The Jackpot’s Consequences

What would you do if you won the lottery? Not the little scratch-off games paying a few thousand bucks, but one of the major multistate drawings with the huge, life-changing prizes? That’s the decision the nation’s science-funding agencies are dealing with right now as they try to spend their portion of the proceeds of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

We’ve all heard of lottery gazillionaires whose sudden fortunes bring them only misery–uncontrolled spending, alienated family members, and ultimate grief. But some winners use their giant windfalls astutely and judiciously on smart, compassionate projects that do a lot of good.

I’ve got an idea that dovetails with this project. Can we submit a supplement for me for $100,000?

So what kind of winners will the nation’s scientific agencies be? The American Recovery Act, a.k.a., the stimulus package, awards them more than $20 billion that they must spend on science in the space of 2 years. Funders, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), are hurriedly concocting special short-term programs to distribute the loot.

Knowledgeable observers are divided on what this torrent of short-term cash will mean for science agencies’ most vulnerable charges: the nation’s graduate students, postdocs, and other early-career scientists. Some predict a repeat, on an even more calamitous scale, of the debacle that followed the doubling of NIH funding between 1998 and 2003, when institutions that had taken on unsustainable numbers of scientists underwent a shakeout fatal to countless careers. Some savvy stimulus watchers, however, see major opportunities for young scientists with the smarts, enterprise, and timing to grab them.

Learning from experience

The NIH leadership has given a lot of thought lately to how they might avoid a repeat of the postdoubling disaster, says Jeremy Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). For that reason, NIH will spend just $100 million of its recovery money to support up to 117 new, and presumably permanent, tenure-track jobs, he tells Science Careers in an interview. These grants will fund faculty start-up packages and, NIH hopes, persuade cash-strapped universities to restart canceled or postponed faculty searches.

The time pressure imposed by the Recovery Act’s very tight schedule forced NIH to use an admittedly “obscure” mechanism, the P30 (Biomedical Research Core Centers to Enhance Research Resources), to fund this program. The mechanism is so obscure in fact that NIH withdrew the original announcement soon after it was made, then reinstated it with a clearer explanation. The program’s modest scale–less than 1% of NIH’s approximately $10 billion in stimulus funds–reflects the desire to establish a realistic number of sustainable new faculty positions rather than set off a “feeding frenzy,” Berg says.

The size of the 2-year awards will vary among the 14 participating centers and institutes, with NIGMS at the low end, offering up to $250,000 a year per position, and most other institutes providing more. Letters of intent, which are “preferred but not required,” Berg says, must be in by 29 April, followed by full applications a month later. Evidence of a commitment to continue supporting the new positions after the awards expire will be factored in to the award decisions, he adds. Peer-review results will go out in July. The money will follow in September.

Jobs are job one

If it succeeds in restarting canceled tenure-track faculty searches or in starting new ones, this program will meet, in a small way, the Recovery Act’s immediate goal of creating jobs right away. In the process, it will take a stab–again, a small one–at the deep, underlying problem in the academic labor market: the severe, perennial imbalance between the number of would-be researchers coming out of the nation’s universities and the number of career positions available to them. The great bulk of science’s huge stimulus bonanza will do nothing about that.

Instead, NIH and NSF recovery dollars will go overwhelmingly for 2-year extramural research grants, mostly for proposals already submitted by people “established enough to already be in the [funding agency] pipeline,” says labor market economist Paula Stephan of Georgia State University in Atlanta. Scientists too early in their careers to compete on their own will generally benefit only if their principal investigator (PI) wins a stimulus grant that keeps them employed. The money may also indirectly help labs that don’t win their own grants by freeing up university-provided bridge funding that had been sustaining winners, Stephan adds.

Another mechanism for distributing the funds is administrative supplements given out to some current holders of major research grants. That’s great for those already-funded scientists and not bad for the people who work in their labs. But it won’t do much directly to get postdocs into permanent positions.

Many PIs with new stimulus grants or supplements will take on new personnel to get the work done. That raises “the big question,” Stephan says. “Is this just going to rev up the postdoc and graduate student markets” so that they can crash again in 2 years?

That’s certainly the outcome that another experienced observer, an NIH intramural lab chief we’ll call Beth S. Dadoc, expects to see. Dadoc says it was a mere “deceleration of the increase of funding” that caused the postdoubling collapse. This time, we’ll see a huge, absolute drop in funding after the massive one-time “bolus” of stimulus money passes through. So, she argues, the result could be far worse.

One potentially significant difference between the stimulus and the doubling has caught Stephan’s attention, however. During the 1998 to 2003 buildup, she says, PIs “put in more R01s and revved up their labs” on the assumption that the good times would continue to roll. But everyone knows that the stimulus will end in 2 years–not nearly enough time for a student to finish a Ph.D. Professors and departments may therefore take on fewer new graduate students, choosing instead to offer more short-term appointments, often to postdocs. Indeed, providing “research employment opportunities for postdoctoral students” isa potential use of supplements suggested by NIH. Using more postdocs would dash some students’ hopes, but it would not add frustrated Ph.D.s to the current, abundant supply.

Opportunities in adversity

Another savvy science watcher, computational biologist Kelly Suter, an assistant professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio, has spied real promise for early-career scientists who are good enough, clever enough–and lucky enough–to benefit from the sudden money. “The stimulus package will have a profound impact on the opportunities for young scientists with the highest potential,” she says, and “those are the people we want to keep.” An assistant professor who wrote her first successful R01 when she was still a postdoc, Suter believes that “young investigators who are in the position to make that transition to independence with their first R01,” and who recently submitted a proposal that was “very well-crafted and very well-received by their study sections but still couldn’t meet pay lines,” will get a second look as funding agencies focus on applications that are already in-house. “The best grants by the most promising young people [now have] an increased opportunity for funding.”

That depends, of course, on having had excellent accidental timing, because neither NSF nor NIH plans to reopen proposals that have already been turned down, and new competitions are planned only in a few targeted areas. The trick is, or was, to have had a grant submitted but not yet rejected when the stimulus bill took shape. For the few young scientists in that situation, the resulting grants will “set them up to be much more competitive when they go back in after 2 years,” Suter says.

NIH’s new 2-year challenge grants–the only stimulus funding program open to proposals for new projects–are, Suter believes, perfect for giving “young people fresh out of their training, the hot, young Turks with the cutting-edge methodologies, an opportunity to move these very cutting-edge questions forward very, very quickly.” Even NIH’s 2-year supplements for existing grants, though ostensibly aimed at established PIs, offer “a great opportunity for senior-level postdocs to look at an active R01 that their PI has and say, ‘I’ve got an idea that dovetails with this project. Can we submit a supplement for me for $100,000?’ … This gives a postdoc an opportunity to start to build [his or her own] area of research.”

Suter even sees opportunity in the exceptionally large numbers of proposals that funding agencies will have to get through in a hurry–which, she says, means the chance for early-career scientists to get experience reviewing grant proposals. The 2 days she spent as an ad hoc reviewer with an NIH study section was, she says, “the best investment I ever made in my professional life. … My grant writing improved 200%.”

Assistant professors are eligible to be ad hoc reviewers. They should, she suggests, contact scientific review officers in their areas of interest to volunteer. “A young scientist will never learn more about writing a grant than by reviewing a grant,” she says.

Photo (top): Russell James Smith

Getting Essential Core Skills, with Tenure at Stake

Educated Woman, the Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse Chapter 38: What Now?