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The Black Hole

A difficult pill to swallow: The harsh realities of a 15 percent funding rate


A country’s biomedical advancement and innovation is intimately linked to its investment in academic research (Measure for Measure: Chemical Research & Development Powers the U.S. Innovation Engine). Funding for research comes almost entirely from government and private donors (Stossel, T.P., The Research Marketplace: A Little Grantsmanship Manual, Fourth Edition. 2011.), and is as value-based, bottom-up and pork- and crony-free as it gets – although there is admittedly significant room for improvement. In North America approximately two-thirds of academic biomedical research is supported through federal funding agencies such as the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) (Stossel, T.P., The Research Marketplace: A Little Grantsmanship Manual, Fourth Edition. 2011.). The mainstays of NIH/CIHR support are grants made to individual investigators for reasonably broad research projects, and researchers compete for these funds through a rigorous process of peer review. Nevertheless, the lack of sustained growth for both the NIH and CIHR has forced success rates for primary operating grants to drop significantly over the last decade to approximately 12 percent (NIH, R01) and 15 percent (CIHR Operating Grant); Fiscal Year 2011. This means that only a very small percentage of outstanding applications for research projects are being actively supported to tackle the multitude of health needs in these countries (Research Funding: Making the Cut). As a result, a majority of highly-rated research proposals will not be funded, opening the field for countries like Germany, India and China that are boasting funding rates of 47% and higher to take the lead (University Research Funding: The United States is Behind and Falling).

While there are serious financial and moral implications apart from the immediate repercussion to trainees (which I will be addressing in a future post, and for which I refer you to the following paper: Peer Review, Program Officers and Science Funding), amongst the hardest hit are research fellows. I am no exception. I received my bachelor’s degree from McMaster University and my doctorate from the University of British Columbia. While Canada subsidized my education, the desire to seek additional training at a top-notch research institute abroad inspired my decision to accept a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School, where larger research investments meant I could more effectively compete for research dollars. Four years, 16 papers and 1 major grant later I find myself struggling to find a faculty position back home, and questioning my decision to remain in academia for all of the reasons outlined in David Cyranoski et al.’s 2011 Nature Editorial, Education: The PhD factory. For some additional reading on this article and the others in the Nature series – see Dave’s previous entry here. Relatively flat funding rates in North America have meant that universities, hospitals, and research institutes have been forced to implement hiring freezes of young scientists into faculty positions, effectively stranding these people in temporary, low-paying jobs with limited prospects of advancement. Not only does this risk exporting our scientists abroad, but will also impact industry, which relies heavily on biomedical research, both in terms of scientific innovation and the researchers they help train. Canadians call this the ‘brain drain,’ and I am feeling like a statistic.

Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the Founder and CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon Founded Platelet BioGenesis where he served as CEO and Chief Scientific Officer. Before Platelet BioGenesis Dr. Thon was an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School.
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