Need Help Moving Beyond the Lab Bench?
The Incredible Shrinking Budget for Basic Scientific Research Grants
It comes as no surprise to those in the laboratory science community that US government funding for basic research is increasingly hard to come by. While there are many sources of federal grants, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provide the bulk of laboratory research funding through its R01 awards program. Yet, as you can see in the accompanying chart, Congress has kept NIH grant funding flat over recent years.
That's bad news for grant applicants, but the story doesn't end there. Not only have NIH budgets failed to keep up with inflation, there's also a strong tendency for NIH to bestow grants to a narrow group of more experienced researchers (https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/07/relatively-few-ni...). As a result, first-time applicants at the beginning of their lab careers have less than a 1 in 10 chance of receiving an NIH grant (https://arstechnica.com/science/2007/04/how-doubling-the-...).
Here are five suggestions to think about that could help boost your quest for laboratory funding:
Tips for Surviving and Thriving in a World of Shrinking Grant Budgets
• If you are a Ph.D. candidate, a young post-doc, or post post-doc who wants to be part of a successful lab team, it's critical to seek out a PI (primary investigator) who has demonstrated an ability to bring in research funding.
• A University of Michigan Mechanical Engineering professor suggests you can raise the odds of receiving an NIH award by volunteering to serve on grant review committees. By understanding the process from an insider's perspective, you'll see first-hand which proposals get serious consideration and which are left behind (in the dreaded "not discussed (https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2017/07/another-tenure-track-scientist-bites-dust)" category).
• If you have the flexibility to move abroad, you might find opportunities in other countries that are seeking researchers in your area of specialty. Canada and Europe (especially France) are recruiting technologists and researchers in many fields. The UK, traditionally a stronghold in pharma research, appears to be in a holding pattern as the implications of Brexit have yet to be clarified on scientific research funding programs currently funded by the EU (such as Erasmus et al.). Chinese and Indian Ph.D. graduates of US institutions are also increasingly open to returning to their home countries thanks to offers to fund research laboratories in an effort to reverse the "brain drain."
• Take the opportunity to voice your opinion about the value of scientific research with your friends, families, and colleagues who may not share this viewpoint. Consider joining and volunteering for organizations that promote the value of basic scientific research. This might not help you today, but it could help you and your fellow lab scientists in the future.
• Finally, be prepared with a robust career "Plan B" in case your quest for traditional academic research funding doesn't pan out. (Hopefully, information in the sections below will give you some ideas.)
The Narrowing Tenure Track for Lab Bench Scientists at Colleges and Universities
Things have not been looking so good in the academic tenure-track world either. Just as the federal government's financial support for basic research has shrunk, so too, has the number of available tenure-track positions at US colleges and universities. As many post-doc researchers know, an increasing number of faculty-level academic jobs have been reclassified as non-tenure-track positions (as many as 70% of new academic positions, according to in a 2004 survey). The bottom line? In 2003, only 7% of Ph.D. candidates had a shot at a tenure-track position (https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2004/07/incredible-shrinking-tenure-track).
This is alarming for a couple of reasons.
The first reason could be highly personal: it means you or one of your colleagues have fewer opportunities to pursue a career as a tenured professor.
The second reason has to do with the narrowing of academic freedom and the diversity of ideas. Why? At most academic institutions, only tenure-track faculty are permitted decide which research topics they want to pursue.
Not only does this narrow the range of applicants to a very small number (recall the tendency of NIH grants to be awarded to serial "winners"), it also poses a long-term conflict with the up-and-coming generations of young scientists who have been trained in STEM programs to work together as teams in a more interdisciplinary manner (https://formaspace.com/articles/office-furniture/10-tips-for-successfully-managing-millennials/).
Of course, from the academic institution's point of view, putting more wood behind the arrow of their best candidates has a certain financial logic. Kitting out a laboratory for a new tenure-track researcher can cost anywhere from $300,000 to as much as a million dollars annually (https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2004/07/incredible-shrinking-tenure-track); leaving the institution with a fiscal hole to fill until the research (hopefully) begins to win its share of NIH grants to cover the expenses in future years.
Tips for Surviving and Thriving in the Face of Fewer Tenure Track Opportunities
• If you are fortunate enough to be given the opportunity, obtaining a degree from...
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