NIH Funding: It’s Personal, Cont'd

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

Many other researchers (via hello@) share their struggles with securing funding through the National Institutes of Health. Michael was caught in a Catch-22:

In response to Nora’s callout for stories about the effects of flat NIH funding: My project went through a period of about one year when my NIH grant was going through the renewal process, during which we had no funding because it just missed getting a fundable score when it was reviewed the first time, and I had to collect additional preliminary data that was requested by the reviewers. But this took longer than expected—or, one could argue, necessary—because, without funding, my lab staff was minimal. I also did not accept any new graduate students into the lab during that time due to the uncertainty.

The revised grant was funded, starting last December, but the lapse in continuity has meant we are barely back to full steam now, as I have had to hire and train new people. As Francis Collins, Director of the NIH has said, research is not like an assembly line that can just be shut down and restarted as necessary.

But I think there is another, just as important, force at play here: When Congress does not approve a budget before the start of the fiscal year, the NIH plays things very conservatively in terms of awarding grants that have been approved. So, if one’s application was scored close to the cutoff, one may not get the money until very late in the federal fiscal year when Congress finally acts. This again can lead to disruptive gaps.

David is also frustrated with a fickle Congress:

While a PhD student in 2008, I had the privilege of working at a prestigious and dynamic program, the Marine Biological Labs Physiology Course, where I worked on exciting new research with the leading cell biologists in the world. While there I discovered a new method of eukaryotic (mammalian and other high level organisms) cellular organization. It was amazing. It founded a new field of research. I earned my PhD in 2011 and had a postdoctoral position offer from my dream lab, an NIH group that was arguably the best cell imaging lab in the world. I was ecstatic!

But the position couldn’t be officially opened until Congress passed the new budget, and sure enough, that is when Congress decided to grandstand about whether they would pass a budget or not … and then shut down the government for an unknown amount of time.

Not knowing when I might actually be able to start working and get paid, and with a new baby to support, I had to take a different position. My career has never been the same. The lab I joined folded a year later due to lack of funds. I moved to another lab, where my sole job was to generate “preliminary data” for upcoming grant applications.

A year and a half later we finally got stable funding. At that point, 2.5 years out of my PhD, I was already running out of eligibility for fellowships—the lifeblood of postdocs and the prerequisite to even be considered for faculty positions. I earned a fellowship, but the 2.5 years of lost productivity and the lower tier lab I was working in closed the door on me earning an academic position.

Funding matters. Congress playing chicken with budgets cost me my career. Instead of using my experience, creativity, and 170+ IQ to prevent gastrointestinal pathogens from ravaging our citizens, now I am trying to figure out how to get a consulting company, scientific equipment sales, or project managing firm to read my resume so I can at least earn a “grown up” paycheck.

I am glad the students coming behind me might have a smoother time of it than I did, but I am both skeptical and cynical. My 5-year-old daughter loves science; her face lights up every time she calls herself a scientist … and I am trying to find a way to shift her interest elsewhere. So yes, funding is personal.

From Sarah, a scientist in Atlanta:

Indeed it is very personal. To have spent many long nights studying; to have sacrificed a decade of earning power to get advanced degrees and postdoc training; to have put off having biological children until it’s too late, or to have given up time with the children due to 80-hour workweeks; to have endured being thrown under the bus by much higher-paid university administrators; to having trained one’s own grad students and postdocs and watched them fail to get the academic position they had fervently hoped for; to have been embarrassed to teach your classes due to lack of time to prepare lectures with pending grant deadlines; to have written 20 grants for every one funded, and then have the funds cut by 30 percent; to have had to lay off highly-trained staff before funding finally arrives, and then when it does, to have to start all over building a research team, all for an end result of not being able to do the science we were trained to do and end up at age 60 being told we are useless if we cannot get the grants that pay >50 percent overhead for administrator’s salaries … you’re damn right it’s personal.

Does this nation really expect to regain our position as a world leader in R&D if it continues down this path? It’s already too late to rescue American science. We scientists QUIT.

Sean is sticking with it:

I am a PhD. Candidate at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I work in a lab that was funded until 2011. Since I started in the lab as a graduate student that year, our lab has not been funded by the NIH or any outside source despite showing evidence of being able to transdifferentiate mammalian cells from their normal cell type to a brown adipose tissue like cell. We have demonstrated this in both mouse and human cell lines. More interestingly, we have demonstrated that these cells stop dividing (including a human cancer cell line).

Besides various institutional grants and funds, the only funding we have managed to secure is a $500 grant from Sigma Xi. We want to do metabolic studies to see if these cells are behaving like brown adipose and we also want to use a virus to demonstrate this in mice and rats. Our method may be a novel way to treat obesity and cancer and yet we aren’t getting funded.

It is slowing down my ability to get data and graduate as a result and potentially harming my future career, but I don’t want to abandon my project, because I absolutely love what I’m researching and can see the potential benefits for humanity. I don’t want to abandon that just for career aspirations.

From a researcher who went through a rollercoaster of emotions:

A few years into my post-doc, our lab ran into a period where money was running very low and grants were not getting funded. (I should point out that I work for a small-ish, but well-established and well-regarded lab. In this climate, funding lulls happen to the best of the best.) When a couple of students graduated, they were not replaced, for lack of money.

Finally, in order to keep some minimal operations running, my PI had to lay off a post-doc and the lab manager. I stayed on because I had a fellowship supporting my salary. Without that, my career would likely have been completely derailed. Besides me, there was a grad student who was also on a fellowship, and no one else.

The grad student and I took over the workload of the lab manager. I had two advanced degrees and post-doctoral training, but spent a significant amount of time on tasks like taking out the garbage and mopping the floor. The grad student was also pulling some seriously long hours to help keep the lab running, but neither of us complained under those circumstances.

Lab morale was terrible, and I took a teaching job as a back-up option to research. Meanwhile, the laid off post-doc was not from the U.S., and without a job he lost his visa. He, his wife, and two kids all had to leave the country with almost no notice. My boss scraped together the money to pay for their plane tickets. It was the best he could do.

My boss, as many people in science, is thick-skinned and stoic, but I could tell that this situation hit home in a very personal way. Hell, I took it hard too; these were my friends and colleagues being laid off and I was seriously disillusioned about my own future in research.

But I think the boss feels an extra responsibility to his team of staff and trainees. Even if you know rationally that there are external factors (like the NIH budget) influencing your ability to bring money into the lab, it’s nearly impossible not to feel personally responsible when your people are underfunded or lose their jobs, their health insurance, their visas.

For me, this is the single most terrifying aspect of starting my new job: that other people’s jobs and career progression will depend on my ability to keep the lab funded. I don’t ever want to be in the position that my boss was in, even though it’s highly probable that at some point I will be.

It turned out that after surviving on peanuts for a few years, the continued efforts to secure funding for the lab paid off in the form of multiple grants being funded nearly at the same time. More post-docs and a new lab manager have been hired and now, paradoxically, we struggle to spend money fast enough.

So things are much better, but clearly this boom-and-bust cycle is incredibly inefficient for the science. We trained a whole new crop of personnel after firing people who were perfectly good at their jobs. It’s personally demoralizing for the PI and it’s potentially career altering for trainees getting laid off.

Thank you for taking an interest in this topic that many of us feel so strongly about! Ultimately, those of us who stay in biomedical science do so because we deeply believe that our research will serve society in a meaningful way. Funding levels for science have an impact on how well we can deliver on those beliefs, but there are also very human and personal effects of things that sound large and bureaucratic like the NIH budget.