Posts by Jonathan Thon
In my previous blog post, I highlighted the fact that despite their academic laurels, publically funded research institutes are no less aware of their bottom line and profit margins, and no less risk-averse, than private businesses. The problem is that while research departments are run like corporations, few principal investigators see themselves as small business owners. The result is a clear lack of push-back from academic faculty against institutional policies that ultimately take advantage of the basic research lab.
This is particularly evident within medical departments in the United States, where principal research scientists are expected to bring in 100% of their own salary and laboratory support, generally through a combination of federal/private grants and industry sponsorship. Infrastructure support (rent, administration, animal facilities, gas, power… etc.) is subtracted from this income and the remainder is used to support wages, accompanying fringe benefits (e.g., healthcare, dental coverage), equipment, reagents, and conference travel.
While departments will, on some occasions, provide a “start-up package” on hire, these front-end investments are generally designed to expedite laboratory setup and are usually recovered from the indirect costs over the following five years. Nevertheless, academic faculty remain university/hospital “employees” and capital raised by the principal investigator is funneled directly to the institution, which then sets up a laboratory account and sundry fund from which it pays investigator salaries and related expenses.
Academic faculty have limited input regarding institutionally determined indirect costs, salary caps and, in the case of larger institutions such as the Partners-affiliated hospitals in Boston, purchasing decisions – which are dictated by preferred vendor contracts. Although employment contracts are meant to provide job security in exchange for surrendering administrative freedom, principal investigators are still required to pay themselves, insofar as salary is determined entirely on capital raised by the investigator from outside sources, and benefits packages are tied directly to incoming grants.
Universities and hospitals continue to trend toward fewer tenured faculty (awarded lifetime employment of accomplished senior faculty) and more research scientist positions (short-term contract employment) that remove the burden of salary support from the institution entirely. As universities and hospitals distance themselves from assuming the financial burden of supporting to a major extent their basic research programs, it is important that principal investigators be reclassified as what they are: independent contractors.
Without question, principal investigators in academic settings presently occupy an independent profession in which they offer their services to the general public. Under the Internal Revenue Service’s definition of “independent contractors” in the U.S., the “payer” has the right to control only the result of the work, and not what will be done or how it will be done. Indeed, it is unclear that the research institution can even be defined as the payer, in the common case that the lab is sustained almost entirely on external grants and the supported projects are selected by the funding agency.
What matters, according to the IRS’s litmus test of what distinguishes an employee from an independent contractor, is that the employer has the legal right to control the details of how the services are performed – which, in a basic research practice at an academic institution is almost certainly not the case. By comparison, the principal investigator in an academic lab has absolute control of how research is performed by students, technicians and post-doctoral fellows in his/her lab. These researchers, while also commonly funded through the principal investigator’s operating grants, are appropriately regarded as employees of the principal investigator. Canada Revenue Agency definitions of independent contractors in Canada are similar, and this argument can be extended just as easily to Canadian institutions moving away from salary-supported faculty positions.
There are, of course, major disadvantages to re-classifying principal investigators as independent contractors – tax exemptions and health insurance being chief amongst them. Nevertheless, it behooves us to rethink how research scientists are currently employed and funded at universities to more accurately reflect the role academic institutions are meant to play in society and better align academic department’s administrative structure with their underlying mission.
In the United States most universities and hospitals are private businesses, and are run as such, maximizing profit margins and generally promoting low-risk ventures with greatest return on investment. Basic research by comparison is high-risk and generally takes 10 to 20 years to show a financial return on investment (if there is a financial return at all). Not surprisingly, basic research projects are thus often left to the federal government to fund – and why not? The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 permits universities and hospitals to pursue ownership of any invention made using federal funding in preference to the government doing the same.
In Canada, universities and hospitals are both heavily subsidized by the government; nevertheless, there is no legislation in Canada governing the management of intellectual property (IP) rights resulting from publicly subsidized research. Each organization is required to develop its own rules: while some (CNRC, CRIQ) have chosen to retain ownership and grant licenses, others (CIHR, NSERC, FRSQ) do not retain ownership, transferring it instead to the university or research center producing the invention. Although ownership of IP resulting from federally funded research is not as clearly defined in Canada as it is in the U.S., policy decisions are generally structured on the American system.
