U.S. innovation at risk: Science funding crunch clashes with a burgeoning Ph.D. workforce

By Lakshmi Chandrasekaran

“A CR (continuing resolution) Attenuates Progress. That would be C-R-A-P in case you haven’t figured that out,” said National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins last month, talking about how government funding affects research.

Collins, quoted in Science magazine, referred to an amorphous continuing federal funding program that ends this Friday.

Congress passed a CR in September to fund federal government agencies – including research-funding institutions such as the NIH and National Science Foundation (NSF) – through this week. This means the current levels of funding would continue until the ‘artificial deadline’ of December 9th.  Beyond that, there is had been no further funding plan in place. And hence Francis Collins’ colorful lament.

In the latest update, Congress has passed an extension to this stopgap-funding bill to last until April 28th of next year. This is akin to kicking the bucket down the road and having no long-term resolutions in place.

It is not as if research funding agencies always get what they want. For the 2017 research budget, NIH has proposed a $825 million (2.6 percent) increase and NSF’s budget request proposes an increase of $500.53 million (6.7 percent) over levels sought for 2016. However, last year NSF proposed an increase of nearly 380 million dollars (5.2 percent increase) over 2015 funding levels and Congress approved only 1.6 percent increase of $119 million.

Funding is even more uncertain now due to President-elect Donald Trump’s previous criticisms of NIH.  Trump, talking to conservative radio host Michael Savage last year, said, “I hear so much about the NIH, and it’s terrible.” With such ambiguous statements from the leader of the next administration, the fate of science funding for the next four years remains the biggest mystery and a source of consternation among researchers.

The Bloomberg Innovation Index for 2015, gives the U.S. an overall ranking of sixth place in innovation out of world’s 50 most innovative countries. South Korea tops the list as a world leader in innovation according to the Bloomberg report. By steering well-trained bright minds away from academia, our country might experience a drain of human potential on innovation. We are at risk of losing supremacy in areas such as research and development, manufacturing, patents, education etc.

“We are thinking hard about ways to better understand the state of biomedical research in an era of hyper-competition, and ways in which we can support a larger number of outstanding scientists and foster the future biomedical research workforce,” Megan Columbus, from the Office of Extramural Research at the NIH said.

Columbus added that NIH is addressing the challenge of funding grant proposals by actively exploring how to manage the biomedical research portfolio to optimize impact and sustainability of the scientific enterprise and the research workforce.  NIH programs include support for early career researchers and the next generations of the biomedical workforce. Columbus highlighted their BEST (NIH Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training) program, a career transition award program for advanced post-doctoral research scientists.

Post-docs have become vulnerable researchers facing insecure career paths as Ph.D. degrees outpace professorships and academic research.

In the U.S. academic system, professors at research-heavy universities often receive promotions based on the amount of grant money they can secure from foundations, industrial partners and governmental agencies such as NSF or NIH. These academic positions are referred to as ‘tenure-track’. In theory, this translates to a lifetime employment as a professor, an extremely alluring prospect for researchers with a Ph.D., who spend an average of 14 years after high school on advanced degrees and post-docs to be eligible to apply for a tenured job .

Over the past decade, Ph.D.s awarded in science and engineering majors as reported by the NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates is at the highest level ever recorded in the past 58 years. The report indicates that as of 2014, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields account for 75 percent of the doctorates awarded, compared to a 66 percent awarded in 2004.

But as the laws of economics dictate with any growing population, the demand for resources hits the ceiling as time progresses. And sure enough, recent trends show a narrower pool of jobs for freshly minted Ph.D.s- with one tenure-track position opening up for every 18 Ph.D. graduates.

Traditionally, most Ph.D.s expand on their expertise during a few years of postdoctoral training before landing a tenure-track academic position. However, the report indicates that in every discipline including non-STEM fields, the number of graduates with a committed academic employment hit an all-time low in 2014 compared to the past 15 years.

A non-postdoc industry job pays a Ph.D. in a median salary range of $40,000 to $105,000 as of 2014. This is much higher than pay packages for academic post-doc jobs with starting salaries of $40,000-$49,000. Despite the lack of monetary incentives, many tenacious Ph. D.s clamor for academic positions – making the already dwindling number of positions highly competitive.

“It’s a very specific personality that wants to stay in academics: whether you want to put up with the funding situation, with being stretched in so many different ways,” said Alice Doughty, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Earth Sciences at Dartmouth University. Doughty is on a hunt for a tenure-track professorship position and feels that there are far more postdocs than there are faculty positions available. “For one job that I applied for in Boston, the email said something like ‘Sorry you didn’t make the shortlist- there were over 400 applications for this job.’ So that gave me a little bit of perspective,” she said. “But, I really enjoyed it so far and would like to continue it,” states a confident Doughty.

So, what are the repercussions of Congress’ (in)action and how is it felt in the research community in America?

The market data on the dearth of academic positions is influencing the careers choices of the current crop of would-be doctorates. “It has become easier for graduating STEM PhD’s to get a post-doc position. The real bottleneck comes when finding tenure or non-tenure track research positions at universities,” said Danielle Fanslow, a graduate student in Life Sciences at Northwestern University. Gina Daniel, another Ph.D. student of Microbiology and Immunology at Northwestern University, concurs. “In mine and my colleagues’ experience, it is easiest to get an academic post-doc position. But I’ve heard peers say they’ve gotten one offer after submitting 60 or 100 applications for tenure-track positions.”

