Anti-Science Quotable: Rand Paul bashes NIH funding and fruit fly research

Paul spoke at the American Spectator Annual Gala in Washington (at the 10:03 mark), and commented on how he has tried to point out potential areas where government spending could be reduced.

Paul, Feb. 11: Remember when we were talking about Ebola last year? Everybody was going crazy about Ebola, and they’re like, oh Republicans didn’t spend enough at the NIH. And they didn’t spend enough on infectious disease. Turns out, the budget had been going up for years and years at NIH, the budget had been going up for infectious disease. You know how much they spent on Ebola? One-40th of the budget was being spent on Ebola. But you know what we did discover? They spent a million dollars trying to determine whether male fruit flies like younger female fruit flies. I think we could have polled the audience and saved a million bucks.

Thanks to SciCheck (mentioned in a previous post) and common sense, we can check the facts behind his “claim”.  In brief:

  • Paul claimed the NIH’s budget has been increasing “for years.” That’s not accurate even in raw dollars. And when adjusted for inflation, the budget has actually decreased over the last decade.
  • He also suggested the NIH wasted $1 million on a study of whether male fruit flies prefer older or younger females, and in the process he belittled the impact of basic research using flies — which has yielded dozens of discoveries and even a few Nobel Prizes over the last century.

Check out the full detailed article.  If you think Rand Paul’s claims are legitimate due to his MD, think twice. Simply having a medical degree does not necessarily equate to understanding science and research. Not to mention, there are some issues with his board certification.

I’m constantly shocked at how ignorant elected decision-makers can be about the very topics on which they make policy decisions (for example…).  I don’t think this bodes well for science.

LIVE Budget 2016 coverage via ScienceInsider

The Obama administration today presents its budget request to Congress for the 2016 fiscal year, which begins in October. ScienceInsider will be tracking the numbers and providing analysis all day. Check back frequently!

A first look at the numbers from the budget request:
  • Would provide $146 billion for research and development, 5.5% above 2015 levels. R&D includes basic and applied research and technology development programs.
  • $32.8 billion for basic research, a 3% increase.
  • $34.1 billion for applied research, a 4% increase.
  • $31.3 billion for NIH, roughly a 3% increase.
  • 5.2% increase for NSF, up $379 million to $7.724 billion.
  • Repeats call to make R&D tax credit permanent.
  • Repeats last’s years request for $325 million for ARPA-E; Congress gave just $275 million.
  • Requests $450 million for USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative; current budget is $325 million.
  • $71.3 billion for overall Pentagon R&D, 9% increase.
  • $3 billion request for DARPA, $101 million over 2015.

Check out the full budget here

And also, check out the press release from NSF regarding the budget.


#ScienceQuotable Michael Eisen on careers in science

“It is an amazing time to do science, but an incredibly difficult time to be a scientist.”

This blog post from UC Berkeley HHMI professor Michael Eisen, despite being a year old, is still incredibly relevant today. Restructuring the NIH and its grant programs to ensure stable careers in science:

There is so much cool stuff going on. Everywhere I go – my lab, seminar visits, meetings, Twitter – there are biologists young and old are bursting with ideas, eager to take advantage of powerful new ways to observe, manipulate and understand the natural world.

But as palpable as the creative energy is, it is accompanied by an equally palpable sense of dread. We are in one of the worst periods of scientific funding I – and my more senior colleagues – can remember. People aren’t just worried about whether their next grant will get funded, they’re worried about whether a career in academic or public science is even viable (see Kate Clancy’s excellent post on the subject).

There seems to be a broad consensus among the leaders of our community, such as they are, that the solution is for Congress to give us (them) more money. I get emails or calls every few days urging me to contact my senators and representatives to urge them to increase the NIH budget. While I am, in the abstract, in favor of more money for research, if I were in Congress and Francis Collins came to me asking for more money, I’d say “I’m happy to bolster our support for scientific research, but we’re not giving you another single dime until you get your s**t together and stop using the taxpayer’s money to patch over bad decisions and bad policies.”

There are so many things wrong with the NIH today, I could write a book. It’s become an immense, bloated bureaucracy that’s lost sight of its central missions. If it were up to me I’d break it up – turning NIH intramural research into a stand alone entity and creating a separate Institute for Basic Biomedical Research charged allocating funds currently under NIH control to support outstanding and innovative research and to ensure that stable training and career paths exists for American scientists.

This latter issue is the one I want to focus on here. Despite all the challenges of the moment, a lot of outstanding work is getting funded. The problem is, outstanding science needs outstanding scientists. And a lot of outstanding scientists, especially young ones, are leaving academia, unwilling to spend their lives chasing – and in all likelihood not getting – grants.

If I were put in charge of this new institute (or the existing one for that matter) I would devote a large fraction of my budget (I think $10b a year would be a good start) to a “career” award program (not to be confused with the NSF’s CAREER awards).

