Why ignore those icebergs?(II)

How do expansionism and research training stimulate one another? And why, pray, do we still sit on our hands?

Addictive expansionism in biomedical research centers (1) is one important element of a conceptual framework that may help us to understand the myriad troubles that afflict biomedical research in the US. Now let’s take a look at how that expansionism connects to a second element: the training of young biomedical scientists.

Before expansion of biomedical research really took off, in the 1960s, training PhD students and the few available postdocs could be pretty much catch-as-catch-can. Scientists chose a few young people to work in their labs and paid them meager stipends, sometimes from their own pockets. Because training varied greatly in quality, from lab to lab and institution to institution, in the early 1970s NIH began to offer institutional training grants, which paid uniform stipends to students and postdocs (2). Training standards probably improved, but available training grants supported too few trainees, so PIs and their institutions tapped into research grants to pay postdocs and many graduate students (dubbed research assistants).

Paying trainees from research grants brought important benefits: (i) a large supply of bright, highly-motivated lab workers; (ii) a substantial financial advantage, because trainees command lower salaries than do permanent staff scientists with PhDs; (iii) a boost in creative innovation, kindled by mixing established mentors with ambitious young trainees less burdened with pre-conceived ideas and unafraid of tackling new questions; (iv) production of many well-trained, skilled scientists for jobs in academia and industry, at a time when such jobs were relatively more plentiful than now. Finally, generations of mentors and trainees discovered that solving scientific problems together can be exciting, gratifying, and productive.

Later, BiomedWatch will paint a larger picture, illustrating how multiple powerful positive feedbacks and weaker negative feedbacks connect the NIH, rampantly competitive expansion of research centers, and the essential role of trainees in the investigative workforce. Here I present a less fine-grained account of two positive feedbacks, located close to the system’s center, each of which stimulates the other.

One exceptionally strong positive feedback loop, discussed earlier (1), is driven by the strong competitive urge of biomedical research centers and their learned addiction to regular increases in NIH funding. Like a knife-wielding gourmand used to consuming slices of an ever-growing pie, each research center fiercely competes to wangle a disproportionately bigger helping. In the recent era of flat-line NIH budgets, however, each center usually captures a slice approximately equal to last year’s or, owing to inflation, even smaller.

For institutions to reap greater return from indirect cost payments and feed their addiction to rampant competitive expansion, they need research labs to grow in size, number, or both. This need drives a positive feedback exerted by both research centers and PIs on training. Academic institutions and their faculties expand PhD training programs and hire more postdocs because relatively cheap trainee labor produces the publications necessary to attract more grant money and indirect cost payments.

Positive feedback also works in the other direction, albeit in a more stutter-start fashion. More new PhDs become more new postdocs, who soon find themselves in a brimming “holding tank” of frustrated senior postdocs, each seeking interviews for a few open positions for running an independent research lab in academia or industry. In addition to furnishing highly skilled labor for established labs, the ready availability of postdocs in this holding tank makes it easier for institutions to hire competent researchers on soft-money faculty salaries, thereby filling newly built labs and reaping further expansion money from indirect cost payments. Ready availability of excess cannon-fodder probably also makes it easier for departments and institutions to discard soft-money faculty researchers whose grant applications are turned down.

We cannot refrain from asking the obvious questions. Why are these and other positive feedbacks not opposed by the negative feedbacks we might expect? Why don’t institutions, faced with decreasing endowments and flat-line NIH budgets, decisively curtail bricks-and-mortar expansion to put more money into faculty salaries? Why don’t PhD programs reduce the size of entering classes? If jobs are really tight, why do young people persist in applying for biomedical training?

I shall return to these questions in later blogs, because the answers differ from case to case and feedback to feedback. For the moment, I submit that the problem reflects a pervasively common human frailty: our inveterate tendency to resort to “double-think” when we want to avoid difficult problems by resorting. For example, a PI may argue that it is his (or his institution’s) duty to attract and train more students, for a host of reasons—and then, on a different day, admit that his students aren’t as good as they used to be, his lab couldn’t possibly handle more students, and his postdocs are having a harder time finding positions. NIH personnel, research trainees, and university administrators are no less susceptible to double-think than PIs. Indeed, double-think is much more common than hypocrisy, malice, or even stupidity—but also more dangerous, because shape-shifting sincerity convinces while it thoroughly stymies real choice.

