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The Black Hole

Show me the money!


It falls to scientists to speak up in support of federally funding research and in this third installment of a four-part series, I explore the economic cost of doing research in a cash-strapped system and the burden this is placing on young investigators.

To bring yourself up to speed, installements 1 and 2 are referenced below:

  1. Biomedical Research and Broken Clocks: All the Parts, but No Instructions
  2. A Difficult Pill To Swallow: The Harsh Realities of a 15% Funding Rate

As has been discussed here on and off for quite some time, 80% of PhDs in the US will not become professors. For the majority of these scientific investigators, the inability to secure a faculty position has meant that they must languish in a series of post-doctoral positions supported by grant-funded professors who are increasingly finding themselves with limited resources. The average age of independence in research is now in the mid-40s, a testament to the bleak prospects facing young scientists (PDF).

Given this highly unstable state of academic funding, it is not surprising that many investigators have chosen to transition into more secure professions like teaching, medicine or law. For an in-depth review of the career prospects of a post-doctoral research scientist please see Careers and Rewards in the Bio Sciences: The Disconnect Between Scientific Progress and Career Progression (PDF). The loss hurts our competitiveness in biomedical research and forces industry abroad.

Given our current economy, it is imperative that efforts to improve the nation’s fiscal stability be grounded in the long-term competitiveness of industries we currently head, and that we leverage our expertise in medical science and capacity to do high-tech research. This does not need to come from increased government spending alone. Whereas academic medicine cannot build R&D into the pricing of its services, universities profit directly from tuition fees, patents and personal endowments.

Since these revenues are derived from faculty teaching loads, the scientific success of their investigators, and established reputation of their research program, faculty support must be factored into departmental operating budgets, freeing up tax dollars to directly support research innovation. Another idea would be to create tax breaks for private donations to federal funding agencies in an effort to reduce their dependence on public dollars and incentivize industry investment in national research programs. In the United States (the same nation that passed the Bayh-Dole Act to spur commercialization of university research), government funding of university research exceeds business funding by an order of magnitude, and business investment in university research is nearly half that of Canada (PDF).

Finally, limiting the number of federal awards issued per investigator, most of which are held by senior faculty (PDF), would open up more funding opportunities to help support young investigators and significantly lower the age of independence. While the debate of whether to preferentially support established labs with proven track records over younger faculty with new ideas is ongoing, without early career support junior researchers will not succeed.

If we are unwilling to prioritize young faculty and share what wealth there is, perhaps the better question is “Should we continue training so many of them?”

Jonathan Thon
Jonathan Thon is a serial entrepreneur and founding CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon founded Stellular Bio where he served as CEO and chief scientific officer. Before Stellular Bio, Dr. Thon was an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
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