Researcher: To Be or Not To Be

Is Researcher a viable career choice today in the US?

The success rate for grants at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) dropped well below the 20% rate to an historic low, perhaps as low as 17.4% during 2011 (Science Insider blog at Science). NIH defines success rate as “the percentage of reviewed applications that receive funding”

Dr. Jennifer Pohlhaus and colleagues recently evaluated differences between success rates and funding rates for men and women for extramural NIH awards.  They found little sex-based difference in funding or success rates, but some discovered that over time, male recipients or previous NIH awards enjoyed higher success and funding rates than women.

Dr. Sally Rockey, Deputy Director for Extramural Research at NIH, in a recent blog post reviewed the question of whether NIH awards tend to accumulate to a few well-funded investigators. Dr. Rockey notes that on average, PIs have between one and two awards at a time. Looking only at PIs that receive the most funding from NIH, she found that they had a slightly higher average of about 2.2 grants funded in 2009, with several of them holding three grants. In the illuminating commentary associated with Dr. Rockey’s post, many readers point out that NIH extramural funding is, nonetheless, concentrated in a small number of investigators: Steve Kron notes that 20% of NIH funding accrues to the top ~2% of investigators and that 50% of funding goes to the top ~15% based on data posted by the Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research for 2010 ( In a separate post, Dr. Rockey notes that while the overall number of Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (NRSA) awards has held relatively steady over the past decade, the number of Career Development awards that assist new researches to initiate their careers peaked in 2008.

Clearly many factors play into the overall success rate for NIH proposals and funding rates for NIH applicants, however the NIH budget is generally perceived to be the key factor, and the NIH budget was cut in 2011 by 1% and that, along with other commitments, resulted in a significant drop in new/competitive research project grants (RPG) awards in 2011. NIH plans to re-focus funding on RPGs in 2012, however, assuming the budget request for NIH as presented by the President is not cut, the estimated number of new/competitive RPGs to be funded in FY 2012 will still represent an expected decline of 228 from 2010 levels. And in these times of congressional focus on deficit reduction and budget cutting, the likelihood that the NIH budget request will pass through congress unscathed seems small.

NIH, of course, is not the only vehicle for US Government-supported research. NSF and other agencies provide additional billions of dollars in support of civilian research each year. However, as with NIH, the budgets of those other agencies in general, and in particular the portions of their budgets directed to civilian research, vary significantly.  The need for stability in research funding over time was clearly articulated by Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, in Science, The Endless Frontier, his report to President Harry Truman in 1945, and that requirement remains to be met today. America’s funding for civilian research isn’t stable. It increases – as with ARRA funding, and decreases – as with FY2011 budget reductions, over time. Lack of funding for new investigators and low success rates on new and competing continuation applications make getting started as an independent researcher and maintaining a productive research program difficult today.

Further, as Beryl Lieff Benderly pointed out in The Real Science Gap, today’s senior investigators need trained workers to keep their research programs moving. Today, that workforce includes thousands of post-doctoral researchers, who, according to the National Postdoctoral Association earn less that the median salary of a person with a bachelor’s degree, is in his/her early 30s, married and has one child. Four to six years after completing their PhD, only about 25% of postdocs hold academic tenure or tenure-track appointments. For all practical purposes, these postdocs are working as indentured servants and that is not a vision that entices others to follow in their footsteps.

Talented students potentially interested in science and technology as a career are still ingrained today with the perception of an academic appointment as the pinnacle career achievement. However, pursuing the traditional career path into academia is becoming less and less viable as fewer new positions are available and grant funding is increasingly scarce. A stable funding source for research, coupled with the will to provide appropriate alternative career paths for researchers as staff scientists can help provide the framework to maintain researcher as a viable career choice in the US.

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