Under this model, researchers and employees generally assign their rights to their employer who, in turn, assigns those rights to a technology transfer organization. As a result, when it comes to investment decisions on basic research programs, Canadian universities and hospitals are no less run like their American counterparts, and their expected aversion to unnecessary risk encourages subsidization of basic research almost entirely by outside sources.
So why does this matter? While traditional basic research departments such as biochemistry or engineering that subsidize faculty salaries and laboratory support from tuition fees – and rightfully so, as these faculty dedicate a significant quantity of their time (usually 20%) to teaching – PhD faculty in medical departments such as hematology or oncology are expected to support themselves entirely from research grants. This is not entirely unjust, as teaching loads in these departments are virtually non-existent. While MD and MD/PhD faculty make up the difference by assuming clinical roles, generally comprising 25% of their time, this option is not available to PhDs and salary/lab support must ultimately come from somewhere.
One solution is to reclassify principal investigators at academic institutions as “independent contractors,” freeing them to better negotiate their terms of employment and creating more competition in the academic market as a result. The alternative is to transform research departments into centralized self-sustaining profitable ventures by privatizing academic research, emphasizing translational discoveries in government directed areas of need… but how? My following posts will deal with both.
“Doctorate recipients begin careers in large and small organizations, teach in universities, and start new businesses. Doctoral education develops human resources that are critical to a nation’s progress—scientists, engineers, researchers, and scholars who create and share new knowledge and new ways of thinking that lead, directly and indirectly, to innovative products, services, and works of art. In doing so, they contribute to a nation’s economic growth, cultural development, and rising standard of living.” – National Science Foundation (2011)
The best way to attract and retain talented researchers in Canada is to offer them jobs. While Canadian postsecondary education is recognized worldwide for its excellence, Canada produces significantly more PhDs than it can gainfully employ (The research bottleneck, flying blind; Playing the devil’s advocate on low salaries). Declining academic positions (universities presently employ 87% of Canadian PhDs), limited pathways for advancement as decision makers in government (the second major employer of Canadian PhDs, 9%), and a limited high technology sector which presently employs only 4% of PhDs as compared to the 42% hired by industry in the United States (In Canada you can get a PhD, but maybe not a job) suggests that retention of PhD researchers following their postdoctoral fellowships is where Canada is falling short. Emphasis should be placed in funding faculty appointments for Canadian investigators first, and attracting top-tier international researchers second.
Managing a research lab is no different than running a small business (a subject I’ll be addressing in an upcoming post). In order to create opportunities for scientists at the interface between academia and industry, the federal government should invest in industry co-sponsored tier 1 and tier 2 research chairs tenable for at least 5-7 years, such as are offered through the Canada Research Chairs program, and support this program by expanding infrastructure support provided by the Canada Foundation for Innovation.
In exchange for accepting a co-sponsored independent research position at a major academic institution, new faculty will receive a cross-appointment in the sponsoring company, be required to consult on in-house research and development pipelines, and will be expected to pursue one or more translational (bench-to-market) research projects for which the sponsoring industry partner will receive first-rights to patent and the academic institution and federal government will be permitted to claim a proportional (albeit smaller) share.
Renewal, while dependent on publication record and academic success, will include evidence of market value in a subset of research programs. Priority will be given to Canadian citizens for both tier 1 (established researcher) and tier 2 (emerging researcher) chairs, however tier 1 chair appointments should provide sufficient flexibility to be used as a recruitment tool to attract world leaders in their fields. International experience for candidates applying to both tier 1 and tier 2 research chairs should be encouraged since it helps bring to Canada expertise from internationally-recognized research labs abroad.
Tier 2 research grants should not require prior faculty appointment to be eligible for nomination. A major limitation of federal funding programs for young investigators in Canada is the requirement of an existing faculty appointment. This clause constitutes a chicken and egg argument whereby Canadian universities are presently reticent to hire new faculty due to lack of guaranteed funding, and young researchers cannot apply for independent funding without first securing a faculty appointment.
Allowing postdoctoral fellows to apply for independent funding ahead of securing their first faculty appointment will allow the federal government to attract the best and brightest Canadian scientists and direct scientific innovation in Canada by selecting which research programs will be supported. In the case of industry-co-sponsored research chairs, this will stress research plans that exhibit potential for bench-to-market translation. If successful, this program should be expanded to include private industries beyond traditional economic powerhouses such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics to include the social sciences and humanities as well.
