06 March 2009

The feeding frenzy resumes

I have already received multiple emails and read several articles about the hit of money the U.S. federal funding agencies are getting through the economic stimulus package. I was, and, I think, to some degree still am, optimistic, but am starting to feel worried.

In the 1990s, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget doubled. Universities have a lot of smart people in them. They saw the money, and they responded. They hired people and put up buildings based on the promise of NIH money. What few seemed to realize is that everyone else had the same plan.

In the 2000s, the NIH budget stayed flat or shrank because of inflation. Suddenly, all those people who were counting on NIH money faced a low probability of success. So even though the NIH budget was about twice what it had been, the number of people chasing the dollars had gone up more than twice, so the chance of successfully getting funding actually went down.

It’s almost impossible for outsiders to know how much angst and pent-up demand there is among researchers over research budgets and grant success for federal agencies. Many departments basically fire people if they don't get federal grants, even though the funding prospects have been so bad. In essence, the NIH is making tenure decisions for many researchers.

I think researchers are going to be so relieved by hearing about the federal budget increases, so excited by the prospect that writing a grant proposal might be a better way to get money than buying a lottery ticket, that there could be a huge surge of new grant applications. I worry that the stimulus package is not going to be nearly enough, and that it will create its own little bubble in the research community.

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