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Opinion: Research redesign

We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us: A scientist proposes a redesign of the US biomedical research enterprise

By | November 9, 2010

There is a crisis in American biomedical research. Severe competition for federal research funding jeopardizes the careers of both new and established scientists. The fundamental problem is not the amount of government funding, but rather the unrestricted expansion of the research enterprise. With every funding increase, deans' eyes widen, buildings sprout, and the biomedical establishment expands well beyond what the increase can sustain. The net result is diminishing support per investigator, and an inexorable downward spiral of the attractiveness of biomedical research as a career.

Image: Creative commons, Polylerus
We scientists can do better for ourselves, our trainees, and the biomedical research enterprise itself, which is an important contributor to the physical and economic health of our nation. Ending the boom-bust cycle of NIH funding requires rationally planning the number of NIH-supported investigators and trainees. Here, I suggest extending the model of the NIH intramural funding system to the entire NIH funding system. The idea is for the government to employ grantees in situ (like HHMI investigators), where they would maintain their academic positions and their participation in teaching and other institutional obligations. Rather than submitting grant proposals to fund their research, funds would be allocated based on quadrennial reviews of investigator productivity and the general direction of their research. This would have enormous benefits. It would end the fiction that grant proposals can predict important discoveries in advance. It would end the corrupting prevarication that the "proposed" research hasn't already been initiated (if not finished), and the common practice of using grants to fund more promising ideas not included in the proposal (which is increasingly running afoul of auditors, clueless of how science actually advances). It would save enormous amounts of time spent writing and reviewing grants. It would prevent grant reviewers from filching ideas from proposals. It would free the imagination of investigators, who would be able to pursue their best ideas, and not their most fundable ideas. But here's the deal. No more super-sized labs, unless mandated by truly special circumstances. Again the model is the NIH intramural program, with an average group size of approximately eight investigators (one principal investigator, one technician, one PhD-level staff scientist, five postdoctoral/doctoral/pre-doctoral trainees). Trimming large labs would free resources to support more independent investigators. It would also greatly encourage collaboration between groups with different expertise, increasing collegiality scientific excitement, and productivity. The productivity of the proposed "extra-intramural" system is a critical issue. Given the advantages of a direct funding mechanism described above, true productivity -- as measured in important discoveries and not numbers of publications -- should increase. A key to maintaining productivity will be the effectiveness of the review process. The NIH intramural system provides an example of fair yet rigorous peer review that occurs on a quadrennial basis. Non-productive laboratories typically close after two consecutive substandard reviews (i.e. over an 8-year period), and the resources re-assigned to a new investigators (typically tenure-track) recruited from a worldwide search for the best talent. The potential of tenure-track intramural scientists is judged after a 5- to 6-year period principally by the quality of their publications. Candidates must have demonstrated that their productivity is largely due to their efforts and not collaboration with stronger groups. The offer of "tenure", i.e. becoming a full government employee, is made only on the advice of two Promotion and Tenure committees: one at the Institute level, the other at the NIH level. Further promotions through the academic ranks (with commensurate salary increases) are made via an Institute committee, but with oversight from the Institute and NIH intramural directors. The greatly relaxed competition for funding will have enormous payoffs in the psychological state of individual scientists and the entire scientific enterprise. Today's intense pressure brings out the worst in human nature, eroding the integrity of the research culture. Data fudging and outright fraud is increased in such circumstances, particularly in grant proposals, where data are preliminary and not subject to the crucible of reproducibility by other labs. The cycle of pain that accompanies repeated grant rejections contributes to a poisonously critical atmosphere that saps creativity and kills the spirit and joy of science. The negativity extends to reviewing manuscripts where it is particularly devastating for young scientists, whose efforts are typically subject to the brutal criticism of reviewers (us!) demanding more and more data, in what typically leads only to incremental findings that do little to modify or improve the major findings of a study. Don't get me wrong -- constructive criticism and vigorous competition are essential to the scientific process. Constantly proposing, testing, and remolding hypotheses is the only path to the elusive truth. Human nature is such that this process is greatly accelerated by competition between investigators with common interests. The competition must be collegial, however, and based on respect, not fear. Science is an essential element of modern society and should be a joyous undertaking. Our principal mission as scientists is to pass the torch of the scientific method to the next generation, which entails making science a decent career to pursue. We can and must do better. Jonathan Yewdell is the chief of the Cellular Biology Section at the Laboratory of Viral Diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The views in this essay are strictly the personal opinions of the author, and do not reflect official government policies or opinions. For a longer version of this essay, please email the author (jyewdell@nih.gov).
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Does tenure need to change?;http://www.the-scientist.com/2007/9/1/30/1/
[September 2007] *linkurl:NIH reviewers praise new rules;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/57171/
[23rd February 2010] *linkurl:It's not just about innovation;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/54322/
[March 2008]
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Comments

