Features 21stC home page

When the eagle refuses
to fly: funding an
early research career

Times are tough for young investigators as funds become scarcer. But the spirit of inquiry and the love of research remain pervasive enough that most young scholars persist despite obstacles


PERHAPS THE GREATEST wonder in academic research today is that anyone is still brave enough to try making it a career.

Even before last November's electoral overhaul, the prospects of researchers seeking funding were dimming. After decades of unwavering political support reflected in reliably robust appropriations, even the National Institutes of Health budget≠≠the financial lifeblood for many of the nation's biomedical, physical, and social scientists≠≠began falling in 1993 when adjusted for inflation.

Now the mood among academics worsens as the Congressional zeal for austerity threatens to further squeeze already tight resources. While investigators across the board are facing increased competition for federal funds amid declining support from their own institutions, young researchers just beginning their careers are bearing the heaviest burden.

The current Congress views the proposed budgets of the NIH (nearly $12 billion) and the National Science Foundation (above $3 billion) as fair game. Advocates for research are fighting back. A proposed 10 percent cut to the NIH budget fell by the wayside this spring, and the House appropriations subcommittee has recommended a 5.7 percent increase, but the picture remains uncertain, and the previously unimaginable has now emerged as the desired goal: "I think we would consider a win to be a flat budget," says Francine Little, NIH's finance director. After inflation, she concedes, even that "win" would amount to a hidden cut in research purchasing power.

Despite uncertain Congressional support, public enthusiasm for research remains strong. In a June poll conducted by Louis Harris & Associates for the non-profit advocacy group Research!America, nearly two-thirds of 1,004 adults queried opposed cuts in medical research funding, and 73 percent said they would be willing to pay higher taxes to support more medical research.

The outlook is less bright at the NSF, which provides nearly 50 percent of all federal support for non-medical basic research at academic institutions. This spring, Congressional budget hawks even proposed eliminating the directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences at NSF. That threat was withdrawn, but directorate head Cora Marrett expects at least a 1 percent drop next year from her current $85 million research budget and no better than flat appropriations thereafter. Unfortunately for researchers in such financially competitive fields as anthropology and political science, where already fewer than one in four grant requests are funded, a cut to her strained resources will be difficult to overcome. "There are very few options for going anywhere else," she says, "so we end up getting lots of proposals≠≠well beyond anything we can possibly fund."

Last year a report by the National Academy of Sciences revealed that many young scientists may be giving up altogether. The approval rate of the NIH's key grant for individual investigators, the R01, for scientists under age 37 has plummeted in recent years. It fell below 22 percent in 1993 from almost 42 percent in 1984. Given NIH funding levels, a proposal has to achieve a low percentile score (often below 10 percent) from its Initial Review Group to cross the "payline." But the unexplained drop in applications submitted by these young investigators has been even more dramatic. From 1985 to 1993, the number of R01 applications filed by scientists under age 37 plunged to fewer than 1,400 from more than 3,000; between the declines in applications and percentage approved, successful R01s fell from more than 1,200 to about 300 in this period.

As with first-time job hunters, the limited track records of some young investigators hinder their competitiveness. "If you compare the productivity records and look for the biggest bang for the buck today, it's obvious that those who already have big grants are going to have a better chance on their R01 than a young kid," says Howard Schachman, professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley and NIH's ombudsman for extramural research.

But even an accomplished research record is no guarantee of funding success. This July, Keith Gottesdiener, a 41-year-old physician and assistant professor at Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons, submitted his fourth NIH grant application; he filed his first in 1992. His specialty is how trypanosomes, the tropical parasites that cause African sleeping sickness, change their coats to evade the immune system. Despite adding significant new data and removing the most speculative plank from his plan, he puts the odds for its approval at no better than fifty-fifty. Without an R01, which averaged $207,000 a year in 1993, he says he may have to leave his research behind, despite continued support from his department chairman. "I think high noon will probably lurk [within two years]," he says, if the grant isn't approved.

