Senior research professors face funding troubles

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series examining competition among researchers to garner funding. Tuesday’s story will look at new tactics researchers use to fund proposals.

Robert Downs

In 2001, University of Minnesota professor Eric Schiffman received $8.2 million. He didnâÄôt win the lottery. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) gave Schiffman the money as a research grant for a seven-year, multi-site study to examine classification schemes for diagnosing joint disorders in the jaw. Now, seeking an extension for the study, Schiffman, 52, will try to overcome an obstacle that used to work in his favor âÄî his age. As of 2007, the average age of a first-time principal investigator had increased by almost six years since 1980. NIH used to give preference to proven, tenured professors. However, in fear of losing a generation of researchers, in 2005 NIH began an effort to level the field by awarding more funding to young investigators. Large grants have in turn become more difficult for a previously funded investigator to receive âÄî Schiffman had his new proposal denied once already. Experts say this increased emphasis on awarding grants to younger researchers may be leaving pertinent medical studies on the shelf. âÄú[There is] a dilemma there of, âÄòthereâÄôs so much good research here,âÄôâÄù Schiffman said. âÄúWhat do we fund?âÄù Tenure and aging researchers Professors in major research institutions have to garner grants if they are seeking tenure track positions. Professors who receive grants as Principal Investigator âÄî meaning the primary researcher in charge of the grant âÄî prove they can generate funds and cultivate ideas that can withstand the peer-review process. Young medical researchers, however, have been caught in a Catch-22. Non-tenured early investigators have found it difficult to obtain grants, and without grants, universities are apprehensive to set those professors to a tenure track. Universities need young investigators to offer new, fresh work, said Larry Tabak , who served as deputy director of NIH from November 2008 to August 2009. Without action, the research field is in danger of losing a generation. Young investigators often bring excitement to research that is hard to find among senior researchers, Tabak said. âÄúIn many sub-fields, your best work is done when youâÄôre young,âÄù he said. The average age of principal investigators rose from around 37-years-old in 1980 to 42.6 in 2007 , NIH statistics show. âÄúIf youâÄôre 28 and you canâÄôt get funding, then the probability that youâÄôre going to be tenured is slim to none,âÄù Schiffman said. Tenure is a contract that protects professors from being fired without just cause, which offers job security. Professors in tenure-track positions at the University will work six to eight years before the University reviews whether tenure will be granted, Schiffman said. In some schools, non-tenured professors may pursue a clinical track and are reviewed yearly by a university for âÄúas long as the institution finds you useful,âÄù Schiffman said. Recently the amount of tenured faculty around the country has decreased, and the research field is in danger of losing young researchers, John Merritt, spokesman for the UniversityâÄôs office of the Vice President for Research, said. âÄúPeople are hesitating to get into the field because [they think], âÄòYou know I wonâÄôt get any funding for five, six, seven years out. What do I do in the meantime, or how do I support my research?âÄôâÄù Merritt said. From 1997 to 2007, the percentage of part-time faculty at public research universities increased from 34 percent to 44 percent, and 41 percent of the instruction staff at those universities were graduate students, a study by the American Federation of Teachers found. The age problem may seem overblown because students are starting medical school later, Mary Koppel , spokeswoman for the University Academic Health Center, said. NIH recognized the problem. In 2005, the organization released its âÄúRoadmap âÄù for medical research âÄî a strategic funding plan that, among other things, puts special emphasis on easing competition for first-time investigators. NIHâÄôs Roadmap In order to save this younger generation of researchers, NIH developed a three-step plan, Tabak said. The first step, he said, is to balance success rates among veteran and first-time investigators. This tightens competition between older, more experienced investigators and provides young investigators more funding. Early investigator success rates started to decline in 2003, falling from about 23 percent to 16 percent in 2006. Success rates measure the percentage of proposals submitted to proposals awarded. NIH is working for the rates between first-time and veteran investigators to be similar, Tabak said. âÄúThe highest priority is given to people who are in the earlier stages in their career,âÄù Tabak said. âÄúThatâÄôs NIH-wide âÄî all the institutions and centers do that.âÄù The second tactic is to entice universities into offering researchers tenure positions by giving young investigators small grants. Researchers are more likely to secure a tenure-track position at a university when the institution knows that researchers have funds secured, Tabak said. A slew of highly competitive grants unique to new and early investigators provide relief. Awards like the K99-R00 âÄî which funds two years of post-doctoral training for researchers âÄî entice institutions to offer professors tenure-track positions. âÄúIt makes these people more desirable to recruit to tenure-track positions around the country,âÄù he said, âÄúbecause in fact, [universities] are taking a dowry.âÄù The third tactic is to fund special, innovative and transformative research, which younger researchers are likely to participate in. Many new investigators have innovative research ideas, but many donâÄôt have the preliminary data required to fare well in the traditional NIH peer-review system, Tabak said. By targeting new research, NIH inherently targets new researchers. âÄúIf you ask anybody who runs a lab where all the excitement and new stuff comes from, theyâÄôll tell you from their fellows,âÄù Tabak said. Awards like the New Pioneer or New Innovator provide up to $1.5 million for funding that NIH deems innovative or non-traditional. While success rates have been evening out, it is still unclear whether the emphasis on young investigators has helped the research field, Tabak said. âÄúThe question is, is it enough?âÄù Tabak said. âÄúThe answer is, this is still a work in progress.âÄù