Science on the “Crisis” at the NIH

Update: As described below, NSF is seeking comments on its cost-sharing policy, which, if also implemented by the NIH, could be a mechanism for addressing the “structural disequilibria” discussed by Teitelbaum. Also, a new letter to Science, noted below, suggests the sort of culture change needed to address the structural disequilibria.

Today’s issue of Science includes a Policy Forum commentary by Michael Teitelbaum (Sloan Fdn) entitled Structural Disequilibria in Biomedical Research. He very quickly lays out the obvious bad news: declining NIH budget adjusted for inflation, declining application success rate, increasing age of PIs receiving first award, and so on.

He reminds us that the perception of growth in the doubling period led to academic medical centers encouraging (or requiring) faculty to rely on soft money for salary support and giddily expanding their research facilities; to help with this facility expansion, NCRR regularly offered workshops on preparing C06 and G20 applications. Indeed, Teitelbaum notes that

Much of the expansion capital apparently was borrowed, in part because federal rules allow inclusion of debt service in NIH grant overhead calculations while excluding overhead claims for the imputed value of equity. In financial terms, one might say that the system became more highly leveraged, rendering it more vulnerable to unanticipated downward deflection of the increase in federal research funds.

Rather than argue for more money (though he might not turn down the Spector-Harkin NIH supplement), he emphasizes the need for more stability. For starters, he would like to see more investment in pre- and post-doctoral training mechanisms for grad students and post-docs in programs that provide “full information about career prospects available” and that “better align the PhD-postdoc systems with demand in the labor market for their graduates”. In turn, he sees the army of temporary students and postdocs currently working on research project grants replaced by career-path staff scientists.

This latter recommendation, of course, requires academic medical centers to step up to the plate with hard money rather than continued reliance on grant awards and F&A costs (and recruitment packages to lure well-funded scientists that would make some major league sports agents blush). He suggests institutions limit the percentage of researcher salaries that can be paid with grant funding (also helps address the concern regarding excessive number of awards per PI) and maintain a reserve for use as bridge funding. This latter could be an attractive mechanism (to Congress, especially) to protect tax-payer investment in labs or clinics they helped establish.

Teitelbaum views the NIH as being responsible for promoting stability through a commitment to sustained increases (rather than rapid acceleration/deceleration) that keep ahead of inflation and are keyed to GDP growth and by modifying rules about debt service for research facilities.

Sensible ideas discussed in various venues, perhaps even on the Bethesda campus and in DC. I am quite sure you all have enlightening suggestions as well for how to turn the aircraft carrier in the right direction.


  1. BB said

    I like the idea of saving in flush years for the lean years (sounds a bit Biblical).
    I am sick of working where the place is run off grant overhead, yet it is a state med school. It absolutely sucks the morale out of here.
    Let’s hope the NIH and other big gun grant agencies put mechanisms into place to stablilize funding across administrations.

    Although medium and smaller institutions probably feel they can least afford such measures (since they lack super-sized endowments), I think they would benefit the most, particularly in terms of improving morale, as you mention, and recruiting solid scientists. Always nice to know your home institution is willing to back you up when times are tough and, thinking of research integrity, that the pressure to pay the bills with soft money isn’t going to push you to do something grayish or worse.

  2. PhysioProf said

    So long as NIH continues to be funded by an annual appropriations process, none of this happy horseshit is ever going to happen.

    Not sure I follow your logic. Yes, the NIH’s budget derives from a presidentially blessed Congressional appropriation, and yes, the NIH must spend every penny by the end of the fiscal year. None of his suggestions require more money, just a stable, predictable, reliable appropriation formula – a tall order for Congress, indeed, but not as tall as demanding a huge bolus of cash to make ends meet in the short-term. The other measures to impose a bit of stability are within their control. Whether they can actually implement them is another matter.

  3. BugDoc said

    Teitelbaum’s arguments make a lot of sense. I think the only way that universities will respond to these ideas is for NIH to make some requirement for institutional commitment. I personally think that universities should pay full faculty salaries as standard practice. Much more research could be done if faculty salaries did not have to be charged to grants. The university would still get nice indirect costs and could (and does) offer incentives for those investigators who do bring in grants. Unfortunately, in the last decade or 2, many institutions have come to regard NIH as a cash cow, and design their policies accordingly.

  4. drugmonkey said


    This ping takes folks to a long thread discussing, um, I guess who actually does the hard work of research and how to classify/pay them if they don’t want to be the ones writing the grant applications. Thanks, DM.

  5. writedit said

    Perhaps the restoration of cost-sharing requirements at the NSF and the imposition of more structured cost-sharing requirements by the NIH would help address lack of institutional investment in the science they ask the tax-paying public to support. The Chronicle reminds us that the NSF is still seeking comments (by Oct 8th) on cost-sharing policies (see their Feb report to Congress for details).

  6. writedit said

    In a letter to Science, Rui Sousa at UT HSC, notes that Teitelbaum “neglected to mention one of the most perverse structural problems in the system: Scientists are incentivized to secure as much funding as possible for their work, irrespective of whether an increase in funding leads to a proportionate increase in productivity.”

    Sousa concludes with a recommendation for a change in culture to address this weakness:

    No prestige should be attached to the level of funding that an investigator has managed to secure. The most basic of truths must be emphasized: Money is a means, not an end. We do not do science to get money. We get money to do science. Funding cannot be a measure of productivity, because scientists do not produce research dollars. Research dollars are produced by taxpayers (and to a lesser extent by philanthropists and charitable individuals). The amount of money spent by a researcher is not a measure of his productivity, but of his consumption, and might even be counted on the negative side of the ledger when he is evaluated.

  7. whimple said

    Preach on brother Sousa! Now, how to implement this…?

  8. […] at length on the so-called “structural disequilibria” in biomedical research [h/t: writedit]. This is mostly a recitation of all of the familiar NIH funding woes (including reference to the […]

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