Will the Biomedical-Research Bubble Burst?

October 17, 2010

The United States still reels from the aftermath of the financial crisis. Many of us in the biomedical-research community, meanwhile, fear that our field may face a recession of its own in the not-too-distant future.

Reminiscent of the dot-com crash of the previous decade—and, indeed, of today's financial crisis, mainly precipitated by the implosion of the subprime-loan market—biomedical research is endangered by its precarious position atop a bubble of unsustainable financial practices. The unrestricted grant-making policies of the National Institutes of Health inflate the number of biomedical researchers in a fashion that cannot be matched by the availability of research funds and might eventually lead to a shortage of financial support for biomedical research.

The trouble begins with how lead scientists must often scrounge for money to keep their research programs alive. Grantees' home institutions—that is, universities and research institutes—typically pay principal investigators' salaries and start-up costs for a limited period of time, after which the lead scientists are expected to attract external backing that will cover their programs, including their salaries. Such a system allows universities and research institutions to hire more scientists and expand their research at little cost to the institutions themselves, while enhancing their own reputations and academic prestige. The system also provides universities and research institutions with a financial benefit: Overhead charges are deducted from grants raised by principal investigators. Thus, universities and research institutions have strong incentives to open ever-increasing numbers of such tenuous, grant-dependent, "soft money" tenure-track lines.

Enter the NIH—the primary agency that supports fundamental biomedical research in the United States—and other organizations, which provide money not only for materials, equipment, and stipends for research assistants, but also for the salaries of principal investigators once their start-up money has run out.

While the NIH Data Book does not provide detailed information about the increase in principal-investigator positions supported by NIH awards, the trend is nonetheless evident by the applications for career-development grants, which provide salaries for young investigators. The number of applications for these awards increased from 1,029 in 1997 to 3,340 in 2007. The success rate was consequently reduced from 51 percent to 31 percent.

Such an unbalanced incentive for universities and research institutes to continually bring new researchers onboard depends on the assumption that new money will keep getting into the system and that the flow of new money will satisfy ever-increasing growth. That, however, is rarely the case, whether one is dealing with start-up Internet companies, the subprime-loan market—or scientific research. In fact, the flexibility of the NIH budget and its potential growth are highly limited, as the NIH budget has been flat since 2003.

Because of the relatively low costs involved in opening "soft money" faculty positions, as well as institutional lust for expanding research and getting a larger piece of the NIH budget, it is expected that an increasing number of new, externally paid faculty positions will open and put increasing pressure on the NIH's extramural funding. This is the money that the NIH gives to research institutions and universities to support studies conducted outside of the institute.

Obviously, any future increase in available NIH funds is limited, so the inevitable result of this unbalanced growth is that, in the long term, the NIH will no longer be able to keep up with the demand for soft-money principal-investigator positions. Studies will run short on funding, research centers and laboratories will close, and scientists, research assistants, and support-staff members will lose their livelihoods.

To avoid such a recession in biomedical research, universities, research institutions, and the NIH must work together to ensure that any growth in the number of principal-investigator positions reflects the predicted growth in available financial resources.

One solution is to change the NIH's grant-making policy to require that a principal investigator's salary—or at least a substantial part of it—be paid for by the investigator's home institution. The National Science Foundation has already adopted such a policy, providing no more than two months' salary for a P.I. per year.

Clearly, if adopted by the NIH, such a policy would reduce the number of positions offered by universities and research institutions, slow down the growth in the number of available P.I. positions, and further increase the pressure on the academic job market.

But the upside is that universities and research institutions, if forced to bear the financial burden of hiring and paying investigators themselves, would plan their hiring strategies far more carefully. Because an investigator without funds for materials and research assistants is of little use, home institutions would also be forced to consider the present and future availability of research grants. That extra consideration, in turn, would ensure a better balance between the aspirations of universities and research institutions, and the ability of the NIH to subsidize those ambitions.

Lior Shamir is an assistant professor of computer science at Lawrence Technological University.