In light of the present circumstances, I thought I would interrupt my ongoing series on federal funding of basic research in Canada and take the opportunity this week to update you on the current status of science funding in the United States amid another looming fiscal showdown. The 2014 fiscal year in the U.S. begins Oct. 1 and requires Congress to pass a spending bill to allow federal agencies to remain open. Later this month, on Oct. 17, Congress will be required to pass another bill increasing the American government’s $16.7-trillion debt ceiling to avoid default.
By now I expect we are all familiar with the consequences of inaction on both milestones and I won’t belabor the point here (For past discussion please see “Cause and effect in scientific funding,” and “What happens when you insufficiently fund basic research“). Instead I want to comment on the fallout as it affects NIH funding in the U.S. It is difficult to predict whether agreement will be reached to avert a government shutdown and funding lapse before Oct. 1 and the NIH has provided some guidance with respect to the expected fallout.
While spending may continue on active grants and contracts funded for fiscal year 2013 or prior following a shutdown, principal investigators are recommended to limit spending to what was set forth in the fiscal year 2013 grant year budget. Additionally, during any shutdown period, PIs may not make budgetary or other changes that require prior approval as there will be little or no agency staff available to provide such approvals. Expenditures made without the requisite prior approval during the shutdown period are at risk, and may not be reimbursed once the government reopens.
At the moment of this writing, there is no definitive information on whether reimbursement will be possible for fiscal year 2014 award spending that occurs before the shutdown is resolved. However, my institution has recommended that if we receive a stop-work order from a federal sponsor that we cease working on the project and work with our research management office to implement the government’s directive. You can imagine how disruptive this will be to time-sensitive research studies, particularly if they are at the forefront of scientific discovery and therefore in direct competition with other equally aggressive research programs worldwide. Thankfully, some clinical trials may qualify for “excepted” categories where work and financial support can continue in absence of an appropriation because of statutory requirements, safety, or national security. NIH intramural clinical trials appear to fall into this category.
Another complicating issue that may be of relevance to Canadians is the status of collaborators working under subcontract with American institutions. My understanding is that American hospitals and research institutes are generally under no obligation to provide FY-2014 funding during a lapse in federal appropriation, although subcontractors may continue to spend FY-2013 funds. Amendments extending subcontracts based on anticipated fiscal year 2014 funding will likely not be processed until after the shutdown has been resolved and the appropriate renewal notice of grant award has been received from the agency. For Canadian post-docs on NIH grants commencing fiscal year 2014, this could mean returning home as J1 and H1B visas are dependent on employment status.
Lastly, while the Grants.gov system will be operating during a funding lapse and will accept and store NIH grant applications, these applications will not be processed until funding has been approved and normal business operations are restored.
Any government shut-down will undoubtedly have far-reaching implications on the American economy and influence markets worldwide; the research community will be waiting with bated breath to see how this year’s American financial crisis plays out.
In the meantime, I will be continuing with my article series in my next post.
While the federal government has taken steps to address a stagnant science and technology sector in Canada through a $9-billion annual investment (Economic Action Plan 2013, the Harper Government’s eighth budget since 2006), the focus on a trickle-down approach to research and development by shifting resources toward the private sector misunderstands the pipeline by which academic science supplies industry and falls short of nurturing the underlying wellspring of innovation that is necessary to drive economic growth in high technology.
Briefly, the measures proposed in Economic Action Plan 2013:
- Provide an additional $37 million per year to the federal research granting councils to support collaborations between postsecondary institutions and industry.
- Extend the eligibility for the granting councils’ undergraduate industrial research awards to bachelor’s students at colleges and polytechnics.
- Allocate $225 million to support advanced research infrastructure through the Canada Foundation for Innovation.
- Provide $165 million for genomics research through Genome Canada.
- Provide $13 million to the Mitacs Globalink program to attract highly promising students from around the world to Canadian universities and allow Canadian students to take advantage of training opportunities abroad.
- Provide $141 million to ensure a secure supply of medical isotopes and maintain safe and reliable operations at Atomic Energy of Canada Limited’s Chalk River Laboratories.
- Support teaching and research infrastructure under the Provincial-Territorial Infrastructure Component of the new Building Canada Fund.
