As some of you may know, NIH recently posted a Request for Information (RFI) on optimizing funding policies and other strategies to improve impact and sustainability of biomedical research. They want us (anybody, really) to submit our thoughts on the subject, limited to 500 words per question. Here it the link and here is the ScienceCareers blog post about it. The deadline for submission is May 17.
I just submitted my response. And I urge all biomedical researchers in the US, especially all postdocs and newly minted assistant professors who have not yet forgotten the postdoc life to submit their thoughts to NIH. This is our chance to change the broken system! If you don’t know what to say, it’s a good time to start thinking about these issues. To get you started, below is my response, and here is another one by Vaibhav Pai and one more from Jessica Polka, both from the FOR gang.
Key issues that currently limit the impact of NIH’s funding for biomedical research and challenge the sustainability of the biomedical research enterprise. We welcome responses that explain why these issues are of high importance.
Hypercompetition for faculty positions and funding is the key issue that limits the immediate impact and the long-term potential of biomedical research in the US. Here are some reasons why hypercompetition (as opposed to healthy competition) is bad for science.
- Hypercompetition leads to wasteful spending. First, it shifts researchers’ focus from doing science to writing grant and job applications. So, less science gets done per dollar spent. Second, a large fraction of NIH grant money that pays for postdoc training is wasted because most postdocs never make it to a PI position where they can actually apply their acquired research skills (there are far fewer PI positions than there are postdocs), and most jobs outside of academia do not require a postdoc training.
- Hypercompetition provides an incentive to “cut corners” in research: rather than doing careful science, there is a strong temptation to write beautiful but perhaps not well supported stories that get published in high-profile journals. This leads to the overall decline in the quality and reproducibility of science, which has been recently documented.
- Hypercompetition makes the profession of a scientist unattractive to young people and therefore leads to loss of talent to other professions. Why would a 20-year old want to embark on a 10-year journey (e.g., 5 years of PhD and 5 years of postdoc) whose “success” (i.e., getting a tenure-track job) depends on a chance event of a high-profile paper? Even if “success” is achieved, why would one want to be a PI in the first place, given that PI’s main job nowadays is writing grants and “packaging” the lab’s results rather than doing the actual science?
Hypercompetition, at least for faculty positions, ultimately results from the structure of the current funding system, via two mechanisms. First, postdocs are the preferred type of workforce because they cost the same or less and require shorter funding commitment on PI’s part than staff scientists or even PhD students. Thus, NIH indirectly stimulates expansion of the postdoc pool by failing to impose regulations on the working conditions of personnel hired with grant money. The second mechanism is the reward structure for PIs. PI’s success (i.e., the chance of getting funded in the next round) is his/her publication track record. Roughly speaking, the more papers the PI has recently published and the higher the impact of these papers is, the more likely is the PI to get the next grant. This reward system clearly favors bigger labs. The more people there are in your lab, the more papers your lab will produce and the more likely is at least one of these papers to be of high impact. This leads to lab-size inflation, mostly with postdocs, which in turn contributes to the unhealthy growth of the postdoc pool. It also most likely leads to a decrease in the diversity of research directions that NIH-funded investigators pursue, which limits the chances of unexpected discoveries.
Ideas about adjusting current funding policies to ensure both continued impact and sustainability of the NIH-supported research enterprise. We welcome responses that point to specific strengths or weaknesses in current policies and suggest how we can build on or improve them.
I envision a three-pronged conceptual solution to the problem of hypercompetition, at least at the level of postdocs. The key idea is to shrink and control the pool of postdocs. Rather than having a large pool of post-docs, i.e., individuals with PhDs without a defined achievable objective, there should be a small pool of pre-prof, i.e., individuals on their way to become professors. Such preprofs (often also referred to as “superpostdocs”) should form an elite pool of the best and brightest PhDs who want to take additional semi-independent training with the eventual goal of becoming a professor (similar to Bauer fellows at Harvard). The size of this pool should not exceed a factor of 4-5 of the number of annually opened biomedical tenure-track faculty position in, say, top 100 schools in the US. These pre-profs would no longer be the primary research workforce. Instead, most of the actual research should be done by graduate students and staff scientists. The pool of staff scientists would be formed by research-driven PhDs who for one reason or another did not make it to the preprof pool and preprofs who for one reason or another did not become PIs. Specific suggestions are as follows.
- Since a staff scientist by definition is a much more secure and stable position than a postdoc, staff scientists should not be directly funded by individual PI’s grants, which are too unstable. Instead direct costs of research grants should only go to the PI salary, equipment, and lab operation costs. On the other hand, a significant portion of grant indirect costs should be channeled towards paying staff scientist salaries and benefits. In other words, universities, not PIs, should employ staff scientists. There are obvious technical challenges that need to be resolved. For example, should PIs who bring in more money be entitled to more staff scientist slots? How should graduate students be paid? etc. But I believe these problems can be solved if appropriate committees are challenged with the task.
- PI success should be evaluated on the basis of efficiency, not absolute productivity. Whatever the metric of absolute productivity is, it should be normalized by the number of man-hours invested into the product. For example, rather than counting the number of papers that came out of a lab during the reporting period, one ought to, roughly speaking, divide this number by the number of man-hours available in the lab during the same period. While this policy may actually not be necessary in the long run when the postdoc pool is under control, in the short run it would curb the postdoc-pool inflation by shrinking huge labs with unacceptably high postdoc attrition rates. Again, I believe that the technical problem of devising the appropriate metrics of efficiency is solvable.
Ideas for new policies, strategies, and other approaches that would increase the impact and sustainability of NIH-funded biomedical research.
Funding of PhD-qualified personnel (i.e., postdocs) through direct costs of research grants should be prohibited. Instead, staff scientists should be funded by universities (through indirect costs) while 100% of superpostdocs/preprofs should be funded through institutional or individual training grants, such as K99 or programs similar to the Bauer fellow program at Harvard. This would allow NIH to have complete control of the superpostdoc/preprof pool.