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.