Popular thought. But it is nonsense.

A close collaborator was recently experiencing this common denial trope from one of the more established type of scientists. The thinking is that

“…sure, things are tough for younger scientists right now but hey, things have been tough before. It’s all just a cycle and oh, stop complaining kiddos. We had it hard too.”

Here is why it is in error to argue this- the magnitude of the downturn was lesser and it lasted for a shorter duration in those prior “cycles”. Let us refer to the infamous Undoubling graph.

Heinig07-NIHbudget-trend.jpeg.jpg

Figure 1. NIH Appropriations (Adjusted for Inflation in Biomedical Research) from 1965 through 2007, the President’s Request for 2008, and Projected Historical Trends through 2010.
All values have been adjusted according to the Biomedical Research and Development Price Index on the basis of a standard set of relevant goods and services (with 1998 as the base year). The trend line indicates average real annual growth between fiscal years 1971 and 1998 (3.34%), with projected growth (dashed line) at the same rate. The red square indicates the president’s proposed NIH budget for fiscal year 2008, also adjusted for inflation in biomedical research.

The previous downturns in the NIH funding (and you can verify the scientist complaining by looking through old Science magazines, btw) occurred approximately in the late 1960s, the early 1980s* and the early 1990s. I happened to join this career path right around the 1990s downturn and I remember the whining about grant funding quite clearly. That 1990s downturn was what led to the infamous NIH Doubling. The late 1960s downturn led to Congressional action as well. In both cases you can see where the lapse in Congressional interest led to the following episode of downturn. It is here that we should also review the subsequent update on the Undoubling graph, the even more sinister Defunding Graph.
NIHBudget-MAW-edit-497x400
Via Michael White, presumably via John F Sargent, Jr.

It should be emphatically clear to even the casual observer that the magnitude of the decline in the NIH budget and the duration of the downturn prior to the next Congressional rescue differs. Dramatically. Make sure you check the corresponding longitudinal trends in grant success rates. In case you are wondering about the most recent numbers, according to Sally Rockey, the overall RPG success rates for FY 2012-2014 are 17.6%, 16.8% and 18.1%, respectively. Things are most emphatically not good for the kids these days.

These are the facts. We can argue until the cows come home over how and why various up and down cycles have occurred. We can dispute whether Congressional appropriations intended to rescue the NIH extramural community do harm, good, a balance of the two and what this means for the future.

It is not optional, however, to act like the present downturn is of the same magnitude or impact as the prior ones.
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*”I remember multiple study section rounds in which nothing ended up getting funded” –a senior colleague

Another key bit of information to which I frequently refer when describing generational privilege is depicted in this video from the NIH.

Facts matter.

Our recent discussion of topics related to the Emeritus Award being considered by the NIH powers that be has been robust. I, of course, have been reminding one of the target demographic scientists that she and her generation have had a pretty good run under the NIH system. It seemed like a good moment to remind everyone that there are data upon which to base our understanding of how difficult it has and has not been for various scientific generations. Time to repost an older blog entry.

This was first posted 11 July 2012.


Thanks to a query from a reader off the blog and a resulting request from me, our blog-friend microfool pointed us to some data. Since I don’t like Tables, and the figure on the excel file stinks, here is a different graphical depiction:

The red trace depicts success rates from 1962 to 2008 for R01 equivalents (R01, R23, R29, R37). Note that they are not broken down by experienced/new investigators status, nor are new applications distinguished from competing continuation applications. The blue line shows total number of applications reviewed…which may or may not be of interest to you. [update 7/12/12: I forgot to mention that the data in the 60s are listed as “estimated” success rates.]

The bottom line here is that looking at the actual numbers can be handy when playing the latest round of “We had it tougher than you did” at the w(h)ine and cheese hour after departmental seminar. Success rates end at an unusually low point…and these numbers stop in 2008. We’re seeing 15% for R01s (only) in FY2011.

Things are worse than they’ve ever been and these dismal patterns have bee sustained for much longer. If we look at the ~30% success rates that ruled the day from 1980-2003, the divergence from the trend from about 1989 to 1996 was interrupted in the middle and, of course, saw steady improvement in the latter half. The badness that started in FY2004 has been 8 unrelieved Fiscal Years and shows no sign of abatement. Plus, the nadir (to date) is much lower.

Anyone who tries to tell you they had it as hard or harder at any time in the past versus now is high as a kite. Period.

Now, of course, it IS true that someone may have had it more difficult in the past than they do now, simply because it has always been harder for the inexperienced PIs to win their funding.

RPGsuccessbyYear.png
source
As we know from prior posts, career-stage differences matter a LOT. In the 80s when the overall success rate was 30%, you can see that newcomers were at about 20% and established investigators were enjoying at least a 17%age point advantage (I think these data also conflate competing continuation with new applications so there’s another important factor buried in the “Experienced” trace.) Nevertheless, since the Experienced/New gap was similar from 1980 to 2006, we can probably assume it held true prior to that interval as well.