Amit Chakma, president of Western University and chair of the U15 group of research-intensive universities (which undertake 80% of all competitive university research in Canada), recently responded that [the federal government has] “prudently chosen to maintain funding to the crucial innovation sectors that will help generate solutions to our pressing social and economic challenges.” There is no question that these investments are welcomed, particularly in the midst of a global economic downturn where many difficult choices had to be made, but are they sufficient?
Discovery-driven research and the commercialization of ideas are not mutually exclusive, and the more appropriate question is what investments should be taken by the federal government to realize the transformative potential of science in the marketplace, and meet its stated goals of:
- attracting and retaining talented researchers
- supporting excellence in science
- bringing discoveries and innovations to the marketplace
- building science and technology infrastructure
To remind us of where we stand, I refer you to The State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012, published by the Council of Canadian Academies and recently reviewed by David Kent in a previous post. Some statistics worth highlighting are that with less than 0.5% of the world’s population, Canada produces 4.1% of the world’s research papers and nearly 5% of the world’s most frequently cited papers. Nevertheless, Canada shows a strikingly poor performance in general Science and Technology; and while the United States contributes to 27% of total publications, it claims over 40% of the top 1% of cited papers in the world.
Another statistic that is often cited in political discourse on the state of Canada’s science and technology is that in a survey of over 5,000 leading international scientists, Canada’s scientific research enterprise was ranked fourth highest in the world, after the U.S., U.K. and Germany. While this is true, it was also the only country in the entire OECD that had a net decline in research and development spending from 2005-2010 (-6%) compared to an average 17% increase across other OECD countries, and well below the level of investment in R&D in countries such as Israel, Finland and Sweden, all of which invest in excess of 3.5% of their GDP in support of R&D. (See figures below.)
While this may be due to “a return to more normal levels as a result of the conclusion of federal stimulus spending” (according to Gary Goodyear, until recently minister of state for science and technology), it does not change the fact that (like everything else) improving Canada’s position in the knowledge market necessitates continued investment. There is no reason why Canada’s science and technology sector should not be ranked first in the world, particularly when considering the underemployment rate of Canadian PhDs. Despite an exceptionally developed postsecondary education system, 6% of PhDs in Canada are underemployed, versus the United States which has nine times the population of Canada and a PhD underemployment rate of only 1.9% (source: Graduating in Canada: Profile, Labour Market Outcomes and Student Debt of the Class of 2005).
Although Canadian R&D spending relative to other countries is more concentrated in the higher education sector, funding policies have prioritized graduate student enrollments at the expense of postgraduate placements, creating an excess of PhDs with limited opportunities for career advancement. The corollary is that a relatively low share of Canadian R&D investment occurs in the business sector, which may be a primary cause of Canada’s lagging productivity growth in relation to many other countries (particularly the U.S.). Shifting funding away from basic research to support private industry, however, is not the answer since most high-technology companies are borne out of academic research laboratories and rely on collaborations with academic laboratories to support the majority of their research and development.
My following posts will address each of the Harper Government’s states goals for science and technology in Canada, and offer insight into how these can be achieved. I very much welcome your input and discussion with this series.
The Right Honourable Stephen Harper
Prime Minister of Canada
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A2
Dear Mr. Harper,
Canada is in the historically unique position to begin reversing the academic brain-drain and establish our nation as a world leader in the knowledge market through our innovation of science and technology.
I am a Canadian citizen, researcher at Harvard University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Like many other top-tier Canadian scientists and their spouses, my wife (a physician) and I made the difficult decision to leave our country for the United States, where higher institutional funding rates meant I was more likely to be successful. While this decision has benefited me in my career, it has meant that my ensuing industry partnerships, scientific discoveries and resultant patent have directly benefited the American economy, despite the significant sums of money invested by the Canadian public to train me. Given the present funding climate for basic research in the U.S., my wife and I are hoping to return home to Canada this year, alongside hundreds of other Canadian scientists.
Research scientists are driven entirely by their work, and have significantly more flexibility in deciding where to practice their craft than most other professionals. Principal investigators lead research teams of 10 to hundreds of junior scientists, are recruited to universities on the basis of their research accomplishments, and attract hundreds of thousands of dollars in private investments. Most importantly, scientists relocate often to retain stable/persistent funding for the world-changing advancements they make that regularly take a minimum of 5-10 years to develop.
