NIH gets serious about the mouths-at-the-trough. Sortof.

June 6, 2016

The latest Open Mike blogpost from NIH Deputy Director for the OER, Mike Lauer, ventures into analysis of TheRealProblem at last.

The setup, in and of itself, is really good information.

We first looked at all research project grants (RPGs) funded between 2003 and 2015. For each year, we identified unique principal investigators who were named on at least one RPG award in that year. Figure 1 shows that the number of NIH-supported investigators has increased only slightly, and has remained fairly constant at about 27,500 over the past thirteen years.

Burn that one into your brain, people. There are about 27,500 unique PIs funded at any given time and this number has been rock steady for at least thirteen years. Sure, it is crazy-making stuff that they do not go back past the doubling interval to see what is really going on but hey, this is a significant improvement. At last the NIH is grappling with their enterprise by funded-investigators instead of funded-applications. This is a key addition and long, long overdue. I approve.

There are some related analyses from DataHound that lead into these considerations as well. I recommend you go back and read Longitudinal PI Analysis: Distributions, Mind the Gap and especially A longitudinal analysis of NIH R-Funded Investigators: 2006-2013. This latter one estimated a similar number of unique PIs but it also estimated the churn rate, that is, the number in each fiscal year that are new and the number who have left the funded-PI distribution (it was about 5,300 PIs per FY).

Back to Lauer’s post for the supplicant information that DataHound couldn’t get:

To determine how many unique researchers want to be funded, we identified unique applicants over 5-year windows. We chose to look at a multi-year window for two reasons: most research grants last for more than one year and most applicants submit applications over a period of time measured in years, not just 12 months, that may overlap with their periods of funding, if they are funded. Figure 2 shows our findings for applicants as well as awardees: the number of unique applicants has increased substantially, from about 60,000 investigators who had applied during the period from 1999 to 2003 to slightly less than 90,000 in who had applied during the period from 2011 to 2015.

The too-many-mouths problem is illustrated. Simply. Cleanly. We can speculate about various factors until the cows come home but this is IT.

Too Many Mouths At The Trough And Not Enough Slops.

The blogpost then goes on to calculate a Cumulative Investigator Rate which is basically how many PIs get funded over a 5 year interval out of those who wish to be funded. In 2003 it was 43% and this declined to 31% in 2015. This was for RPGs. If you limit to R01 only, the CIR goes from 45% to 34% over this interval of time. For R21s, the CIR was at 20% in 2003 and is down around 11% for 2015. Newsbreak: Funding rates for R21s are terrible, despite what you would imagine should be the case for this mechanism.

Now we get to the hard part. Having reviewed these data the person responsible for the entire Extramural Research enterprise of NIH boots the obvious. Hard. First, he tries to off load the responsibility by citing Kimble et al and Pickett et al. Then he basically endorses their red herring distractions (when it comes to this particular issue).

NIH leadership is currently engaged in efforts to explore which policies or policy options best assure efficient and sustainable funding given the current hypercompetitive environment. These efforts include funding opportunity announcements for R35 awards which focus on programs, rather than highly specific projects; new models for training graduate students and postdoctoral fellows; establishment of an office of workforce diversity;

Right? It’s right there in front of you, dude, and you can’t even say it as one of a list of possible suggestions.

We need to stop producing so many PhD scientists.

This is the obvious solution. It is the only thing that will have sustained and systematic effect, while retaining some thin vestige of decency towards the people who have already devoted years and decades to the NIH extramural enterprise.

Oh and don’t get me too wrong. From a personal perspective, clearly Lauer is not completely idiotic:

and even what we are doing here, namely drawing attention to numbers of unique investigators and applicants.

HAHAHHAHAHAAH. What a bureaucratic weasel. He sees it all right. He does. And he’s trying to wink it into the conversation without taking any responsibility whatsoever. I see you, man. I see you. Okay. I’ll take up the hard work for you.

We need to stop training so many PhDs. Now. Yesterday in fact. All of us. Stop pretending your high-falutin program gets to keep all their students and those inferior jerks, over there, need to close up shop. Significant reductions are called for.

Personally, I call for a complete moratorium on new PhD admits for 5 years.


126 Responses to “NIH gets serious about the mouths-at-the-trough. Sortof.”

  1. AwesomeSauce Says:

    “Personally, I call for a complete moratorium on new PhD admits for 5 years.”

    …Or a mandatory retirement age.


  2. DJMH Says:

    Did we at some point have a DataHound on proportion of grants that go to PIs over age say 65? I can’t find anything right now though.

    I’ll put my completely unconstitutional vote on “Stop giving new grants after the age of 66”. That lets people work til age 70 if they get a grant at age 65. I’d like to know how many grants that policy frees up.

    Taxes are already used to pay that group medicare and social security. Enough transferring wealth to them.

    Short version: Do it to Julia, where Julia = Boomers.


  3. MorganPhD Says:

    I’m torn. While I think that reducing the # of PhD students is a good call, I think the moratorium should be on soft money positions at medical schools. Require at least 50% hard $$$ salary support, and you’d end up with the same result (less mouths at the trough). Medical schools couldn’t support that, and they’d drop the dead weight (PI’s that are non-competitive for NIH grants).

    Why cull students who MIGHT be great at the game (science or NIH funding, you pick) when we have a pool of people are ARE already bad at it to cut.


  4. Adam Says:

    If we stop producing PhDs, how will we sustain the Profzi scheme necessary to actually perform the bench work?


  5. dnadrinker Says:

    DM, I’m not sure if you are at a PhD producing university, but the idea to cut admissions to zero is just completely ridiculous. The point of many research universities is to educate students/producing PhDs. If you cut the PhD’s, you might as well eliminate the PhD producing organizations. Your assumption that the only career track for a PhD is federally funded research is just wrong. PhDs existed long before federal funded research came to dominate research universities.

    Many different career tracks exist and PhD are produced in other fields in which there is no hope of federally funded research.

    The place to cut is at the postdoc level. NIH has complete control of postdocs through policies that set salaries.


  6. jipkin Says:

    I’ve never been clear on how such a moratorium would come about. Expecting it to happen voluntarily doesn’t seem likely. Does anyone have the numbers on how many grad students are supported by federal training grants vs federal research grants? (I was supported by both at different times).


  7. Dave Says:

    Ugh. What’s the point in going over this again? Nuffink changes.


  8. AcademicLurker Says:

    If you limit to R01 only, the CIR goes from 45% to 34% over this interval of time.

    This seems high to me. Do co-investigators count? That would make those numbers less surprising.


  9. dnadrinker Says:

    @DJMH, mandatory retirement was legal for academics until, i think, 1994, in the US. The current 65 years old crowd right now was 44 at the time.

    Think about that if you are a mid-career scientist right now. What would it be like if everyone in your field over 70 was retired and the NIH budget was scheduled to double over the next ten years or so.

    That’s what the over-65 crowd had to fight through to get where they are now. Would it be fair to cut them off?


  10. Emaderton3 Says:

    @ MorganPhD

    How do you decide a soft money person is dead weight though? I know top notch scientists that are nationally recognized that have had funding lapses. I struggled to get additional grants, but now I have two. Having said that, the salary thing is really an issue and is the thing that keeps me up at night all the time . . .

    @ dnadrinker
    Technically, NIH only sets postdoc salaries for NRSAs. I don’t think any university/medical center has to follow these numbers if funding a postdoc entirely off of a R01 or other federal grant. And given the recent labor law, I would argue the federal government is now ultimately (albeit indirectly) setting postdoc salaries . . .


  11. Universities shouldn’t have soft money PI positions. I agree with MorganPhD–PIs should get at least 50% of salary from their University. This will cut many mouths. PhDs can be used for other things–almost no scientific society reports high unemployment for PhDs in their field. Too many PhDs aren’t the problem. Too many PIs are.

