A little over a year ago, I wrote a piece here called "So what's wrong with doubling the NSF budget anyway?," where I argued that plans to double the National Science Foundation's budget through Bush's American Competitiveness Initiative made for bad policy. I gave three reasons: first, I thought it was political posturing with no action behind it; second, I thought it was a "pro-science" front used to cover up lack of funding for NIH; and third, I said that Clinton's NIH budget doubling had shown that rapid, unsustainable funding bursts create boom-and-bust cycles that, in the long run, hurt science, and that sound policy calls for slow, steady, sustainable growth. That last item bears repeating and, fortunately, a column on Science magazine's web site last week makes the point again for me:
Between 1998 and 2003, the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) rose from $13 billion to more than $27 billion in a plan known as "the doubling." Now that the tsunami of cash has receded, many life scientists--especially those in the early phase of their careers--have found conditions no better, and in some ways worse, than before the process began. [...]
The NIH doubling did do a lot of good, providing billions of dollars for basic and clinical research and establishing a new, much higher baseline for funding. Still, "both the way Congress has expanded the NIH budget and the way NIH has made use of its new funds offer important cautionary lessons," writes Yuval Levin, a former associate director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, in an article in The New Atlantis. He writes that the infusion of money was "far too rapid, and not adequately tied to structural reforms that might enable NIH to best make use of its growing resources." Fifteen percent hikes for each of 5 years "built expectations and momentum that set the agency up for disappointment when the doubling was done," he writes.
The Science column links to a study by Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University (PDF of PowerPoint slides) that puts some numbers on exactly how the doubling affected young scientists. I'll post some of the key charts below, but the bottom line is essentially what I'd noticed as I watch post-docs go out looking for jobs and young faculty starting up their labs. The NIH budget doubled for five years, then was cut or held flat for five years. The first phase created a lot of new lab space that was filled by scientists who now can't get grant money to fund their young labs. We're left with a decade's worth of graduate students and post-docs who see academic science as an unstable career path.
The solution? Congress should put aside politically symbolic budget doublings and pass legislation that commits to a couple of decades of slow, steady, sustainable increases in NIH funding at levels slightly higher than inflation.