While generally considered separate from the private market, companies that have spun out of research universities have a far greater success rate than other companies, creating jobs and spurring economic activity. Google is a prime example. By definition, industry-creating research of the calibre done at top-tier research labs is high-risk/high-gain, for which we are uniquely positioned because of government support and freedom from corporate pressures. Indeed, more than half of our economic growth since World War II can be traced to science-driven technological innovation. This includes medical breakthroughs in heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes. Business and industry, by comparison, conduct less than 20% of basic research in North America, much of which is outsourced to academic labs. The remainder is accomplished by universities.
By comparison, companies are necessarily more risk averse because of their financial obligations to shareholders. The foresight that public interests cannot be left to private enterprise is what ultimately led to the establishment of our research institutes. The National Research Council of Canada was created in 1916 to “advise the government on matters of science and industrial research.” The Canadian Institutes of Health Research, which evolved from the Medical Research Council of Canada, followed in June 2000 to “create new scientific knowledge and enable … a strengthened Canadian health care system.” These institutes find their American counterparts in the National Academies of Science and National Institutes of Health, which like our own institutes, were created to add “the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery … of new and useful things” (Abraham Lincoln). Without fuel, the fire of ingenuity will slowly burn itself out. Our country is in the best possible position to reignite it here.
The combination of automatic spending cuts to the federal budget foisted on the American public this year, a deadlocked Congress and diminishing investment in the basic sciences has created a unique opportunity for Canada to reverse the brain-drain and establish itself as a world leader in knowledge market. Renewed investment in basic research, specifically new investigator grants, infrastructure support and trainee awards, will allow this administration to attract scientists from top-tier research institutes abroad back to Canada. The labs they found directly create jobs – employing research teams, lab technicians, equipment manufacturers, administrative staff, intellectual property lawyers and others; the research they perform attract the best and brightest minds in the world to their labs; their discoveries create new industries; and their presence supports and builds surrounding companies through collaborations. Canada has invested greatly in training new PhDs in science and technology – this is our chance to recuperate our investment.
It is without question that we face more complex challenges today than we have ever faced before. We train the greatest scientific minds in the world – and send them away to benefit the growing research and development industries abroad. Our biomedical research holds the promise of unlocking new cures and treatments – but is simultaneously sorely underfunded and at risk of collapse. We compete in a global marketplace which all nations share in opportunity and growth – but in which we are losing ground in the very sectors we have the expertise and resources to lead. At difficult moments such as these it is tempting to say that we cannot afford to invest in science, that support for research is somehow a privilege at moments defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree. Science is more essential for our prosperity, our health and our quality of life than it has ever been before. Instead of reaping the benefits of progress at a premium, Canada has the chance to become the wellspring of technological innovation for the world – fostering scientific advancement and economic growth.
Your government has a chance to make that difference.
Thank you for taking the time to address my letter and I look forward to your response.
Jonathan Thon, PhD
Last week Dave wrote a post on how universities can begin keeping track of graduate student and postdoctoral fellow outcomes. With blogs such as “100 reasons not to go to graduate school” popping up online, as well as many articles increasingly critical of the state of higher education, it warrants that prospective students think long and hard about pursuing a career in academia. It is therefore imperative that accurate and unbiased information be available for each stage of academic career advancement for every field. One solution with which I wholly agree is that academics publicly disclose the career progression of their former trainees online, and pursuant to this theme I wanted to make our readers aware of a fact-finding survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education titled the Ph.D. Placement Project.
The justification for this initiative is ample. Students entering PhD programs are woefully unaware of the average times to completion (nearly a decade on average in the humanities); number/length of postdoctoral fellowships pursuant; inadequate salary, protection and benefits provided during this additional training period; the toll job insecurity plays on career progression; and limited job prospects thereafter. As stable, modestly-paying teaching positions at universities and colleges become harder to get, academic appointments have begun shifting toward exploitative systems of adjunct labour.
While policy reform at both the institutional and federal levels should be advocated for (please follow this link for instructions on how to contact your Member of Parliament, Senator, or Congressperson), it behooves us to support those trainees coming up through the system now. Allowing prospective students to make more informed decisions on career progression is an important first step.