I would put ~$1b into a pool for young investigator awards. These would be somewhat like current K-99s, in that they would primarily awarded to senior postdocs. These would provide modest startup funds and research support of ~$150k/year for six years – allowing researchers to establish their independent research programs without having to worry about grants. There would be a lot of these – on the order of 1,000 per year. These grants – which would be allocated on the basis of a “people not projects” review, and in all likelihood universities would compete to recruit soon to be independent scientists with these awards.

Recipients of these awards would be evaluated after five years in much the same way people go through tenure reviews today. The purpose of the review would be to assess the researchers contributions to the field and potential for further success. Some would fail to advance, others would be placed in to one of five tiers, representing annual support of between $100,000 (tier 1) and $500,000 (tier 5) – most would be in tier 2 or 3. Every three years research in the career system would be evaluated, with the result of an assessment of their work leading to then either staying in the same tier or moving up or down at most one tier. The total number of people in each tier would be fixed.

I will confess this idea was heavily influenced by the way European soccer leagues operate. At the end of every year, the top teams in each league are promoted to the next higher league, the bottom teams are relegated to a lower division. The system provides a clear opportunity for advancement, but buffers declines – people would only lose their funding after a prolonged period of poor performance, rather than precipitously as happens in the current system if grants do not get renewed.

I estimate that this would cost around $7b/year including overhead. The remaining $3b would support a pool of ~4,500 postdoctoral fellowships and ~12,000 graduate fellowships for trainees to work in career scientists labs. These numbers were meant to provide a pool of 1,500 rising faculty candidates and 2,000 new Ph.D.’s every year, my estimate of what it would take to continually replentish the system.

The $2b left would support a robust equipment grant program for career scientists, including core facilities at institutions with appropriate numbers of career researchers. If the powers that be decide we need more (or fewer) scientists, you scale the whole system by adding or subtracting slots in proportion to available funds.

The $10b was specifically meant not to take the entire NIH extramural budget, but to leave room to fund specific projects, especially high-risk/high reward ones from either career or other labs.

The main goals here are to separate the two crucial function of our granting systems: 1) to fund cutting edge science, and 2) to support a robust scientific infrastructure by providing stable careers to our successful scientists. As I’ve said before, (1) requires (2), but one of the most significant pathologies of our current system is that we mix the two together. In order to support their ongoing research operations, scientists are compelled to dream up “innovative” new projects that can sell in study sections, but often don’t make sense in the real world, while at the same time avoiding truly innovative projects for fear they will be penalized. If labs have a separate mechanism to ensure their financial stability, they will both have more bandwidth to dream up and implement new projects, and the freedom to aim for the stars without worrying they will end up on the street.

I’m sure there are a lot of things I haven’t thought about here, and countless details that need to be dealt with. And I’m equally sure that a lot of people will hate this proposal. But I wanted to put this on the table and open it up for discussion, because the one thing we can not do is nothing. We are dangerously close to losing a generation – or many generations – of scientists. Let’s figure out how not to let this happen.


Addenda: Commenter Jonathan below misunderstood the number of people who would be supported under this system. This was not meant to be an exclusive program. I based my numbers of ~1,000 PIs enter the system per year, with a steady state number probably around 15-20,000. This was a back of the envelope calculation taken from the current size of the NIH grantee and trainee pools. The idea was to stably support a pool of scientists roughly the same size as the current NIH grantee pool, with the PIs trading a more stable funding situation in exchange for lower average levels of support.


NIH research funding in 2014 ‘by the numbers’ – @rocktalking #NIH


Dr. Sally Rockey, NIH’s Deputy Director for Extramural Research, has posted a summary data on NIH research funding and awards for 2014. She has also compared it to previous funding years. Check out her data summary here at her blog Rock Talk!

These data are of particular interest for all of us this year, considering the historic low of the success rate last year, and the reduction of NIH’s budget in fiscal year 2013, due to sequestration.

Scientists discuss the Future of Research at #ASCB2014 #FORsymp

Superstar Scientists Share visions for the Future of Research at ASCB/IFCB Meeting

by Christina Szalinski

A panel of bioscience superstars tried to throw some light on the gloomy outlook for cell research Saturday at the ASCB/IFCB 2014 meeting in Philadelphia. As NIH funding shrinks, graduate programs grow, and fewer than 10% of PhDs go on to tenure-track position, Bruce Alberts, professor at University of California, San Francisco, best-selling textbook author, and newly minted National Medal of Science winner, wondered aloud, “What brilliant young person wants to become a scientist… if they have to wait until they’re 42 to get their first independent grant?” Alberts continued, “You’re supposed to be famous to get a job as an independent investigator. You would have laughed at my CV when I got hired.” Alberts was joined on the panel by Shirley Tilghman, ASCB president elect and president emerita at Princeton University; Jon Lorsch, Director of the NIH National Institute for General Medical Sciences; and Marc Kirschner, past president of ASCB and chair of the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School (HMS); and more.


HMS postdocs Jessica Polka and Kristen Krukenberg believe that it’s time for researchers to face the new realities. To that end, they initiated this panel in Philadelphia on the “Future of Research,” pulling in leaders from across the biomedical research enterprise to a special interest subgroup session at the ASCB/IFCB meeting. Krukenberg opened the session by summarizing an earlier Future of Research symposium they organized for postdocs in Boston in October. Krukenberg reported that working groups at the Boston symposium recommended a broadening of training, changes in lab structure, diversification of funding mechanisms, and rewards for scientists who interact with the public.


