Drew MacKellar: Harvard

Topic: Government Sources
by Drew MacKellar
Harvard Medical School

As contributing the lion’s share of research funding in the US, federal government agencies like the NIH and NSF are crucial in shaping the culture and direction of science. In conversations with other scientists, I’ve heard several themes of proposed changes in the way these agencies distribute funds. Firstly, everyone I know would advocate for increased federal funding of basic research; while the US is a leader in total research conducted, as a percent of GDP our investment trails several other nations. Nearly all recognize that is unlikely to change however, and other suggestions seem more immediately actionable.

Fluctuations in the NIH budget, for instance, are a concern, and complicate scientists’ expectations of getting grants funded, let alone more long-term adjustments such as the number of trainees entering a field and anticipating being able to maintain employment for an entire career. If the NIH & NSF could be guaranteed funding for longer periods, and not tied as immediately to political cycles, planning and follow-through on research investments might improve. Publicly-funded research must remain responsive to democracy, but the current year-by-year reassessment of research priorities may not be the most efficient way to fund science. As a starting point, setting the NIH budget to last as long as the average grant awarded would seem prudent.

Additionally, the amount of time spent preparing grant applications compared to the length of the support they offer leads to complaints about the administrative burden on scientists, especially when the success rate remains low. Similarly, the size of awards may not always be of a broad enough range to suit the many different needs and contexts of research. I expect that experimentation with new grant mechanisms with different funding durations, award sizes, and application requirements may uncover new niches that suit more labs’ needs (in particular, longer duration for workhorse grants, and a greater variety of smaller grants with less paperwork or preliminary data required, would be welcome). Of course, supporting more mechanisms may increase the adminisitrative burden on the NIH to implement, but perhaps each could be tried on a small scale where possible.

Finally, in relation to the issues regarding the balance of the workforce in research, funding agencies may be in a unique position to implement new ideas. One is to increase the number of trainees supported on independent fellowships and decrease the ability of PIs to support them directly off of grants. This latter practice, while permitting many trainees to remain at work while seeking independent support, can foster dependence and stagnation in trainees’ skill development if it remains their sole means of support throughout a PhD program or postdoctoral fellowship. Another idea is that generosity in indirect costs, and especially support for building expansion and financing, may be reined in somewhat. This would discourage institutions from investing research funding in ways similar to the construction boom that accompanied the NIH budget increase that ended in 2004.