Reporter’s Notebook: Senior research professors face funding troubles

by Robert Downs

In writing this story on the preference given to young investigators, a few things struck me as important. First, was the understanding by all researchers that the money available to NIH right now — in both normal and stimulus funding — is finite. It’s going to run out sometime, so researchers have been flooding the market with proposals in hopes that good research will be funded. Increased proposal submissions produced increased competition, and NIH made young investigators their first priorities. But why? Larry Tabak, former director of NIH, said “some of the best work is done when you’re young.”

Here’s an excerpt from the discussion Mr. Tabak and I had.

One thing you said: “the best work is done when you’re young—“

“—in some disciplines. Not all.” There is a lot of great works being done by people that are further along in their careers. “

Why would it be in some disciplines?

I don’t know the answer to that, but if you look at the age of Nobel Laureates in physics and math and things of that nature I think you’ll see that not many of those are given to people who are quite young. And in other disciplines it seems to be later on in your career. And that’s not the only indicator, honestly. If you ask anybody who runs a lab where all the excitement and new stuff comes from they’ll tell you from their fellows. When you have some new collaboration invariably it’s catalyzed by fellows getting together and talking about their science and becoming excited about what each other is doing. But that’s anecdotal. Anecdote isn’t data.

If none of these programs were in place, what is the general feeling of what would happen if these young investigators weren’t getting funding?

Right so we did that experiment not knowingly. Before NIH made the specific decision to try and equalize the success rates fewer and fewer early stage investigators were getting funded and the numbers were getting to precipitously low level. And it’s quite interesting when the budget is flat, which you know NIH’s budget had been flat for a number of years, and inflation, in terms of real buying power, had decreased, the trend is to become a bit more risk averse. So, you have two applications. One from a senior, well established investigators that has published many papers in the field and made many contributions to the field, and then some new person that has relatively few publications but has not yet gotten the opportunity to make contributions to the field. So all things equal, if you’re going to be risk averse, you’re going to go with the more established individual. But if you do that, now the early stage investigator is at a tremendous disadvantage. So that experiment was done, that’s why NIH wide decided as a group that it needed to be stabilized, and as a result of this policy the number or early stage investigators has gone up that are being supported, and it is being held constant. Now, if we’re fortunate and the future allows us to get budgetary increases, then again history has shown when that happens that the number of early stage investigators tends to get better.

So what about the older investigators? Are they screwed? Here’s what research professor Eric Schiffman said about the flood of proposals that have rolled in and how professors are viewing it.