On American Scientists' Dismal Morale

Taken for Granted

Kelly Krause, AAAS

The results of a survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) exploring the financial situation of academic researchers are dismal indeed. Of the more than 11,000 researchers who responded (out of 67,454 queried) "[nearly] half have already abandoned an area of investigation they considered central to their lab's mission. And more than three-quarters have reduced their recruitment of graduate students and research fellows because of economic pressures."

Especially hard hit, apparently, are those dependent for funding on the National Institutes of Health (NIH). More than 15 respondents referred in their answers to the "collapse of NIH," the article states. But, the article notes, "The National Science Foundation and other federal providers aren't doing a lot better."

More than 15 respondents referred in their answers to the "collapse of NIH," the article states.

Some of those commenting on the article observe that it is impossible to know how representative the 15% who answered the survey are of the population at large. Possibly, those facing the most severe difficulties were the likeliest to answer, and some respondents probably wished to paint a grim picture, to help convince lawmakers and policy makers to take action.

No, things are not OK; the pain the researchers describe is real and serious. However, it makes little sense to argue that an agency with a budget of $31 billion—more than the rest of the world's governments combined, and only slightly less, in real terms, than a few years before—is collapsing. The real causes of researchers' despair lie deeper than an inflation-lagging research budget.

The Chronicle article describes the last 10 years, but it doesn't mention the important funding event that occurred a little over a decade ago: the doubling of the NIH budget from $13 billion to more than $27 billion over a period of 5 years. During the half-decade when NIH funding was growing rapidly, many labs took on large numbers of additional graduate students and postdocs. After the flood of funding subsided, we learned that the number of researchers depending on grant funding had nearly doubled. A similar burst of hiring and spending happened during the short-lived funding boost financed by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as "the stimulus," following the 2008 financial crisis (an example of a genuine collapse).

As the number of applicants grows, budgets stagnate or shrink, and funding rates fall, scientists submit more proposals and funding rates fall further. Universities commonly depend on NIH grant funding to pay faculty members' salaries, even some who ostensibly have tenure. Because of all this—and because NIH makes 5-year commitments when making grants and so has only a fraction of its budget available to make new grants—the fiscal stability of many labs and institutions is "severely threatened when funding from grants plateaus, or does not grow sufficiently to keep pace with the expansion. They face even more serious prospects when budgets decline in real terms," writes Paula Stephan of Georgia State University in Atlanta in her book, How Economics Shapes Science.

This system's underlying flaws are structural. Just keeping up with inflation, or even exceeding it, won't solve them. A set of what economists call "perverse incentives" encourages lab chiefs and institutions to take on more trainees in good times and submit more grant proposals in bad ones. As Stephan notes in her book, the system as now constructed is insatiable, and no amount of money can bring long-term stability.

Reform is needed to replace the current destructive incentives with constructive ones. But, as past experience with even modest reform proposals shows, the interests vested in the current system make reform difficult. Nor can any foreseeable reform assuage the current suffering that is so widespread in academic science, as this survey shows. Until change comes, the most vulnerable of the nation's academic researchers will continue to bear the brunt of the pain.

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