“Advisers and prospective students need something more than a scattered helping of infrequently updated best-case scenarios. We need externally verified, reasonably comprehensive data about individual programs and maybe even individual advisers”
- James Yang, in the Chronicle.
The PhD Placement Project aims to gather reliable data about job placements for PhDs and answer the questions: Who’s getting jobs? Where are they? Which doctoral programs are doing well at placing their PhDs in tenure track positions? Which are doing poorly? Are many universities and colleges making an effort to help their PhDs land non-academic jobs? etc. The answers should be illuminating, and will likely have a significant impact on changing career advice for young investigators. I encourage everyone to get involved.
Here is how you can make a difference:
Share: The Ph.D. Placement Project has stopped collecting survey responses but those of you that didn’t get a chance to share your thoughts are asked to contribute to their comments section, or send them a note to the following address: email@example.com
Christian Paradis, the minister of Industry and State (Agriculture) recently announced that in response to the continuing challenges facing the global economy, the Canadian government has elected to shift the National Research Council of Canada’s research priorities toward delivering support and services driven by market and industry demand. This sentiment was echoed by Gary Goodyear, Minister of State (Science and Technology) who, in response to the 2011 report on the impact of federal support for research and development, is working to continue transitioning the NRC into a research and technology organization dedicated to supporting business research and development. In other words, the NRC will be refocused to directly assist Canadian companies in their quest to grow, remain competitive and employ highly skilled workers at the expense of basic research. John McDougall, president of the NRC put forward this point most succinctly by stating that “A new idea or discovery may in fact be interesting, but it doesn’t qualify as innovation until it’s been developed into something that has commercial or societal value.”
The reasons for this shift in NRC funding priorities are evident (if not myopic), and the underlying question behind this decision is whether spending taxpayer dollars on basic research is a wise investment given the times. The smart answer is to allocate our money where we have the best chance of earning it back with interest in ways that improve our lives, grow our economy and secure our future.
What the NRC has failed to realize is that investment in basic research offers tremendous long-term returns on investment that far exceed the short-term benefits of investing in industry. Founding new basic research labs creates jobs directly – for the principal investigators, research teams, lab technicians, materials and equipment manufacturers, administrative staff, intellectual property lawyers, and everyone else who help support the work, as well as indirectly – through innovations that lead to new technologies, new industries and new companies.
The latter is particularly important because biomedical companies, where NRC funds will be directed, mostly outsource industry-creating research and development to academic labs. Indeed, academic research labs are better suited to shoulder high-risk high-gain ventures because they are supported by public allocations for broad, long-term quality of life advancements, and are therefore not supplicant to quarterly profit margins and market projections. Moreover, their direct affiliation to universities provides fertile soil for educating the next generation of scientists, engineers, doctors, educators, and entrepreneurs, and it should not be surprising that every major scientific discovery has had its origins in academic research labs.
The Science Coalition has compiled an excellent list of examples highlighting this extraordinary return on investment which I have summarized below:
- Fueling economic growth. More than half of our economic growth in the United States and Canada since World War II can be traced to science-driven technological innovation. The seed for this innovation has been scientific research conducted at universities and supported by the federal government through agencies such as the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and NASA which account for ~60% of all research funding in America.
- Creating new technologies, new companies and new jobs. Companies that have spun out of research universities have a far greater success rate than other companies, creating jobs and spurring economic activity. Thousands of American companies of all sizes have gotten their start from federally-funded basic scientific research. A report by the Science Coalition tells the stories of 100 such examples. Collectively, the 100 companies highlighted employ well over 100,000 people and have annual revenues approaching $100 billion. Google is one such example of how investments in basic research can pay off in ways never imagined. Stanford University graduate students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, whose research was supported by a National Science Foundation grant (the American equivalent to the National Research Council in Canada), generated the idea: a better kind of search engine. Today, Google has transformed the way we use the Internet and employs 20,000 people. The MRI, GPS and the Internet itself also are examples of technologies born from federally funded basic research.
- Saving lives and saving money. Every major medical discovery has had origins in academic research labs. Transferring funding from basic research programs examining the causes of our most chronic and costly diseases such as heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes, would rob us of the transformative discoveries that will lead us to their cure. While the United States is far from a model standard for basic research funding, this point was ironically best made by the President of the United States of America in an address to the National Academies of Sciences annual meeting in 2008.
