I'm a young scientist and sequestration will hurt me

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I'm a biostatistician. That means that I help scientists and doctors analyze their medical data to try to figure out new screening tools, new therapies, and new ways to improve patients' health. I'm also a professor. I  spend a good fraction of my time teaching students about analyzing data in classes here at my university and online. Big data/data analysis is an area of growth for the U.S. economy and some have even suggested that there will be a critical shortage of trained data analysts.

I have other responsibilities but these are the two biggies - teaching and research. I work really hard to be good at them because I'm passionate about education and I'm passionate about helping people. I'm by no means the only (relatively) young person with this same drive. I would guess this is a big reason why a lot of people become scientists. They want to contribute to both our current knowledge (research) and the future of knowledge (teaching).

My salary comes from two places - the students who pay tuition at our school and, to a much larger extent, the federal government's research funding through the NIH. So you are paying my salary. The way that the NIH distributes that funding is through a serious and very competitive process. I submit proposals of my absolute best ideas, so do all the other scientists in the U.S., and they are evaluated by yet another group of scientists who don't have a vested interest in our grants. This system is the reason that only the best, most rigorously vetted science is funded by taxpayer money.

It is very hard to get a grant. In 2012, between 7% and 16% of new projects were funded. So you have to write a proposal that is better than 84-93% of all other proposals being submitted by other really, really smart and dedicated scientists. The practical result is that it is already very difficult for a good young scientist to get a grant. The NIH recognizes this and implements special measures for new scientists to get grants, but it still isn't easy by any means.

Sequestration will likely dramatically reduce the fraction of grants that get funded. Already on that website, the "payline" or cutoff for funding, has dropped from 10% of grants in 2012 to 6% in 2013 for some NIH institutes. If sequestration goes through, it will be worse - maybe a lot worse. The result is that it will go from being really hard to get individual grants to nearly impossible. If that happens, many young scientists like me won't be able to get grants. No matter how passionate we are about helping people or doing the right thing, many of us will have to stop being researchers and scientists and get other jobs to pay the bills - we have to eat.

So if sequestration or other draconian cuts to the NIH go through, they will hurt me and other junior scientists like me. It will make it harder - if not impossible - for me to get grants. It will affect whether I can afford to educate the future generation of students who will analyze all the data we are creating. It will create dramatic uncertainty/difficulty in the lives of the young biological scientists I work with who may not be able to rely on funding from collaborative grants to the extent that I can. In the end, this will hurt me, it will hurt my other scientific colleagues, and it could dramatically reduce our competitiveness in science technology and mathematics (STEM) for years to come. Steven wrote this up beautifully on his blog.

I know that these cuts will also affect the lives of many other people from all walks of life, not just scientists. So I hope that Congress will do the right thing and decide that hurting all these people isn't worth the political points they will score - on both sides. Sequestration isn't the right choice - it is the choice that was most politically expedient when people's backs were against the wall.

Instead of making dramatic, untested, and possibly disastrous cuts across the board for political reasons, let's do what scientists and statisticians have been doing for years when deciding which drugs work and don't. Let's run controlled studies and evaluate the impact of budget cuts to different programs - as Ben Goldacre and his colleagues of so beautifully laid out in their proposal. That way we can bring our spending into line, but sensibly and based on evidence, rather than the politics of the moment or untested economic models not based on careful experimentation.

Comments ( 15 )
  • Ethan Perlstein says:

    Nice post, Jeff. Several points:

    First, you take it as axiomatic that "only the best, most rigorously vetted science is funded by taxpayer money." With Obama's recent SOTU shout-out to the Human Genome Project multiplier, I'd like to know with more certainty how we make sure closed academic peer is actually delivering on NIH's mandate to ultimately improve human health. Would a carefully designed RCT of closed vs open review be too much to ask?

    Second, I sympathize with your situation -- I really do. But a decade of stagnant NIH budgets, rampant pseudoscience and scientific illiteracy in society, and cloistered, paywalled knowledge production by Academia all point in the same direction -- reality sucks, and it's not going to spontaneously fix itself.

    Certainly Congress isn't about to double or triple NIH budget, which is the kind of money we should be plowing into basic biomedical research, if you look at China by comparison.

    So you can hope that Congress gets its shit together and takes every $ spent on Predator drones and spends it on research instead; you can hope that a gerrymandered House will suddenly flip to the Dems who have a more favorable view on science; you can hope that Universities stop acting like profit makers and rent seekers.

    I'm not holding my breath. I think instead people should be experimenting with alternative models inside and outside of Academia, even if the first step would be risky and by definition incremental.

    Science is a calling. Professor is a job. Right now that job can really suck.

  • Titus Brown says:

    Interesting. I am not on soft money, so sequestration will simply kill any chances of me doing any training (well, and maybe my tenure :)...

    • jtleek says:

      Hard money is in trouble too - it is pretty clear that the rising tuition costs are eventually going to hit a ceiling. That's a post for you to write though...

  • Megan Squire says:

    I think they want us to get our money from private industry instead. So, if your topic interests Facebook or Google or BigPharma or BigFinance, it will be funded. Everyone else, you better figure out how to make it sound like you're doing something interesting in terms of those business models. Sucks for us.

  • William J McKibbin says:

    I advise forgetting about building your career upon "grants" -- get a job in the private sector with a salary and some equity -- the teaching/research paradigm is dead (or soon will be) -- the good news is that world-class scientists with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics backgrounds are in demand in the private sector -- but again, forget about the teaching/research path to your career -- that's gone forever...

    • jtleek says:

      I hope not! I think good teachers and researchers are critical for driving the engine of the economy. But it may get a lot harder...

  • Walter Reade says:

    I'm a phd chemical engineer. If I could, I would spend every waking hour working on machine learning projects. But, I haven't figured out how to do that and still provide for a family. So, instead, I work in a mundane yet profitable job. The good news is, while the choices may not be easy to make, at least there are choices.

  • Frank Seawright says:

    I appreciate the well-directed thought
    and effort that Goldacre and colleagues put into the article you
    mentioned. But however well-intentioned they may be implementing
    their methodology will quickly run into the constraints of reality as
    this lady describes :


    Can anyone imagine more than a
    hand-full of folks in the US congress actually going to the trouble
    of developing an evaluation module before swamping the conversation
    with assertions, misleading “data”, appeals to patriotism and on
    and on.

    By the way, I love what you are doing
    here and hope you continue.

    • Keith O'Rourke says:

      Thanks for the mathbabe link - another gem of hers.
      I too, think it is politically niave - politics does not usually run on knowing what people should believe (evidence) but by what people will (wnat to) believe and making claims and actions to capitatlise on that for advantage of one's tribe.
      And I also like this post by Jeff and hope it has the intended effect - by making much less likely that many people will believe the cuts will do more good than harm?

  • rferrisx says:

    I had to search through about 12 sites talking about this until I found an action link:


  • Ann Loraine says:

    Many faculty in medical fields ask for and receive donations from the community. Why not ask your Coursera students to help support your research and teaching efforts? If you set up a fund I would happily contribute. No doubt there are many others who think you're doing good work that deserves support. Good luck!

  • Andy Mitchell says:

    It's disappointing to see the harm resulting from gridlock in Congress. As stressed as I am with No Child Left Behind testing and Race to the Top requirements (I teach 7th grade math, a subject and grade level subject to unreliable and politicized value-added measures), at least K-12 teachers don't have to write grants for our teaching positions. You've put my own challenges in perspective. Thank you.

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