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October 9, 2014

Science 2014: Sustaining Science Funding

Jeremy Berg

Jeremy Berg

Should graduate students in research labs be funded through training grants rather than through investigators’ research grants, or be required to open their own wallets and pay for their graduate studies?

Given the dearth of faculty positions available, should they have more upfront information on their potential job prospects? Should universities award tenure to fewer faculty or perhaps impose a mandatory retirement age?

Those issues were part of the discussion at an Oct. 3 Science 2014 session, “Sustaining Science Funding,” moderated by Jeremy Berg, associate senior vice chancellor for science strategy and planning for the Health Sciences, and Provost Patricia E. Beeson.

“Academia has to be working together within academia as well as working with the government to find the path to move things forward,” said Berg in a discussion centered on the implications of uncertainties in the future of government research funding.

“There’s still remarkably little agreement on even what the main issues are, let alone how to discuss them,” Berg admitted.

Federal research support is of magnified concern to public institutions which, on average, draw nearly 60 percent of their research support from federal government sources, Berg said. (About 20 percent comes from the institutions themselves, 5 percent from state sources and less than that from business, with 7 percent coming from other sources.)

Funding from business sources is growing as some companies shift from in-house research to university research, Beeson noted. Both the financial support and the accompanying collaborations with business are important, she said. However, “No matter how much we bring in, it’s going to be dwarfed by government funding sources.”


In response to the doubling of funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) between 1998 and 2003 — a move aimed at growing the nation’s biomedical research enterprise — institutions built new facilities, created new departments, hired new faculty and began training more researchers.

More recently, the picture has not been so bright.

The number of researchers applying for NIH funding has been on the rise, but NIH budgets have remained flat (with the exception of economic stimulus funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) and inflation has cut into the buying power of grant funding, Berg noted.

“You have a pie of a fixed size that has been shrinking in constant dollar terms and the number of applicants growing, so there’s been a steady decrease in the success rate,” which Berg said has dropped to below 15 percent for researchers seeking NIH funding.

In addition, “One of the ways NIH has managed to keep its success rates as high as they are is by keeping growth in grant sizes relatively small — way below inflation — so the actual buying power of a grant has been going down,” he said.

And, while the number of applicants has risen, there’s been even larger growth in the number of applications, because each investigator, on average, is submitting more. “One strategy that many investigators try to use is to have multiple grants, not in sync, to keep them going,” Berg said.

Those additional applications are putting stress on the NIH grant review system, he said.

NIH funding also has affected PhD production. “Because research activity and training are so tightly coupled, one of the responses to the doubling was a huge growth in the number of PhDs being awarded,” Berg said.

“Programs felt comfortable that they’d have research support for students in later years, and then all the students started graduating at the end of the doubling and that’s continued through 2009,” Berg said. “Now all these students are coming out into a world that is very different from the world imagined back then, in terms of the number of jobs that are available,” driving discussion on possible ways to decouple research activity from training to allow research to continue without producing an overabundance of PhDs.

Berg noted that during the 1970s and 80s, more than half of the students in biological science fields were in tenure-track academic positions five or six years after earning their PhDs. Those numbers began falling, due in part to attractive career alternatives, settling in the 1990s to about 20 percent in tenure-track positions.

“Over the last decade or so, I think the notion of a solution to the tough academic job market is, ‘Well, we can expand in all these other sectors,’” Berg said.

“That expansion already took place,” he said, noting that the number of those science PhDs categorized as out of the labor force and part time now is above 10 percent. “That can be women taking off to have kids, or it can be people who are unsuccessful at finding a job,” he noted.


The issues are described in several resources Berg recommended:

“How Economics Shapes Science,” by Georgia State University economist Paula Stephan; “Falling Behind: Boom, Bust and the Global Race for Scientific Talent,” by Michael Teitelbaum, and the 2012 President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology’s “Report to the President Transformation and Opportunity: The Future of the U.S. Research Enterprise,” all speak to the market forces at work.

While “none of these are particularly cheerful,” they provide perspectives from experts outside of research science, he said.

In addition, a paper published in the March 2014 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Rescuing U.S. Biomedical Research From Its Systemic Flaws,” by former National Academy of Sciences President Bruce Alberts, cell biologist Marc W. Kirschner, Princeton President Emeritus Shirley Tilghman and Nobel laureate and National Cancer Institute director Harold Varmus, has generated significant discussion, Berg said.

