NIH Funding: It’s Personal

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

“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:

I worked in a lab during the NIH boom and bust of 2009-2014. We were forced to spend the grant money in a single year and the result was buying lots of fancy equipment one year with no budget to buy even gloves or petri dishes the next year. No private company would spend 100% of its investor’s money in the first year, so why do we require this of the [NIH-funded] labs?

In the coming months, these scientists might have more to say: On Tuesday, a Senate panel approved another $2 billion increase for fiscal-year 2017, as lawmakers try to establish a predictable pattern of funding. Researchers might once again cheer the news or, as one reader tweeted this week, feel it’s all “still [too] little, too late to rescue some careers.”

What isn’t likely to change is how personally some researchers take the funding issue. And we want to hear from you science folks out there about why that is: How did those years of flat funding affect you or your colleagues, if at all? Have you even noticed the 2016 increase? And what would more funding mean to you? Please drop us a note at