Budget Doubling Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

July 26th, 2008

Posted by: admin

For some, this will be old news, as data like this has been available for a few years. For others, read and take heed as the physical sciences stagger toward a doubling of their federal research budgets.

In what might be described as the only success of the science and technology advocacy communities in the post-Cold War period, the budget of the National Institutes of Health was doubled during the last part of the Clinton Administration and ending during the first years of the current Bush Administration. What was greeting with huzzahs and kudos a few years ago has left a sour aftertaste in the mouth of many, in part because a doubling path was not sustainable, and nobody planned for it.

Some of the sobering details, taken from the latest Senate Appropriations Subcommittee report concerning the NIH. You can find the full report online. (Hat Tip, American Institute of Physics)

“Since the end of the 5-year doubling effort, in fiscal
year 2003, funding for the National Institutes of Health [NIH] has
declined, in real terms, by 12.3 percent. The average researcher now
has a less than 1 in 5 chance of getting an NIH grant application
approved, and the average age at which researchers receive their
first RO1 grant has risen to 42.”


Graduate students entering the field during times of flush federal funding will be disappointed. I’d rather have not enough Ph.D.s than a plethora of bitter ones infiltrating the ranks of post-docs and depressing wages across the board. I am concerned that the increasing ages of first R01 may lead to a situation where the best and brightest get out, leaving those in faculty positions who are less than capable of inspiring the next generations.

Unless you can guarantee a doubling will *not* be followed by essentially flat funding (which given inflation, is really a net decline), expectations will be unrealistically raised, and then dashed.

The physical sciences and engineering are really in trouble, if the fields that have seen the greatest increases in enrollment (and in participation from underrepresented groups) cannot convert significant percentages of its undergraduates into graduate students. Now, I’m one of the minority that thinks the focus on Ph.D. production is too narrow, but I don’t control the rhetoric in play.

“The administration’s budget ignores these warning
signs and proposes to freeze NIH funding at the fiscal year 2008
level of $29,229,524,000. Under this plan, the success rate for
research project grants would fall to 18 percent, the lowest level
on record.”

There is plenty to castigate the current administration about on science and technology, as well as research and development. However, neither a Gore Administration nor a Kerry Administration would have necessarily avoided this basic course. At best they would have kept funding up with inflation. After all, the agency’s budget was just doubled. A reasonable expectation would have been that the agency would need some adjustment time to demonstrate that they were able to manage the additional resources effectively, and that even more new resources were necessary. Anything else comes off sounding like the NIH (and its advocates) are really just Seymour from Little Shop of Horrors.

The Committee rejects the administration’s approach and instead recommends an overall NIH funding increase of $1,025,000,000, for a total of $30,254,524,000. That amount would allow NIH funding to
keep up with the biomedical inflation rate (3.5 percent) for the
first time in 6 years. It would also increase the estimated number
of new, competing research project grants to 10,471- the most ever
at NIH

Even when the Republicans were in the majority, Congress has been a pretty solid failure in its ability to see that science and technology funding requests survive to the final budget. This lack of will is likely part of the reason Congress enjoys a smaller approval rating than the President.

My personal preference would be for a funding strategy that better reflects investments than gorging. But I am afraid that would take a revision of federal budget laws and processes. And if there is anything that leads the government in dysfunction, it is the federal budget process.

Oddly enough, the stutter steps that the physical sciences doubling is taking may be a better struggle than what NIH and its communities are going through. Better that programs struggle now rather than they have full coffers that disappear after a few years. With any luck, smart program officers and division directors can try and prepare their communities to make effective long-term investments for the dry times that will follow this doubling. From a human resources perspective, professional science masters degrees are something I strongly encourage. Read more about them here.

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