    The non-biomed sciences have been flat for years and years, and while funding is very tight, there isn’t this existential crisis. There also aren’t many soft money PI positions.


  12. MorganPhD Says:

    I’m not saying we just randomly cull soft-money faculty. Rather, the NIH makes it HARDER for soft money faculty to obtain grants. The NIH would, in this scenario, make the consideration of salary support part of the review process (like we discussed last week on the blog, with regards to reviewers already considering things like “institutional support”). If you request more than X% of your salary, then you get dinged in scoring for “lack of institutional support” and it’s harder to get that grant.

    What about a J1 and F1 visa freeze for 5 years? That gives you part of the reduction in the pipeline AND it would make future President Trump happier.


  13. drugmonkey Says:

    I notice you all are proposing alternatives but not actually saying why my proposal is 1) bad and 2) not the most humane approach.


  14. baltogirl Says:

    In our University departments are shrinking. Less grant money= less indirects=no hiring =hurts prospective PIs, ie postdocs, who now have fewer prospects. Less indirects also means salaries are going down for those with lapsed funding= hurts existing PIs (not all of whom are boomers); two such folks have recently left our department for non-PI pastures. Fewer active labs mean we can take in fewer grad students, and I see this trend continuing downward. I will wager all of this is happening at many institutions across the country.

    Thus, the situation will eventually self-correct, but not without a lot of pain all around. We relied on soft money too much- and now it has gone away. I would not be surprised if the current amount of University salary support already averages 50% per department.


  15. drugmonkey Says:

    What you see as self-correction looks to me like impending catastrophic collapse.


  16. MorganPhD Says:

    Culling in the manner you propose IS bad for science although I think it is also the most humane.

    IMO, you are removing potential superstars from the scientific population with a hard cull of PhD students. My analogy is the NFL Draft. From the established players perspective (PI’s) it would be great if there weren’t 300 rookie players (GS and PDs) vying for their spot every year. Their jobs would be more secure, but the league (science) would miss out on superstar players that replace the mediocre ones.

    Your proposal is more humane because like the abortion debate, I’d rather not see children suffer if we don’t have the resources to take care of them when they are children or adults.


  17. baltogirl Says:

    I guess if you actually want more science done, as a nation and personally, it IS catastrophic. But I don’t think it will close schools. We will just slowly slip behind other countries in terms of scientific progress.
    I don’t see a sudden collapse though- I am curious as to why you say that?


  18. Some guy Says:

    I like this scheme only in that it will immediately hasten the retirement of the older crowd: no new PhD students will cause a serious disruption in the lab’s institutional memory that someone who hasn’t picked up a pipet in two decades is unlikely to fix. Meantime, all the midcareer people get to go back to the bench to keep the lights on. Many birds with one stone!


  19. drugmonkey Says:

    MPhd- the age issues with NFL and academic science are different enough to invalidate your analogy.


  20. drugmonkey Says:

    Nuffink changes.

    The NIH dep dir for OER finally grappling with the number of mouths at the trough is most certainly a change.


  21. MorganPhD Says:

    What age issues? I really don’t get it.

    PhD students aren’t to blame for the current grant problem; quite the opposite. PhD students allow more work to get done because of the low cost.

    The unintended consequences of the NIH budget doubling are to blame for the current grant crisis.


  22. dr24 Says:

    The reason a moratorium is BAD is that it unfairly penalizes brand new profs, unable to bring on new students for what they often are: cheap labor. Combine that with the fact that we are only now beginning to achieve parity in URM jr profs, and you’re adding another big hurdle to clear for people who’ve been shit on for centuries.


  23. Johnnie Says:

    Or maybe better inform graduate students that there are other careers out there. Possibly focus on other aspects of training in addition to technical skills and give them the resources to pursue other careers.


  24. Jonathan Badger Says:

    I was a soft-money non-biomedical scientist (environmental microbiology) for years before moving to the biomedical field. There’s no question that there are more soft money biomedical scientists than non-biomedical but that’s just because there are more biomedical scientists period. As a percentage I’m not sure there is really a difference though.


  25. MorganPhD Says:

    My proposals are some combination of 1) penalize PI’s who require soft money for salary support, 2) require a Master’s degree before PhD, and 3) reduce J1/F1 visa #’s.

    A strict PhD student moratorium wouldn’t solve the problem, as it’d take at least 5-10 years to get through the postdoc buffer, which would just continue to fill from non-US universities.


  26. DJMH Says:

    @dnadrinker, EXACTLY.

    But given that it will never be allowed to drop the axe on the Olds, I’d prefer to drop the axe on soft-money. This is a value of Julia that includes me, but I’d still vote for it.

    DM, I’m against the PhD moratorium because it disproportionately hurts young PIs and it cuts off education, which is not the direction we should be going in. Also, it wouldn’t actually help the mouths at the trough problem for another 10-15 years.


  27. Industry Scientist Says:

    There’s really only one solution: gladiatorial combat. It’s effective and entertaining. Plus, for quals, graduate students will have to defeat an existing postdoc champion to pass. Proceeds from arena admission can even go towards RO1 funding.


  28. Alex Says:

    Everyone needs to read Paula Stephan’s _How Economics Shapes Science_. DM is dead right about this. Labor markets are what they are, and they affect how things shake out.

    We need to decouple the production of new research from the production of new scientists. Obviously all scientists should be trained in an environment where they produce research, but that doesn’t mean that all research needs to be produced via the production of a new scientist.


  29. Ola Says:

    DM, my problem with the “shut the entry door” approach, is it’s not actually the ones trying to get in ththe door, who are doing all the NIH grant applying. Post-docs, generally, are not writing a shit ton of grants. The “too many mouths” line actually applies to the number of grant-writing-eligible faculty. It’s the former post-docs who “made it” to an actual faculty job but can’t snag that elusive first grant or turn their K into R.

    In my mind, a good thing to limit would be all those in between positions…. RAP, instructor, etc. How about NIH impose term limits (like they sort of do for postdocs) on those positions? 3 years as an RAP to prove you can make it, then the University has to pony up a real tenure track position. Only RAPs below the 3 year limit or those on the tenure track would be grant eligible. Hell, why not make it 2 years. If you have the ability to get a grant in that time, good for you. If not, step aside and let someone else have a go. If you’re a 6 years in Asst Prof, covering no salary, and your K award ran out 3 years ago, and your A1/A2/A1/A1 cycle has been going as long as you can remember, FFS get out of the system!

    By all means, let anyone who wants to get a PhD get one. Let anyone who wants a postdoc fellowship get one, but if the problem is number of people competing for grants, the cull needs to be those actual competitors, especially those who have been given a chance and failed!

    As data hound and you have blogged before, conversion rates for former K awardees are dismal (<1/3 IIRC). They're in limbo, can't get commitment from the Universities, can't get funded, and just need to frickin cut that shit out already and stop hoping something will change. Universities like having them around, because they teach a bit, soft money, low salary (relative to TT), etc. But they're clogging up the trough. I would say at least a third of the proposals I get for study section are NIs. Move all these folks over to staff scientist positions, who cannot submit grants, and the number of applicants will drop. And universities/PIs – quit giving these folks false hope by allowing them to continue to submit grants long after its clear they don't stand a chance.


  30. Grumble Says:

    DM, I disagree with your understanding of the academic labor market.

    You are asserting that the demand for grants is the result of an oversupply of PhD faculty applying for them, which is credible: pretty much the only way there could be such a huge an increase in number of applicants is that there are now a lot more faculty than before. The problem is that you are also asserting that the number of faculty seeking grants will decline if we slow or halt the production of PhDs. I think that’s nonsense.

    Why? Because colleges *want* faculty. What will happen if we stop producing PhDs? Colleges will get their faculty from abroad. Your proposal to stop producing PhDs would have to be coupled with severe limits on immigration of faculty-level scientists. That is silly.

