September 1, 2011 (Vol. 31, No. 15)

Drastic Measures Needed to Make Science a Compelling Career Choice for the Best and the Brightest

During the decades of increasing NIH budgets, the process and mechanism for funding biomedical research in the U.S. was largely successful. However, with the onset of level or decreased funding following the golden era of budget doubling, the current system is crashing and major changes are sorely needed.

The distress signs in the current system are clear from the numbers.

  • The number of grant applications in a single year to the NIH (77,000) is far more than can be fairly considered in a timely fashion, despite the essentially pro bono efforts of many dedicated scientists.
  • The average age of first R01 grant recipients is 43, necessitating a redefinition of young scientist.
  • The average number of years spent by many in serial post-doctoral fellowships is seven. Fellows typically earn a subsistence salary with minimal benefits, since they are conveniently considered “trainees”, despite being the most productive members of the biomedical establishment.
  • The scored percentile required to fund a NIH grant is less than 10, with even better scores needed to obtain funding from nongovernmental sources.
  • The percentage of time spent by typical faculty members on seeking funding for their laboratories is greater than 25%, not to mention the additional donated time participating in the funding process as reviewers.

The NIH contract grant system evolved at a time of rapid expansion in the biomedical research establishment and worked reasonably well with a high ratio of funds to investigators. At the current ratio, however, the system wastes enormous human resources and creates an environment of intense competition that corrodes the scientific method.

Universities are typically closer to industrial parks than they are to academic establishments. Faculty are welcome to stay as long as they can pay their rent in the form of research grants. These grants support not only their research costs but also their salaries and the salaries of administrators who have no choice but to show them the door should their grant support run dry.

Scholarship, collegiality, teaching, even honesty, have become quaint and antiquated qualities in the current world of pay-as-you-go biomedical research. As elsewhere in U.S. society, the dollar reigns supreme and scientists are promoted and fêted based on their funding success and little else.

There are steep costs to all of this. Such intense competition leads to data fudging and outright fraud, corrupting the heart of science. The best scientists are not necessarily the best at obtaining funding. Creativity and curiosity often take a back seat to incrementalism cleverly packaged and sold as a quick path to translational success. Bright, ambitious students shy away from a career that pays poorly for decades and leads even the most successful to a precarious job with intense, career-long competition just to stay employed.

A New System

We believe it is time for scientists to rethink the system for performing and funding biomedical research. Surely, we can devise a system that:

  • pays young scientists a decent wage with long-term benefits and offers a reasonable chance of a long-lasting career performing/directing bench research;
  • does not insist that scientists pursuing basic research predict the unknowns of nature in their research grants;
  • recognizes that high-risk, high-reward science is actually risky; and
  • is sustainable with level (i.e., inflation-adjusted) NIH budgets.

We believe that, while not perfect, the NIH intramural system provides a starting model for such a sustainable and equitable system. Laboratories are funded based on the topic of investigation: the costs of clinical and animal studies, generally higher than in vitro studies, are fully covered. “Fully” means just that: all salaries, benefits, supplies, services, and overhead costs are included. Continued support is based on not what NIH investigators propose to discover, but on what they have actually discovered during the prior four years.

The nearly universally acknowledged truth is that scientists who have had good ideas over the years leading to published discoveries will continue to be productive without the need to prove themselves every grant cycle. Labs are moderately sized (seven to ten members) and do not expand over the years, encouraging active collaboration between groups, further fostered by lack of competition between groups for funding.

We propose that this system be extended to university-based investigators. Investigators recruited to the new system would be directly and fully funded by the NIH. Support would be sufficient for a medium-sized lab (up to 10 members), and would preclude receiving additional NIH funding.

Those who apply would be selected on their record of productivity. Since many successful investigators will likely have larger groups, the new system could actually free resources to increase the number of investigators supported by NIH. Tenure-track investigators could be easily recruited into this system just as they are now, based on their record of accomplishment as students and post docs and their proposed course of investigation.

We believe this system would promote more collegial, creative, and productive basic research, as investigators are freed from grant writing to explore the unknown. However, implementing such a system requires that the long-term benefits of basic biological research are clearly recognized as a core mission of NIH funding.

A key part of reforming biomedical research is to quantitatively compare the current system vs. whatever new systems are implemented. Comparisons should include not just scientific productivity by standard metrics, but also measures of happiness, satisfaction, and career progression of young scientists.

Creating a sustainable system means making science an attractive and reasonable career choice for the best and brightest. To a remarkable extent, American youth are idealistic and willing, even anxious, to contribute positively to society. There is tangible evidence of this, based on the number of students actively seeking internships at the NIH each summer, as applicants exceed positions at a ratio of roughly five to one.

To tap this communal spirit, we need to make science a career that offers a reasonable prospect of stability, and allows young scientists the opportunity to have a satisfying personal life in addition to a meaningful and productive professional experience.

Jonathan Yewdell and Howard Young ([email protected]) are principal investigators at the National Institutes of Health. Although the authors are employees of the NIH, the content of this publication is their personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Health and Human Services, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the United States government.

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