The trouble for young investigators is not limited to the NIH. Many are equally disheartened by their prospects at the NSF. "I think this year I'm not going to try" applying for an NSF grant, says Michael Cragg, a 31-year-old assistant professor in Columbia's economics department. "The reason is that the probability of getting the grant is so low and so much work has to go into actually applying for it," he says. In the meantime, he relies on foundation and university support to fund his quantitative studies of labor and government economics. But, citing his heavy teaching load, Cragg says he will soon need more and steadier funding to attract research assistants and to purchase computer-readable economic data for analysis.

Perversely, the odds of securing core funding are declining precisely as the pressure within academia to find independent funds rises. "Before, you had some luxury" in applying for a grant, says Richard Sohn, associate dean for research administration at Columbia's Health Sciences Division. A former research scientist and NIH staffer, Sohn sympathizes with the beleaguered young investigators who visit his office seeking help. "With the scarcity of funds on the institutional level," he explains, "the amount of time an institution is willing to carry somebody is also decreasing." Instead of the three-year grace period that was common, new faculty are now expected to fund their laboratories from outside sources in a year and a half or two years.

Because research still rules the academic roost, the financial needs of young investigators could hardly be more compelling. Their quests for credibility and tenure require fresh and substantial results. For new professors, "their whole career depends on their ability to publish," says Mary Ruggie, chairwoman of Columbia's sociology department. "We do have a couple of people who can just sit in their chairs and think," says Ruggie. "But there aren't that many [theoreticians] anymore." The cornerstone of sound public policy is thoughtful research, Ruggie maintains; in most cases, that requires fieldwork, which can cost from $75,000 to $200,000 a year to conduct and analyze.

Ruggie, who has evaluated grant applications for the NIH in the past, concedes that she may have been in denial about the extent of the problem until recently. While a few of the young faculty in her department have managed to win grants despite the odds, others are "having a very hard time getting established."

Berkeley's Schachman barnstorms campuses for NIH, listening to the complaints of students, postdocs, faculty, and administrators. As a result, he now recommends that NIH bolster its program of FIRST awards (grants earmarked for young researchers), review them separately from R01s, and raise the grant maximum from its current $70,000. Schachman believes these steps could help offset the increasingly common requirement that faculty pay portions of their own salaries with grant funds, which dilutes the potency of these awards for junior researchers.

Robert Beer, a 33-year-old assistant professor of chemistry at Columbia, funds his investigations of the biological roles of metals with department seed money negotiated when he joined the faculty in 1992. He now supplements his research resources with industry and foundation support, but only a full-fledged NSF or NIH grant will keep his lab running once the starter funds are gone. So far, Beer says, all his major grant applications have been rejected, and he has declined to apply to NIH at all until he develops significant preliminary research data≠≠an unwritten but critical requirement in the contest for NIH support. "I find proposal writing difficult and trying," he says, "because there's a sense of futility: They're going to get rejected all the time regardless of how good they are." He resents the process not only for its steady diet of rejection, but also because it keeps him from actually "doing research or advising students."

In some fields, such as biomedical research, industry support would seem to be one option for filling the gap, but some young scientists say companies are not interested in researchers who are less than blue chip. "Usually NIH funding and industrial support are mutually reinforcing," says Beth Levine, a 35-year-old assistant professor at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. Levine, though, has been unusually successful in winning grants from disease-specific foundations, such as the American Cancer Society, to support her research on how neurons destroy viral invaders without killing themselves.

One young scholar compares his drive to do and teach chemistry to the muse pushing artists and writers. "I can't not do it"

She credits much of her success to the support of Diane Griffin, her postdoctoral mentor at Johns Hopkins, who allowed her to pursue independent research and bring the preliminary work to Columbia, effectively saving her two years in developing a new research area and providing her with data and first-author papers in prestigious journals, including Science. But she views her success so far as mere prologue to her quest for an NIH individual investigator grant. "Three years into your career path as a junior faculty member there are...very few sources of alternative funding," Levine says. "That's when you're much more dependent on an R01."

Short of an academic research meltdown, some researchers see signs that the competition for money has eroded the profession's vaunted tradition of collegiality. An El Dorado lies in the commercialization of some research, above and beyond the fight for grants. "Science is now big money with the advent of biotechnology," says Streamson Chua, a 37-year-old assistant professor at Rockefeller University who earned M.D. and Ph.D. degrees at Columbia. "It used to be scientists only scrambled for prestige. Money and influence have been thrown into the pot."