November 9, 2010

How is the concept of indirect costs integrated into this proposal? Indirect costs are a major source of revenue for universities and are often used to subsidize other programs. Would the NIH just give a lump sum to each institution as a flat rate rather than a percentage of the direct costs of the grants?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

November 9, 2010

Conceptually, a great idea that many of us would like to see. One question though, is how you would apportion positions/grants to individual institutions. My fear is that politics and influence would trump merit based decisions. In other words, some institutions with better reputations or better connected legislators may receive disproportionate pieces of the federal funding pie, while those at smaller schools and state universities would not fare as well.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 5

November 9, 2010

would be to start off with three things.\n\nFirst, no salary support from NIH to PI. The PI is the employee of the institute/university and they should pay the price of that salary.\n\nSecond, no indirect costs. Only direct cots.\n\nThird, only two grants per PI.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

November 9, 2010

I would much rather have the peer reviewed system we have now. As it is now we have a marketplace where ideas and projects are pitched to reviewers. I think this encourages and rewards creativity, hard work and insight. Managing the expansionist and careerist tendencies of Med School administrators via economic means (ie reducing indirect costs) may be a better way to have realistic and sustainable growth of our science community. I would rather see the system tweaked rather than a massive expansion of the NIH intramural program.
Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 199

November 9, 2010

That should be done for 50% of all NIH allocations starting ASAP. After 8 years a decision should be made how much to expand it.
Avatar of: Fred Schaufele

Fred Schaufele

Posts: 52

November 9, 2010

One unanswered critical question is who will be the gatekeepers that select the scientists to be supported? The danger is that innovation stagnates as savvy applicants play to the desires of the gatekeepers who, like everybody, are subject to often inflated opinions about the significance of their own research. \n\nEven without the above concerns, my sense is that there is a need to keep the marketplace of ideas flowing with traditional, well-argued grant applications. The proposal is intriguing, but essentially argues that a geographically distributed 'intramural' program has upsides. If so, should we not start with a pilot program funded from 10% of the NIH budget currently reserved for 'intramural' research?

November 9, 2010

I foresee massive bureaucratic obstacles predominantly from those enjoying multiple R01 grants concurrently. \n\nI would like to see this program being phased in - say 25% of extramural R01 diverted to this new "extramural tenure-track applicants". After 4 years, with sufficient feedback expand or tweak it accordingly. With enough momentum, this can go a long way towards bringing stability and balance the extramural research circuit.\n\n(entirely my personal opinion - does not reflect my current employer's opinion in part or whole)
Avatar of: Kenneth Pimple

Kenneth Pimple

Posts: 5

November 9, 2010

I find Dr. Yewdell's description of the state of research today - the crush for funds, the lack of joy - to be right on target, and I agree that something has to change. I like his proposals, but the transition needs to be handled very carefully, and it would not be easy. In particular, making university-based researchers Federal employees would take considerable finesse, and eliminating large labs is not going to be popular with those who have them (who, I suspect, have a certain amount of clout).\n\nIf this particular plan does not win out, I hope something better will - and soon.\n\nKen Pimple
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anonymous poster

Posts: 6

November 9, 2010

\nAs someone who has worked in both the NIH intramural program as a postdoc and as a university professor with decent success (I currently hold two RO1s), I would guess that the proposal will reduce scientific productivity. I personally find that the process of writing an NIH proposal forces me to think much more deeply about the plans I have for future research beyond the next paper and leads me to do better science. The problems with the current system noted in the post can be true, but the intramural program is not a great model either, since it never encourages investigators to take broad strategic looks at the future of their science.\n\nI agree with anonymous poster that the biggest problem with the current system is the inclusion of PI salaries on grants. The most recent NIH panel I served on had a grant with nearly $500,000 per year of direct cost, 300,000 of which was the salary of the PI and co-PI. Such grants have led to massive inflation of grant budgets without a concomitant increase in productivity. Faculty at universities should be paid by universities, not the NIH.\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 4

November 9, 2010

I agree with this proposal 100%. I also feel these mega labs often don't equate to greater productivity. They just hire a ton of a postdocs and a couple good ones publish all thier papers. Since they can afford to have 15 postdocs they don't care if certain postdocs don't succeed and it is a terrible case in poor mentoring in my opinion.
Avatar of: Mike Waldrep

