All trace of the doubled NIH budget has vanished

Things that I’m not thankful for: this week in Pacific Standard, I argue that Congress is like my former landlord, who did a major remodel on his rental property and then let his investment rot away due to neglect. The NIH budget is now substantially lower than it would have been if there had been no budget doubling, and instead, it grew at its previous, pre-doubling historical rate of 3.3% in real dollars (see figure). It’s as if the doubling never happened.


While there are structural problems in our research enterprise that won’t be automatically solved with more money, the funding regime we’re in is unprecedented, at least since the 1970s. Way back in 2002, a group of scientists associated with the American Association of Medical Colleges wrote that, without further support, “the net effect of the 5-year doubling investment on the magnitude of the biomedical research enterprise would be extinguished” by 2007.

Well, that happened pretty much right on time. Given the overexpansion in facilities and training programs, one could argue that the budget doubling left us worse off than 15 years of steady, but moderate increases. The NSF budget was supposed be doubled as well, but now the OMB projects that it won’t double for at least 17 years.

In the same piece, the authors argues that maintaining the integrity of peer-review

requires that an appropriate success rate for funding relative to approval be maintained. “Appropriate” is widely accepted to lie between 30 and 40%. Lower success rates force reviewers to try to make overly fine discriminations among proposals, to divert the energy of applicants to repetitive proposal writing in an atmosphere of growing hopelessness, and to create a climate of disinclination to fund innovative proposals.

That nightmare scenario has been realized. The atmosphere of hopelessness is here. Peer review is now a joke, based on overly fine, arbitrary distinctions. The difference between a proposal that gets funded and one that barely misses the payline is non-existent; both are likely to be meritorious proposals. The result is that scientists have to waste time submitting more proposals, creating a peer-review death spiral of lower paylines.

These are familiar gripes in the biomedical community, but, until writing this piece, I still thought we were better off thanks to the NIH budget doubling, which was occurring when I decided to go to grad school. Now, it’s as if the doubling never happened.

If you want to run the numbers for yourself, you can find the NIH historical budget numbers here, and the NIH’s biomedical inflation index here. I used biomedical index to adjust the nominal budget numbers to 2011 dollars, following the method described by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. The projected, pre-doubling growth trend was done by taking the 1990 appropriations level and increasing the constant dollar budget amount by 3.3% each year, which, as described in this article, is the average historical real dollar growth rate from 1971 to 1998.


9 responses to “All trace of the doubled NIH budget has vanished

  1. Your timing for this post is perfect, as my wife found out today that her grant will not be approved.

  2. Thanks for this information. I especially like your landlord metaphor — but I may be interpreting it more extensively than you are. Based on my experience with a landlord he didn’t just squander his own investment, he also persuaded me and my wife to make a home on his property, and then failed to live up to our reasonable expectations that he would maintain the property. Consequently, he wasted our time and money too. If this weren’t so clearly an issue of incompetence, I’d think it was a scam. I think that this extended metaphor is applicable to the NIH too, with the tenents being replaced by everyone who entered grad school during the boom years.

    Getting to your analysis, I’m not sure what you’d have us make of the annual 3.3% increase. I guess that’s what we would need in order to maintain a steady rate of expansion for the biomedical research workforce — and thereby maintain the grad school pyramid scheme. Outside of our desire for high status positions, I don’t see the point of focusing on that rate of funding increase.

    I’m pretty sure that 3.3% is greater than the average real growth rate of the US economy. My quick calculation says that the BRDPI from 2000 to 2012 was 3.3% so maintaining the real 3.3% annual increase in biomedical research spending would have required a 6.6% annual increase in nominal spending… yet the nominal GDP growth rate from 1998 to 2013 was only 3.7%. It’s a bit much to expect the Feds to perpetually increase research spending as a portion of GDP.

    I think that the most we can expect from a reasonable government is to maintain research funding levels as a constant portion of GPD. Another Mike provides that statistic…

    By that standard, research funding is almost 20% off from it’s peak, but also 33% above the “pre-doubling” level. For those of us trying to make a living by doing research, I think the stability of funding is the relevant statistic (not the absolute funding level) – if the government wants us to make a 5-10 year investment in our training, we expect some predictability regarding future funding. Of course, there could be legitimate reasons to reduce NIH research funding… maybe the events of 2001 resulted in a change in priorities. I think the more likely explanation for this variability in funding is pure mismanagement. The proponents of the doubling seem to have had their heads in the clouds and failed to generate the political consensus that could sustain higher funding levels. Maybe the political leaders they were so obsessed with “leaving a mark” and so drunk on power that they forced through their personal agenda with some naive hope that doing so could actually produce a long term benefit. Instead, the reality is Washington power is a fickle thing, and a small (and arbitrary) change in voting patterns can shift power to a group of people with radically different policy preferences than the current power holders. As a result, we had massive waste in the 90s as money flooded into institutions that were not ready to spend it effectively, and then we had a second wave of massive waste in the 2000s as the decreased demand for researchers created a dysfunctional level of competition, along with a failure to make use of the fixed (human) capital that had built up during the doubling. This is something I’d expect from the PRC, but I guess our political system is fully capable of getting caught up in megalomaniacal fervor.

    • I used 3.3% real annual growth not because I think scientists should expect it in perpetuity, but for two reasons:

      1) That was the historical average real growth for more than 25 years, from 1971-1998. That period covers both good and bad economics times, and so it’s not unreasonable to think that we could have still continued at that rate from say, 1998-2008, with a much better outcome.

      2) It’s a simple baseline against which to compare the NIH doubling and its aftermath. Congress deliberately decided that doubling the budget would be a good way to expand our research capacity, rather than just continuing with the historical, moderate increases. In retrospect, that move probably harmed more than it helped, because we rapidly expanded our research capacity, and as you say, brought a lot of ‘tenants’ into grad school during the boom times, and then we have let capacity simply run down.

      I’d conclude that, given the vagaries of Congress and the economy, plans to double a science agency budget in a short period of time is a bad idea.

      So yeah, the NIH budget looks better than it did in 1998 (but not than it did in 2002!), well before the explosion in genomics and biotechnology. The question isn’t are we better off than we were in 1998 (and given the doubling & subsequent shrinkage, I’d say we’re worse off), it’s whether we are disastrously pulling back at a time when biomedical research is in a position to produce substantial benefits from the recent, dramatic change in fundamental knowledge and technology.

      • Sorry to be long-winded, but I really want to emphasize this – Mike the Mad Biologist makes some good points, but I think the issue that has been missed by most commenters is that we 1) deliberately doubled the NIH budget with the express purpose of expanding research capacity, and then 2) Let that capacity decline.

        It’s somewhat beside the point whether we’re still above average %GDP. Congress put resources into doubling the budget, and now that investment is wasting away because it’s failing to put that expanded capacity to use.

  3. Thanks for the response.

    I have to retract part of my rant… the NIH doubling apparently had strong bipartisan support, so the people who pushed for it could have reasonably expected the funding level to be maintained.

    Oddly enough, you mentioned this bipartisan support in your Pacific Standard article, which I somehow missed until now:

    • Thanks for your contribution, and for being patient with me on my soapbox…

      It seems odd now, but Congress in the late 90’s, in spite of the impeachment drama, managed to do a lot on a bipartisan basis. The Gingrich/Clinton era seemed hyperpartisan at the time, but by today’s standards it looks like an era of bipartisan harmony.

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