Field of Science

On Screwing Over a Generation of Biomedical Researchers

We, the biomedical community in the United States, live in interesting times. Below is the funding dollars for NIH over the last couple of decades. I completed my Ph.D in 1998 about the time the historical trend line and actual funding line separate. This separation marks the 'doubling,' when Congress passed legislation to double NIH's budget over the course of 5 years. I completed my post-doctoral training and obtained an academic position at a top research university in the midst of the doubling. This was a time of great expansion and much hiring by universities and research institutes across the country. Along with the hiring came investment in new facilities to house and recruit the increased numbers of scientists. This was not an instantaneous process at all institutions, but those who did not expand missed out on this additional ~38 billion dollars of new resources. It was shortly after the doubling was completed that I obtained my first NIH R01 grant.
From Here
Since the doubling was completed, you'll notice there has been a steady decrease in funding every year through 2013. In fact, 2008 represents the year when the 'doubling' was essentially undone. As of 2008, NIH is funded less well than if it had simply not been doubled and kept on it's annual growth rate of 3.3%.

Remember all those universities and research institutions that hired and expanded in the early 2000s? Well now what do you think is happening to those researchers? Maybe we shouldn't care, I mean those institutions didn't have to expand. But this is a lousy argument in my opinion. Congress let it be known that they and by association the country cared about biomedical research (FYI: this was under a republican president). Of course the government also cares about the troops, at least when it comes to sending them overseas to fight. Once research institutions expanded and hired more scientists to make use of this additional funding, Congress changed its mind about caring. Kind of like support dries up when the troops come home. So we hired more scientists who also trained more researchers to help conduct the research. These trainees obtained PhD's and actually wanted jobs too (go figure). And the cycle continued over the short term. If you look at the number of PhD's awarded over time in the biomedical sciences, which is primarily funded by NIH, you see a large increase in the number awarded beginning around 2003. This is 5 years after the 'doubling' began, which is the average time to completion for a biomedical PhD.

The problem as you might have realized is that with the lag between the initiation of the doubling and the graduation time of PhD's, as the first round of PhD's arising from the increased funding during the doubling entered the workforce, the downturn began. Of course there was already 5 more years of researchers in the midst of their training. So we see a huge increase in the number of PhD's being conferred between 2003 and 2008, when ~8000 biomedical PhD's were conferred (remember there are ~24,000 more PhD students in years 1 - 4 still being trained).

So concomitant with reductions in funding, we were still churning out PhD's. Armchair quarterbacks will state the biomedical community should have planned for a decade plus contraction that reversed the NIH doubling and put us in a position where biomedical funding is comparatively worse than at any time in my life time. (I am not arguing absolute dollars are less, they are not, but for the number of scientists that were trained and put to work under this system, we are much much worse.) Of course if we could have predicted that, we could all fund our research programs by visiting Las Vegas every year. This would reduce a ton of paperwork.

At this point when I talk to undergraduates interested in graduate school in biomedical fields, I tell them about the problems and encourage them to think about what they want to be doing in 10 -15 years. If it's running their own labs or being in a science leadership position, then I ask if they would consider moving to a different country. They might have a chance elsewhere.

Birthday wishes

Alright, so today is my birthday. YAY me, I managed to survive another trip around the sun (despite what many Americans think). Not really a big accomplishment considering ~20,000,000 other people are alive world-wide that were born on this day at some point during the last 115 years. Similarly,  ~880,000 other people in the US were born on this day. Hell, I share a birthday with ~150 people in Greenland (Inuuinni Pilluarit! fellow birthdayers). The disconcerting thing to me is that tomorrow is the first anniversary of a set of major seizures I had, which basically destroyed all memory of last year's birthday and most of the surrounding few months. While there is no reason to consider tomorrow especially concerning, it does give me a reason to think about that event more than I have over the last few months. While this year has been an interesting one (with all the baggage associated with 'interesting'), it has also been an amazing one. First, I didn't die. Second, I have mostly recovered from the seizures (I think), although there are some issues associated with the medications I'm on or the psychological impact of knowing there's a potential bomb in my brain. Third, I met an amazing person who I thoroughly enjoy being with. Fourth, watching my son grow up. He's currently 12 with a standard deviation of ± 6 years, depending on the day. Fifth, I am actually generating some data, although given the current funding climate may be a waste of time. Regardless, I love learning new things about the world in which I live. Sixth, I am enjoying making beer and can brew some decent ones (although a solid blueberry ale has still escaped me). Seventh, I enjoy writing and am able to it again (broken hand), but hate that I have not done more with this blog since my brain blowing up. So this is a simple way to dip my toes back in the water. Hope to get a couple more papers out the door this year as well as some grant applications (waste of fucking time probably) and post some items at least a couple of times a month.

Birthday cake (hopefully cream cheese frosting)
If I get a cake with candles, my birthday wish for this year is to not almost fucking die again (included in the previous statements is to not successfully die either).