The gray areas of science

Note: The following appeared in the March 11, 2014, edition of the Wall Street Journal as a letter to the editor. Here is the unedited version of the letter.

The graying of American science is certainly a concern concern (“How to Reverse the Graying of Scientific Research,” op-ed by By Ronald J. Daniels and Paul Rothman, March 5), particularly for small private funders and disease-specific advocacy groups, as we are often the sources of the seed capital junior researchers use to jumpstart their research.    Ultimately, if these young researchers cannot secure NIH funding (particularly valued because of the “overhead” funds provided to their institutions) they will struggle to have a career.    However, I do not believe Messrs. Daniels and Rothman are telling the entire story.      The percentage of successful NIH submissions relies on two numbers – the numerator, reflecting to some extent the dollars available and the denominator, representing the total number of grants submitted for funding consideration.     For the past decade the fall in the success percentage can, to a large extent, be explained by an increase in the number of submissions.    The rise in submissions is a result of (despite the doom and gloom of the funding situation) to an ever increasing pool of junior scientists and to an increase in the number of “research” faculty at academic medical centers.    Research faculty do not have tenured academic positions but are required to fully support themselves by securing external grants.    Unfortunately, because of the constant need to garner funds it is not always possible for these submissions to propose representing real advances in new knowledge.    Although it may be very true that at some point young scientists weary of the pressure will consider pursuing careers outside of the traditional academic settings this does not seem to stop bright young people from applying to graduate programs or for postdoctoral positions as even a cursory glance at the rosters on the websites of NIH principle investigators (PI) will document.   For every PI there is typically a dozen young scientists with PhD or MD/PhD degrees who hope to be PIs, with a lab of one’s own populated by students and post docs.    Increasing the budget might raise the numerator slightly but since much of the budget will go to increase the number of the young heads and hands standing at the bench the rise in the numerator will always be outpaced by a growing denominator.   The population issue is just one putting pressure on the current funding system.   It may very well be time for an honest national policy debate on sustaining scientific research.   Still, when the many factors are considered it becomes obvious that, from the academic medical perspective, there can simply never be enough funding.    However, there are some things that might be tried.    If the senior scientists with 40 years or more experience are concerned about the situation for their junior colleagues, they could consider retiring.


Susan M. Fitzpatrick

James S. McDonnell Foundation

St. Louis