    It makes much more sense to address the root cause, which is NOT that there are too many people getting PhDs. It is that colleges see lots of advantages to having their faculty mostly paid for by the NIH. Reduce their incentive to open up new faculty positions (by, for instance, capping the amount of salary the government will pay, or by reducing indirect cost rates) and the number of faculty (and applicants) will decline. As 6 million people already said in comments above mine.

    (Actually, the root cause is that Congress is full of assholes, but we all agree on that.)


  31. drugmonkey Says:

    I don’t get the “this hurts young faculty” argument. Expand?


  32. jmz4 Says:

    Agreed that the best way to reduce the suckling is to limit the amount of salary support. It both culls and reduces the incentives that create booms in faculty jobs in response to increased funding, which is the root problem.

    But those of you complaining about reduced grad school numbers as hurting young faculty should consider that you could hire, train and pay an undergrad for the same amount, or cheaper, and get an equivalent amount of work. Also, young faculty can do benchwork. This would be a return to form for science.

    Immigration is a much thornier issue. Over 50% of postdocs are foreign born. If you don’t have a solution to deal with them you can’t make much of a leak in the pipeline.


  33. jmz4 Says:

    It’s also rather discouraging to read the comments on the original blog post and realize the main thread is how more, smaller grants should be given out. That strikes me as people more concerned with their salary than with ensuring a scientific infrastructure that’s worth a damn.


  34. pablito Says:

    So, do those people proposing a moratorium on new PhDs, or a mandatory retirement age for established PIs, also think they would contribute more to science over the course of a career than any one of those shut out of the system?


  35. Morgan Price Says:

    I think NIH/NSF should be subsidizing the training of fewer grad students, but aren’t “hard-money” faculty paid out of tuition dollars? How many “tenured” faculty would be laid off under DM’s scheme? (Not that that’s a reason to oppose it.)


  36. JL Says:

    How about cutting salary support for those that are getting it already from hard money positions? Make all those working for NIH to actually spend all their time working for NIH. Hard money positions for those who want to teach. Soft money positions for those who want to do research full time.

    To those proposing to limit immigration; you are forgetting that receiving foreign scientists is also about denying them to other countries. The US lead in science is not only because it funds it well, but because it has been able to attract some of the top talent from elsewhere.


  37. Alfred Wallace Says:

    “To those proposing to limit immigration; you are forgetting that receiving foreign scientists is also about denying them to other countries. The US lead in science is not only because it funds it well, but because it has been able to attract some of the top talent from elsewhere.”

    this would be the challenge: to still attract top talent, but at the same time limit the total numbers: quality not quantity.

    I agree that any change in the career ecosystem (limiting Phds) but would probably have to be accompanied by adjustments to immigrating PDs as well.

    But regardless of how one wants to break the whole Ponzi scheme, at the end of the day the amount of science produced would go down, but I guess we can live with that.


  38. qaz Says:

    All of this “Do it to Julia” argument (and DM – that is all your “kill the young” argument is) belies the fact that we really don’t know the cause of this discrepancy. We know that there are too many people submitting for too few dollars, but we don’t know why.

    What I would like to see before we make any rash decisions (and killing the young is a very rash decision), I would like to know where the bend in the graph is. Has it always been like this (a slow growth in people applying (because populations grow) and a flat budget) or did something change? In the 1980s and 1990s, were the trends different? Extrapolating this graph earlier, the lines would cross in about 1995. Did they? Or is there a bend in the curve somewhere earlier?

    Was there an increase in PhD students? Did universities (and non-university research institutes) increase their soft-money researchers? Did universities increase their tenured faculty lines? We know from earlier NIH demographic studies that there is a big demographic bubble of baby boomers who have distorted numbers throughout the system as they grow older. Are they not retiring? Or is it actually a budget problem? Was the NIH budget growing in tandem with the growth in population until the early 2000s, when it suddenly went flat? (or started decreasing relative to inflation?) Is there actually no change in the proportion of scientists in the US population, but a decrease in the budget being allocated to science?

    Unless we know the cause, it is foolish to take drastic action. (And killing the young is a very drastic action. I am still shocked that you would pull the ladder up from beneath you to remove your younger competition. It is something you complained bitterly [and rightly] against the baby boomers when they did it to us.)

    In particular, DM, given that there is no evidence that there is an increase in the number of PhD students (certainly our neuroscience program has maintained the same rate for the last 30+ years – and the number of them who are happily employed doing some aspect of scientific research has been both high and constant over the years), I think you are using this problem as an excuse to beat your personal hobby horse, the reasons for which I still do not understand.


  39. Alfred Wallace Says:

    “What I would like to see before we make any rash decisions (and killing the young is a very rash decision), I would like to know where the bend in the graph is. Has it always been like this (a slow growth in people applying (because populations grow) and a flat budget) or did something change? In the 1980s and 1990s, were the trends different? Extrapolating this graph earlier, the lines would cross in about 1995. Did they? Or is there a bend in the curve somewhere earlier?”

    I have linked this blog post before and I’ll link it again because I think it shows nicely that there may be deeper structural issues at the root of the problem.

    Remember, in steady-state a PI trains in his or her lifetime on average 1 PhD student and 1 postdoc who advance to become PIs themselves.


  40. Philapodia Says:

    How is it that everyone is debating how cull ourselves rather than figure out how to grow the overall funding environment? We’re trying to do science in 2016 with funding levels from ~2001, which is ridiculous. We’re in a period in the history of science when new information/ideas are coming out at a dizzying pace, and we’re talking about how we need to take our bright young scientists out and put two in the back of their heads. Sad.

    How many of us actively write/badger our Congresscritters that this is a national economy problem and that you expect them to work to fix it? That the ROI from NIH funds into the economy is very high and that by not funding the biomedical research enterprise adequately that Congress has dropped the ball on trying to grow the economy? There needs to be a long-term (not just once!) sustained effort by all active researchers to call/write/meet with your senators and representatives and let them know you’re there and how what you’re doing is helping society, because if they don’t know who the hell you are then why would they do anything to help you? Don’t just sit back and let your University President /Provost/Dean do the work for you, get dirty and advocate for yourself.


  41. Grumble Says:

    @Alfred Wallace: The post you link to is VERY interesting. I’m going to paste the link again:

    Here’s the two sentence nutshell: scientific output doubles every 15 years, but the human population doubles every 50 years, which means that the proportion of scientists is growing. If allowed to continue, at some point every single human will be a scientist, but that is impossible, so therefore some factor is going to limit the growth of science and probably maintain the ratio of scientists to humans at some steady state.

    Those conclusions were drawn in 1963. The graph DM shows above tells us that the proportion of (faculty) scientists is *still* increasing despite the declining proportion of us who are getting grants. What is going to cause that curve to stop growing? If nothing changes – NIH budgets remain constant, Congress does nothing – at some point colleges are going to find that the costs of hiring new faculty outweigh the benefits. That will happen when it becomes apparent that the new faculty they’ve hired can’t get grants, so the investment in their startup funding was wasted. They will decide to invest whatever non-federal funds they have access to in other things than hiring new faculty. At that point, the growth curve will reach a steady state.

    The solution, if there is a problem, is to do nothing. The system will sort itself out and reach equilibrium. It will be painful, but the *only* thing that will ease the pain is more money for science.


  42. PaleoGould Says:

    at some point colleges are going to find that the costs of hiring new faculty outweigh the benefits. That will happen when it becomes apparent that the new faculty they’ve hired can’t get grants, so the investment in their startup funding was wasted. They will decide to invest whatever non-federal funds they have access to in other things than hiring new faculty

    Yup. I’m beginning to hear this reasoning on the grape vine at my mid tier not-quite-R2. DESPITE brand new shiny research building, it’s clear a number of the higher ups no longer view research faculty as a revenue generating investment.