Mike Waldrep

Posts: 155

November 9, 2010

Interesting!
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 10

November 9, 2010

The proposal is pertinent to the messy NIH system for extramural research funding, which has grown to disproportions in conjunction with the identity crisis that the universities are going through. The paradigm of having universities turned into big research centers working on research by demand from the NIH is wrong. It benefits only the bureaucracy at universities, and affect students in general who have to pay larger tuition and fees, and see little benefit from having science teachers that see their teaching assignments as mere distraction to their ?more important? duties as researchers. In addition, training students becomes unaffordable for many labs under the pressure to publish. Moreover, the tenure system at universities has been corrupted to the point in which the only thing that matters is that faculty brings money and devaluates teaching. I am for a model in which universities keep their faculty doing academic research as part of their teaching. The NIH should maintain a portion of its budget directed toward academic research, basic research without demands on the subject or orientation. Freedom of research should prevail in universities, that is what they are for. Now, if the NIH wants to support research on demand, it should built its own centers and staff them with as many scientist as needed. If we, the taxpayers have the commitment to cure diseases, then we should pay for it. Centers dedicated to cure autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, or to find a cure and vaccine for AIDS, or for breast and related cancers, etc. should then be built by the NIH, maybe in association with a hospital or school of medicine, but as independent units of extramural research. Then the NIH can combine basic research, translational research or anything it wants within its own research centers, and allocate the money as it decides prudent. We need to distance the needs of the NIH from our universities, we all are wasting time and resources with the current system.
Avatar of: raj jagad

raj jagad

Posts: 3

November 9, 2010

Prior to Bayh?Dole Act US Government owned 30,000 patents and only 5% were implemented. So how much money is spend on paying salaries to learn about things that has no value to anybody expect the PI who is working on it to get paid. So how many Universities have changed those numbers because of Bayh?Dole Act of 1980 that allowed the universities to take control of their Intellectual property. We need to give students more opportunity to fund their own idea via collaboration with Extramural Research that way they don't spend time on research that has little value. We need to ask ourselves are we making progress in science or are we advancing artistic value. The only work around this is to help University stay in touch with real work world. Isolation is important for research but entire institute engross in there own world and disconnected here and there with current problems in Industries and Challenges people has to face is not the way to go Don't get me wrong we want to support our Unversities. They play a key role in many areas of our communities and impact the life of millions in a good way. Redesign of research must change that. So Transition managed. Good way to start is design parameters for University role in our nation. And I disagree there may be bureaucracy at University level when it comes to funds but there is no red tape at NIH level. They welcome new ideas and fund them Here is the related information detail http://nihroadmap.nih.gov/overview.asp
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anonymous poster

Posts: 10

November 9, 2010

We can not measure the value of research only from a commercial point of view. It is like saying that the market is going to solve all our problems, and we have seen how this statement is blatantly wrong. The NIH could look for venture capital and associate with the private sector to support their extramural research centers and use their help to move their products into the market. Obviously, there has to be regulations, but if this is done intelligently, we all will be winners. Universities should remain as enterprises of freedom of thinking. Right now they are moving toward becoming contractors for the NIH.\n\n
Avatar of: MARK WEBER

MARK WEBER

Posts: 19

November 9, 2010

I am all for smaller sized labs. I have been in both large labs and smaller lab environments, as well as industry. Are not academic salaries out of control? Simply keeping the grant writing process as is and limiting the size of labs would solve the problem. We don't need to encourage people who are more cut out to be rock stars to go into science. What is wrong with writing grants? It keeps scientists on their toes, and hungry, but just don't make it impossible to get a small grant to fund a lab with a Ph.D. and a technician. When you need more than that, collaborate. Back to the basics. The need to "commercialize" has killed the process of doing science and has not sped up the development of new products. You are right, there is a crisis and the time to start fixing it is now.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 107

