A New System
We believe it is time for scientists to rethink the system for performing and funding biomedical research. Surely, we can devise a system that:
- pays young scientists a decent wage with long-term benefits and offers a reasonable chance of a long-lasting career performing/directing bench research;
- does not insist that scientists pursuing basic research predict the unknowns of nature in their research grants;
- recognizes that high-risk, high-reward science is actually risky; and
- is sustainable with level (i.e., inflation-adjusted) NIH budgets.
We believe that, while not perfect, the NIH intramural system provides a starting model for such a sustainable and equitable system. Laboratories are funded based on the topic of investigation: the costs of clinical and animal studies, generally higher than in vitro studies, are fully covered. “Fully” means just that: all salaries, benefits, supplies, services, and overhead costs are included. Continued support is based on not what NIH investigators propose to discover, but on what they have actually discovered during the prior four years.
The nearly universally acknowledged truth is that scientists who have had good ideas over the years leading to published discoveries will continue to be productive without the need to prove themselves every grant cycle. Labs are moderately sized (seven to ten members) and do not expand over the years, encouraging active collaboration between groups, further fostered by lack of competition between groups for funding.
We propose that this system be extended to university-based investigators. Investigators recruited to the new system would be directly and fully funded by the NIH. Support would be sufficient for a medium-sized lab (up to 10 members), and would preclude receiving additional NIH funding.
Those who apply would be selected on their record of productivity. Since many successful investigators will likely have larger groups, the new system could actually free resources to increase the number of investigators supported by NIH. Tenure-track investigators could be easily recruited into this system just as they are now, based on their record of accomplishment as students and post docs and their proposed course of investigation.
We believe this system would promote more collegial, creative, and productive basic research, as investigators are freed from grant writing to explore the unknown. However, implementing such a system requires that the long-term benefits of basic biological research are clearly recognized as a core mission of NIH funding.
A key part of reforming biomedical research is to quantitatively compare the current system vs. whatever new systems are implemented. Comparisons should include not just scientific productivity by standard metrics, but also measures of happiness, satisfaction, and career progression of young scientists.
Creating a sustainable system means making science an attractive and reasonable career choice for the best and brightest. To a remarkable extent, American youth are idealistic and willing, even anxious, to contribute positively to society. There is tangible evidence of this, based on the number of students actively seeking internships at the NIH each summer, as applicants exceed positions at a ratio of roughly five to one.
To tap this communal spirit, we need to make science a career that offers a reasonable prospect of stability, and allows young scientists the opportunity to have a satisfying personal life in addition to a meaningful and productive professional experience.