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New Funding Structure Offers Hope for Young U.S. Scientists

With all eyes on the current budget proceedings in Washington, D.C, scientists fear an uncertain funding landscape in the United States. Further funding cuts for institutional overhead costs, which fund resources like utility and maintenance expenses, are at the forefront of ongoing political debate. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has already announced that budget cuts, if enforced, would halt promising biomedical innovations currently in development.

While there have been some reports highlighting individual institutions abusing indirect cost funding, the proposed $7.2 billion cuts to the NIH would spill directly into research grant funding. This funding scarcity is especially troubling for young scientists.

Young Scientists See Trouble Ahead

Funding levels for U.S. biomedical research shrunk by 22% from 2003 to 2015 due to sequestration and losses to inflation. Particularly for young scientists, new cuts have amplified impacts when making career decisions.

Funding hurdles unique to early career scientists pursuing tenure-track positions have caused some to question a career in academia. The average age of a scientists’ first research grant awarded is 42 years old – usually a long way off for newly minted PhDs. It doesn’t help that scientists feel they need to work longer and longer hours to be successful in academia.

Funding Structure Changes in the U.S.

Despite a seemingly grim outlook, the NIH has recognized the need to attract bright young scientists to remain in academia. Earlier this year, the NIH proposed a grant capping mechanism, the Grant Support Index (GSI). The intention of the GSI is to increase funding for young, creative scientists and give them additional opportunities through a point system that caps individual primary investigators at three primary funded R01 research grants.

NIH Director Francis Collins recently presented the data supporting these measures, citing diminishing returns on investigators who have four or more R01 grants.

While supportive of efforts to fund young scientists, the approach taken by the NIH was met with swift criticism by prominent biomedical researchers. They feared this would severely impact unusually productive labs and inhibit important work ongoing for abnormally productive scientists.

On June 8th, Dr. Collins announced they were scrapping the GSI index, and instead offering an alternative solution: the Next Generation Researchers Initiative (NGRI).

French President Emmanuel Macron also recently called on young U.S. scientists in an effort to recruit them to France.

Early Career Researchers Offered Hope

The conversation shift towards helping to establish young scientists is welcomed by many early career researchers. In a competitive funding landscape, working discussions on ways to allow ECRs to continue working in their academic fields is especially needed.

The new NGRI initiative increases the percentile of funded research grants for mid-career (10 years or less) or new investigators to the 25th percentile. However, as Dr. Collins noted, “[The money] has to come from somewhere.” While the NGRI initiative seems to be toned from the GSI caps, the compromise seems worthy to help ECRs establish their own research. High profile, established labs should support these initiatives too, for the future of scientific research.

Advocacy Efforts Matter

While early career researchers may be on the fence about pursuing academia, young scientists should remain optimistic about future funding efforts. In January 2017, a Research!America poll revealed the majority of Americans agree funding biomedical research is necessary. However, the public also think scientists need to engage with them more on their research efforts. In fact, a 2016 Research!America poll revealed that most Americans do not know research is conducted nationwide. Clearly, there is more to be done.

To do so, stay informed on potentially popular scientific topics in the media. Secondly, when advocating for science, have some ready-made examples (CRISPR gene editing technologies for example) on how basic science research has translated into notable, usable technologies. Consider ways to explain your own research in digestible and interesting ways.

Early career scientists are shaping what the future of scientific research looks like. Whether developing new technologies or understanding the fundamentals of tomorrow’s big breakthrough, an active, transparent, engaged scientific community is essential for the continued success of scientific research in the United States.


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Research!America Polling Data. January 2017.

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