November 9, 2010

His first paragraph is succinct and dead on target. I'm not so sure I agree with his solution. \n\nThe central problem, as he identifies it, is the tendency of the academic research community to expand beyond the resources available to support it. I think he is also correct in identifying the driving force of this process: academic administrators pursuing research dollars as a way to subsidize their institutions. One venerable form of subsidy is indirect costs. Increasingly, research universities are also expecting funding agencies to pay faculty salaries. I agree that this is crazy. (A colleague of mine puts it this way: what if General Motors hired you and then told you to go get your salary from Ford?) One solution (a la Yewdell) would be to end the fiction by having the NIH simply pay the salaries directly for a fixed and limited number of researchers in academia. Problem is, this would still amount to a subsidy of research universities, so it isn't clear (to me anyway) that it would eliminate the motivation for universities to expand their research enterprise to compete for the subsidy. Why wouldn't they continue to overhire, and tell their junior faculty members that landing one of these NIH appointments is a condition of tenure? \n\nI like the suggestions of anonymous poster 11:58:02. The clear net effect would be to take away the financial incentive for universities to expand their research activities. Only the traditional institutional incentives would remain: prestige, and the educational value of having a teaching faculty on the cutting edge of their field. It might not be necessary to do away with indirect costs or even salary support altogether, just cap them at a pretty low level per individual recipient, which would reduce the institutional pressure on individuals to pursue multiple R01s. \n\nTwo problems: unless the government came up with another form of subsidy for higher education, the short term effect on the academic community would be calamitous. An even bigger caveat: despite its cruel and irrational aspects, the present system is fabulously productive in terms of expansion of knowledge. Any major change puts that at risk. Don't understand me wrong. I'm not against tinkering with the system. I'm just saying.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

November 10, 2010

I very much hope that the author doesn't really believe, "Our principal mission as scientists is to pass the torch of the scientific method to the next generation, which entails making science a decent career to pursue." The principal mission of the scientists I work with is not replication but the generation of new knowledge that helps the patients and populations we serve.\n\nThe intramural program at NIH may be a model, but more data is needed. It is my understanding that the cost of the program is enormously more expensive the extramural research by any benchmark you care to choose. Moreover, the author's assertion about intramural review is a joke. Almost all reviews are retrospective.\n\nEfforts to limit extramural soft salary or indirect costs are simply an effort to shift costs to institutions. Where those funds will come from is a mystery. There is no magic bag of money. The research enterprise is heavily subsidized by clinical margins and tuition revenues. No institution makes money on research. The enhanced reputation research brings does support the ability to sustain the clinical enterprise by attracting clinicians and patients, and that certainly adds value. \n\nThe likely impact of further cost sharing is that the rich will get richer (especially those with endowments), while state institutions and those without endowments get left in the dust. Diversity will suffer greatly.\n\nI don't know what the federal interest is in this. Are there too many scientists chasing too few dollars? Sure. But that is an institutional problem, not an NIH problem. If they want to reduce the pool of scientists, NIH can stop funding so many graduate students and postdocs and cure the problem rather quickly. Frankly, governments are not very good at workforce planning and NIH's efforts to manage the research enterprise's size is doomed to failure. It should do what it does best, fund the best science in what ever environment best suits the question being tackled and let the chips fall where they may. Managing community expectations is not in its charge. And thinking that one lab models is superior is hubris.
Avatar of: MELINDA DUNCAN

MELINDA DUNCAN

Posts: 6

November 10, 2010

The comments of the prior poster seem to forget that universities are responsible for training the next generation of life scientists, the vast majority (some studies say 90% or more) will not work in academia chasing grants, they will be the industrial workforce that really will move the new knowledge to new products.\n\nThere is no over supply of research trained MS and Ph.D. students from what we can see, those that graduate from our program get employed quickly in industry even in this economy. However, if the research money supply starts to dry up, our graduate admissions will also be scaled back and industry will not have those employees available.\n\nI value and am proud of the contributions of my research efforts to the possibility of addressing human disease, but the impact of any one research program on any one disease is going to be pretty small in all likelihood. However, I can see the direct impact that the students that I have trained on (mostly industrial) science. It is very important to see the bigger picture. It is not all about the search for knowledge, training is equally or even more important and is what I am most proud of.\n\nAt our university, most of our salaries come via our undergraduate/graduate teaching/training efforts from university funds. Thus we are able to survive on grants that are typically smaller than those of research institutions, generate similar numbers of publications in collaboration with our MS and Ph.D. students and as a bonus generate the scientific workforce. Any new model that stifles that in favor of science solely will soon find that no one is left trained to take these scientific findings to the market.
Avatar of: Susan Fitzpatrick