    As for DM’s suggestion…. Limiting access to the Guild is a tried and true method of keeping prices for the guild members elevated. At the cost of limiting production by limiting supply of apprentices. And you’d essentially be kissing bye bye to any efforts to diversify the pipeline for 5 years. Worth it? I dunno.


  43. becca Says:

    5 years of no PhDs won’t even dent the current PD population.

    If we eliminate domestic PhD production, we still have to worry about MD production (though tuition debt is high enough most of them *have* to do at least some clinical work, there’s nothing particularly preventing institutions hiring oodles of them) and foreign PhD production (some of which are definitely better systems than ours, some of which are not). At the end of the day, there’s no practical way to decrease those groups. So although I don’t see anything wrong about a system totally composed of those subsets, it won’t solve too many mouths at the trough.


  44. Dave Says:

    @DM: what does a catastrophe look like?

    I think a lot of medical schools/clinical places have figured out how to use alternate revenue to support research, largely averting any major disaster for now. The biggest threat to this approach, of course, is changes in healthcare reimbursement/costs.

    The share of our budget coming from NIH grants is much much smaller now, but the balance sheet looks very good. It feels more stable too. That will disappoint a lot of people here given the makeup of our faculty.


  45. drugmonkey Says:

    qaz- interesting ploy. I have written a lot very directly about what has made me arrive at this as the most humane do-it-to-Julia solution available. The fact that you insinuate I must have hidden, inscrutable motives suggests that you don’t like it but can’t actually rebut the obvious. Hence, this attack on the messenger.

    The comment from AW identifies another alternative I can probably get behind- every PI gets to train one person to the PhD, lifetime. One.


  46. mH Says:

    I think the throttles should be progressive. PhD programs should be smaller, but there is a reasonably good demand for PhDs outside academia. A harder throttle should be placed on postdocs. There are far, far too many, and the marginal benefit of doing one in the non-academic research labor market is moderate to zero.

    The proximal cause of mouths at the trough is rent-seeking institutions who hire wantonly with no skin in the game of their hires’ success. Get grants or get out. Changing this institutional incentive would make by far the largest difference in regulating entry to the NIH applicant pool.


  47. jipkin Says:

    DM could you remind us how your proposed cull would be enacted?


  48. Emaderton3 Says:

    @ Dave

    While I agree medical schools can tap into alternative revenue streams, as you mentioned, those other funds are going to be significantly lower once the reimbursement model changes this coming fiscal year. I am wondering if they will have a shorter leash for those on soft money that are struggling.


  49. Microscientist Says:

    When I was in grad school around 2000, the grad students in my program actually recommended that we halt admissions for 1-2 years, as incoming students were having difficulty finding lab “homes” with available slots for students. And this was a HUGE cross department program with over 80 different labs potentially available. So everyone was full up and had all the students they wanted/could handle/afford etc. The response was one of horror of what this would do to the ranking of the program, and that it would mess with the NIH training grant. Can’t mess with the all important training grant!

    I’d also be interested in seeing how the graph breaks down in terms of MD applicants vs PhD applicants. Maybe it’s not really the PhDs, but that too many MDs are being told to try the research route?


  50. DNAdrinker Says:

    The idea of limiting PhDs really shows how narrow minded NIH funded researchers are.

    Do you really think the only career path for a PhD student is to be an NIH funded researcher? Look at just about any biotech/pharmaceutical company and it is filled with PhDs. Including at the upper levels of management. Patent attorney working on pharmaceutical patents almost universally have PhDs. Regulatory agencies are another typical landing spot for PhDs.

    One positive action that might come from this would be to broaden the education of PhDs. Currently their education all to often consists of an apprenticeship to become an NIH supported researcher.


  51. qaz Says:

    OK, DM. I will take on your “Do it to the grad students [Julia]”.

    I think you are very wrong that this is the correct Julia to do it to. I think you are very wrong that this is the right solution to the problem. And I think there are consequences that you do not seem to have thought through.

    I do not think you are being intentionally nefarious here. But I do think you are proposing to screw over a generation of scientists. It was unfair when the baby boomers did it to us. “They’re just new assistant professors. We have labs that are running. They’re just getting started. They can still go do other jobs. Do it to them before they get tenure.” So they pulled out the R29 and the FIRST grants and they introduced an NI program that mixed senior people without NIH grants in with junior people trying to learn the ropes. And they pulled the assistant professors from the study sections because they said “How dare an assistant professor judge my grant?” Destroying the next generation to save oneself was wrong then and it is wrong now.

    First, we know that most grad students are not going on to be new faculty. So the fact that we are training people with PhDs is irrelevant to the number of new faculty spots available. I think it is very important to have people with PhD level training, people who know how to think and deal with situations where there are no answers in the back of the book. The vast majority of PhD graduates have valued science-level jobs. So training grad students is a good thing in its own right.

    Second, we know that the faculty pipeline for the next decade is already in place. You are trying to solve a problem now by killing the babies that are going to come online in a decade or more. If you want to solve the problem by killing labs, place a moratorium on new professors. (Note: I do not think this is the right choice either, but it is MUCH more likely to solve the problem than stopping grad students in a decade.) Don’t forget that the big demographic bubble is going to be gone in a decade. The distribution of science funding is very likely to be very different in a decade.

    Third, stopping graduate student admissions is going to have a devastating effect on diversity. We know that diversity depends on giving students second and third chances. It depends on allowing grad schools to take chances on people who come from second-rate schools and from backgrounds that don’t necessarily come in knowing how to play the game. There is no way that the elite senior scientists are going to let their kids lose out on the opportunity. They will find a way, even if it means paying for graduate school, even if it means creating some other secret track for them. Maybe there will be fewer faculty candidates in a decade, but that number will not be zero. And the only ones left will be the rich elite students who have had the wheels greased for them.

    Fourth, I think that graduate students are important to the research itself. In my experience, graduate students shake labs up. They have new ideas. They like to find ways to connect labs from one to the other. They are willing to try new directions. In my experience, every breakthrough that my lab has had has come from a graduate student coming into my office and telling me something crazy, to which my reaction is “No way, you have to do these additional controls first.” The labs without graduate students are the ones that I see get stale, doing the same thing over and over again. Sure, postdocs could serve this role. But no grad students means no postdocs in five years.

    I think graduate students are a critical part of the scientific endeavor. I think that you have misjudged the problems with the system. And I think that graduate students are the wrong Julia to do it to. Moreover, I think it is fundamentally morally wrong in the same way it was when the baby boomers screwed us over.

    I don’t think you’re being nefarious. I think you’re wrong.


  52. Joe Says:

    How about requiring the universities to pay part of the stipend for students supported on federal grants? Then there would be a limit to the number of students that departments/universities would be willing to take.


  53. Grumble Says:

    “You are trying to solve a problem now by killing the babies that are going to come online in a decade or more”

    The King Herod Solution.


  54. jipkin Says:

    I am also curious to see what DM thinks about the immigration points made earlier. If by some magic wand US PhDs are halted for 5 years, what’s to stop foreign PhDs from filling the gaps?


  55. Evelyn Says:

    I’m curious, out of all of you mentioning all these amazing alternate careers for PhDs, how many have tried to get a job in an alternate career after a PhD? I went to a super fancy grad school, had a decent publication record, finished a post doc at another super fancy school in 3 years and wanted to find an alternate career. And I knocked on so many doors and tried so many things and everywhere I went was told “yes, but you don’t have any experience doing x, y, or z.” It was hell to find out after 8 years, that nothing I did counted as proper training. Yes, pharma hires PhDs, but those positions are just as competitive as TT positions and they usually want you to have some industry experience. I even did all sort of alternate career training – I took courses in business, writing, even freaking fundraising. I volunteered at a couple of our university offices – and come hiring time, none of it mattered. I ended up in a great career and love my current job, but getting here was hell and on top of it, if I had gotten a master’s and went into my career, I would be about two steps ahead of where I am now with probably an extra 20-30K in salary. So, please, before you start drumming this tune, talk to someone who already went down this path and realize how difficult it really is.