- Ensuring our continued international competitiveness. Leaders of emerging economies such as China, India and the countries of Eastern Europe have invested billions of dollars to develop and support their own research infrastructure in order to compete directly in the fields of science and technology. Further investment in these areas will ensure Canada’s continued innovative leadership in the knowledge market.
While I agree that the relationship between academia and industry can and should be closer, cutting funding from the first to subsidize the second is not the answer. I am not alone. A recent poll by the Toronto Sun suggests that the Canadians overwhelmingly agree that science should not be driven by business interests. Indeed, responding to every short-term market fluctuation by shifting investment toward the latest economic trend is a bad strategy for growth. Returns from federal funding of scientific research take time to appreciate, and there is no question that the very industries the NRC would like to see supported are borne out of academic institutions. While these businesses may prosper in the short-term, the technologies on which they were founded will become obsolete without continued investment in the academic labs that birthed them.
But don’t just take my word for it…
It is not news that the National Institutes of Health in the United States have faced extraordinary budgetary uncertainties this year as a result of an incredibly fluid fiscal situation. As the sequestration here continues to detrimentally impact American science, I thought I would take this opportunity to hold up the developing funding situation in the U.S. as an example of where Canada will find itself if we continue to follow our current pattern of insufficiently funding basic research. While every research institute in the U.S. has been similarly affected, in order to discuss specific numbers this article will focus on the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), with which I am most familiar.
At the beginning of this fiscal year the NHLBI established a conservative approach to an interim payline with the hope that their final appropriations would allow them to reach paylines comparable to their historical baselines. The fallout caused considerable anxiety and hardships in the scientific community, and applicants who had submitted grants through the NHLBI for the 2012/2013 funding cycle were not privy to whether their applications had been successfully funded until several months after they were scheduled to start (me included). As you can imagine, this put a tremendous toll on trainees whose career progression in academia is dependent entirely on being able to secure funding over two or more grant competitions to remain employed. Having to gamble career decisions on a shaky payline to be set on some unknown future date several months after funding has been scheduled to start is no way to run a national research program that requires, above all else, stability.
Not surprisingly, these actions have forced many laboratories to shut down (“Sequester’s 5% cuts rolls through biomedical labs” and “‘A generation of untrained scientists’ after $1.6 billion in cuts to biomedical research“), all but halting scientific advancement in the very industries this country is still able to compete globally (“A difficult pill to swallow: the harsh realities of a 15% funding rate” and “Come on NSERC, really – you’ve completely missed the point…“).
After seeking greater clarity from the present administration and Congress on their budget for fiscal year 2013, the NHLBI was finally able to update the scientific community on their funding allocations and operating plans on May 16, 2013. In their report the NHLBI’s budget for FY 2013 was approximated at $2.9 billion, which is nearly $175 million (or about 5.7%) less than the FY 2012 funding level. The magnitude of the budget reductions mandated by the sequester necessitated a broad-based approach that affected all NHLBI budget lines, and the NHLBI chose to implement their budget cuts in such a way that, in their own words “prioritized investments in investigator-initiated R01 awards, new/early-stage investigators, and trainees.”
The difficult choice they faced was to either (1) fully fund awards with a consequential decrease in the number of awards, which would have resulted in single-digit paylines, or (2) institute across-the-board cost reductions of ~5-7% in all awards, retaining double-digit paylines. Mind you, “double-digit” paylines in this context refer to an 11th percentile funding rate for this year’s R01 operating grants versus an otherwise 6th percentile cut-off. In accordance with their stated principles and guidance from the NHLBI advisory council, the NHLBI elected to pursue the latter allocation approach, with which I am in agreement. While this means that funding rates for the NHLBI will remain unchanged this year, a 5-7% cost reduction in an R01 is equivalent to ~$17,500 or a graduate student salary.
While the NHLBI has pledged to restore paylines to other mechanisms related to trainees and new/early-stage investigators to those of FY 2012 (which are coincidentally the lowest they’ve ever been to-date), funding levels for basic research in this country is nothing they have any control over. There is no question that the NHLBI, like most other research institutes in this country, are fulfilling their commitment of being responsible stewards of public resources while pursuing their mission of investing in outstanding discovery science and nurturing the next generation of scientific leaders. What is unclear is whether their best efforts will allow them to meet these lofty goals, and I can’t help but shake the feeling that we are merely organizing the deck chairs on a sinking ship.