Susan Fitzpatrick

Posts: 10

November 10, 2010

As someone who thinks about science funding because it is how I earn my living and because I have tried to draw attention to the detrimental warping the current system exerts on academic norms and values - I have floated an idea akin to the one in this Opinion piece for more than a decade. I have run it by many of my friends and colleagues, mostly successful biomedical researchers at prestigious research universities who are well-funded by NIH. The difficulty is that many may think it a good idea as long as the "everyone has enough but no one is huge or overly rich" rubric is ONLY applied to others. Individual researchers always manage to come up with reasons as to why he or she should be the exception. Whining for dollars has become the leading academic indoor sport and no one does it better than biomedical researchers! The roots of this problem deserve serious outing - the overbuilding, the addiction to indirects, the abuse of trainees, and the useless, iterative, disconnected "disease model" research supported by the general populace misled into thinking that this work will improve "health." A smaller, leaner basic biomedical enterprise unfettered and allowed to study serious biology coupled to a rational thoughtful way of conducting applied and clinical research based on deep understanding of disease processes will probably accomplish much more than the bloated work-fare program we currently are trapped in.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 28

November 10, 2010

In fact, NIH grant review system has already been corrupted, wasting huge efforts of scientists (US).\n\nHow could one images that reviewers could trash a creative and innovative proposal in which they could not indicate substantial flaws except for technical trivials.\n\nFor example, one creattive and innovative proposal was scored in first submission, but trashed in second submission with higher categorized score than first submision without significant flaws. The overall score (de facto impression scoe rather than scientific score of reviewers) was significantly lower than categorized scores just because of the new face of apllicants to the study section. \n\nAmerican scientists could import iPS and regulatory T cells but they could not invent them.\n\nWhy? it is because of the corrupted review system, which mainly supports inremental research and take care of personal relationship rather than science.\n\nHot topics between the reviewers of study section are how to take care of apllicants they have already known well each other. \n\nThe review system has been suppressing the discovery from creative investigators.\n\n\n\n\n

November 10, 2010

T(h)is perspective/idea(s) is thought-provoking, but warrants more demanding measures about which the biomedical research community would not be all excited about. \nI wonder about Ron Germain's thought in this regard,as he is a big time big-lab PI himself (I know you know)\nsincerely\nSuresh Radhakrishnan.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 11

November 11, 2010

It is a timely article, highlights the current status and provides some practical suggestions to fix the problem. Unfortunately, in situations like this, people (investigators and post doctoral fellows) who are affected by the current system do not have any power to change the direction. On the other hand, people (NIH and university administrators) who can do something about the problem seem to care less since it is not their problem. \n\nThe indirect cost that NIH provides to institutions is partly responsible for the current problem. University administrators should be responsible for generating some part of the funds if they want to support and expand their research enterprise. It will make them more responsible about how they handle the money that investigators currently bring. This will also keep the work force balanced by training fewer people. The current system is not sustainable. Hope things will change for better.\n
Avatar of: Nejat Duzgunes

Nejat Duzgunes

Posts: 10

November 11, 2010

Jonathan Yewdell?s analysis of the current state of biomedical research in the U.S. is insightful. In a recent editorial in Science, Bruce Alberts (2010) stated ?With success rates for acquiring an NIH grant below 10% in some cases, achieving a stable research career now has elements of a lottery, with one's future depending on a chance ranking assigned through a peer-review process that is unable to discriminate adequately among a sea of research proposals. Biomedical scientists are spending far too much effort writing grant applications and reviewing those of others, leaving precious little time to do what they should be doing: reading the scientific literature and thinking deeply about their research and teaching.? In an earlier editorial in the ASCB Newsletter, Alberts (2007) wrote ?The careers of outstanding researchers can be terminated through bad luck in a chance selection process, one that resembles a game of Russian roulette.? Indeed, ?We have met the enemy, and he is us.?\n\nIn the current system, NIH is not funding actual discoveries, but mopping up operations, since applicants need to have already made their discovery to have any chance at getting funded. The tedious description of what a scientist is going to do five years from now is an unrealistic exercise in bureaucracy and is contrary to the true nature of scientific research (Duzgunes, 1999). \n\nThe solution is a paradigm shift in the way we fund research (Duzgunes, 2007).\nDr. Yewdell?s proposal to have a version of the NIH intramural system in universities reminds me of the CNRS labs partnered with universities in France, and could be a component of the new paradigm.\n\nAnother component of the new system should be the allocation of about half of NIH funding to scientists who have a track record of solid publications, and to young scientists with a proven post-doctoral track record and starting their first independent position. These awardees will save much time by not having to submit numerous grant applications, avoid the anxiety of uncertainty, focus on their research, take risks, and afford to be creative. With grants limited to $300,000/year for ?established? investigators and $50,000/year for younger scientists, and indirect costs limited to 30%, we can fund 80,000 grants at a cost of $18.2 billion/year. This is more than 3 times the number of grants NIH funds now. Imagine how many more new ideas will be generated by these 80,000 grantees to help cure cancer, AIDS, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer?s, among many other diseases. This will be in addition to the regular grants that require much larger levels of funding, but whose total number will have to be reduced by half to accommodate the stable grants. All in all, we can have about 90,000 NIH grants.\n\nNIH will save a lot of money and grant reviewers will save a lot of time by eliminating the arduous review process on these 80,000 grants. Unfortunately, these former grant reviewers will not be privy to their competitors' ideas! The system proposed here will distribute more efficiently and equitably our scarce resources to scientists with demonstrated merit and accomplishments, and will greatly reduce the anxiety of scientists (Couzin & Miller, 2007). The new system will be a more humane and rational way of funding biomedical research.\n\nB. Alberts (2010) Overbuilding research capacity. Science 329 (10 September), p. 1257.\n\nB. Alberts, (2007) Peer-review processes at the National Institutes of Health. ASCB Newsletter 30(2) (February), p. 2.\n\nN. Duzgunes (1999) Science by consensus: Why the NIH grant review system must be changed. The Scientist 13 (12 April), p. 13.\n\nN. Duzgunes (2007) A new paradigm for NIH grants. The Scientist 21 (August), p. 24.\n \nJ. Couzin and G. Miller (2007) Boom and bust, Science 316 (20 April), p. 356. \n\nNejat Düzgüneş, Ph.D.\nProfessor of Microbiology\nDepartment of Biomedical Sciences\nUniversity of the Pacific\nArthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry\n2155 Webster Street\nSan Francisco, CA 94115\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