  56. fjordmaster Says:

    Lauer’s graph illustrates a problem for those of us competing for NIH funding, but it is not clear why this would be a problem for the NIH-funded scientific enterprise as a whole.

    One interpretation of this dataset could be that more ideas are competing for the same amount of money so overall we’re getting better research/$, which is a good thing for NIH. I have no idea if this is true and I think it would be very difficult to determine.

    The current system may be stressful for the participants, but is it worse than alternatives in terms of research output? My hunch is the NIH administrators don’t really believe they have a problem that requires corrective measures. Sure, they have to finally acknowledge the problems of their workforce and the NIH mission does take into account the development and maintenance of human scientific resources, but it does not guarantee individual careers. When NIH sees a steady decrease in applications, I think they will view that as a problem that requires an actual response.

    Personally, I’m on the side of doing nothing to alter the number of applicants. If forced to choose a mechanism, I think you need to make cuts right at the level of eligible applicants by forcing the submitting institutions to provide more financial support to eligible PIs.


  57. bacillus Says:

    @DNADrinker. There is absolutely no doubt that there are plenty of “alternative” careers for PhDs, hell tenured profs will soon about as alternative as you can get. However, the question then is whether the current format for the academic PhD is appropriate for these so called alternative careers? If not, then who in academia has the experience to train PhDs to be other than mini me’s. If the major employers of PhDs are no longer going to be academia or research institutes, perhaps we need to figure out whether the alternative employers would prefer an alternative product. Unless the plan is to just let those who don’t make it to TT drift away to survive as best they can on their own. Ideally, grad students should be instructed from day one that academia isn’t the only fruit, or even the best one.


  58. jmz4 Says:

    Yes, the Sith Rule. I like it.

    “How is it that everyone is debating how cull ourselves rather than figure out how to grow the overall funding environment?”
    -Because the current system is not stable. You can’t grow the NIH budget indefinitely. Even if it was pegged at 3% GDP, my guess is the growth rate of the US’s economy will not match up to the excess capacity of the system to produce mouths.

    The workforce issues need to be addressed before we can credibly and constructively ask for more money. Otherwise people will just ignore the problem for another 10 years and we’ll end up back where we started.

    I don’t agree with DM’s solution. I think there is utility to PhD training that is broadly applicable. I’m of the age where most of my cohort are leaving science. Not one of them that I’ve talked to regrets getting their PhD. Most of them regret their postdocs, specifically that they didn’t do more to prepare themselves for a non-academic job.

    The NIH needs to do more to exercise control over the size of the biomedical workforce and make sure it is proportional to their budget. The current hypercompetiveness is bad for the product they are paying for: accurate science that leads to disease treatments.
    A reasonable solution is to limit salary support for any trainee positions. Not just for PIs. This provides a counterbalancing force to increased NIH spending that will ensure the system does not generate excess capacity (too many mouths).


  59. EPJ Says:

    I think to make science sustainable you have to find the means to cover costs, needs, and the appeal or incentive to make it worthwhile for scientists and the general population.

    Since the current data shows too many PhDs/MDs relative to funds available for research, then maybe the number graduated could be spread across a wider time, or make it per timed waves that reflect federal or local funds available. But to keep the good value of science consistent the recruitment requirement for graduate education and work as TT/RAP/PI/PD/student should be modified, so that people truly interested should have a place in the system and funds for their work, but different from the present. It may even yield more coherent or usable science.

    I wonder how the number of faculty of different types compares to techs and administrative/secretary jobs, since some of those are funded by federal funds that in part comes from public taxes. The public will favor the worker that can earn fast, so that it can sustain consumers economy, over PhD/MD.

    But the research universities can develop small-mid enterprises linked to them that produce locally what other large companies are not going to produce, or right out of their continuous produce. That should add to sustainability for basic and applied research. Right now everything is centralized, so that is a challenge.


  60. aspiring riffraff Says:

    how about only 1 year of support for postdocs allowed on R01 grants? Would rapidly get rid of all PDs that can’t get their own funding, which is basically required for getting a TT job.


  61. Emaderton3 Says:

    @ Microscientist

    I am seeing the same thing where I am. The labs are “full” and only conservatively taking the number of students that they can actually pay for. New grad students don’t have much of a choice any more since no one is counting on getting that “next grant” that will continue paying for a graduate student.

    Perhaps we should just switch to using all techs and/or staff scientists? I only have a tech now, but it is getting old to have to present my own posters among a group of grad students and post-docs at various events . . .


  62. AreWeNotStillScientists? Says:


    If it will make you happy, I’ll throw my ancedata against yours. I got my PhD from a large state university, and post-doc’ed for two years at an ivy league before realizing I didn’t want to play the grant game for the rest of my life.

    I started looking into consulting positions because I read about them in an article on Science Mag’s website. I spent the last 3 months of my post-doc finishing off projects or setting them up for others to take over, and also completed three online courses that seemed relevant for the sorts of positions I was looking at. I applied to many consulting jobs, got two interviews, and 1 offer. I’ve lived happily ever after since, and do not regret one bit my scientific training. To the contrary, I use principles that I learned during grad school EVERY day in my job.

    As a scientist, that story isn’t really satisfying though, right? Because it’s an anecdote (like yours). Much more relevant:


  63. fjordmaster Says:

    Lauer’s graph illustrates a problem for those of us competing for NIH funding, but it is not clear why this would be a problem for the NIH-funded scientific enterprise as a whole.

    One interpretation of this dataset could be that more ideas are competing for the same amount of money so overall we’re getting better research/$, which is a good thing for NIH. I have no idea if this is true and I think it would be very difficult to determine.

    The current system may be stressful for the participants, but is it worse than alternatives in terms of research output? My hunch is the NIH administrators don’t really believe they have a problem that requires corrective measures. Sure, they have to finally acknowledge the problems of their workforce and the NIH mission does take into account the development and maintenance of human scientific resources, but it does not guarantee individual careers. When NIH sees a steady decrease in applications, I think they will view that as a problem that requires an actual response.

    Personally, I’m on the side of doing nothing to alter the number of applicants. If forced to choose a mechanism, I think you need to make cuts right at the level of eligible applicants by forcing the submitting institutions to provide more financial support to eligible PIs.


  64. jipkin Says:

    The argument is that funding stressors reduce time spent doing actual science, and publication/career stressors (tied to funding!) increase pressure to do high-impact science. Both are considered potentially deleterious to the quality of said science.


  65. drugmonkey Says:

    Trainees as status markers such that you don’t even have to present a poster Edmarderton3? Please tell me you are joking with this.


  66. drugmonkey Says:


    The struggle to stay funded depletes brain cycles that would otherwise be used to solve science things. This is one reason I draw attention to the in/out churn and the approximately-continually-funded issue.


  67. Craig Says:

    I agree with previous posters that grad schools shouldn’t be shuttered. Perhaps a controlled reduction in enrollment is called for, but PhDs are useful people to have outside of academia. It’s the postdoc holding pond that’s the elephant in the room. Reduce the number of postdocs in their holding pattern and people will be more competitive for non-academic jobs right out of graduate school.

    Also, when 2/3 of postdocs are foreign educated, why is domestic production of PhDs the problem and not importation? Wouldn’t it be more in the NIH’s interest to close the visa door a bit and maintain US PhD programs that they can actually exercise some control over?