After five years of applying to NIH, Chua succeeded in winning an R01 to fund research on the genetic factors favoring the development of adult-onset diabetes in overweight people, but he freely admits that luck and timing were as important to his success as good science. His break was an NIH request for research proposals that happened to match his specialty.

Some institutions are doing more to help. In 1992, Presbyterian Hospital and the College of Physicians and Surgeons teamed up to encourage clinical research by junior faculty with a program of $50,000 pilot grants, designed to incubate promising projects and careers. The funds are generated by clinical trials performed in the medical center. The investment has paid handsome dividends for the investigators and the institutions. The first 20 award winners garnered more than $2.6 million in additional grants from foundations, government, and industry, according to Michael Leahey, director of the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center's Office of Clinical Trials, which administers the grants. The awards also help fuel an enthusiasm for research that is essential for future success, according to Dr. David Bickers, chairman of dermatology and chairman of the advisory commitee that oversees the program.

At the end of the day, most young investigators are not ready to give up on the intellectual and creative appeal of research, regardless of the statistics. Like Chua, they hope persistence and perhaps luck will help them succeed where others fail. Beer, for one, compares his drive to do and teach chemistry to the muse pushing artists and writers. "I can't not do it," he says. "It fascinates me. I want to share it with people."

SCOTT HENSLEY is a reporter for the American Banker. A recent alumnus of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, he previously directed clinical research for a leading medical equipment manufacturer. He can be reached by e-mail at 76336.644@compuserve.com.


Would you do it again?

21stC asked several prominent members of Columbia's faculty:
"If you were beginning your career today, knowing what you know now about your field, would you make the same choice?"

"Indeed I would. It is hard to believe, but the funding situation was much worse when I started. We expected nothing, and our expectations were met. My former students who are launching new careers are able to get reasonable funding and get their research off to good starts. Scientific research is a very satisfying career, and it has not been ruined by the funding squeeze. It is simply a little harder."
≠≠Ronald Breslow, Professor, Biological Sciences and Chemistry

"Alas, I never 'chose' a career. I majored in English because my marks in math were not good enough to get into the college of my choice. After that, a Ph.D. and a teaching career is what went without saying in my family. All three sisters did it. If I were beginning my studies now, I would learn many more languages, more history, more economics, but I wouldn't give up on anything."
≠≠Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Avalon Foundation Professor in Humanities, English and Comparative Literature

"Absolutely, yes! But my enthusiasm stems, at least in part, from a professional life more varied than just bench research. And I am psychologically immune, in terms of professional happiness, from problems with funding. Research is going very well, and I presently have more money than I know what to do with–almost."
≠≠Donald Landry, Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine, Nephrology Division

"Early on in my academic career I shifted toward the anthropologic study of problems like downward mobility and urban poverty. I have never regretted these intellectual commitments, because they express the kind of calling that motivates meaningful social science: a desire to use our analytic tools for the betterment of this society."
≠≠Katherine Newman, Professor of Anthropology

"I would never have been able to enter a career as a basic scientist today. I majored in physics here at Columbia College and had a great time working with Arno Penzias on a primitive laser amplifier that would detect the microwave spectrum of Jupiter. I thought I'd get a Ph.D. in physics but found out that an NIH Institutional Training Grant was available if I were to become, instead, a graduate student in the Biology Department at Brandeis. The NIH grant paid for my entire graduate education, including the year I spent catching up on biology.

"Today, graduate students may be supported for a while on a training grant, but almost immediately in most cases they become the wards of a laboratory. Thereafter it is hard to justify broad training in science, since the person paying any student has a focused reason for doing so: to keep alive the particular research program of one lab. The result is that too many graduate students today enter science highly trained but intellectually undeveloped. The NIH should make grant recipients more free to follow their own individual intellectual paths. More money for graduate education wouldn't be a bad thing, either."
≠≠Robert Pollack, Professor of Biological Sciences

home page 21stC is. . . special metanews next feature