November 11, 2010

What about PIs who have 3 or 4 R01s and have consistently got their grants renewed despite not doing any of the proposed experiments outlined in their expiring R01s? How they get their grants renewed is a mystery! In the process other investigators who do science and don't spend enough time in building these "you-scratch-my-back-I-will-scratch-yours networks" lose their chance to "veterans" who have learned to efficiently milk the system.\nWhen a grant is submitted for renewal, there must be a process in place to check if satisfactory progress has been achieved and if not, the PI should provide specific comments as to why certain proposed experiments were not attempted or why other unrelated projects were started and funds utilized for these new projects. Of course the argument is that science doesn't work as the PI proposes and change of course is necessary to aid new discoveries. But not even attempting proposed experiments and using that money to start new projects should be strongly discouraged. Especially when these multiple R01 PIs seem to attract the most students, mistreat most of their post-docs and stake claims on the biggest chunk of space and equipment just because they have figured a way to channel the tax-payers dollars. These kind of so-called "star scientists" are the real villains as they suck a lot of money out of NIH, don't carry out the research they are supposed to, don't mentor students or post-docs, but spend most of their time on count-less study sections or in writing wonderful grant proposals that they don't intend to translate into experiments once their grants get funded. Many of the "stars" get paid enormous salaries and institutions are happy to have the "stars" because their grants pay for a large part of the stellar salaries and the institutions are delighted to lay their hands on the "indirect costs" from multiple R01s. These "star" scientists bedazzle everyone with their grant dollars and sadly no one notices the dismal science or the lost students and post-docs in these labs. All small institutes and universities have their share of such "stars". Once there is a process in place to cut funding to these "star scientists", and a mechanism to track PIs who consistently forget to do the proposed experiments, there will be enough money for the rest of the "real" scientists and "real" progress in science! \n\nSadly, all human enterprise is subject to exploitation by individuals who devise ways to derive personal benefits by working around rules or norms. Constantly revising the system and subjecting it to critical scrutiny is perhaps the only way to reduce such instances and it is essential that it be done despite the load it will put on everyone involved. To some "scientists" science will continue to be the biggest money-making business they are qualified to do! It is surprising that despite the billions of dollars of tax-payers money that is put into bio-medical research, there are unbelievably lax review systems in place to ensure that all the money is efficiently and conscientiously utilized.\n\nA simple mechanism such as a box which needs to be checked if the PI has 2 current NIH grants that will not expire in the next 2years could alert the reviewers to decide on funding the submitted proposal only if it is significantly fund-worthy. This would discourage PIs from spending all their time in writing grants and free them from a lot of pressure. It would ensure that they spread out the grant writing process so that they can focus their time and energy in nurturing younger researchers and planning and making sure the proposed and funded experiments are being carried out.\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 28