         Together, rapid expansion of US biomedical research and the creative efficiency of the mentor-trainee relationship furnished an indispensable fulcrum for leveraging investment in 20th-century biomedical research into discoveries and therapies that immeasurably improved the lives of billions. Those triumphs, however, were accompanied by less fortunate effects, including the every-day icebergs (1) that plagued PIs in the late 20th century and persist as grave menaces today, plus the most recent iceberg, which right now is also the scariest—that is, the looming cataclysm created by Congress’s repeated yearly failures to increase the NIH budget, beginning in 2004 and still continuing (1). In combination with inflation, in eight years flat-line NIH funding has already decreased real support of NIH grantees by 18%. Public universities and some private universities find themselves in dire financial straits.

Despite these trends, and their likely persistence for years to come, universities and medical schools continue building new labs, hiring more research faculty on soft-money salaries, and reducing “hard” salary support for faculty already on board. Similarly, NIH continues to receive and process huge numbers of grant proposals, while entering classes of PhD graduate programs and postdoc numbers remain stable or even increase. PIs complain, as we always have, and spend increasing time and effort massaging and polishing more and more papers and grant proposals while competing to attract more postdocs and students. All the auguries have produced laughably negligible responses from the NIH, which shuffles decreasing funds to divide a shrinking pie among a few extra grantees and mires itself in controversy about less pressing issues like translational medicine.

Why do institutions, biomedical scientists, and the NIH continue to sit on their hands, instead of banding together to prepare for or avert looming disaster? We have already suggested two possible reasons. One, surely, is simple inertia, reinforced by adaptation and eventual addiction to federal funding, which increased steadily from the 1960s up to 2003. Inertia and addiction, abetted by double-think, helped prevent decisive responses to the daily icebergs we lived with for decades (1).

Another contributing cause, I suspect, is the hoary American belief—shared by PIs, students, postdocs, universities, research institutes, medical schools, journals, editors, and peer reviewers—that competition solves all problems. But this belief just ain’t necessarily so! Competition is certainly essential in science, but in excess it may sap or even destroy scientific creativity. The problem, as many scientists recall from their own sad mistakes, is that competition distracts us from real questions while it tends to make us believe we must be right and are bound to win. For scientists, competition works better when self-generated than when imposed by adverse financial circumstances. Indeed, truly good scientists often do their best work when they are left alone (see 4).


1. HR Bourne, Why ignore those icebergs? (I).

2. The NIH started the National Research Service Awards (NRSA) program in the mid-1970s to improve training of graduate students and postdocs. At the beginning Congress required the program to set trainee stipends, but these were not increased as cost of living rose in the late 1970s and early 1980s; as a result, stipends remained low at the beginning and students and postdocs became relatively cheap labor. At virtually the same time a few schools—and eventually all—realized that they could pay trainee stipends from research grants as well, at the (low) rates set by NRSA grants.

3. This was certainly true of the scientists whose discoveries I described in HR Bourne, Paths to Innovation: Discovering recombinant DNA, oncogenes, and prions, in one medical school, over one decade, University of California Medical Humanities Consortium, distributed by UC Press (2011). The four scientists included Herbert Boyer (recombinant DNA), Michael Bishop (oncogenes), Harold Varmus (oncogenes), and Stanley Prusiner (prions).


About biomedwatch
Professor Emeritus of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, University of California, San Francisco

2 Responses to Why ignore those icebergs?(II)

  1. Brian C. Martinson says:

    Very happy to learn of your blog. I hope it is a successful venture. I’m very pleased to see your application of systems thinking to foster understanding of the reinforcing feedback loops in the system of biomedical science. I share much of your outlook and many of your concerns, as you can see in some of my own editorializing on these topics:

    Very much looking forward to following this blog.

  2. DrugMonkey says:

    Also, the tragedy of the commons. Our social science friends can tell us about that.

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