The funding crunch and lack of academic positions has motivated students like Fanslow and Daniel to think about ‘alternate’ career options even before graduating with a Ph.D. And here is where academic institutions and senior professors can play a critical role in preparing students for both securing grants and ‘alternate’ career choices, outside of academia.

“We advise post-docs to be engaged in learning about all steps of the funding process from preparing an application to the review process to appropriate financial management of sponsored awards. Post-docs at Northwestern have been quite successful when applying for non-federally sponsored awards,” said Jennifer Hobbs, Director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA) at Northwestern University, citing a couple of postdoc examples, who have gone on to obtain faculty positions at University of Texas and Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine as a result of obtaining non-federal grants.

As examples of other initiatives run by the OPA, Hobbs said their office partners with Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management to support the participation of a select number of post-docs in a week-long program that provides foundational knowledge and skills in core business disciplines, such as accounting, strategy, leadership, and management of intellectual property.

Northwestern also participates in programs that enhance the diversity of the faculty. “We take part in the Professorial Advancement Initiative (PAI), funded by NSF Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate Transformation grant,” said Hobbs. Through PAI, Northwestern works with 11 institutional partners and the Big Ten Academic Alliance to provide targeted professional development activities, a cross-institutional mentoring team, as well as opportunities to connect with postdoctoral fellows and faculty from other institutions participating in Big Ten Academic Alliance.

Graduate students such as Fanslow are appreciative that Northwestern recognizes the need to train students for non-academic career paths. “I am able to participate in several career development activities at Northwestern such as writing for the Helix Magazine and participating in the Chicago Graduate Student Association,” she said, adding that these activities gave her necessary communication and management skills that she cannot get in the lab.

Liz Bajema is close to finishing her Ph.D. in chemistry at Northwestern, where she focused on using cobalt-based molecules to manufacture new drugs to cure cancer. But she’s thinking of exploring alternate career choices such as consulting or data analytics or a career in industry. “The job market on the whole for chemists isn’t terrible, but tenure-track academic positions are scarce.” Bajema felt that this has certainly influenced her career choice, “because I do not want to invest in an academic career that may or may not pan out, “ she said.

With the academic scenario bleak for entry-level tenure-track position seekers, how do already-tenured scientists fare? Data from NIH’s Office of Extramural Research shows an acceptance rate of a mere one in every six proposals submitted for funding in 2014.

John Holdren, a physicist by training and President Barack Obama’s science adviser and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has acknowledged in an interview with Nature magazine that worthy proposals vastly exceed what the NIH and NSF is able to fund.

Of the nearly 40,000 newcomer investigators applying for these grants in 2014, the NIH funding rate stood at a historically low level of 25.1 percent. Customarily, this bracket has always been accorded a special status, since these new professors need money setting up their research project.

And for tenured professors – with well-established projects and a history of productivity, it is still a scramble to secure grant money. Meredith Kelly, an associate professor of Earth Science at Dartmouth College who works in climate change research, said that as a young assistant professor she found it easier to obtain grants from NSF. “Now, that I am tenured it’s really hard to get grants. I feel like the bar is higher and that’s the challenge that I am facing right now. I spend so many hours writing proposals. I should just write papers but then I can’t fund my graduate students!”

Compared to the funding shortage in America, other industrialized countries are pushing for professorships and expanded research. Earlier this year, the German federal government created 1000 professorships by signing an agreement worth $1.1 billion. “This is going in a good direction. Up to now, there was no such a plan,” said Martin Lotze, Professor of Neurology at the University of Greifswald, Germany. This is probably a good start although Lotze doesn’t think this initiative may help much since it obviously would not be able to employ all the 28,000 medical and Ph.D.s who graduate from German universities every year.

Besides, a peculiar German science employment law restricts the creation of permanent professorship position in universities and requires the well-established professors to quit their positions after 12 years, pushing them  back into the job market again. “That’s why so many scientists from Germany go to the States, to Australia or to the UK,” said Lotze.

Also, a recent study cautions against the mere creation of more faculty slots. The authors contend that more professorship openings would not only increase the number of professors but as a consequence produce more future Ph.D. students that these professors graduate from their labs. Hence the problem of a doctorate surplus in the job market would keep persisting.

“There’s definitely a link between declining levels of federal funding and public views on the quality of science,” said Dietram Scheufele, John E. Ross Professor in Science Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But it’s much more pernicious than simply assuming that voters make inferences about the value of science from the amounts of money the federal government spends on the scientific enterprise,” he clarified.

So does the lack of government funding necessarily translates to reduced scientific research? Not necessarily, said Scheufele adding that since the 1960s, we have defunded science enough to have two-thirds of that research being funded by industry.  This opens the door to commercial interests that determine what kind of research takes place, rather than create an unbridled atmosphere where true innovation occurs. This trend also provides the anti-vaccine movement and the anti-GMO lobby with all the ammunition they need to undermine scientific consensus.

But ultimately, as a result of shrinking budgets affecting the number of academic jobs, what are the repercussions that our country is facing?

“In the long run, shrinking federal budgets for science will create a crisis of confidence that will not just create public health crises, but also undermine our ability to compete in the global marketplace and in terms of national security with countries like China or Germany who are investing heavily in science and technology,” said Scheufele.

Photo at top: The drop in U.S. government science funding is driving scientists away from academic careers. (felixioncool/pixabay.com)