Must-Watch Parody, And The Painful Reality Of Research Funding Cuts It Reflects

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I'm no academic, but this 4-minute YouTube video made me laugh out loud. It depicts an administrator telling a research scientist that she must get a new NIH grant within one month to help pay the $800,000 salary of the new "Dean of Health Prevention."

This post last week — about Deborah Levy, a distinguished McLean Hospital schizophrenia researcher whose funding has run nearly dry because of federal cuts — brought responses from other highly distinguished researchers facing a similar funding drought. I imagine this pain is extremely widespread here in the Massachusetts medical-academic complex, with its billions in NIH funding flat or dwindling. One of those researchers, a Harvard scientist who preferred to remain anonymous, sent me the video above (thank you!) and wrote in part:

While my lab is still afloat, at least for the moment, I worry about the fate of my very large group of researchers. Many I now train from Korea, Japan, Germany, Singapore, etc. One of the people responding to the story you wrote about Debbie notes that it takes 15 years or more to train the next generation of researchers. This is true. Moreover, the average age of investigators when they are awarded their first R01 grant is 42 (R01=the bread and butter of investigator-initiated research funding from NIH).

My own story is that I am a schizophrenia researcher and my longstanding R01 grant was not renewed when I submitted it for competitive renewal. This was devastating and I will regroup and submit something new at a later point...

What is happening to Debbie and others has been viewed by some as the natural course of evolution in science where the weak are selected out. Sadly this is not the case at all. Some of the best researchers will have their careers ended and for Debbie it is all the more heart-wrenching because she is right now at the threshold of new discovery. I am not sure what can be done to halt this. I see one of the problems being some of the large center grants across NIH institutions that take money away from individual investigator initiatives. There is also the fact that some institutions have less money, such as the National Institute of Aging, which has a "pay line" of under 4% right now (The National Institute of Mental Health is still somewhere between 18 and 20 percent — at least the last time I looked).

I also recently returned from the International Congress of Schizophrenia Research in Colorado Springs and it was like attending a funeral. There was so much concern about funding that you could see and feel it everywhere. My husband, who is not a researcher, was standing in line to buy some aspirin for my altitude sickness and the woman behind him who was an attendee at the conference remarked to him that "there is not enough aspirin in the world to take care of my headache. I just walked out of a meeting where it is clear there is no money for research."

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]I recently returned from the International Congress of Schizophrenia Research in Colorado Springs and it was like attending a funeral. There was so much concern about funding that you could see and feel it everywhere.[/module]


My own sense, though I would need to find empirical data to support this, is that when the funding gets this tight, merit goes out the window and it becomes a political game in terms of who will find a seat in the musical chairs game and who will not. I worry that a number of outstanding researchers like Debbie Levy will not find a seat when the music stops. She is a stellar researcher who has always received what she has through merit. Unfortunately, merit may not be the current coin of the realm.

On this note, I will end. It is a most discouraging time for research, though I still tell my own trainees that if this is what they really want to do, they will find a way, and that in the end merit and persistence win out. I only wish I believed that now myself.

Readers? Do you know of other "stellar researchers" who have recently lost funding? What's happening in the trenches of our labs as a result of these abstract federal cuts?

This program aired on April 20, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.