  68. drugmonkey Says:

    Btw, panty twisters. I proposed a mere five years. Your hysteria about new ideas and PHDs in the wild etc is considerably misplaced. We already have a huge surplus. We can get by.

    Oh and qaz? Your intellectual vampirism is showing….


  69. fjordmaster Says:

    jipkin and drugmonkey,

    I agree with you on the detrimental effects of the current environment on research, although I did not make that clear in my comment. My larger point is that NIH administrators, and the people who advise them, may not view it as a problem that requires a response.

    I made a similar comment on the blog a couple of years ago, but the researchers that have the ear of NIH admin (Advisory Councils, Boards of Scientific Councilors, etc.) tend to be those winning big at the current game. The views of the riff-raff are not well represented.


  70. fjordmaster Says:

    Also, I think we should do nothing right now because I don’t know of a solution where I am comfortable with the side effects.


  71. jmz4 Says:

    A little good news for a depressing comment thread:

    But again, this money should be used for reform, not to just kick-off another bloat and crash cycle.


  72. drugmonkey Says:

    $2B ain’t gonna be a “bloat”. And anyway I suspect it will disappear into boondoggle places that fail to provide relief to us normals.


  73. jmz4 Says:

    Well, there’s the talk of making it 2B/year till they get back up to 2003 real levels.


  74. MorganPhD Says:

    I like the concept of the Janelia Farms model (the structure, not the funding, and whether or not it’s actually working like they envision). PI’s get small labs (2-4 trainees/employees) and are actually doing science. Travel is restricted to like 2 or 3 times/year.

    How much of the NIH budget goes to faculty effort that benefits the universities and/or training, but not directly scientific advances? Sitting in seminars, committee meetings, faculty meetings, travel to exotic locations (or boring ones) etc, are all being subsidized by the NIH. Stupid stupid stupid.

    That makes me wonder, what the heck to the NIH Intramural Investigators do all day? They don’t teach or write grants (in the traditional sense). Are they pipetting? Reading papers? I don’t get it.


  75. JL Says:

    Because NIH knows that it can get better science for the dollar by allowing international postdocs than by closing the door. It can get more selective when awarding grants, it can depress wages, and it can deprive the competitor countries of their scientists.
    This may hurt the US citizen postdocs and profs, but it’s a win for the NIH and for the corporations hiring PhDs at lower wages and commercializing the technologies developed with NIH money.
    Now, we will likely have the chance to see what a few years with Trumps closed borders and trade wars does.


  76. Grumble Says:

    “That makes me wonder, what the heck to the NIH Intramural Investigators do all day? They don’t teach or write grants (in the traditional sense). Are they pipetting? Reading papers? I don’t get it.”

    The fact that you had to ask this reveals how fucked up we’ve become. We can’t possibly imagine a faculty level scientist doing anything but sit in her office and slave away over grants anymore, can we?

    Maybe they are THINKING.

    Maybe they are DOING EXPERIMENTS.

    Maybe they are WRITING REVIEWS or books or book chapters.


  77. MorganPhD Says:

    Scientists are the modern-day Job. Leading blessed and wonderful lives, until the NIH Gods decide to punish/test us, leaving us feeling bewildered, upset, and searching for answers to why it all went wrong.


  78. thorazine Says:

    Maybe they are SURFING THE WEB.

    More seriously: what fraction of PhD students are being supported under T32? What fraction are being supported on PI R01’s (or other such fungible NIH-derived money)? What fraction are being supported by other sources of money entirely? If it’s in the best interest of the nation as a whole or of the NIH-funded research effort to control PhD numbers, does this entail root-and-branch restructuring of PhD student funding? If so, how, and why, and what are the costs of that effort?


  79. Grumble Says:

    “Maybe they are SURFING THE WEB.”

    In fact, that is precisely what I am doing now as a faculty-level scientist, and I don’t even work at the NIH IRP.

    But my motto is, all grants and no web surfing makes Grumble a dull boy.


  80. drugmonkey Says:

    Thorazine- cmon, dude. Use the googles.


  81. Ola Says:

    I’ll repeat what I said 40 or so comments ago…

    Who is IN the pool of mouths at the trough?
    – Is it grad students? – NO
    – Is it post-doc’s? – NO
    – Is it grant-eligible faculty – YES

    Any attempt to deal with glut of mouths has to involve culling of, you know, actual mouths. Not future mouths, not might be mouths, not wannabe mouths, but actual real mouths currently doing the feeding!

    Practically, this means shrinking faculty across the board…
    – Force the olds to retire
    – Fix the soft-money game for the middles (by placing mandatory limits on salary coverage from federal funds, thereby forcing Universities to actually pay for their people, and have a stake in hiring them).
    – Move the RAPs to non-grant-eligible staff scientist positions.

    The message that “you have <8% chance of becoming a professor" is not discouraging the trainees enough. Perhaps with these faculty cull methods, odds of <1% might finally force them to rethink their career choice.


  82. Grumble Says:

    Agree 100% with Ola. Even though the Julia that her proposal does it to is me (soft money faculty).


  83. Emaderton3 Says:

    @ DM

    Perhaps it is discipline or meeting dependent, but I have never seen PIs give posters at the local, regional, or national level unless they are literally brand new or the person that was supposed to give it could not make it. Just last week, I was at a symposium in which everyone assumed I was a post-doc because all poster presenters were considered trainees (grad students/post-docs). While on a bus heading back from an event at the last large national meeting I was at, the graduate students sitting behind me were going on and on at how pathetic it was to see PIs presenting their posters because it is not the norm.

    Perhaps it is just my ego getting in the way or the fact I wish I had minions to do the work which is typical but not in my situation.


  84. Emaderton3 Says:

    @ DM

    Perhaps more to the point and why this bothers me is that I feel as though I am not viewed as a “serious” or “successful” PI by my peers which is quite evident when they come talk to me and give me that suprised, “oh, this is work from your lab? You are the PI?”


  85. drugmonkey Says:

    I get a lot out of presenting posters and see PIs in my field doing it regularly, even if the majority of the time it is trainee-presented.


  86. Grumble Says:

    “I have never seen PIs give posters at the local, regional, or national level unless they are literally brand new or the person that was supposed to give it could not make it”

    I have. My former PI still presents posters at SfN. He’s getting old and out of shape, and brings a stool with him because he can’t stand for 4 hours.

    I used to enjoy presenting posters, but I don’t anymore not because of status issues, but because it’s a good experience for students and postdocs to meet people, explain their work, and get feedback.


  87. drugmonkey Says:

    1) you are thinking far too short sightedly
    2) a training moratorium is not the sufficient condition, never claimed it was


  88. EPJ Says:


    The people at the top and the administration must have a certain pressure to justify the pattern that over time has developed, and maybe there is not much they can do about it, because the problem is money to be spent that has to come from somewhere –> general budget which got to be tied to general economy

    Though science is actually justifying many types of jobs that count for employment numbers, the actual product is mostly educational and prestige, but there’s a limited value output in product numbers that add to the economy or commerce –>that also means money and economy

    Each year a certain amount of people graduate from more that graduate school, and each year another amount enters working age or want to have family –> they need work and earnings, and that should be good for the general economy and commerce and increase the well being of the population. But the opposite happens. So the money available, and the economic system must be restricted somewhere somehow. And there’s plenty of educated people as well as products already made (look around you at any store you go to), but most people have limited purchasing capacity even while working and earning money.

    So people with reasoning and analytical capacity should at least take a piercing look outside their fields to find out “the missing link of the puzzle”. Because all the infighting is damaging for everyone and just buy a short time of relief but it is not solving the causal problem–> add more medium to the large beaker containing a small quantity of cells in stationary phase.

    Just dedicate 15-30 mins to explore other fields/news about how the economic system is structured. There should be no limits to works and earnings for most people that want and can. But we come from a different tradition, that also includes monopoly.


