The $2 billion increase in funding for the National Institutes of Health that Congress recently approved reflects society’s great expectations for the biomedical sciences. I fear that three unproductive practices that the scientific community has slipped into will undermine this support unless we take action to address these self-inflicted threats.
The crux of the problem is that, over the years, many leaders of research institutions have treated research as a volume business and focused more on money and operational size than on the discovery of new knowledge. Success has come to be defined by the number of grants secured, labs established, graduate students hired, and papers published, rather than on the substance of discoveries.
That mindset puts pressure on institutions and individual scientists to shift from focusing on what society expects them to do (discover valuable things) to what is needed to feed growth (bring in grant money). Individuals who can’t increase their grant revenue, or who lose it, know that their jobs are at risk. That inevitably changes their behavior and, by extension, the institutional culture.
Here’s an example that resonates with non-scientists. If the real goal of biomedical researchers is to help patients and society, they would share their findings openly and as soon as they are made. Yet most breakthrough results today get held back until published in prominent journals. That kind of behavior could prompt many in society to start questioning our commitment to our real mission.
The growth model requires bringing in ever more workers at the entry level of the science pyramid, with little chance they will progress to directing their own research programs. The number of graduate students that programs now hire is determined by the number of open slots in research labs — essentially the number of “hands on deck” needed to fulfill funded research. Instead, we should be more discerning about accepting students into the Ph.D. track and choose them based on their future potential for forging careers that make optimal use of their potential scientific expertise, not on current lab needs.
Then we could develop a second track of talent — people who love research and aspire to careers working in labs but who do not want the added burden of leading an entire research program. These individuals will still need advanced training and deep expertise, but their educational paths will be authentically aligned with their career goals.
Much thoughtful work has gone into ways to modify our approach to developing the scientific workforce. Most experts agree that by seeking out, cultivating, and rewarding research professionals who are not necessarily on the faculty path, we are more likely to develop the talented individuals who will participate in the discoveries of the future. Because the current personnel model for biomedical research rests on cheap labor — a large number of students and postdocs who work hard for little pay — making changes would have significant cost implications for many institutions and for fund availability for research project awards. Even the small step of a demonstration project would be a move in the right direction.
Another volume-related problem that deserves attention is the pattern of investment. Instead of trying to be as big as possible, some institutions need to be more strategically sized to be effective. There are excellent models today, such as the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Carnegie Institution for Science at Johns Hopkins. Both are relatively small and focus on quality and impact rather than follow the growth model, and both have had enormous success in their science. We are attempting to build this same culture of excellence at the Morgridge Institute for Research by collaborating with the University of Wisconsin, Madison, while focusing on quality, not scale.
Reluctance to collaborate also poses a threat to scientific advancement and societal support for science. No institution has ever lost prestige because its scientists participated in an impressive collaboration. However, the grant-counting, perpetual-growth model works against this more efficient, potentially game-changing approach.
More robust networking of biomedical science is needed across institutions. Creating grant opportunities that provide universities with incentives to collaborate will amplify the benefit of doing research to find answers rather than attempting to build institutional prestige.
This approach would pave the way for cooperation among small, mid-sized, and large institutions, rather than each independently competing for available funds. The physical sciences seem to have done a better job of figuring this out. We can learn from the National Science Foundation, the NIH equivalent for non-medical science and engineering, which established the LIGO Scientific Collaboration. This group of more than 1,000 scientists worldwide proved last year that cosmic gravitational waves exist, confirming a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 theory of relativity. There is no evidence that sharing credit for this exciting discovery impaired the effort or dampened enthusiasm for this remarkable achievement.
It’s time to demonstrate to society that our essential focus is on discovering new knowledge and improving human life, not on driving up grant totals as an inaccurate means of claiming quality and prestige. This is the best path toward fulfilling our promise and earning continued support.
Brad Schwartz, M.D., is chief executive officer of the Morgridge Institute for Research in Madison, Wis.