November 13, 2010

\nOnce there is a process in place to cut funding to these "star scientists", and a mechanism to track PIs who consistently forget to do the proposed experiments, there will be enough money for the rest of the "real" scientists and "real" progress in science! \n\nExactly! \n\n\n\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

November 18, 2010

It's good ideal, but just take a look at the productivities from the intramural labs in NIH, you will know it's not practical.
Avatar of: Eric Murphy

Eric Murphy

Posts: 7

November 18, 2010

I couldn't agree more. See my editorial in Lipids 45:889-890 entitled "NIH, Science, and Baseball: Time for Reform"\n\nTherein I expand on an idea that was originally published in The Scientist as a letter in 2009.\n\nWe as a group need to push for reform now, but I am afraid the OD will only perform minor surgery on a terribly broken system. \n
Avatar of: DONALD FORSDYKE

DONALD FORSDYKE

Posts: 4

November 18, 2010

A definite improvement, but still a mere tinkering without addressing the fundamentals. The important issues Dr. Yewdell raises have been dealt with in my text "Tomorrow's Cures Today? How to Reform the Health Research System." Details of this may be found at http://post.queensu.ca/~forsdyke/peerrev.htm#Book\n
Avatar of: Edward Draper

Edward Draper

Posts: 3

November 18, 2010

Although I respect Yewdell's frustration over the apparently uncontrolled and insufficiently monitored non-system of support for biomedical research, I suspect that his and other's ideas to improve it miss the point.\n\nIndeed, striving for greater efficiency and relevance in our apparently wasteful and complex "system" has potential to damage, not improve it. Furthermore, government support for pure and applied research though large is not the only nor necessarily the best source of funding. Like most federal ideas applied nationally, its lack of relevance in many specific applications stands out. The much smaller but more focused goals of privately funded research seems to be in some ways slightly better. Both are good.\n\nTo take a roughly similar analogy: from certain limited perspectives the human organism, because of its vast structural and operational redundancy, is very inefficient and terribly wasteful of its available resources. But without such redundancy neither its incredible complexity nor its continuing viability is possible.\n\nTo a single liver cell or brain cell, its own activity and those of its immediate colleagues is terribly important--and, at that scale, even indispensable. On another scale, its sacrifice may be considered insignificant, or even necessary for higher purpose. But rendering the host organ 90-100% "efficient" by eliminating superabundant redundancy is an outcome which much of our inefficient biomedical research seeks to prevent!\n\nIrrational excess on one scale is potentially systematic success on another. Vigorous pruning produces a host of unintended consequences.
Avatar of: Michael Holloway

Michael Holloway

Posts: 55

November 18, 2010

So let me get this straight. There are too many researchers and too few dollars, but there isn't any problem with training too many students and throwing a good portion of them to the wolves of unemployment? It has the advantage of being very convenient for PIs who need cheap labor, but what some would consider to be the disadvantage of flying directly into the face of the facts of the highly competitive job market faced by life sciences PhDs.\n\nThere will be no solution until the overpopulation problem is recognized and addressed. Unfortunately, there is still motivation to cynically promote the myth that there is a shortage of PhD students.
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anonymous poster