  89. EPJ Says:

    My truly humble opinion:

    Expand the money available and fix the value and make participation wider, and change whatever parameters have been in place that led to the current human made bottle neck. Make value/quality count more so as to decrease the background noise, just as in experimental science.


  90. jipkin Says:

    DM do you have any reaction to the immigration issues that have been brought up multiple times in this thread?

    The argument goes something like this:

    (1) > 50% (maybe even 2/3) of existing postdocs in biomedical research have PhDs from foreign countries.
    (2) That’s plenty to fill up all the existing faculty jobs each year.
    (3) Your proposal to cull grad school admissions is therefore pointless since there would still be plenty of people with foreign PhDs to take faculty jobs at American universities and the mouths at the trough do not decrease.
    (4) In fact the removal of all US PhD students for that many years might simply result in an increase in the hiring of foreign postdocs to provide the missing labor.


  91. Luminiferous Aether Says:

    I am fully with Ola’s post at 10:50 am. Institutions need to stop going crazy recruiting new faculty without supporting at least a reasonably large percentage of their salary from non-federal funds. Perhaps even phase it in by stipulating an initial 25% mandatory coverage for a few years and then increasing it stepwise until it reaches a ceiling at 50%. That way the blow to institutional budgets and existing faculty is gradual, but sure to come, and people have enough advance warning and time to plan accordingly.

    That’s the quick(er) fix. The slow fix is what several people commented on earlier where institutions slowly begin to realize that their start-up gamble is not paying off anymore and that they need to stop hiring new faculty and cut their losses.


  92. baltogirl Says:

    Emaderton3, my lab has shrunk radically, and when there is no one to do it, I will certainly present posters myself rather than having no one do it. I get valuable interaction from other scientists. I am not taking valuable nutrients away from grad students because I have none.
    Ola, I agree with you that in the absence of increased funding, faculty numbers will have to shrink. But the boomers WILL eventually retire- they are starting now (buyouts would accelerate this); the early- and mid-career folks that do not get funding will go into other areas such as consulting or science policy; and the graduate student pool will also gradually shrink due to fewer labs and less support. We may return to the 1990s?

    The big difference being that the science budget will be a proportionately smaller part of the GDP…unless things change radically in Congress. Who knows, it may happen. The political situation today is unpredictable.

    In the meanwhile, next week I will be submitting my 13th proposal/revision in 3 years without a fundable score. Sisyphus, anyone?


  93. grumpy Says:

    To recap:

    Problem: too many mouths at the trough

    DM’s solution: Reduce the number of mouths

    My solution: make the trough less tasty.

    This is already happening naturally, but apparently not fast enough to halt the growth of new wannabe PIs. So if you want, you can institutionalize more dramatic solutions: less salary, less travel, even less job security, less freedom, etc.


  94. drugmonkey Says:

    jipkin- President Trump is going to take care of that.


  95. drugmonkey Says:

    25% is a gradual phase in? M’kay.


  96. Luminiferous Aether Says:

    Better than 50%! That was just an example. Start with whatever number looks suitable after proper analysis. *Gradual phase in* and *mandatory institutional support* are the main points of my comment.


  97. jmz4 Says:

    “jipkin- President Trump is going to take care of that.”
    -He’s actually in favor of expanding the H1b program (or was, last time he said anything about it).


  98. EPJ Says:

    foreign PD and students may be a form of PR, a science diplomacy approach.


  99. JL Says:

    Too many mouths at the trough can also be dealt with by reducing the amount each mouth gets.

    How about cutting Fringe and Benefit costs and/or indirects? A huge amount of the money is going to these things. These costs are way out of control, and faculty have no control over them. Cap indirects, or total amounts. Make it an actual benefit to be in a lower cost institution. The same amount that pays for 30% PI salary + fringe + indirects in a fancy coastal institution could cover 80% or more in the Midwest.

    The modular cap has actually meant a lot more money goes to some places than others. Let’s even that out, or consider total costs when scoring grants, or when choosing who to fund.


  100. jmz4 Says:

    “A huge amount of the money is going to these things. These costs are way out of control, and faculty have no control over them. ”

    While I suspect this is probably true, I have yet to see actual evidence of this, and know that Dean’s and such claim quite vociferously that indirect do not cover the actual cost of research.


  101. JL Says:

    jmz4, those two things are not opposites. Depending on how deans account for the actual cost of research, it is possible that the indirects do not cover them, and that they are excessive. Again, a reason to consider encouraging more research in less expensive parts of the country.

    I am for including total costs in grant reviews and decisions for funding.

    While we may not be able to avoid a cull, it may be possible to support a lot more people if they are in cheaper places.


  102. EPJ Says:

    Can anyone of you state what you think should be worthy of federal/state funding?

    Is it enough qualification to have a TT appointment? if so, what do you think should be the minimum requirement for that position?


  103. jmz4 Says:

    I don’t think its a “worth” issue. The problem with TT appointments without significant institutional support is that they have a tendency to bloat the system in response to increases in NIH funding, which sucks up any relief from increased budgets. We need to, at a minimum, reduce the growth in mouths at the trough.

    I think reducing soft-money positions is a good way to do this. It has 3 benefits. As mentioned, even if no one gets fired, it addresses the bloat problem. It will free up money to the amount of people that get their institution to cover a substantial portion of their salary. And yes, it will likely drive some labs and people out of science entirely, and screw over the current group of people looking for TT appointments (cause the market will be flooded with more experienced researchers).

    Olga says get RAPs (non-TT faculty) from applying. I’m not sure they’re successful enough to make a huge difference in success rates where it matters (i.e. with the people running labs).

    DM wants to cull early and hard. Most people have argued against it.

    Haven’t heard any detailed calls for how to directly reduce PDs, but that should be part of the solution as well.


  104. EPJ Says:


    I really think it is more of a money problem than the value of the work being done. My experience has been different, so I deduced from it the ‘money factor’ and indeed seems like that is what is driving the science programs and everything else due to a budget limitation that has been like such for decades.

    So science is no longer a field of free thought , plus the move into robotics would mean displacement of human workforce in almost any field that people holding the most money want. This is an unusually restrained situation, I know.

    So while working my butt off I used scientific thinking to arrive at premises to explain the oddities seen (comments above) and then tried learning from internet about how the economy goes, and found to my surprise that some science people, even from Ivy league Us, found it was quite weird/illogical. From that I even came up with suggestions/ideas to try and make it simple but functional without those adventurous crashes that just make so many problems, and no solutions for the majority.

    I think science administration just try to keep science and employment going, but it doesn’t look good. Unless the community breaks dependency of the budget constrains.

    Thanks again.


  105. drugmonkey Says:

    It’s interesting how everyone knows for sure the increased number of applicants comes from expanding soft money positions. How do we know it is not from Deans at traditionally less research intensive Us pressuring their hard money faculty to get some o dat tasty Government cheese?


  106. jmz4 Says:

    Good point. Generally the bulk of the increase of increase of applications is from new mouths, not needier mouths. There was a rock talk on it a while back:
    Paired with this one:
    Which shows an increase in institutions applying during the doubling, so we might guess that either hypothesis could be valid.

    Is there a way to get info on the % salary requested on grants, for the last 25 years? That should let us answer the question.


  107. EPJ Says:


    soft money people must be contributing essential information for the foundation of the research programs, and the hard money group and Deans build the infrastructure upon that, yes?

    Then comes the top layers (boards, new dpts, council/committees, etc) with the big chunk of what is needed to keep it up.


  108. drugmonkey Says:

    jmz4- how can you conclude “well could be either, not sure really” when you linked the data that bullseye the problem?


  109. Philapodia Says:

    “Olga says get RAPs (non-TT faculty) from applying. I’m not sure they’re successful enough to make a huge difference in success rates where it matters (i.e. with the people running labs).”

