By: Michelle Rubin
Image by: Amber D. Miller
In 1993, 34% of PhD students entered tenure track positions. In contrast, only 23% of students joined the academic field in 2012 (Rockey et al., 2012). As a PhD student, I know many of my fellow students come to graduate school with the intention of going into academic research. However, after a few years, they realize that the number of PhD students graduating greatly outnumbers the positions with available funding for young investigators, and academia may no longer be a viable option. NIH director Francis Collins recently spoke about precisely this problem. “Many young investigators are on the brink of giving up because of the difficulty of getting support,” he asserted in an article published in USA TODAY (Szabo, 2014).
We are losing promising and innovative ideas due to budget cuts. We should fear for the future of academic research.
The Nobel prize winning research on fluorescent proteins, a technology now commonly used in biomedical sciences, could not have come about without the funding of a young investigator at the beginning of his career. Martin Chalfie, among others, manipulated and adapted the jellyfish-derived Green Fluorescence Protein (GFP) for use in a variety of biological systems (Chalfie, 1995). This innovative but risky work would not have been possible if Martin Chalfie had not been funded as a young investigator. He had no guarantee of success in his adaptation of GFP into heterologous systems in his later career. We could lose these kinds of discoveries if we fail to fund young investigators with feasible but out-of-the-box ideas.
Between 2010 and 2014, the number of new investigators funded by NIH grants fell from 2,100 to 1,600 (NIH, 2014). This means that 400 new young investigators with creative ideas were not given the opportunity to achieve success. Consequently, we may have already lost brilliant ideas for treating bacterial or viral infections, cancer, or for developing new technologies to use in biomedical research. Between 1996 and 2010, the number of young investigators (age 35 or younger) that obtained new grants fell from 6.0% to 2.0% (See graph, NIH, 2014). However, the worst blow came in 2013, when the NIH budget was cut by 5%, meaning that 640 fewer grants were given out in 2013 than in 2012 (Kuehn, 2014). A major consequence of this lack of funding is emigration of young investigators from the US. As Dr. Collins noted, “up to 18% of young investigators are leaving the US”(Szabo, 2014).
Certainly not all grants or new investigators have ideas that should be funded. Representative Jack Kingston, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee, wrote in a letter to Dr. Collins, “I support the NIH’s core responsibility of basic research, but believe it should stop the frivolous, politically-motivated, and wasteful grants it has been funding” (Szabo, 2014). Although it is crucial to critically read and assess all the grants given by the NIH to investigators, it is just as important to fund new and exciting ideas.
It is impossible to demand that the US government give the NIH more money, but there are alternatives. After ending the prolonged operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Department of Defense has proposed reducing their budget by $75 billion over the next two years (Simeone, 2014). Some of these funds could be reallocated to the NIH to help reduce the impact of the 2013 budget cut. Even though not all this money can be given to the NIH – after all, there are multiple agencies within the US government that require funding – a small injection of funds into the NIH would allow a greater number of innovative but risky grants to be funded. This would help young investigators with promising ideas to start their laboratories.
Better funding additionally changes the mentality of PhD students. As students see young investigators leave the country or shut down their laboratories due to lack of funding, they decide to not pursue academic careers in the future. By using a small portion of the money that previously went to the DOD budget for the NIH budget, young and new scientists can continue to be creative without fear of losing their jobs in the future. After all, we never know who might think of the next staple in biomedical research or the next treatment for cancer.