The Broken Pipeline

March 11, 2008

A group of research institutes have apparently banded together to discuss the dismal prospects of younger and transitioning research scientists, producing a slick overview document hosted at Participating institutions include Harvard, Brown, UCLA, Vanderbilt, Duke Medicine, Partner’s Healthcare and Ohio State University Medical Center.
[h/t: coturnix]

A couple of money quotes from the overview document:

“Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, you’re thinking about your grant proposals and wondering how to survive in this world where fewer people are getting funded, and proposals that are funded aren’t being fully funded or are
being cut.”
Michael Rodriguez, M.D., M.P.H.

“The process of getting NIH funding can be a career in and of itself. It takes time, and you have to be persistent.”
Kristen Newby, M.D.
Duke University

Preach on, my friends, preach on!

“I’ve dissected the inner ears of all these different mice–those that lose their hearing early and those that don’t–and those tissues are just sitting in the freezer, waiting. I haven’t had the money or the help to go any further with the experiments.”
Anne Giersch, Ph.D.
Harvard Medical School and
Brigham & Women’s Hospital

Been there, done that.

“Without effective national policies to recruit young scientists to the field, and support their research over the long term, in 10 to 15 years, we’ll have more scientists older than 65 than those younger than 35. This is not a sustainable trend in biomedical research and must be addressed aggressively.”
Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D.
Director, National Institutes of Health

errr…Elias? Dude. Isn’t this, well, your job!??!!!?

19 Responses to “The Broken Pipeline”

  1. geezer Says:

    Perhaps if youngsters wish to be more successful, they should write better grants and papers.


  2. CC Says:

    OK, let’s pretend to take this seriously, and believe that the people with no discernible interest in making the grad/postdoc experience better in any other respect are seeking higher funding out of selfless concern for making science a more attractive career. (I’d laugh at the part where they talk about how long the “training” stage of one’s career lasts as though a six year PhD was decreed by God. But we’re pretending to take this serously…)
    It should be obvious that the only limiting factor in the current system is that the production of new faculty eventually drives funding rates down to the point where universities stop adding new positions and postdocs all wind up in the street. OK, it’s not obvious to Zerhouni, scratching his head in Science over why the NIH doubling has brought funding rates back almost exactly to where they were before, but it should be. It’s certainly not like universities are saying “Yeah, there’s more money to be had, but we’ve hired all the really talented people” or PIs are saying “Gee, I’d better do this project with techs instead of creating more postdocs.”
    So if we’re so convinced that science can perform miracles with a 32% funding rate but 24% is OMG! Teh Perfect Storm! (oddly, the 26% under Clinton was Not A Perfect Storm, but that aside), how do we maintain such a thing? The solution proposed here, just increasing the pie, isn’t going to do it. Do we automatically throttle back NRSA fellowships as soon as the number goes below 28%? How about barring RO1 applications from an institution or department for a year if their success rate dips below 5%?
    I mean, if the fate of humanity depends on our getting this right, surely more solutions should be considered than this one obviously flawed one, no?


  3. CC Says:

    Incidentally, if the unfunded projects described there are as fantastic as claimed, doesn’t that suggest some problems with peer review? Reading PNAS or JBC, it doesn’t seem like the stuff that *is* getting funded is quite at the level of “earthshaking”, and they’re certainly not delivering miraculous therapies for all known disease.


  4. Becca Says:

    It’s a self-correcting problem:
    no young investigators => less biomedical innovation
    less biomedical innovation => baby boomers actually have to finally freakin die
    baby boomers actually passing on => no competition from geezers
    no competition from geezers => my grant gets funded
    Until those folks have the decency to die off, I’m working on malaria (yay for saving poor children!).
    (please note- this is to be taken *entirely* in jest. First, the problem isn’t the old scientists but lack of funding, and second, I don’t want anyone to die. I do think working on malaria is good though)


  5. DrugMonkey Says:

    Incidentally, if the unfunded projects described there are as fantastic as claimed, doesn’t that suggest some problems with peer review?
    I believe I’m on record with respect to the fact that there are “problems with peer review” that might lead to the most exciting stuff being ignored in preference to maintaining workman like output from established groups.


  6. Good funny posts, Geezer, Becca.
    However, Becca almost hit the republican strategy on the head,
    as in….
    It’s a self-correcting problem:
    no young investigators => less biomedical innovation
    baby boomer scientists passing on, no young ‘uns to replace them => science dies
    science dies => church gets no competition from truth
    etc etc etc
    Anyway, there’s a simple fix for this…an annual 10% increase in the NIH budget, for the next 50 years. Its not like we can’t find the money for that if we want to…
    So what is stopping Zerhouni from asking for a 10% annual increase?