The recent Jumpstart Our Business Act, which U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law in March, allows crowdfunding to be used to sell shares to the public. While there are strict limits to how much “unsophisticated investors” will be allowed to commit to a single company, companies will be able to sell shares to individual investors without having to go through a public offering. Since laboratories in academic research settings such as hospitals and universities represent private companies, why not apply a crowdfunding model to academic science?
I have long ventured that the public’s apathy to most of the research taking place on their behalf results not from a lack of interest, but a failure of scientists to properly communicate their goals and findings; and a recent string of successful applications of this model to basic research projects appear to support my view that crowdfunding science works (see here and here).
While federal institutes such as the National Institutes of Health in the United States and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in Canada already provide baseline financial support for academic research programs through a multitude of publicly funded grants, the mechanism through which finding decisions are made – 12-page research proposals, career development addendums, consortium-contractual arrangement documentation, peer-review committees, etc. – do more to disconnect the lay public from the investment decisions being made on their behalf than engage them in the world-changing scientific advances they are actively helping support.
Moreover, while academic research programs are meant to tackle the unknown for the sake of making significant strides in our understanding of the natural world, present economic circumstances have forced federal funding agencies to shy away from high-risk/high-gain ventures in light of “safer” investments that mostly fill in the gaps between major research discoveries and are best left to private companies which are inevitably more risk-averse.
To strengthen the relationships between science and society, I propose the creation of a national crowdfunding website by the major federal research institutes where academic researchers can post their more risky research proposals. Briefly, principal investigators or academic departments apply to a partner at the NIH, CIHR or equivalent to request a grant for a high-risk/high-gain research program not already being actively supported by a federal or private grant:
- Inclusion in the program would be based on the applicant’s background and appointment, institutional support, and track record, protecting potential investors from postings from researchers without the necessary infrastructure or experience to follow through on their research proposals.
- Research proposals will be outlined as follows, with each section limited in length and scope. Descriptions of the principal investigator and the research environment will be available for every proposal:
- Gaps in our Understanding
- Research Strategy/Approach
- Potential Problems and Solutions
- Relevance to public health
While proposals will be structured very much like current grant applications, their success will be based mostly on their ability to attract investors, translate the research question into commonly-understood parables, and contextualize its importance in a manner that is understood by the lay public.
- Research proposals will be reviewed by an editorial team of general scientific professionals to ensure profiles are clear, that ‘Significance’ and ‘Background’ are not grossly misrepresented, ‘Hypotheses’ are appropriate and ‘Research Strategies/Approaches’ are not intrinsically flawed. The purpose of this review is not to be academically rigorous, but to ensure proposals adhere to principles of scientific integrity so that investors are able to make fair and informed decisions. Issues relating to missing, incorrect, or inconsistent information will be flagged and investigators will be permitted to revise their applications before publication (think Wikipedia revision control).
- Project funding goals and deadlines will be set by the principal investigator in collaboration with the crowdfunding resource. During the lifetime of a research proposal people are free to fund the project, and it will be the responsibility of the principal investigator to advertise their research program. The crowdfunding resource will retain the right to promote certain research proposals that the institute feels is a particularly paradigm-shifting project with a high likelihood of success. Likewise, academic scientists will be encouraged to register to the site and permitted to rate the application. This will provide the lay public with a litmus test of how professionals feel about the current application.
- If the project succeeds in reaching its funding goal, all donations will be processed; if the project falls short of its funding goal, no one will be charged. This all-or-nothing funding protects investors from supporting projects that, due to fundraising constraints, cannot be realized. The crowfunding site Kickstarter has proven this system works; with projects either making their goal or finding little support. Statistics from kickstarter have shown that 82% of projects that reach 20% of their funding goal, and 98% of projects that reach 60% of their funding goal are successfully funded.
- Individuals funding research programs through this crowdfunding resource will be included in the acknowledgements section and receive a copy of the published manuscript. Publication fees should be included in the budget.
- Individuals funding research programs will be included as shareholders for profitable patents resulting from the research they helped support. Shares will be proportional to investment, and profits resulting from the patented research will be returned to the crowdfunding site (minus an administrative overhead for the crowdfunding program) for reinvestment in other research proposals at the discretion of the investor.