For starters, because the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) funding process has become so protracted and tedious, academic scientists spend too much time worrying about money— thinking about grants, reviewing grants, and finally, managing and administering their active grants in the lab. And all of that is time not spent actually doing cancer research. There’s also, according to Leaf, a mental cost for scientists, in the “hovering uncertainty” that follows even the most seasoned investigators “with stellar resumes and long histories of grant success” when it comes to the future of their work and their laboratories. For example, while the NIH’s budget doubled during the Clinton years, grant applications also doubled, rising from 24,000 in 1998 to nearly 50,000 in 2007, meaning the field was just as competitive from the researcher’s point of view.
“If you are a midcareer investigator,” explained Dr. Otis Brawley, the chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society, “you spend up to half of your time trying to get funding. And that’s a real problem.”
It makes sense for businesses and non-profits to invest significant amounts of time in funding. But academic cancer research is about fighting a disease, not turning a profit or sustaining a charitable mission. We would never, for instance, expect a fire or police department to spend half its time pitching the government for funding—while still fighting fires and saving lives— just to keep its doors open.
To make matter worse, according to Brawley, chances are, the scientists who think outside of the established paradigm aren’t going to get money. As he puts it, the NIH and National Cancer Institute (NCI) are currently “in the business of risk avoidance.”
“The pipeline, or percentage of projects funded, is [less than] 9 percent by the end of this fiscal year for the NIH and NCI, meaning researchers have less than a 1 out of 10 shot at getting their grant proposal through,” Brawley said. And nobody wants to be accused of taking a big risk and losing. So they end up funding the 9 or 10 percent [of projects] that they know are going to end up being successful.”
And those lucky 9 or 10 percent of scientists usually can’t establish independence until sometime in their forties— a problem, Leaf says, “because once you have the freedom and the money to take big risks, you’re likely past your creative prime.” Drawing on the idea that scientists in their twenties and thirties may be the most innovative Leaf argues that too many promising scientists spend their best years in “post-doc purgatory,” trying to get tenure track positions.
“My counterparts in law are already partners and my peers from business school are already CEO’s,” said Dr. E. Ray Dorsey, a 41-year old professor of neurology at the University of Rochester, who also has an MBA in health care management from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and spent two years at consulting firm McKinsey & Company before his medical residency. Current research funding, he believes, is a terrible economic model. “The best and brightest people either choose not to enter the field of academic research or they can’t stay because of funding issues, so you have more and more scientists leaving for industry, Wall Street, or consulting.”