Unbounded exuberance leads to bubbles. Bubbles pop. I’ve been observing my academic colleagues of late. While it has never been easy to secure research funding, we’ve reached the stage where the pursuit of funding is overtaking the pursuit of doing science. While science has weathered short-term setbacks before, today the challenge in life sciences has already extended over a decade and is having an impact that will not be quickly reversed. Consider that many newly minted Ph.D.s become sequestered in multiyear postdoctoral positions and may follow as an assistant professor for years before receiving extramural funding. Success rates have plummeted below 15 percent and budgets to do the work are then frequently pared. The progress reports, compliance paperwork and concerns about conflict of interest further frustrate. One wonders who reads this stuff which was unknown in the 1970s.
There is also a trend toward larger grants which are multidisciplinary and even multi-institutional, adding time and bureaucracy to the application and the review. While some efficiency is gained by these programs at the Washington end, they rarely provide sufficient operating dollars per investigator. All of this drives toward less imaginative (and less risky) applications, cheered on by peers in the same trendy fields that then become overcrowded. For the last year or three it has been wearables with visions of medically relevant cell phone apps. Over the last decade or three it has been microfluidics, proteomics and biosensors.
A favorite target analyte in my field is glucose. The narrative is clear and the introductory paragraphs of papers are nearly identical, but there is little justification for thousands of publications on the same theme when we have excellent fit-for-purpose commercial technology generating data millions of times per day. There is room for real improvement, but not for weak alternatives to what is already available at Wal-Mart. Other pundits have complained about proteomics, marked by endless methods with little clinical or even analytical validation. We have a marvelous opportunity begging for real innovation, but not pedestrian fiddling. In many other fields there are too many underfunded cooks doing “me too” work leading to more proponents of the same. Peer review tends to circle the wagons in times like these. The limited resources are thus ineffectually allocated. For another example, universities were teased with the possibility of adding research facilities under The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Many of these laboratories are now commissioned, five years later, without a corresponding increase in operating funds to use the facilities.
A further unintended consequence of this crisis is the impact on academic tenure. Many very promising young life-science faculty members with fabulous credentials are having trouble getting out of the starting gate, often spending many, or even all, of their pretenure years without major funding. Tenure then doesn’t come. The damage can include the loss of seven-figure capital investments in setting up their laboratories. Too often, there is also the probable transfer of an academic spouse to another university, losing those investments as well and causing much consternation in an attempt to retain both talents. Readers of DDNews are already well versed in the downsizing of pharma R&D. Few credentialed scientists do innovative science (aka research). Most then monitor, sell, teach, produce, process, manage or (like me) pontificate. Science is fortunately good preparation for many vocations, but there is no shortage in the field.
This spring two reports from high places help define these issues. The National Science Board report on “Reducing Investigators’ Administrative Workload for Federally Funded Research” (www.nsf.gov/nsb) and a perspective by four of our most distinguished life scientists published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Bruce Alberts et. al. PNAS 111 (16) 5773-5777 (2014)] fully confirm what I have been seeing on the ground. The latter calls for “Rescuing U.S. biomedical research from its systemic flaws.” While both reports make useful suggestions, solutions are not likely until we get refocused on economic growth and stop impeding it by an entitlement mindset that distracts from success. I’m reminded of two quotes: Winston Churchill’s thought that “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries,” and Margaret Thatcher’s notion that “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other peoples’ money.” At times we let our egalitarian natures get in the way of the greater good, including the virtues of exploring what we don’t yet know about nature. One of the proven virtues of science, and the innovation which follows, is a better standard of living for most. This is catalysis that works, with many benefitting from relatively few. It has always been so. The cool thing is that growth enables welfare for the most needy and welfare for the most innovative at the same time. Support for all who are needy and all who want research grants is an unsustainable utopia.