Yet another commentary on the NIH funding problem

September 12, 2007

There is a recent commentary in Nature from Brian C. Martinson, one of those chaps funded to study the enterprise of science. Recent pubs from this author/group on ethical conduct in science are here, here and here. [Update: See a prior note on this work from writedit.]

Bait quotes to get you to read the commentary (emphasis all added, DM):

we should all be concerned about the negative effects this may have on the robustness of the research engine; by damping scientists’ willingness to pursue high-risk projects; by causing them to spend excessive time in pursuit of funding; or by causing talented individuals to shun research careers.

We might also expect the greatest effects to be felt by female scientists and those from minority groups, for younger researchers to leave science, and to see somewhat less ethical behaviour among those who stay.

history suggests that the most dramatic innovations come from the young. So is the only solution to force long-time NIH grant getters into retirement? … Universities have benefited handsomely from the efforts of senior faculty members in securing NIH grants … perhaps those same universities could now return the favour by taking full responsibility for paying these faculty salaries in their later years.

The general thrust however busies itself with the the demand side, i.e., that we train too many scientists, far more than can be accommodated (or need to be accommodated) by the funding system. This is becoming positively thematic; Orac and Pure Pedantry discuss the issue on the MD/PhD side, motivated by a Science piece. Ignoring unsubstantiated BS about how specifically necessary physician-scientists may be, the broad themes are similar. [Update2: Terra Sigillata is on it.]

I dunno. I think Martinson loses track of, or fails to commit to, his point about innovation and youth. Mozart would have been dead 7 years when awarded his first R01. This thought continues to plague me. As does the concept that when the career path seems less than desirable it will be the smarter people who disproportionately head for other professions.

3 Responses to “Yet another commentary on the NIH funding problem”

  1. Theodore Price Says:

    First post from a long-time reader.
    First off, as a youngster who just got his first asst prof position (at 32) your blog and the commentors here are an invaluable resource for me, thanks to all of you.

    Onto the issue, I think that Martinson raised some very good points about the young vs. old(er) investigators and his proposition for universities taking over the full salary of very well established investigators would certainly reduce a bit of burden (at least it seems like it could if handled administratively in the appropriate manner). I agree with him that NIH-dependency (or percieved dependency even) is a major problem that must be handled and universities should face it head on and with transparency.

    Did you notice the lead editorial in the same issue mentioned the getting more senior scientists onto study section as a major priority, yet again. Why not have NIH run an experiment. Establish a study section of asst profs and postdocs to run at the same time as an established study section but keep them completely independent (with the established one not even knowing the other exists). Leave all the actual scoring and summary statements to the established group but compare the summaries for the grants and scores between the groups over a few cycles and see what happens. To make it even more interesting, track the progress of the proposed projects over a couple years (without attention to what is funded or not) and see which groups were able to best identify projects that would make a contribution. A seperate independent panel could judge this comprised of senior and junior researchers in the same field. Would something of that sort give us a better picture of what is actually important in peer review of grants rather than just the same old dogma? I’m not sure but it would be a step in that direction.


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    thanks for chiming in and indeed your experiment would be fascinating to see. i think the way to do this would be to piggyback onto their online-reviewing pilots, much as I disagree with that direction. but in the practical of getting a study done relatively inexpensively…

    “Did you notice the lead editorial in the same issue mentioned the getting more senior scientists onto study section as a major priority, yet again.”

    oh, I saw that all right. I do try not to repeat myself too often you know :-/

    “It is also important to ensure that senior, accomplished scientists serve on study sections. There is simply no replacement for the brains, experience, insight and judgement [sic; is this UK spelling or typo? DM] that they bring to bear on applications.”

    Once again, completely data-free and in the case of “brains” clearly false allegations. good god they don’t even try, do they?


  3. Piled Higher, Deeper Says:

    I noticed from one of the comments in Nature on this that there were apparently only 2,000 comments received. That seems unbelievably low to me. Everybody I talk to is complaining about either funding or lack of jobs for young scientists. Only 2,000 scientists managed to dash off a quick note to the NIH?

    Kinda like voter turnout, you get what you deserve.


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