  7. DrugMonkey Says:

    So what is stopping Zerhouni from asking for a 10% annual increase?
    His political co-travelers? I mean this is a political-appointment, “heckuva job”, type position, no?


  8. In response to CC#2 and #3:
    Firstly, What DM said in #5. Also, that scenario usually results when there are limited resources. Risky stuff doesn’t often get rewarded; one may pay with one’s funding, tenure and career. So where’s the incentive to do bold science? Incremental stuff is safer.
    Secondly, the whole point of science is that we don’t really know what will turn out to be ‘fantastic’ or ‘earth-shaking’. To a lay person, studying yeast or worms or flies may sound daft….he/she may go, “Great, you found a way to shut genes off in a worm; still no cure for cancer”. As scientists we cannot afford to subscribe to a seemingly more enlightened version of a similar view.
    So the only real long-term solution is to constantly increase the pot of available money, and constantly expand the horizons of research. ‘Knowledge for knowledge’s sake’ will solve a whole host of problems, and many of them non-scientific.
    And DM, yup, I think it has to do with politics—What? another flat budget? Heckuva job!


  9. CC Says:

    I believe I’m on record with respect to the fact that there are “problems with peer review” …
    Of course. The remark was directed more at people like the ones in this organization, who perceive no problem except “We don’t have enough money!” and no solution besides “We need more money!” Speaking of which…
    So the only real long-term solution is to constantly increase the pot of available money, and constantly expand the horizons of research. ‘Knowledge for knowledge’s sake’ will solve a whole host of problems, and many of them non-scientific.
    There you have it. Sustainable career paths for anyone besides PIs? Nope, can’t do that. Putting real numbers behind these nebulous claims of return on investment? Nope, can’t do that. Honest looks at where major productivity comes from? Nope, can’t do that. Demanding a constantly increasing stream of money that we refuse to manage, and insulting anyone who doesn’t give us 100% of what we demand? Yup, that we can do!!!


  10. TreeFish Says:

    Isn’t the main reason for the K99/R00 program? The idea is to identify incipient leaders in their field, fund them, incubate their ideas, and hope a majority of them lead the way.
    I just received one (they dipped their hand into the gas station toilet and brought out my silly -A1 for payment), and it is exciting for a young fool like myself to have that kind of freedom. The prospects of getting a cushy tenure-track job are certainly better now, though I’m told to not expect miracles, since hiring committees assume the people they hire will get funded anyway. In any case, the F-mechanisms and now this K99-thingy are all geared toward incubating, and latching on to, talent. The ol’ addage at NIH is that your prospects of funding are better if you have a ‘record of funding’.
    Granted, a tie to some old coot helps one procure one of the F-mechanisms, so you can’t quickly and totally eliminate the stench of the old boy’s club. It’s a smell that needs to be gently washed away with repeated cycles…kinda like the smell of vomit from your nose.
    That said, I think GZ is headed in the right direction: an ocean liner takes a longer time to change direction than a row boat. I have to admit, though, the (scientific) public discourse regarding young ideas chasing old nasty dollars may represent a feed-forward solution to this Gen X problem…without having to wish emeritization or death on our mentors.


  11. whimple Says:

    Isn’t [that] the main reason for the K99/R00 program? The idea is to identify incipient leaders in their field, fund them, incubate their ideas, and hope a majority of them lead the way.
    Having seen the effect of the K99/R00 program on our department, I think it’s a bad idea. When we’re recruiting faculty today, we don’t interview anyone who doesn’t come with their own money. We can then scrimp on their startup and save ourselves some cash on people we were going to hire anyway. Thanks for the free handout NIH! This is directly counter to the NIH’s stated goal (reforming peer review) of asking for *increased* investment and financial commitment on the part of academic institutions in their investigators. People with K99/R00s are going to be just that much easier to discard at tenure-review time, since we won’t have as big of a monetary investment in seeing that they succeed.


