Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Race to Save the Lab Rats

Welcome back to our series on Human Capital and the Knowledge-based Economy.

Today we will continue examining Dr. Cy Ence's career path.

Assuming Dr. Ence does get a tenure-track position at Prestigious American University, he now has to find money to run his lab. Since he is in the life sciences, he will have to do that by getting some grants funded.

First, he (and/or his students) will have to collect preliminary data in support of his research hypothesis. Based on the initial results, he will have to write a research proposal and submit a grant to a funding agency. The largest funding agency in the life sciences is the National Institutes of Health (NIH). There, his grant will be reviewed by a committee of his peers and then further by a committee of professional grant managers. Then his grant will be scored and depending on his score, he may or may not get funded.

Just like when he was applying for faculty positions , the numbers don't look so good for Cy. The number of first time NIH grant winners has declined from about 1,800 in 1980 to about 1,350 in 2007.

One reason for this is an increasing hyper-competitive environment for grants. When Dr. Ence starts up his lab, he will be competing with established researchers who have had labs for five, ten, or 15 years and therefore 5,10 or 15 years to establish themselves as opposed to our favorite newbie Cy. They are all applying for the same pool of money, and grants are graded and scored the same way.

A result of this system has been a steady decline in the number of first time investigators as compared to established investigators winning grants in any given year. It has gone from about 40% of first time investigators being successful in the early 60's to only about 24% being successful in 2006.

Why is this important?

When a researcher can't get funding, they are basically unable to keep their research program going - meaning no money for research personnel, for chemicals, for animals etc. It means that
they can't carry out experiments in a timely fashion, which results in few or no publications which in the worst case scenario means that they run the risk of losing their lab.

The current crop of graduate students and post-docs are watching this happen around them everyday and fewer and fewer of them want to even attempt a career as faculty in academia.

Basically, we are pulling the rug from underneath the feet of the next generation of academic researchers.
You can lose a generation of researchers pretty fast—in five or ten years. Once it happens, we won’t get those people back.”
Joshua Boger, PhD
founder, Vertex Pharmaceuticals,
& chairman, BIO
Another consequence of this funding environment has been the reluctance of granting agencies to fund the more high-risk, high-reward projects.There is a limited pool of resources which they are responsible for distributing and are also accountable for. So, they have done what every other agency in their position would do- they have chosen to bet on the sure horse; they primarily fund more traditional, conservative science. This means that although we are making steady progress- it is progress in small steps instead of progress in leaps and bounds.

So, is everything just dismal and negative? Should we just give up?

On Thursday we'll wrap up this series by responding to your comments and suggesting next steps for improving the way our country invests in the future of science.

Sources: National Institutes of Health (NIH)/Office of Extramural Research (OER), A broken pipeline?

This is Part 5 of 6 in our Human Capital and Knowledge-based Economy series.
Part 1 - A Knowledge-based Economy
Part 2 - U.S Competitiveness and Innovation

Part 3 - The Making of a Scientist
Part 4 - From Training to Practice: Joining the Faculty
Part 5 - A Race to Save the Lab Rats
Part 6 - Advocating for Human Capital

Click image for full comic strip. Credit: PhD Comics

1 comment:

  1. Great series and also slightly depressing. I have seen this happen in many fields and have had many friends leave the academic path for the reasons you outlined. There also seem to be many factors at play and I wonder which ones are the most important. For example, has real thoughtful mentorship declined, do grad students and new PhDs feel they have enough mentorship? Also many grad students want to do applied work which often times goes against the grain of doing theoretical work their professors focus on. One final random point, at least before the economy crashed - if you toil away for 6 or 7 years and come out make little compared to your non-PhD friends it can make for a difficult path.