In Philadelphia, Alberts had his own recommendations—techniques and equipment should be freely shared to minimize waste, scientific risk-taking should be encouraged, and labs should be a more moderate size, with 9 to 12 as the maximum. “Howard Hughes (Medical Institute) chose individual scientists to double the size of their labs, thinking they’d do twice as much work, but they started doing less interesting things because they had to manage an enterprise,” Alberts explained.


Connie Lee, Assistant Dean for Basic Research at the University of Chicago and chair of ASCB’s Public Policy Committee, said while the research situation at her university wasn’t dire yet, bridge funding for PIs caught between R01s had been increased four-fold in recent years. Lee urged institutions and researchers themselves to find other sources of funding.  “Think outside the NIH box,” Lee said. Chicago now has grant writing-workshops to give critical feedback on first drafts of grants, and someone in Washington, DC, to help them identify new sources of funding. Lee said that institutions have to help create new avenues for scientists to innovate.


Kirschner said that science best proceeds in an environment of free inquiry. He cited the example of the Hamilton Smith, who was working in the obscure field of bacterial immunity and discovered restriction endonucleases, which revolutionized DNA modification and earned a Nobel Prize. “These are the kinds of things we should promote that the system is working against,” Kirschner said. “Science progresses most rapidly when scientists can focus on science. Writing grants can stimulate creativity, but rewriting them does not.”


Referring to her time as Princeton president, Tilghman joked, “I had a 12 year sabbatical thinking about binge drinking, and college football, and financial aid… In the years that I had been away [from science] the sense of optimism had been eroded… The ground conditions we’re laying out for the next generation… are not the conditions that create the very best science.” The problem, said Tilghman, is too many people chasing too little money. An easy first step, she believes, would be to require every graduate training program that gets NIH funding to post the career outcomes of their students. “I’m begging the NIH, on my hands and knees if I have to, to do this at minimum so students can make informed decisions,” Tilghman declared. She said it’s hard to say where the workforce pipeline could or should be narrowed just as it’s hard to predict who will do well in grad school. But Tilghman said one thing is clear: “We can’t afford to send 75% of students onto postdocs.”


Kenneth Gibbs, a Cancer Prevention Fellow at the National Cancer Institute, expressed concern about the “shearing forces inside the biomedical research pipeline.” At NCI, Gibbs investigates biomedical graduate student and postdoctoral training. He said that his data indicate that many PhDs entered graduate training with poor knowledge of career options and that over time in graduate programs, students move away from the goal of reaching a faculty position.


Lorsch, whose NIH institute is the primary source of federal funding for basic cell science research, wants to change the way grants are awarded. “RNAi wouldn’t have been discovered if the PI had said, ‘That’s not one of the specific aims, so you’d better get back to working on those so we can get the grant renewed,’” Lorsch said. Soon NIGMS will be piloting a program called Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA), which aims to provide one grant per PI that’s bigger and longer than R01 averages and not tied to specific aims, according to Lorsch. The review will be based on track record and overall research ideas and there will be modified review considerations for early-stage investigators. “NIH is taking seriously all these problems, but without reciprocal changes at institutions it won’t work. Everyone is going to have to change what they do in order to right the sinking ship,” Lorsch said.

*This article is from the ASCB Post

Check out the amazing list of NIH Brain Initiative grant awards!! See what $46 million can do! #science #neuroscience #BrainI

The NIH has posted the awards and abstracts of grants funded by the BRAIN Initiative (to the tune of $46 million!). Definitely worth a look if you are into brain science, neuroscience, or the types of projects NIH is funding! More info on BRAIN initiative here, and previous CauseScience posts about it here.


Problems with reproducibility in science? Here are the NIH proposed principles and guidelines to fix it! #science


In June, the National Institutes of Health, Nature, and Science convened a meeting with editors from over 40 top academic science journals to address problems of reproducibility in preclinical research reported in these journals. The result of this meeting is the “Proposed Principles and Guidelines for Reporting Preclinical Research,” now available on the NIH website.

The principles and guidelines include:

1. Rigorous Statistical Analysis

2. Transparency in Reporting (based on this paper)

3. Data and Material Sharing

4. Consideration of Refutations

5. Consider establishing best practice guidelines for image based data and description of biological reagents

Below is the intro for the proposal, defining who it applies to etc.

The signatories represent journals that publish preclinical biological research — an area of research that encompasses both exploratory studies and hypothesis-testing studies, with many different designs. The reproducibility of these studies is expected to vary. The journals agree to adhere to the following principles with the aim of facilitating the interpretation and repetition of experiments as they have been conducted in the published study. These measures and principles do not obviate the need for replication and reproduction in subsequent investigations to establish the robustness of published results across multiple biological systems.

It is great to see action happening on this front, especially action that appears to be so united~!