Researchers Vent Over NIH Funding

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

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”:

ALL the funds to do research (all equipment, personnel salary, consumable costs, publication costs, conference costs etc) are 100% funded by external grants (largely federal NIH/[National Science Foundation] grants). The amount of money budgeted by the federal government for the NSF and NIH has everything to do with what percentage of grants get funded.

When funding stagnates, good (even great) grants don’t get funded. So federal funding almost entirely pays for the research that expands our fundamental understanding of the world around us. Federal funding almost entirely pays for the research that expands our fundamental understanding of diseases that kill our loved ones. And less funding cuts short some outstanding chances for advancing both of those efforts.

Prachee, who’s completing her first year in a tenure-track position, also explains how the employees running experiments in her lab depend on her pursuing grant money, all while she’s “teaching courses and directing the research of a full lab.” And she depends on those employees to “collect the data to publish papers required to get the grants that will keep all those people employed.” Her employer gives her money for three years to fund her lab, because “my department has acknowledged it’s really hard to get federal grant money.” If she hasn’t secured money from the NIH or other sources when that money runs out, she’ll need to start firing people.

Prachee then paints a dire portrait of what happens to researchers and their livelihoods when science doesn’t get funded:

There’s tons of competition for less money to go around, so everything we’ve worked our entire lives for … all the young students and trainees who put their faith in us to secure funding for them so they can continue to pursue their careers … all the ideas that could have lead to major advancements in disease therapies … all of that is at the mercy of the funding level.

Sometimes, researchers who’ve spent years building their careers decide the funding environment is too difficult to carry on with their work. Like this one:

There has been a lot of anxiety in biomedical science in recent years about this situation, and how a whole generation of (potentially groundbreaking) researchers are turning away from the field because of it. I know I did.

So did this reader, Mary Ellen Lane, “one of the biomedical scientists who didn’t survive the flat funding”:

I got my first R01 [Research Project Grant from NIH] in 2004, but I didn’t earn tenure in 2009, before I had a chance to renew (or not?). I decided to leave science because I could not see starting over in that climate.

I’m more than fine now; I have a great job, a happy life, and make more money now with perhaps a little less effort—a little. But I think I have a pretty good perspective on the changes and what they mean. I direct Academic Affairs in a fairly large biomedical PhD program, and I see how different my students’ lives are compared to mine in grad school in the early ‘90s. We never thought about PI [principal investigator] funding, but for my students, it is an ever-present stress that directly impacts their lives.

Here’s one more reader for now, Amanda, who is considering switching careers:

I don’t know where to begin this email. The NIH increase [in June] is too little too late for most postdocs. We need multiple years of funding increases to stay with inflation and to entice the brightest minds to solve some of society’s biggest challenges.

I’m a fifth-year postdoc at Harvard Medical School, one of the top research institutes in the country. Yet the mood with other postdocs—the future researchers of the country—is quite grim. Poor NIH funding has meant that academic research positions are scarce, with hundreds of applicants for every job listed. After seeing established scientists whose work I respect close up shop, and peers with multiple Cell/Science/Nature papers struggle to find jobs, it seems time to reassess career paths.

Just look at the employment statistics for science PhDs: More and more are leaving for jobs in industry that pay you what you’re worth. (Try living in an expensive city like Boston on NIH postdoc salary.) Many are leaving research altogether or moving to a different country where funding is better. Why do we as a society want the best and the brightest scientists in law or consulting working in other countries entirely?

More of your stories soon.