The NIH Bubble

One feature of a medical campus that has struck me as different from an arts and sciences campus is the casual way that research faculty get hired. No strategic plan or educational mission determines the ideal number of faculty each section should have. Rather, Principal Investigators hire on new faculty to assist with their labs. Then, if the researcher cannot establish independent funding or the PI loses a grant, that faculty member is let go.

A commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education explains why this pattern has developed. After supplying start-up costs and some initial salary, universities can then funnel researchers into the NIH system. NIH grants, the primary source of funding for biomedical research, covers faculty salaries and provides overhead to the university. In this way, medical campuses have incentive to keep hiring more faculty, hope they obtain extramural funding, and then drop them if they don’t.

The same commentary also argues that this system is unsustainable. More and more investigators are entering the system, but the overall NIH budget has been flat since 2003. The crisis can already be seen in the number of applications for training grants, which tripled from 1997 to 2007 while success rates nearly halved.

One solution would be to require universities to support their own faculty, as the National Science Foundation already does. This would put a natural limit on the number of investigators on medical campuses, but it would give each of them enhanced stability and confidence to pursue research that matters, not just research that pays the bills.


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