  12. CC,
    You made the assumption that I am against “sustainable career paths for non-PIs or meaningful looks at return-on-investment (ROI) and productivity” etc. What reason did I give for you to make that assumption?
    I was just addressing the most fundamental issue first—that about 4 out of 5 grants go unfunded today. Also, while the payscales are better than they were 15 years ago, they are still pathetic when compared to other jobs that attract bright people. So if you want bright people to be attracted to, and retained in, science (as PIs or in other alternative scientific capacities and careers), you need to inject more money into the system–plain and simple. Or what you will be left with are a few really dedicated people who find ways to make ends meet and a bunch of people who cannot find anything better to do. You talk a big game of “ROI, productivity, money-management” like this is a for-profit corporation—yet you want the people to get by on minimum wage and the volunteer spirit. Even if you create a whole new utopian system of non-PI careers, how are you going to fund that? Or are you essentially proposing a cap on the number of PhDs handed out each year?
    I am not saying the current system is perfect or that throwing money at it is a panacea for all its ills—but a continued funding crunch will kill at least one generation of scientists, regardless of how many ‘Bobs’ you consult to streamline your ROI and productivity and how well you ‘manage’ the money.
    Just because I commented specifically on one aspect of the funding crunch (throttling of bold science), doesn’t mean I think all new money should be thrown at just one area either. The problems are many, but without solving the (biggest) monetary one the rest will be moot.
    Lastly, I can speak for myself—I wasn’t ‘insulting anyone because we didn’t get 100% of what we asked for’—I was poking fun at Zerhouni. And when someone in his position clearly details the challenges faced by science and the danger of this trend going forward, and then turns around and submits essentially a flat budget–or at least one that cannot substantively begin to address these problems
    —then I think a little pointed humor is very much called for.


  13. TreeFish Says:

    NIH specifically reviews the start-up package before granting the R00 monies (upto ~$750k, total costs). They review the start up packages for the explicit purpose of avoiding crappy start-up packages for K99’ers. In that sense, your department is misinformed, and so I totally disagree with the premise of your argument.
    I do see how committee’s might think that way, though. It is disallowed, though, and backed by the muscles of NIH so it probably holds water. However, I agree with your overall feel that the K99 per se isn’t all *that* great of a mechanism to incubate and _place_ talented investigators in cushy R1 jobs. Since the job market is so stinkin’ competitive as it is, anyone who gets hired in the good places will likely get funded…eventually (a caveat I pointed out in my initial post).
    Bottom line: hiring committees shouldn’t think they can under-offer a K99’er, cuz NIH (and the K99er’s mentors) will tell the committee to get serious or face encumbrances. Bottomer line: the mechanism intended to incubate young ideas is far from perfect; and in fact it’s vulnerable to stodgy ol’ (and mistaken) bastards willing to underfund start-up packages.
    Sounds a lot like the same problem before all the new solutions! Like I said, though, the best part of GZ coming up with the K99 program is that it puts the major problem of aging scientists with too much dough and not enough ideas at the forefront. It’s at the forefront where the most blood is spilled and the most treasure is won (e.g., see the HHMI’s new incubation program).


  14. DrugMonkey Says:

    NIH specifically reviews the start-up package before granting the R00 monies (upto ~$750k, total costs). They review the start up packages for the explicit purpose of avoiding crappy start-up packages for K99’ers.
    HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA….gasp, snort….
    (wipes eyes)
    seriously, TreeFish, given the unbelievable diversity of deals negotiated by hiring departments, the truism that each new hire is essentially a unique case, the spreading of KangaR00s across different subfields, etc, how on earth do you expect Program to legitimately make sure a new hire isn’t getting screwed?
    To what startup package standards would you refer? What level of detail would you investigate to insure that after initial review the new PI isn’t hit with the usual shenanigans departments and deans pull? What would you do about it if things change in Year 2 of the new hire?


  15. TreeFish Says:

    Yikes. I was quietly thinking that it was a bit naive of me to believe Steve Korn when he said that about reviews of start-up packages! He sounded adamant about it sticking up for K99’ers, but I think you rightfully point out the lack of comparison that Program will have.
    You can hear it on
    I guess I’ll just have to whine to my mentor, Program, hiring department, and Dean (in that order). Doesn’t sound promising, eh? Question then: if even this K99/R00 won’t deter the elders from screwing the young peeps, can we realistically expect the problem of underfunded young investigators to go away? It seems that the elders are always looking for a way to keep money for themselves at our expense; and that this pattern starts at the top (NIH) and trickles down (Dept).


  16. PhysioProf Says:

    Treefish, not all institutions are looking to low-ball start-up packages. There are those that adopt the (correct) attitude that it is stupid not to give a big enough start-up to enable the new PI a decent shot at reaching escape velocity.
    As a K99 holder, you have a good chance of competing for those kinds of positions when you enter the job market, if you have a good publication record.


