Double the NIH Budget? Think Twice - Why more money isn’t necessarily a good thing

What’s behind paper retractions? (28)
by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, Labtimes 03/2015

Photo: zettberlin / Source: PHOTOCASE

Reading that Newt Gingrich was calling on President Obama and Congress to double the budget for the National Institutes of Health might warm the cockles of pro-science Americans (and likely give them a jolt of doubt about the motives of the right-wing firebrand).

But before they cheer too much, they might want to consider this: as helpful an expanded NIH budget might be to grant seekers, it carries some potentially unpleasant side effects – including even greater competition for money down the road. And what happens in the U.S. could very well happen elsewhere.

A change on the right scale?

Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, is among the more science-friendly Republicans and he is credited with having preserved the NIH budget from the hostile efforts of his Congressional colleagues in the mid-1990s. He was in power when Bill Clinton launched the last doubling of the agency’s coffers and didn’t object.

“Doubling the institutes’ budget once again would be a change on the right scale, although that increase should be accompanied by reforms to make the NIH less bureaucratic, to give the director more flexibility to focus resources on the most common and expensive health problems, and to place a stronger emphasis on truly breakthrough research,” he wrote recently in the New York Times.

Let’s ignore that loaded last bit – who will determine what’s “truly breakthrough”? – and take a look at what happened the last time the NIH saw its budget double.

What happens when funding stops?

Starting in 1998, more money meant more and larger grants – which, in turn, meant more postdoctoral researchers hired by laboratories looking for ways to justify the increased awards. And what happened when that funding stopped increasing, as it did in 2003? Just as one might expect, all those postdocs found themselves struggling to find work in their fields and facing lottery-sized odds of landing faculty positions.

For a decade, science magazines have documented trends in employment of PhDs. According to an article last year in Times Higher Education, for example, there are as many as 68,000 postdocs in the United States at the moment – up from about 28,000 in 1979.

Cutting corners or worse

Postdocs who finally obtain university positions – and this has declined from 34% of people with biomedical PhDs in 1993 to 26% today – are now, on average, 37 years old, the NIH says. And they do not receive their first R01 research grants – usually how researchers mark the start of their independent careers – until they are 42, compared with an average age of 34 in 1970.

It’s hard not to imagine that all of that competition is pushing some scientists to cut corners, or worse, so they can publish in the top journals, they need to in order to earn tenure.

More butts than seats

Perhaps it’s clear by now that the old adage “be careful what you wish for” is apt here. Those scientists cheering on the possible growth of the NIH budget – or the budget of funding agencies in any country – should think quite carefully about the future careers of all of the extra trainees they’ll have in their labs during flush times. Once the music stops, there will be many more butts than seats.

Would it help, as the NIH’s Sally Rockey asked several years ago, to limit “the number of research programme grant awards per investigator, the total amount of awards per investigator, the size of awards, or the amount of salary support paid by NIH?” Perhaps, although these measures would only create incrementally more chairs, still not enough for all the butts.

Science is unquestionably a public good. Even Newt Gingrich agrees on that. But it needs a sustainability plan, just like any other business or non-profit.

The authors run the blog Retraction Watch:

Last Changed: 25.05.2015