The NIH Director Talked to Congress About Scientific Inspiration

August 23, 2018

The Director of the NIH went to testify before Congress today and one of the tweets from the @NIH account summarized a point he was making thusly:

In case there is any trouble with the auto post of the tweet, it reads in part:

And, now, on to my favorite: Scientific Inspiration. I can assure you that researchers funded by #NIH come to work every day full of innovative ideas and the wherewithal to see those ideas through.

It is, of course, very likely true that on any given day of the year there are at least two researchers (he did use the plural) who come to work full of innovative ideas and the wherewithal to see those idea through. Given the size and scope of the NIH funding mission (let us assume he meant extramural, not just intramural, funding) this is statistically obvious.

What is not true, however, is the broader implication that all or even most researchers who are funded by NIH extramural grants have the wherewithal to see their many innovative ideas through. If this is what he conveyed, intentional or not, he misled Congress. I was going to say “lied to” but I really have no idea whether Francis Collins legitimately believes this false notion to be true or not.

The @NIH twitter also pointed out that Director Collins bragged how they were focusing on, and increasing, the number of funded young investigators:

In an environment where the NIH budget has been essentially flatlined since 2004 (with a resulting decrement in purchasing power, due to inflation) you cannot increase the number of funded investigators without decreasing the amount of grant funding each of the investigators enjoys, on average. As we know, the purchasing power of the full modular R01 (the workhorse award) has declined substantially, it is now something like 61% of what it was in 2000.

Ever increasing numbers of applications resulted in decreasing per-application success rates all through the 2000s. Data from the NIH website show that success rates of under 20% have been the reality for the past 7 years.

At last report from the NIH, most investigators held one or two major awards from the NIH at any one time. The reality of poor success rates has meant that maintaining consistent funding with one or two awards across time is very uncertain. Even the ability to competitively continue an existing award given reasonable progress has essentially disappeared. PIs have to put in competing continuations early and many of us realize that we have to have overlapping “new” awards on the same topic in order to have any decent chance of continuity of a research program.

The loss of funding can have dire consequences. It means technicians, students or postdocs may have to be let go. New staff cannot be brought on board until funding is re-acquired. There will be a significant delay until postdocs and graduate students can be recruited (up to 12 months is not unusual). And as Datahound analyzed, the cumulative probability of a lab regaining funding after a gap was 20% within 2 years (in 2012) and reached an asymptote of about 40% within 5-6 years in prior Fiscal Year data.

I have been around approximately continuously NIH grant funded PIs for about two decades now. I have engaged similar folks in online discussion for over a decade, broadening my experiences beyond my department and subfield.

It is simply not true that the majority of NIH funded scientists enjoy some sort of halcyon period where we all “come to work full of innovative ideas and the wherewithal to see those idea through”. Most of the time, we come to work fearful that we cannot maintain the wherewithal to keep the laboratory functioning in a minimally healthy way with reasonably good expectations for a continuously funded future for the duration of our careers. And we spend too much time strategizing about how to maintain the wherewithal.

Admittedly, it isn’t all terrible all the time. I would estimate something on the order of 20-25%ish of my time as a grant funded PI has indeed been great. I have had extended intervals of time in which I did have the wherewithal to come to work focused only on the scientific ideas I wanted to pursue. It is AWESOME to have these intervals. Really. I totally get it. I appreciate it. I love(d) these times.

But it is not the constant reality of the vast majority of NIH funded PIs that I talk to. It has not been my consistent reality.

The fact that the very head of the NIH does not seem to understand this is dismaying. It means that nothing will change. And, in fact, given his glee at creating yet more mouths at the trough this aspect of NIH funded science will continue to get worse under his Directorship.

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