Be Careful What You Wish For

Between 1998 and 2003, the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) rose from $13 billion to more than $27 billion in a plan known as “the doubling.” Now that the tsunami of cash has receded, many life scientists–especially those in the early phase of their careers–have found conditions no better, and in some ways worse, than before the process began.

This unwelcome outcome has not dampened politicians’ enthusiasm for the symbolism of multiplying by two. The American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), a presidential plan aimed at retaining the nation’s technological edge, foresees just such a burst of largess for three agencies active in physical science: the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). But will the blast of cash bring the same problems and disappointments experienced in the life sciences?

Too much too soon

The NIH doubling did do a lot of good, providing billions of dollars for basic and clinical research and establishing a new, much higher baseline for funding. Still, “both the way Congress has expanded the NIH budget and the way NIH has made use of its new funds offer important cautionary lessons,” writes Yuval Levin, a former associate director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, in an article in. He writes that the infusion of money was “far too rapid, and not adequately tied to structural reforms that might enable NIH to best make use of its growing resources.” Fifteen percent hikes for each of 5 years “built expectations and momentum that set the agency up for disappointment when the doubling was done,” he writes.

Meanwhile, the number of life scientists unemployed, out of the labor force, or in part-time posts also grew. For scientists in academe, universities’ expectations about the number of grants they should win increased, as did the number of proposals submitted to NIH. Many established researchers hiked the number of grants they receive and the number of scientists working in their labs, but newer investigators saw virtually no rise in funding through the Research Project Grant Program (R01) grants considered crucial to establishing an independent scientific career, Stephan found.

“When everybody heard the budget was doubling, … many medical schools and arts and sciences programs with strong and not-so-strong biomedical programs … really decided to invest in their programs,” Stephan says in an interview. “As a country we really over-responded.” The result? It became “harder … to get money. … Success rates have really fallen”–especially for new investigators, Stephan says. Those “really hurt…are young people,” as an increasing share of NIH support has gone to older researchers, she says.

The 5-year doubling period left many younger scientists stranded because, Levin notes, it was too short a time period for them to earn a Ph.D., win tenure, or bring a newly funded research program to fruition before money became tight. “The glut of graduate students”–and postdocs–“enticed by the growing support a few years ago have since found it difficult to get their own work funded … and the sudden deceleration in funding has left many researchers feeling slighted even though their funding grew by leaps and bounds in the past decade,” he writes.

Still, “it’s hard to blame the NIH just because of the way it has to be answerable to Congress,” Levin says in an interview. NIH’s plethora of institutes and centers mostly exist because “some member of Congress has a pet cause and says that NIH should focus on it,” explains Levin. The idea for the doubling also seems to have had more to do with political symbolism than with any reasoned analysis of the long-term needs of American science. “Medical research is the sole hope we can provide to millions of Americans,” wrote Senator Tom Harkins (D–IA) in 2002, explaining why he and Senator Arlen Specter (R–PA) “set the ambitious goal of doubling America’s investment in … the life-saving research supported by NIH and conducted at leading research institutions like the University of Iowa and Iowa State.”

But the doubling missed the opportunity to rationalize NIH’s tangle of entities, Levin notes. Reorganizing the vast agency around broad scientific themes rather than historic happenstance would cut confusion, increase flexibility, and save money that could move from redundant bureaucracy to research, he says. Also needed, Stephan suggests, is new thinking about how to staff labs so that fewer frustrated new job seekers are produced.

Protective factors

As the doubling of the budgets of the three ACI agencies gets underway, several factors may protect the physical sciences from a troubling denouement. First, it is planned for 10 rather than 5 years, providing less abrupt growth and more time before the acceleration ends, allowing grad students to finish degrees, postdocs to find jobs, new faculty to achieve tenure, and newly established labs to build track records. Second, the sums involved are less massive and therefore can’t lure as many young people into a potentially futile effort to launch scientific careers. The total NSF budget request for fiscal year (FY) 2008 is $6.4 billion, up 8.7% from last year. For the Office of Science, the 2008 request totals $4.4 billion, and for the core programs at NIST that will undergo doubling, the 2008 request is $600 million.

But DOE’s Office of Science will spend only half its budget on work by university researchers, with much of the rest going to its ten national laboratories and research facilities, from Brookhaven in New York state to the Pacific Northwest National Lab in Washington state. NIST’s Scientific and Technical Research Services is slated for a 12.8% increase, to $420 million, all of it going to support NIST’s own labs and facilities in Maryland and Colorado, with additional money for construction and new equipment. Both of these agencies have postdocs–who, incidentally, are paid much more than those dependent on NIH grants–but their facilities are staffed by mostly long-term employees.

Which leads to a third major difference: the job market is stronger for physical scientists than for life scientists, at least for now. New physical science Ph.D.s are considerably less likely to be postdocs, unemployed, or out of the job market than biomedical Ph.D.s–and substantially more likely to get faculty or industry jobs. Creating “a job market at least as large as the added influx of graduate students you’re creating” is vital to building the next generation of scientists, Levin says. Otherwise, “you’re setting yourself up for the kind of deflating experience that the NIH has, their recipients … genuinely angry about declining budgets at a time that they’ve got enormous budgets. And they’re not wrong,” he adds.

Whether a good result will emerge is as yet unclear. Apart from the three ACI agencies and a few others, the outlook for federal research and development funding is bleak, with the president’s 2008 budget proposing a drop in real dollars and substantial cuts at a number of agencies. Some critics call the ACI doubling a diversion to mask the overall decline in science spending. The key to fostering research and nurturing a new generation of talent is not, as the NIH experience shows, simply large infusions of long-wished-for but short-term cash. Rather, it is steady commitment over the long term. Once again, the former is underway. The latter remains to be seen.

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