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Are there too many scientists?

Funding woes plague US biomedical researchers. But calls for more funding ignore the structural problems that push universities to produce too many scientists, argues Brian C. Martinson in a Nature Commentary this week (Nature 449, 141-142; 2007). Instead, existing researchers should be given more time, space and freedom to ask questions in new ways, to take risks, and to innovate. Reducing the intensity of competition for NIH (National Institutes of Health) funds is one way of making this happen. Dr Martinson writes:

There are two main routes to contraction of the academic workforce today — through tenure failures, and with younger investigators shifting from academia into industry research. This is worrisome for university research in particular because history suggests that the most dramatic innovations come from the young. So is the only solution to force long-time NIH grant getters into retirement? Perhaps not. Universities have benefited handsomely from the efforts of senior faculty members in securing NIH grants during their careers, perhaps those same universities could now return the favour by taking full responsibility for paying these faculty salaries in their later years. This would serve the dual purpose of getting them off the NIH dole, and encouraging them to share their knowledge with their younger colleagues through more teaching.

This won’t be easy. Given the levels of dependency on NIH money, it is akin to asking an addict to give up an easy fix. And not all universities will be in financial positions to employ this strategy, but it’s difficult to imagine that richer institutions — some of whom acknowledge that their success lies in capturing an increasing share of the NIH pie— could not lead the way in this. Prospective students and their parents may also look favourably on senior faculty members spending more time teaching.

See here for the full Commentary article.

A related Editorial on the NIH grant-allocation process is discussed at Peer to Peer.

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    Maxine said:

    David Korn and Stephen J. Heinig of the Association of American Medical Colleges, Washington DC write in the 1 November Correspondence page of Nature (450, 27; 2007):

    Brian Martinson in his Commentary suggests that short-sighted greed for federal grants motivates academic leadership to sacrifice the future interests of biomedical research. On the contrary, such grants do not cover the full costs of the research projects they support.

    The annual shortfall of billions of dollars (see C. A. Goldman and T. Williams Paying for University Research Facilities and Administration Rand, Santa Monica; 2000) must be offset from the limited sources of discretionary funds available to universities: tuition fees, state funding, philanthropy, technology transfer or revenues derived from the clinical practice of the faculty.

    Of these, philanthropy is serendipitous and generally attracts investment in new initiatives rather than in sustaining existing programmes. The pressures on tuition costs and clinical-practice margins have been widely publicized. Technology transfer only rarely brings significant, sustainable revenues.

    If academic institutions merely sought to maximize short-term revenues, they would not make the substantial long-term commitments of capital to physical plant, state-of-the-art technologies and skilled personnel that they do.

    We believe that the expansion of research capacity is being driven instead by the explosive pace of advances in the biomedical sciences and in our understanding of the processes of health and disease, as well as by mounting dependence on multidisciplinary research teams and increasingly sophisticated new technologies.

    These investments are inherently risky in their anticipation of future returns from federal and other sponsored research. Accordingly, the decision-making behind them is deliberate and calculated: university governing boards, bound by their fiduciary obligations, are inherently conservative.

    The distress caused by National Institutes of Health budgets that have steadily declined in purchasing power since 2003 is being widely and acutely felt. But increases in these budgets are unlikely; simply sustaining the enterprise to keep pace with inflation — which Martinson terms “prudent” — has been difficult.

    The biomedical research enterprise does need to adapt to fiscal realities, but restructuring the historic ‘business model’ for academic research, including the composition of its workforce, will be very difficult. At minimum, such restructuring must be guided by sensitivity to the institutions’ missions, recognition of the intense sociopolitical expectations of them and accurate perception of what is necessary for their academic and economic survival.

    See http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v450/n7166/full/450027c.html

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