant. Since the NGRI lacks a cap at the top and the NIH budget is a zero-sum game, the NGRI may simply fund no-grant labs using dollars that would otherwise support the renewal to a lab with only a single grant. Thus, the NGRI would not result in funding for a larger fraction of productive labs. Furthermore, the NGRI is limited to those with 10 years or fewer of NIH grant funding. In my personal experience, it is mid-career faculty who are struggling the most. New investigators currently benefit from a number of built in advantages, at least at NIGMS, that help many of them get their first grant. It’s when they come in for a first, second or third renewal that my colleagues are hitting the wall. The proposed NGRI excludes many of these mid-career scientists who are faced with shutting their labs.

I have no real thoughts on the NIH Capstone program—I do agree that methods that encourage older scientists to downsize and ultimately close their labs might help, but any mandatory version of such a plan is likely, in my mind, to create a firestorm of protest from the elite.

Maintaining the status quo is not acceptable. Look around you at your own institutions. If nothing changes, we may lose 30% of our mid-career colleagues. I understand that there are differences in opinion about this issue and also acknowledge that the GSI was an imperfect tool. As ASCB Council and the Public Policy Committee discuss this issue, I would urge you all to go beyond simple expressions of concern about the critical importance of supporting junior investigators. We have been doing that for years, but expressions of concern are not enough. It’s time for ASCB and other organizations like it to propose or support concrete proposals that will allow talented and productive junior investigators to start their labs and productive mid-career investigators to continue their work. This will require money and since the NIH budget is not going to magically increase, like the GSI these proposals also must provide clear guidance about which programs or investigators will receive fewer dollars in order for this effort to be successful. ASCB owes it to its thousands of members of all ages around the nation. Remember as you do so that 70% of all NIH investigators are one grant away from losing all of their funding.

 

  1.  Presentation by Jon Lorsch at NAGMS Council, May 2017.
    https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B-TGzynElXw4NlQ2QWZJejRYZmM/view?usp=sharing
  2. Alberts B, Kirschner MW, Tilghman S, Varmus H. (2015). Opinion: Addressing systemic problems in the biomedical research enterprise. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 112:1912-
  3.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25691698
  4. FASEB: Sustaining Discovery in Biological and Medical Sciences
    https://gs.ucdenver.edu/fobgapt2/workshops/General/FASEB_2015.pdf
  5. Kimble et al. Point of View: Strategies from UW-Madison for rescuing biomedical research in the US.
    https://elifesciences.org/articles/09305
  6.  Boston Globe Article about the GSI.
    https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2017/06/07/local-scientists-worry-about-nih-proposed-cap-funding-for-individual-labs/8qv6ydg4xBT32Y4a7LkVfN/story.html
  7.  NIH Advisory Committee to the Director – June 2017
    https://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=23678&bhcp=1
    Of particular note is the critique by an audience member (4:11:54-4:23:38)
  8. Yarden Katz and Ulrich Matter. (2017) On the Biomedical Elite: Inequality and Stasis in Scientific Knowledge Production.
    https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/33373356/BKC_Report_KatzMatter2017.pdf

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

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About the Author:


Michael Hooker Distinguished Professor, Department of Biology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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