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June 23, 2006


Science funding is exactly the one true thing which could elevate this country back into the realm of greatness from which it has fallen since Bush came into office. Your "preaching" is exactly what we need to lay down the facts to people who have not paid attention to this problem: hear that, media of all kinds?

Margaret is right. And the best and brightest, many of them who came to train are now starting to flee instead of stay

As someone in the science geek business who left your fine country at the top of the boom (I left for reasons other than ones of funding) it is very sad to see my colleagues who stayed, some of them darned fine biomedical researchers, now faced with the prospect of getting out of the business altogether because NIH grant funding rates have now fallen below the 10% mark (ie. for every grant submitted less than one gets funded, which means that once the folks at Harvard, Stanford, the NIH institutes and UCSF get there's there is very little left for, say, Kansas - it's Thomas Frank all over again).

And for those folks who are hanging in there, guess where they now send their grants?

Why to NSF, of course, where they squeeze out the basic folks who are already there.


Sorry....for every 'ten grants' submitted, only one gets funded....

Professors need cheap hands to do modern medical research, so in the biological sciences they've given them PhDs to motivate and compensate - and have produced a glut of scientists who will find a greater need for their skills in teaching, here and abroad, than in research. Biotech research is so expensive that it will always be something of a luxury item in any economic community.

The NSF has been underfunded relative the NIH over the past decade so some people are happy, physical scientists have been moaning for years about their lack of funding growth relative to medical science but there have been good reasons for this. In the heartland there is some resentment toward government sponsored medical research, doctors living high on the hog and being feted by pharmas all day....

Thanks for comments.

Margaret, obviously I agree with you, but interestingly someone linked to here overnight (see the trackback) as an example of a biased politico making a weak rationalization for government-funded science. It's helpful, because I was thinking about writing a post to the tune of "What Good is Publically-Funded Science Anyway?" I'd be interested in hearing others' thoughts on the answer.

(My own answer is that critics like the one above don't understand the difference between basic research and applied research -- and that basic research is one of those common goods that it is the purpose of government to provide.)

RossK, the effect of science funding on American researchers leaving and international (primarily Korean, Chinese, and Indian) researchers coming in is a very good point I barely touched on here. As to the grant success rate, the number I found was 19 percent (see text directly below Figure 3) -- do you remember where you found the 10% number?

The grant success rate is a somewhat weak metric, because as it falls researchers begin to submit duplicate grants to different institutes within NIH knowing that fewer are getting funded overall and wanting to increase their odds. So, even if the grant success rate falls in half we don't know if that is half as many researchers getting grants, or the same number of researchers submitting twice as many applications to hedge their bets. (What we do know from it for sure is that the ratio of administrative overhead in writing and evaluating grants, compared to the amount of science output being done from the grants funded, is going in the wrong direction.)

The other danger of looking at percent of grants funded is that it is kind of like unemployment figures -- even in unemployment rates are low, it may be that someone who was making $20/hr has had to settle for a job below his ability level making $10/hr. Likewise, today even with the grants getting funded, they are being funded less -- and, as that goes down, many universities are taking a bigger cut of overhead out of the grant for the same reasons. So in the end, even getting one grant funded is not leaving the scientist with enough to run a lab on, in many cases. The nastiest part is that NIH has begun cutting grants that were already funded -- so someone may have been given a $500,000 five-year grant (at $100,000/yr) and already hired people on it, and now 2 or 3 years into it is seeing the grant cut by 10% or 20% -- when the research is already rolling, and the grad students or post-docs have already been taken in. That is just a really ugly situation, and it fuels the great uncertainty that makes it so difficult for young people to see basic research as a sound long-term career.

jerry, that is an interesting misconception. Especially so because if doctors (that would be MDs by the way) are living high on the hog, it is from "consulting" fees and privately-funded studies that are handed out by private industry (like pharmaceutical companies), not from NIH funds.

A lot of the the NIH funds go to PhDs doing research that wouldn't be funded by private industry -- or, if it were to be funded, the results wouldn't be made publicly available. (Even more so if the results go against the best interest of the company that funded them.)

The "cheap hands" that we do research with are technicians, who make in the $25k - $35k/yr range. The cheap minds that we do research with are graduate students getting their PhDs, who make around $25k/yr these days. But for all the time we spend training them and letting them learn by playing around and making mistakes, we could much more easily hire a technician army (indeed, some people do). The PhDs themselves, working as post-docs, generally make in the $35k - $65k/yr range, depending on years of experience (for "perma-docs" who've been around a long time it can go up to $75 or $80k/yr). Without the PhDs, American basic research dies, because they are the next generation of scientists we're training. Technicians (usually with a bachelor's degree in science) are, for the most part, the cheap disposable resource -- PhDs are more valuable.

You're right that we're producing more of them than we can employ, but it is not a bad idea to have some of them go into business, law, public policy, teaching, other fields -- they are smart and well-trained people, and can help us avoid ridiculous mistakes like this one I posted on recently.

I think that a significant number of people in "middle-America" (geographically, or in mind set) see NIH scientists as an extension of a bloated and greedy government that takes taxes away from them and their small communities and gives it to wealthy states (to spend on inner-city poor people) and to elite insiders (like scientists).

This sort of rational has obviously been central to Republican policy and has been strongly cultivated by Republican groups for some time, despite data showing that federal tax revenues actually flow from rich to poor states - so cutting taxes would disproportionately affect poor red/Republican states (but not the relatively few wealthy Republicans).

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