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.