Restructuring the NIH and its grant programs to ensure stable careers in science

It is an amazing time to do science, but an incredibly difficult time to be a scientist.

There is so much cool stuff going on. Everywhere I go – my lab, seminar visits, meetings, Twitter – there are biologists young and old are bursting with ideas, eager to take advantage of powerful new ways to observe, manipulate and understand the natural world.

But as palpable as the creative energy is, it is accompanied by an equally palpable sense of dread. We are in one of the worst periods of scientific funding I – and my more senior colleagues – can remember. People aren’t just worried about whether their next grant will get funded, they’re worried about whether a career in academic or public science is even viable (see Kate Clancy’s excellent post on the subject).

There seems to be a broad consensus among the leaders of our community, such as they are, that the solution is for Congress to give us (them) more money. I get emails or calls every few days urging me to contact my senators and representatives to urge them to increase the NIH budget. While I am, in the abstract, in favor of more money for research, if I were in Congress and Francis Collins came to me asking for more money, I’d say “I’m happy to bolster our support for scientific research, but we’re not giving you another single dime until you get your s**t together and stop using the taxpayer’s money to patch over bad decisions and bad policies.”

There are so many things wrong with the NIH today, I could write a book. It’s become an immense, bloated bureaucracy that’s lost sight of its central missions. If it were up to me I’d break it up – turning NIH intramural research into a stand alone entity and creating a separate Institute for Basic Biomedical Research charged allocating funds currently under NIH control to support outstanding and innovative research and to ensure that stable training and career paths exists for American scientists.

This latter issue is the one I want to focus on here. Despite all the challenges of the moment, a lot of outstanding work is getting funded. The problem is, outstanding science needs outstanding scientists. And a lot of outstanding scientists, especially young ones, are leaving academia, unwilling to spend their lives chasing – and in all likelihood not getting – grants.

If I were put in charge of this new institute (or the existing one for that matter) I would devote a large fraction of my budget (I think $10b a year would be a good start) to a “career” award program (not to be confused with the NSF’s CAREER awards).

I would put ~$1b into a pool for young investigator awards. These would be somewhat like current K-99s, in that they would primarily awarded to senior postdocs. These would provide modest startup funds and research support of ~$150k/year for six years – allowing researchers to establish their independent research programs without having to worry about grants. There would be a lot of these – on the order of 1,000 per year. These grants – which would be allocated on the basis of a “people not projects” review, and in all likelihood universities would compete to recruit soon to be independent scientists with these awards.

Recipients of these awards would be evaluated after five years in much the same way people go through tenure reviews today. The purpose of the review would be to assess the researchers contributions to the field and potential for further success. Some would fail to advance, others would be placed in to one of five tiers, representing annual support of between $100,000 (tier 1) and $500,000 (tier 5) – most would be in tier 2 or 3. Every three years research in the career system would be evaluated, with the result of an assessment of their work leading to then either staying in the same tier or moving up or down at most one tier. The total number of people in each tier would be fixed.

I will confess this idea was heavily influenced by the way European soccer leagues operate. At the end of every year, the top teams in each league are promoted to the next higher league, the bottom teams are relegated to a lower division. The system provides a clear opportunity for advancement, but buffers declines – people would only lose their funding after a prolonged period of poor performance, rather than precipitously as happens in the current system if grants do not get renewed.

I estimate that this would cost around $7b/year including overhead. The remaining $3b would support a pool of ~4,500 postdoctoral fellowships and ~12,000 graduate fellowships for trainees to work in career scientists labs. These numbers were meant to provide a pool of 1,500 rising faculty candidates and 2,000 new Ph.D.’s every year, my estimate of what it would take to continually replentish the system.

The $2b left would support a robust equipment grant program for career scientists, including core facilities at institutions with appropriate numbers of career researchers. If the powers that be decide we need more (or fewer) scientists, you scale the whole system by adding or subtracting slots in proportion to available funds.

The $10b was specifically meant not to take the entire NIH extramural budget, but to leave room to fund specific projects, especially high-risk/high reward ones from either career or other labs.

The main goals here are to separate the two crucial function of our granting systems: 1) to fund cutting edge science, and 2) to support a robust scientific infrastructure by providing stable careers to our successful scientists. As I’ve said before, (1) requires (2), but one of the most significant pathologies of our current system is that we mix the two together. In order to support their ongoing research operations, scientists are compelled to dream up “innovative” new projects that can sell in study sections, but often don’t make sense in the real world, while at the same time avoiding truly innovative projects for fear they will be penalized. If labs have a separate mechanism to ensure their financial stability, they will both have more bandwidth to dream up and implement new projects, and the freedom to aim for the stars without worrying they will end up on the street.

I’m sure there are a lot of things I haven’t thought about here, and countless details that need to be dealt with. And I’m equally sure that a lot of people will hate this proposal. But I wanted to put this on the table and open it up for discussion, because the one thing we can not do is nothing. We are dangerously close to losing a generation – or many generations – of scientists. Let’s figure out how not to let this happen.


Addenda: Commenter Jonathan below misunderstood the number of people who would be supported under this system. This was not meant to be an exclusive program. I based my numbers of ~1,000 PIs enter the system per year, with a steady state number probably around 15-20,000. This was a back of the envelope calculation taken from the current size of the NIH grantee and trainee pools. The idea was to stably support a pool of scientists roughly the same size as the current NIH grantee pool, with the PIs trading a more stable funding situation in exchange for lower average levels of support.

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