  17. whimple Says:

    It isn’t in anyone’s interest to screw the new hires. However, if it reasonably takes $X for a doable startup package, and the new hire is coming in with $Y in portable funding, you’re not going to still get the full $X in institutional startup. You’ll get something between $(X-Y) and $X.
    TreeFish, I suggest an attitude adjustment on your part. You should know that in your new tenure-track position (should you ever get one), the opinions of your former postdoctoral advisor will be completely irrelevant. Complaining to the Dean by a new assistant professor is an almost guaranteed tenure denial (I’ve seen it happen) and I would be stunned if you could convince Program to intervene in any capacity on your behalf at your institution.


  18. juniorprof Says:

    While we’re talking about startups I thought I’d share some advice based on my recent experience (interviewing and obtaining tenure track position at an R1 University). I had a Fellowship and a Foundation grant (as PI) as a postdoc, but no portable funds.
    1) Be well prepared to negotiate. I was told negotiations started after the first interview, usually when you come back for your second interview but this is not how it went for me. Several interviewers wanted to know what my startup needs would be during first interviews. Luckily I was ready for this (thanks to some good advice from the postdoc mentor). I carried around a budget proposal with year by year details for a 4 year startup package and I got it out of the bag every time I was asked. I expected to be grilled on it, what actually happened was quite interesting… people generally gave me advice on unexpected details that I had not thought of. In other words, this plan helped me demonstrate that I was prepared and it also helped my recognize that I had advocates in departments that were willing to offer advice in unexpected ways.
    2) Demonstrate that you are prepared to start submitting grants. The next question after the budget discussion was always why do you need this money? I also had a R01-style grant ready to go and in my bag which would be the next thing to come out. No one ever asked for a copy or anything like that but it clearly had an effect. This also allowed me to show preliminary data that was not in my talk and explain methods in more detail by going to diagrams, etc.. It is very easy to explain your budget needs when you have an experimental plan right in your hands.
    3) Be completely honest about what you need and when you need it. Many new investigators need more money up front to get the equipment they need into the lab so they can start the work. This sounds obvious but not everyone will get it. During the negotiations be sure that your budget details fit the timeline of when you need things. My experience was that no one wanted to screw me on the funds but not everyone understood that I needed a substantial bolus up front. My goal was to make sure that people with hands on the purse strings understood this so that the Dean’s office would also understand.
    After negotiations, once you are in the new spot and spending money:
    1) Do not complain to the Dean! Do talk to the Dean! Someone, maybe the Dept chair, should facilitate your getting to know your Dean. If no one does, make sure it happens. Deans generally understand the financial problems everyone is having right now and many of them are under pressure themselves from above to make sure the money keeps flowing in. Let the Dean know who you are and let your enthusiasm for your new position shine through when you talk to him/her. Back it up by getting those grants out early and often. If the Dean knows who you are, chances are they will notice such things when they get reports from Deans of Research on submitted grants.
    2) Give talks within the University at every opportunity. Scientists are interested in new directions. One way to make your startup grow is to get those collaborations started. This doesn’t mean you should neglect your own research program because your most important obligation is to demonstrate that your lab is up and running and ready to produce. My experience has been that after I give my talks in different departments people come to me with new tools and/or directions that can help me achieve my aims. Often this has resulted in an invitation to use equipment to do new things, new equipment I don’t have to buy with new data to put into grants.
    3) There are people in your University who are counting on your success. Don’t ever be in the position where you need to explain what you’re doing. Tell people, enthusiastically, what your newest data is and which grant applications you’re working on before they ask. Seek advice to improve your applications and to demonstrate that you are generating interesting data. Be your own best advocate.
    That’s my experience based advice. DM and PP feel free to add on/tell me where I got it wrong.


  19. D Says:

    I just came across this and had to add a comment. Every Scientific Review Officer (SRO, we got a name change) I know, including myself, really like having assistant profs on our panels. Overall they are better at turning stuff in on time, are really excited to be asked, write excellent critiques and take the job very seriously. The major weakness with Assit. Profs is they hesitate to stand up to Dr. Famous.
    If you polled all of the NIH SROs you would probably get a large majority who want to use more Assit. Profs.
    I love it when a Dr. Famous critiques an experiment and yet hasn’t been at the bench for a decade or more. You know they asked their post-doc.
    These are, of course, generalizations and there are many excellent senior reviewers but……


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