They identify four major areas of concern: the damaging effects of hypercompetition; crippling demands on scientists’ time due in part to regulatory burden; supporting the next generation of scientists, and “perverse incentives” in research funding.

They note that the indirect cost system structure, which allows the debt service for new construction to be included in indirect cost recovery calculations, “may have encouraged a lot of institutions to build more space than might have been advisable,” Berg said. And, grant reimbursement for faculty salaries has encouraged institutions to increase faculty numbers by adding “soft money” positions.

While the current system isn’t sustainable, Berg said, “We don’t want to break the system,” but instead tweak it to reduce and eliminate problems.

Beeson said she found their suggestion to fund graduate students only on training grants, rather than as part of research grants, “an interesting approach” that would result in more federal control over the number of PhDs produced.

An alternative would be for graduate students to pay for their education, rather than be supported.

One faculty member in the audience noted that such a system would eliminate the “free ride” and give graduate students incentives to move more quickly through PhD programs and to go into fields where there are job opportunities.

“Are you going to retire at 60 or 65 and leave money for us?” asked one graduate student in the audience.

Audience member Gerald Holder, dean of the Swanson School of Engineering, said that in engineering, ending support for PhD students would push them instead to industry positions. “If you’re asked to pay, you don’t come. … The students will say, ‘I’d rather go work for Respironics or ANSYS and make $70,000 a year.’”

Among the universal challenges, Berg noted, is that it would be “suicidal” for any institution to take the lead in adopting a change from the status quo on its own. “Among the challenges is getting a collective discussion and collective decision-making, getting everybody on board.”

Beeson added that the positive aspect of a policy shift to fund graduate research students on training grants is that it would be a universal solution.

The job market is another area of concern, Beeson said.

“I don’t think the issue is that too much money is spent on graduate education,” the provost said. “I think that’s part of what we do as research institutions. We train the next generation of researchers and scholars and not just for our own institutions, but for the thousands and thousands of institutions that don’t have graduate programs.

“I think that the issue is training people for jobs that aren’t there. And that the incentives are set up in ways that aren’t perfectly aligned to allow a graduate student to know at the time they’re coming in what the outcomes are,” she said.

While the number of graduate students in the sciences is tied to grant dollars, in the humanities it’s typically tied to undergraduate enrollment, Beeson said.

“It’s not tied to the ability of the faculty to mentor the student effectively, to get jobs effectively. And that’s a misalignment we need to work on at every institution in the country.”

Berg acknowledged that while Tilghman and others long have called for more transparency about job prospects, few institutions provide data that would help prospective graduate students evaluate their potential career options.

Perhaps more transparency for faculty is in order as well, added one listener. Citing the medical school’s ability to cut the salaries of faculty who fail to secure a portion of their salaries through external funding, he suggested, “Maybe we should stop tenuring? If we don’t have the money to pay people, why are we telling them that they can be tenured for the rest of their lives?”

Berg said that the question of what tenure means has been an active discussion, particularly in medical schools.

Beeson added: “At Pitt there are ongoing discussions about this, and the issue is a very school-based one.” At the Provost-area schools, faculty salaries are supported by base budgets, not by soft money as in the medical school, she noted.


Berg said he has found that members of Congress “are, in principle, very supportive and understand that basic research is fundamental to economic development and innovation and health.

“But as an institution they have gotten so tied up with big political posturing and other stuff that you can’t have a rational discussion,” he said.

“The members individually, I think, are pretty frustrated about it. But the path out of it is not so obvious,” he said.

“It’s certainly a different climate in terms of how to advocate effectively,” Berg said.

“I think the message is still getting there,” he said, adding that academia needs to bring a unified message.

“I think it would be a much more compelling message to say, ‘We recognize that there are structural flaws in the way we’ve been doing business, and we as a community have come together and have a comprehensive list with some well-analyzed proposals that we think will set us on a sustainable path. So for the next couple of decades, and in exchange for your help in implementing this, we would like some serious consideration of slow sustainable growth.’”

What is certain: “Boom and bust funding is a universal way of generating inefficiency,” Berg said. “The status quo is, from my perspective, not even remotely sustainable.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 47 Issue 4