Eating the Seed Corn in the Health Research World

Michael White’s essay on the dismal state of the National Institutes of Health is a must-read for anyone who cares about progress in medical and public health research. The positive impact of the 1998 bipartisan initiative in Congress to double the NIH budget has been completely wiped out.

Of all the bad news in White’s article, this is particular discouraging:

The tighter competition for funding has put the squeeze on younger scientists with fledgling labs; the proportion of young scientists with NIH grants is half of what was in 1998, while the proportion of funded scientists over 65 has doubled. Because scientific training typically takes over 10 years, students who decided to enter graduate school in the boom days of the mid-Aughts are now entering a job market that looks nothing like what they expected.

On the ground in my daily work in both a university medical school and a public hospital, it’s a rare month that some bright young person doesn’t tell me they are quitting science because it’s too hard to get funded. These are usually not reversible decisions. Even a well-trained young physician who leaves research for 5 years to treat patients full-time is very hard to tempt back into science if the funding picture improves (and is even harder to bring back up to speed on the cutting-edge scientific questions and methods of the day).

There is no question that we have some enormously talented and productive senior citizen scientists. But a decade or two from now, when an antibiotic resistant bacteria or new strain of bird flu is ravaging the planet, that generation will no longer be around to lead the scientific charge on humanity’s behalf. That’s why we constantly need a new stream of young people committing to health science careers. That seed corn is currently being consumed at an alarming rate, and if we don’t act immediately to rectify the situation we will suffer for many years to come from the loss of a generation of health researchers.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.