Politics Science

More on the declining funding of R01 grants

I hadn’t planned on writing about this again after yesterday. The subject is profoundly depressing to those of us needing to compete for declining NIH grant resources with only a 9% chance of success the first time. However, given that Your Friday Dose of Woo will make an appearance tomorrow to make everything all right; that is, assuming that my O.R. day tomorrow isn’t too stressful. After all, there’s little better to lift your spirits than a bit of amusing woo, you know.

In any case, a commenter named Theodore Price said:

Orac, maybe (almost certainly not actually) you didn’t mean it this way, but your line about paying your postdoc vs. having money for supplies is very troubling. As a postdoc, i am very tired of hearing the problem framed this way. While I can understand that it is true (choice of salary vs. money for research), shouldn’t we be able to understand that having to even acknowledge such an issue is ludicrous? Moreover, I have heard next to nothing about how the fall in funding for R01s affects postdocs. The research performed and the preliminary data is largely gathered by them. Also, who is really chosing who in this game? I would argue that the postdoc is choosing the PI they wish to work with more than the PI is choosing the postdoc. When funding falls through it can be a career ender for all involved.

I’m sorry if Theodore was troubled by the way I framed the issue, but the problem for me (and for many principle investigators) is just that stark. It’s not that I want to think in such terms, but my situation leaves me little choice. Without a talented (or at least competent) postdoc, I can’t do my research. Without supplies, I can’t do my research. I need both. It is indeed ludicrous to me too that I even have to consider weighing one against the other but that’s the pitiless reality of trying to run a lab on inadequate funds. I sincerely hope that Theodore becomes an R01-funded investigator after his postdoc, and I further hope that by then the funding situation has improved to the point where he doesn’t have to deal with the funding problems that I and many other PIs are dealing with now, problems that do indeed force us to think in the terms that disturbed him. If the situation is still this bad when he finishes, he will be in for a not-so-pleasant education about the real world of biomedical research in an academic institution very quickly.

Right now, approximately 83% of my R01 grant goes to fund the salaries of postdoc and technician, including some salary support for me. Unlike the business world, I have zero control over salaries. Zero. Both my postdoc and technician had been hired before I knew that my budget was being cut 23%, and I had included their salaries in the budget that I submitted with my grant application and that the NIH initially approved before the cuts. The university mandates how much I have to pay postdocs (basically, according to the NRSA scale) and how much I have to pay my technician. Salaries go up roughly 4% a year, no matter what. Over the seven years that I’ve been here, fringes (taxes, health insurance, etc.) have risen from an additional 26% of salary to 34% of salary last year. I’ve already cut salary support to myself as much as the university will allow. (Fortunately, because I bring in clinical income, I have a little wiggle room there, but I’ve now used it all up.) I’m OK this year, but as salaries increase and as the NIH cuts the budget for each new year of my grant by around 3%, something’s going to give, and it’s going to give within the next couple of years. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to underpay the postdoc who is churning out data for me under my overall vision. (In fact, I wish I could somehow pay my present postdoc, who is stellar, more.)

These realities leave me with few options. The best option would be to obtain more funding by getting another grant. Not only would that take the pressure off my present personnel, but it would allow me to hire more. The problem is, however, the present funding situation makes that unlikely, and even if I could do it it would be at least a year before seeing any of the money. The next option is to start dipping into the remnants of my startup funds, but that won’t stave off the day of reckoning for long, maybe a year to eighteen months at best, before those funds, too, are gone. The last, and least appealing, option is to let someone go. It may come to that if I can’t secure more money somehow. And, believe it or not, I’m in pretty good shape compared to others to whom I’ve spoken; I even feel a bit strange complaining about this.

Don’t think that I don’t know the value of postdocs. Well do I know that it is the postdocs that gather the vast majority of the data! Remember, I was once one, too. Indeed, my current postdoc is fantastic. Not only is he a workhorse, but he can work more independently than most postdocs with whom I’ve dealt. Given the funding situation, my great fear is that when it’s time for him to move on in a little less than two years (which is when his visa expires) I won’t be able to afford to replace him. If that happens, it will be utterly disastrous. I’ll be truly screwed if I can’t replace him with someone at least 60% as good. My current technician is just that–a technician. He’ll do the experiments that I or my postdoc design for him but has little motivation or ability to work independently and has proven himself incapable of doing the more sophisticated experiments that I need to have done, even with supervision. Unlike a postdoc, he’s on the clock, and therefore can’t be expected to work more than 40 hours a week. Having to rely on him alone plus the relatively little time that I personally can be in the laboratory doing bench work would in essence doom my laboratory effort unless–you guessed it–I can find more money.

As for how the fall in funding will affect postdocs, this is my fear. Theodore is no doubt right that postdocs choose the PI that they want to work for at least as much as the PI chooses them, at least if they’re good. The problem, if the funding situation continues as it is, is that fewer and fewer labs will be able to afford to hire postdocs. There will be fewer and fewer positions. It will be mainly big, well-established labs that will still have spots. The advantage of such labs is the prestige and the large number of promising projects. The downside is that, in such large labs, the individual postdoc tends to be a cog in the machine. Postdocs there will do generally well, but probably won’t have much one-on-one contact with their mentors. Such labs also tend not to allow as much independence. Contrast that to a smaller lab of a younger PI (my lab, for example), where it’s just one postdoc, one technician, and me. My postdocs (I’m only on my second one) get lots of face time with me, and, because I’m away two days a week doing clinic or surgery, they get to work more or less independently and develop their own research ideas under the aegis of the overall research focus of my lab. In essence, with me they learn the basics of being a PI, even to the point where I try to encourage them to write the first draft of their papers. (After all, good, persuasive scientific writing is critical to success in science.) There will be less and less of that, as fewer younger and smaller labs can get or hold onto R01s. Basically, the variety of postdoctoral positions will decrease, with most positions being in labs that are large research machines. Also, there likely won’t be enough postdoc positions to go around, forcing more graduate students either to go abroad or go into industry. Now, industry can be a fine career, but you work on what the company wants you to work on, not what you want to work on.

While it’s true that losing research funding can be a career-ender for both the PI and the postdoc, in actuality it is far less likely to be so for the postdoc, who can usually move on after such a failure to a different postdoc position. It happens all the time (although if the funding situation stays this bad there will be fewer postdoc positions for such refugees to escape to). For a PI who has lost his funding and doesn’t have tenure, it’s far more difficult to find another faculty position. After all, such a PI would now have a track record of “failure,” and it is unlikely that he would be hired for another tenure track faculty position. Chances are, he’ll either disappear into the limbo that is being an adjunct faculty member, be forced into industry (thus losing the freedom to work on whatever he wants to work on), or end up changing careers. I am extremely fortunate in that, if worse comes to worse, I can always support myself by seeing patients and doing operations. I would view it as a professional failure of the worse magnitude if that ever happened because I consider my laboratory effort co-equal with my clinical work. It would be a failure in half of my academic career. That’s big but survivable. I could still be an academic clinician and thus remain in academia. But for basic scientists, losing one’s lab is a failure of his or her whole academic career. I don’t forget that.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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