    Ah yes, soft money faculty. The favorite whipping boys of tenure track faculty. They’re just in it for the money and are taking it from those that really deserve it (us with tenure/tenure track positions). Bastards.

    Soft money faculty are just as (if not more) productive that TT faculty because they don’t have the institutional obligations that TT faculty do (you know, like teaching and shitte). They are also more honest with the time they charge to the university/NIH, since they are expected to do research and are getting paid by the NIH to do research. How many 9-month appointment TT faculty just do 3 months worth of research every year. Not too damn many. Seems to me that the Universities are subsidizing the government with TT faculty salaries just as much as Universities are sucking on the NIH teat.


  110. AcademicLurker Says:


    I’m not sure that soft money vs tenure track is the right distinction here. When I was at a private R1 medical school, all of the tenured and tenure track faculty were in soft money positions (>75% salary from external grants). My understanding is that that is normal at medical schools in the basic science departments.


  111. jmz4 Says:

    Maybe I’m misreading the posts, but all they say is new people at new institutions are applying. Those could be people/institutions with soft money positions or not, right? Is there any reason to think they are predominately hard money?
    Although now that I think about it, a glut of new soft money positions would have driven down that average age of first R01 statistic we keep hearing about. That doesn’t seem to have happened. So maybe you are right. This data should be available, and it would be important to have, since this argument is a common talking point.


  112. Drugmonkey Says:

    There are lots of truth talking points that are seriously questioned by data posted by Rockey, Berg or now Lauer. And yet people keep bleating them over and over and over. Because they just can’t rid themselves of their absolute certainty that they see the RealProblem and it is those guys, over there, who are ruining everything.


  113. Grumble Says:

    “How do we know it is not from Deans at traditionally less research intensive Us pressuring their hard money faculty to get some o dat tasty Government cheese?”

    Because when you are a tenured teaching faculty who doesn’t rely on grants, your natural and appropriate response to a Dean who tells you to go cheese hunting is, “fuck you.”

    Actually, you’re right that we don’t know where all these new applicants are coming from. What is likely to be true is that they arise from Deans coming up with ways of getting some o dat tasty Government cheese for their institutions. Which means that the way to slow the growth is to disincentivize Deans from doing that.


  114. MorganPhD Says:

    Been playing with R21 data.

    There were 2219 R21 grant years from 1998-2000, for 406 institutes.
    There were 12261 R21 grant years from 2013-2015, for 573 institutes.

    The “bottom” 439 institutes (76% of all) hold as many R21’s (2301) as the top 10 (2291, 1.7% of institutes).

    The top 20 institutes (defined by # of R21 years from 1998-2000) GAINED 2681 R21’s between 2013-2015 and 1998-2000. It would take ALL OF THE R21’s from 454 institutes to reach just the number gained by the top 20% over the past 15 years.

    But the problem is definitely not big institutions with soft money contracts. It’s the small schools on hard money sucking it all up. Totally.


  115. MorganPhD Says:

    The peer review system at the NIH was designed for a time when we had significantly less applicants. More people want to apply, so we need to redesign it to work more efficiently. Instead, the NIH blames the applicants (“just put in 1 good grant instead of 3 mediocre grants and that will be great”).


  116. Whoa–I got pointed to this old post (from when I was avoiding the Internet):

    OK, you biomed folks are producing too many PhDs. Holy cow! I fully admit my ignorance of the magnitude of the problem. In my little corner of the (more physical) science world, we don’t have such a monstrous mismatch between available jobs (not just academic) and PhD production.


  117. poke Says:


    What’s the evidence that there is a monstrous mismatch between the number of biomed PhDs and available (not just academic) jobs? Would love to see it.


  118. Well, there’s this:
    This data suggests that the unemployment rate for new PhDs in 2013 is 8.6% (data from 2013). This is a far cry from the 2.1% aggregate unemployment for PhDs.

    There is this:
    The Survey of Earned Doctorates says that 42.1% of life sciences PhDs have no work plans yet at graduation (data from 2014, but just released).

    New PhDs have to compete with the unemployed and underemployed from previous cohorts. Jobs nuked by the Great Recession have not really come back (from an NIH report on employment here: The number of PhDs awarded in the life sciences continues to grow each year. The NIH says that academia provides 43% of PhD positions in life sciences. If the number of such positions is falling, and the number of grads is rising, that seems like an increasing sort of problem.

    In contrast, for my field, the total number of PhDs awarded has been stagnant for years, and is about 7X the number of advertised TT positions outside of community colleges (I don’t know where to find that data–I am not sure how many new CC positions there are per year). Considering that there is fairly decent industry demand for PhDs in my field, and that 50-75% of students go into the PhD intending on a non-academic career, we definitely overproduce, but not to the same extent.


  119. drugmonkey Says:

    MorganPhD- so then you agree with me that all of these lesser institutions trying to get some o dat government cheese are taking grants away from the highly productive applicant institutions.


  120. MorganPhD Says:

    I refuse to define “highly productive applicant institutions” as “those with higher success in obtaining NIH grants”.

    We are still missing the data on success rate per applicant institution. That’s the single most fascinating number the NIH will not release.

    Are the “productive” institutes productive because they have a higher batting average or because they have more plate appearances?


  121. poke Says:

    The numbers on PhD employment quoted above aren’t as black and white as they have sometimes been presented. I’ve posted this link before, but here it is again:


  122. Grumble Says:

    @poke: Well, that’s interesting:

    “For those within 2 years of earning their Ph.D., it stood as low as 1.3% in 1999 and 2010, and reached a recent high of 3.4% in 2012, found an analysis by NORC for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland. Still, even that number means more than 96 out of 100 new Ph.D.s 
were employed.”

    Now, the only thing that keeps this data from blowing DM’s whole “we’re training too many PhDs and it’s TERRIBLE for them” argument right out of the water is the possibility that a lot of those 96 out of a hundred employed PhDs ended up with crappy jobs that they didn’t need a PhD for. I don’t claim to be an expert, but most of what I’ve heard suggests that isn’t the case. At least for job satisfaction, although being in academia results in higher satisfaction levels than being in industry or government, the difference isn’t huge.


  123. I’ve seen that article. For one, I call shenanigans on the author’s claim about the SED reaching all graduating PhDs with a 93% response rate. Even NORC (the ones contracted to do the survey) say they survey ~48000 new PhDs. If the author is going to nitpick other folks’ use of data, all their own ducks should be in a row. The author then goes on the say that dire warnings due to the 38.6% unemployment rate in 2014 are alarmist because the real rate is “only” 25.3%. I feel better about it already!

    Most of the scientific societies seem to agree that the unemployment rate for PhDs in their field is low (2-3%), and also that a substantial number of recent PhDs are underemployed. I don’t think a 5 year moratorium is the way to go, but we certainly don’t need to be increasing the number of PhDs awarded per year.


  124. […] and over, one of the issues, if not THE ISSUE, is too many mouths at the trough.  See here. and here. and here. (These are all good reads, and if you don't know them, they are also worth a minute or […]


  125. Slavic Says:

    “Move the RAPs to non-grant-eligible staff scientist positions.”

    A question to the US people:

    Why your staff scientists are not grant eligible?

    In Russia, for example, there are huge problems with most funding having been pulled away like 28 years ago, but you can apply for grants throughout all the ladder: even starting from a junior staff scientist (person with an MSc) –> (regular) staff scientist (typically with PhD) –> senior staff scientist –> leading staff scientist –> /Professor.

    And you can be a project/grant leader as a (regular) Staff Scientist.


  126. drugmonkey Says:

    Different Universities have different rules and many different job descriptions that are somewhere between postdoc and Professor. Sometimes the type of grants that can be sought are more constrained (compared with Professor rank) and sometimes not.


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