Reporter's Notebook

Is the Long Hard Road to Academia Worth It?
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Our discussion began with readers venting their frustrations over securing funds through the National Institutes of Health. The reader thread evolved to center on the question, “Is a Ph.D. worth it anymore?”

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Researchers Vent Over NIH Funding

Last month, I posted a callout for biomedical researchers to vent a little. Over the course of my reporting on funding at the National Institutes of Health—the world’s biggest source of biomedical research money—I’d heard from scientists in interviews, in the Atlantic comments section, and on social media about how lackluster funding at the agency crumples careers and hampers scientific progress.

But lay people—myself included, once upon a time—might not know why that is. So I asked researchers for more first-person details: How does the agency’s funding, which was flat for more than a decade before last year, trickle down to their labs? And why do they take funding so personally?

Before the agency received a $2 billion bump in funding last year, budgets had been flat for more than a decade. In fiscal-year 2017, the NIH looks poised for another increase: A House subcommittee just approved a $1.25 billion boost at a meeting Thursday, and last month, Senate appropriators signed off on a $2 billion increase.

In response to my reader callout, a researcher at a Midwestern medical center, Prachee Avasthi, emailed a helpful summary describing how funding directly translates to quality of life in a research lab. She called my question confusing, because funding is “not just personal; it’s everything”:

“Finally there is hope.” That’s what Harvard psychiatrist Jordan Smoller wrote on Twitter earlier this year in reaction to a story I penned about a funding increase for the National Institutes of Health. Congress, with enthusiastic bipartisan support, had added $2 billion to the agency’s budget for 2016. It came after more than a decade of flat funding. Lawmakers hadn’t made the NIH a top priority since the late 1990s and early 2000s—and there were consequences. As I reported last year:  

When the NIH struggles, biomedical scientists at universities all over the country don’t see even their best grants getting funded. When those grants aren’t funded, researchers pinch pennies in the lab, cut down on staff, or, in some cases, leave science altogether. Heather Duffy, a former assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said she never would’ve left the biomedical research field if the grant-funding climate were better. After crafting 18 different grants one year to appeal to peer reviewers, she had the realization that she wasn’t “even doing science anymore,” and left in 2012.

In 2015, though, things started to change; one research advocate told me lawmakers were reacting to the “steady drumbeat of loss of life.” And Smoller was not the only scientist (or lay supporter of science) to react the way he did as the funding bump materialized and then actually passed Congress. In The Atlantic’s comments sections and on social media, for example, researchers and their allies responded with gratification, with aspiration for more money to come, and with reflections on their frustration with the previously sluggish funding. Here’s one reader: