DrMrA pointed out this article (Research funding: Closing arguments, by Meredith Wadman) in the current issue of the journal Nature. The article details the career of two successful women scientists, who have recently been unable to renew their NIH grants and are whittling their labs down to the bare minimum…. and fighting to survive. Their struggle breaks my heart, and I know highly qualified and productive scientists, who are excellent grant writers, are going through the same thing all over this country.
But what got me all riled was this statement…from a former assistant director of NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute… :
But others say that the system is working as it should: there has to be a line, and someone has to fall below it. “Sometimes there is a flaw in the review but usually the other proposals were just plain better,” says Kathy Hudson, director of the Genetics and Public Policy Center of Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC and a former assistant director of the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute. “We like to bemoan the limited NIH budget, and all of us who feed at the NIH trough see endless benefits to biomedical research, especially our own. But these are taxpayer dollars in hard economic times; it is not an entitlement.”
SAY WHAT???- I’m not sure what planet this is coming from… but the ‘usually the other proposals were just plain better’ talk in this environment of <10th percentile funding lines just seems like complete uninformed nonsense to me. There is so much about the hallowed ‘system’- who gets assigned to review your grant, who’s even on the panel when your grant comes up, the dynamics between investigators in a particular field… who, by the way, are the ones that review the proposals, lack of continuity in the review process (i.e. different reviewers in different rounds), who is friends with who, whether you go against the dogma in a particular field… etc etc etc.- that’s just plain arbitrary. It’s frightening that someone, especially someone who should be in the know if they have seen this up close and personal, could even imagine that the 11th percentile grants that aren’t getting funded are ‘usually’ just plain worse than those in the 10th percentile. I MEAN HONESTLY.
Secondly, that part about feeding at the NIH trough- this just makes me UPSET. I’ve devoted, as have the dedicated scientists that I know, my education and my career to bettering public health. I’m offended that this comment makes me sound like a parasite on the public system for seeking public funding for research- which is “not an entitlement”. We’ve put a value in this country on public funding for basic biomedical research as an engine that drives (in whatever order you like) scientific and technical innovation, insight into basic mechanisms of and cures for human disease, and an economic engine from our labs to big pharma- and as a result we have a system that is second to none in the world. I’m disheartened that we would talk about this system as though it’s just another ‘entitlement’ that we can do without.
Next time I’ll remember to give up my idealism and work on less noble causes, then maybe I’ll get smart and be feeding at the military-industrial or the Wall-Street bailout troughs….
** There is also an editorial entitled ‘A crisis of confidence’ (Nature 457, 5 February 2009) in the same issue.. that’s worth a read. Furthermore, C PP has a post at Drugmonkey on the same article…