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.