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Big trouble for big federal R&D agencies

Watching the budget politics of the last few months, I am feeling déjà vu all over again.  Twenty years ago, I directed a report for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment—itself a needless casualty of the budget politics of the Gingrich era—titled Federally Funded Research—Decisions for a Decade (1991). 

Among the report's key messages were two that are all the more germane today:  the federal R&D budget is never "enough," so universities must get smarter with their resource allocations, and the future workforce must develop ways of drawing on all its talented students, even those who historically have not been recruited to and degreed in science (principally, women, minorities, and persons with disabilities).  This is a no-brainer of policy and planning:  the demographics are changing, so our pedagogy and programs must make science and engineering (today, STEM) appealing and careers in those fields competitive.  We must spend scarce dollars prudently to assure the flow of a "next" generation to replenish the technical creativity and productivity of the nation.

So here we are in 2012.  At NIH, a $30 billion agency is witnessing an aging workforce, yet is unable to fund new individual investigators, on average, before their 42nd birthdays.  A growing corps of postdoctoral appointees—called various things on various campuses—is living as indentured servants with a one-in-three chance of securing an academic position.  They see NIH funding as a "pyramid scheme" robbing them of opportunity. Women in biomedicine, in the aggregate, are squandered left and right. More than half the Ph.D.s produced annually are never hired onto university faculties.  Between the climate of inattentiveness and work-life imbalance (if not worse) of academic environments, women leave for industry and a modicum of independence and what they see as a truer meritocracy. 

NSF is hardly better.  With an annual budget one-quarter the size of NIH's, NSF has a problem matching its formidable program portfolio to its rhetoric of "broadening participation."  That problem is evidenced by the modest gains in the production of underrepresented minority Ph.D.s over the last 20 years.  A quantum lead is needed—new approaches, fuller participation of research universities, better connections between minority-serving institutions and others that specialize in graduate education and beyond.   It's impossible to diversify faculties if the qualified candidates do not exist.  As for women in the life sciences, those departments hardly look different from the medical school faculties that NIH sustains. Without stanching the flow of women out of the academy, the prospects of leadership change will also be unattainable.    

As it is, NSF- and NIH-funded faculty look increasingly unlike their students.  All the talk about role models and mentors must recognize the need for mostly white men to nurture all, not just those of similarly backgrounds, class, and native language.

So what's the policy dilemma?  The federal government cannot and should not dictate to universities public or private.  Rather, agencies can create incentives that induce those craving research funds to think about who is participating and who is not, who is being supported, and what will the future racial, ethnic, and gender composition of their respective disciplines look like. 

Here's the rub:  the leaders of the science community too seldom speak out about the workforce. They treat it as a byproduct of research investments.  It is, but should be much more. Perhaps those leaders fear calling attention to the diversity around them—unless it is couched in terms of the need for foreign talent (who can come, but not always stay).  It has substituted a global talent pool of a domestic one—and US citizens, I am convinced (and this is not a popular view) that women and minorities suffer accordingly. 

This should not be a zero-sum game.  It should be an issue for advocacy, as NIH Director Collins demonstrated last summer when a 10 percent gap between the success of white and black individual investigators was found and could not be explained.  An advisory committee and other structures were deployed at NIH, very publicly, to investigate further.  This is laudable, but the tip of an iceberg that NIH—and NSF—cannot ignore.

Clearly, there is big trouble ahead for many young professionals and students on the pathway to who-knows-what—and the solution will not be money alone.  It never is.    

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Daryl E. Chubin


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