Debbie Knight

Fallout of the NIH Budget: Making and breaking research careers

In research issue(s) on March 17, 2011 at 10:30 am

While I’m an employee of the university, the real source of my income comes from federal funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health.

At the university we call this “soft money,” meaning my salary (and job) depend on my boss getting grant funding. So, the fate of the NIH budget ultimately affects my livelihood.  (But that’s not why I’m writing about this.)

At the moment, my boss has secured funding for two years, so I’m safe from the NIH budget woes for a short while.

However, a mid-career researcher two doors down (who I’ll call Dr. V) has his career literally hanging in the balance. If he fails to secure grant funding this time round, he will be out of the research business, which is really sad because he’s a solid and enthusiastic researcher. He studies brain cancer – and he’s on the trail of a potential new therapeutic agent that could really help patients with glioblastoma (a brain cancer with one of the worst prognosis).

The federal funding budget has been in such sorry state for the past few years, and it is increasingly more difficult for scientists to secure funding for research. And in times of lean budgets, cancer research has fared fairly well, unlike many other areas of biomedical research. However, that doesn’t mean that funding for cancer research is easy to secure, because it’s not. Case in point:  Dr. V.

Dr. V has had grant funding in the past, but he hasn’t had any for a year or so.

He submitted a grant proposal last week – and the tension is palpable. The proposal is a resubmission, which means if it doesn’t score well enough to be funded, the proposal is dead and it cannot be resubmitted for further consideration.

It may also mean his research career is dead as well.

He was once an assistant professor on the tenure track to becoming an associate professor. And now, because of his funding situation, he is no longer on the tenure track, he has no safety net if he isn’t funded, and his paycheck has been cut in half.

Normally an optimistic person, his dire situation has made him pragmatic. At this point, he says he will be relieved regardless of the outcome. If he is able to secure grant funding, he’ll be able to stay at the university and be a scientist. Life’s good. But if he doesn’t secure funding, he will find another path – one that doesn’t involve science.

This will be a loss to the scientific and academic community – he is a meticulous researcher and a great teacher (not all professors are).

Dr. V is not alone, there are many scientists in similar situations across campus and across the nation.

This has a downstream effect on future scientists.

Many graduate students see their mentors struggling with funding – established researchers as well as young researchers. Many consider alternatives to academia for their future careers, such as industry, administration, etc.

It’s just possible this will create a brain drain in the near future.

This raises concern for the future of scientific research in the United States. Federal grant funding is vital in keeping America competitive in the sciences.

I’m not sure what will happen with Dr. V, but I hope he gets his funding. It would be a shame to lose another promising researcher.



Post-script:  I found this article after publishing this blog entry which might be of  interest:  “Mid-career crunch” published in Nature.

  1. I can lend concrete support to your concern regarding a downstream effect upon future scientists, i.e. graduate students. As an Associate Professor at a large, research intensive academic institution who is intimately involved with graduate education in the biomedical sciences as well as an NIH-funded investigator, I have personally witnessed a startling increase in the number of graduate students who decide during their graduate studies to opt out of academic research or opt out of research altogether and seek different careers following their graduation. Why? They have watched their mentors, some relatively newly minted and others successful, productive, well-established scientists submit grant application after grant application only to be denied funding. Not because of poor quality of the proposed research, but because of insufficiency of the NIH budget. The students realize that they simply don’t want to live like that. And I certainly can’t blame them. While these are young, infectiously enthusiastic, talented and hard-working scientist trainees, they are intelligent, rational individuals who objectively weigh their options for career paths, the positives and the negatives. And there is certainly not much attractive about expending so much time, effort, and creative energy only to be stalled by insufficient funding of the NIH and other federal funding agencies. Of course, if congress continues down this path of the systematic strangulation of federal research funding, 10 or 15 years down the road they will be able to decrease the NIH budget far more. There won’t be anyone to fund to do the research. At least not in this country. So I hope our congressman will enjoy purchasing their breakthrough cancer chemotherapies, antiviral drugs, and other newly developed medical technologies from China, India, Germany, and other countries that continue to waste valuable resources on such folly.

  2. […] a previous post “Fallout of the NIH Budget: Making and breaking research careers,” I wrote about Dr. V whose academic research career hangs in the balance as he waits to hear […]

  3. […] last day as an assistant professor and independent principal investigator. I’ve mentioned him a couple of times in this blog. We gave him a good send off, complete with the local favorite […]

  4. […] my department had to let three researchers go.  I’ve talked about two of them in previous posts (Dr. V and Dr. T). The third researcher (Dr. G) did not go quietly, judging by a few scathing email […]

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