Posts: 1

November 18, 2010

The current biomedical research career path for current trainees or aspirants is not so attractive due to broken system essentially stemmed from funding resources. \nYes I agree with Jonathan Yewdell frustration with current system and appreciate his interests and ideas toward changing system. Having been as a graduate student, post doc for last several years in biomedical field, I have to admit that at each stage your nature of job mostly does not change. Essentially doing bench work to generate data and everlasting pressure to generate data. The nature of job you do as a PhD student and post doc is not very different. As the nature of research is uncertain and you are always challenged with technical and scientific issues and you may better handle certain specific issues as you add years of working in the labs. The underlying thing is that whether you are a graduate student or post doc, you perceived as an object of generating data, not as a trainee having privilege of working along with experienced scientists on bench and interacting with them intellectually in addressing scientific issues or preparing you for a career.\n\nWhy do we need to post doc in the name of training when there is only 20-25% of post docs are getting tenure track positions and about 15% getting industry after 5 years of post doc. My point is that all graduate and post doc training is so long and in effective primarily due to self-training and not a structured interest on the part of PI to make their trainees excel in different paths of science. PIs are not to be blamed they are the people who need to write all the stories to granting agencies to get more money and also find fundable stories serving on review panels. The more the money he gets he improves his STAR status in the institution and his paycheck. Essentially he/she is after grant money and publications that results from his lab. Essentially mostly writing/editing. In this process it is intuitive that doing that PI becomes out of touch with bench work and issues of real science. \n\nUnfortunately the current system operates not in training module as the nature of job as a post doc is very different form the nature of PI for which you are being trained. Not many post docs get grant writing opportunities, teaching opportunities and supervisory opportunities. Interestingly, most of the PIs are in their own world not having view of how to train their trainees for different opportunities as they fit into their specific talents. Again not to blame PIs, this is the problem with current structure of how we evaluate productivity.\n\nIt is obvious that more structure is needed in the universities to train students/trainees in their chosen path of scientific success, having intense course work at graduate level with different component of scientific investigation for first 3 2 years ?including technical classes encompassing specific field of study, leadership classes, having internships at industry or other institution to get a view of what is being done at different place. Combining basic and applied research running collaborative projects with biotech industries. Then discuss with graduate students about the available research projects with different flavors that help him decide which direction he/she wants to go. The training got to be different if it is in fact training -----years of working on the bench doing the same thing over and over again ---as a graduate student/post doc.\n\nJust to make my point I do not think your ability to do research /job is dramatically different what it used to be before years of current existing post doc training. One more thing about current state of research is if two scientists talk they talk about number of publications and grant money etc ?.not about their key scientific discoveries or what the publication is about?\n\nDue to current system scientists are becoming narrow in their approach and shifting away from real world issues ? working in their boundaries---boundaries of comfort?. conducting business with tax payers money?.\n\nIt is time now to remodel system with more emphasis on PIs to train students /trainees to make better tomorrow, not waste their valuable time to spend on 10% success grants and serving on panels to spend more time with peers than with their trainees.\n\nMy point is that professors are not the instruments for getting money to institution nor the graduate students are objects of generating data to facilitate the process of getting grants and publications. Professors are recruited at the institution to train students or trainees to help students achieve their potential. Ironically the current status in biomedical training is that students or post docs are there to meet the objectives of grants or aspirations of PI. \n\nI see Universities should remodel their structure with the help of Federal agencies with primary focus on well-grounded scientific training including technical, managerial, leadership and intellectual. The productivity of universities /professors should be measured on the excellence of their trainees. These well-trained scientist may go 100% research laboratories to conduct their research or industry to pursue their careers in doing so building better tomorrow.\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 4

November 29, 2010

This is a good article that is mostly well thought through. However, I must submit that it will be almost impossible to truly challenge the system. Part of the problem is that the venture capitalists are the government and the reviewers who determine the quality of the application and therefore funding have no vested interest in the outcome. The University Presidents and Deans have no responsibility for bringing in funds or develop a truly useful advance that gets evaluated, but have a vested in increasing indirect costs which fund administration and would like to crack the whip to get as much money as possible. Slowly but surely, administration has even decided to place the burden of most of the salary on the investigation (as much as 200 K, NIH max + benefits), which already exceeds a modular grant. An NIH intramural type system, which supports PI + 1 Tech + 6 PDFs will easily cost $ 1 million per lab. Multiply that by 50000 and that will go way beyond the NIH budget. Finally, this will boil down to return on investment for the taxpayer. I think the best return is as numerous companies that form the Biotech sector that drew inspiration from Basic Science, which definitely needs more support. The business of translation belongs to industry, which is really the reward.\n\n
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anonymous poster

Posts: 4

November 29, 2010

Some of the funding crisis really arose due to the large increase in the number of research scientists funded by NIH training support with really no purpose other than working for the NIH funded research system. Students saw this an an exciting area that did not require a lot of risk with all the free training and assumed that, as doctors, they will be well situated anyway. However, since the system does not respond to needs of industry, it loses touch with reality. The system is clearly not designed to produce competitive products in the market and most (even useful) research will not directly reach the marketplace unless it is picked up by industry. Indeed, conflict of interest rules would prevent most people from directly moving their discoveries to industry. Unless training is clearly focussed towards a job outside the University enterprise and human resource development by Universities is measured by the percentage of trainees placed in relevant industries, the system will keep developing talented manpower without an outlet, only to dump them when they can no longer deliver grants and their benchwork can be replaced by cheaper and more enthusiastic (younger) individuals. The exciting research is not going to produce something tangible or financially rewarding anyway. The important thing for the young to realize is that this is a fairly thankless profession and they can develop and use their talent much better by training in industry to start their own biotech enterprise, which will make them more successful. The only reason to join a PhD program is to become a Professor or teacher and that needs to be tied to the number of students willing to pay for their training. Given this situation, NIH needs to limit training grants and direct some of the money towards industry for them to control the development of relevant training programs in universities.

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