As 2015 begins, biomedical researchers are once again wringing their hands about a surfeit of scientists chasing too few research dollars and academic jobs. In a report released today, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), which represents more than 120,000 scientists, endorses familiar solutions and adds a few new ones.
The report goes over well-trodden territory, noting that the more than 20% decline in inflation-adjusted dollars in the National Institute of Health’s (NIH’s) budget since 2003 has meant an even steeper drop of 34% in R01-equivalent research grants, the bread-and-butter grants that support most independent labs. “This is a serious problem for the nation,” says the 49-page report (plus appendices). Besides calling for Congress to give NIH more money, it suggests that the agency be allowed to carry over unspent funds: Because it must spend each year’s allocation, NIH forfeits $300 million in unspent funds each year, or about 1% of its $30 billion budget.
To wring more grants from NIH’s existing budget, federal officials should find ways to cut regulatory costs and encourage more sharing of large instruments. And to ease scientists’ constant scramble to write new grant proposals, NIH should follow through on plans to award longer grants based on an investigator’s track record rather than a specific project. FASEB also urges NIH to go further with policies that give extra scrutiny to proposals from already well-funded labs “to ensure a global distribution of research funding.”
The group endorses the idea of creating a “transition award” to help senior investigators wind down their labs. And it says NIH should address the “soft money” problem, or investigators who depend entirely on grants for their salary, by gradually requiring that institutions support more of their salaries.
Although it notes that the number of new biomedical Ph.D.s has grown faster than NIH’s budget and the supply of academic jobs, FASEB does not explicitly endorse reducing the number of trainees. But it says institutions should do more to prepare graduate students for careers outside of academic research, and it notes approvingly that some graduate programs have already cut back on admissions. “Reducing the size of incoming classes would help improve the employment prospects of future graduates,” the report says. Finally, FASEB says labs should rely more on staff scientists and technicians and less on trainees.
Although it echoes previous reports, FASEB’s analysis breaks new ground for the society because it provides “a comprehensive view of the problem and recognizes that an increase in funding is not the way out of this dilemma,” says Howard Garrison, director of FASEB’s Office of Public Affairs. He said FASEB’s board now hopes to collect feedback from its membership.
The need to stretch tight budgets is also on the mind of Jon Lorsch, director of NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). In a 5 January blog post, he writes: “Re-optimizing the biomedical research enterprise will require significant changes in every part of the system.” Pointing to studies that found midsized labs are most productive, he suggests that “funding smaller, more efficient research groups will increase the net impact of fundamental biomedical research.” NIGMS already gives extra review to researchers whose grant proposals would bring their overall direct funding to more than $750,000, but Lorsch’s post suggests he wants a tighter cap.
Although some commenters applauded Lorsch’s post, others slammed it. “Anonymous” argued that creative scientists may need more resources to pursue their ideas: “It does not help at all to tell [the] best scientists that they would be better scientists if they would just be happy to shrink their groups and live with less funding because we have a bankrupt political system.”