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The Black Hole

Funding the academic career: My journey

BY JONATHAN THON | DEC 03 2012

I received my doctorate from the University of British Columbia under Dr. Dana Devine (2004-2008) and currently hold joint appointments within the Hematology Division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. I am in my fifth year of a postdoctoral fellowship, having won an ASH Fellow Scholar Award and more recently a BRI Translatable Technologies and Care innovation Grant from Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The latter was recently reduced from $200,000 to $50,000 due to funding constraints. During my postdoctoral fellowship (2008-present) I published 14 manuscripts in international peer-reviewed journals advancing our understanding of human platelet production for the purposes of identifying drug targets to control platelet production; modeling human disease to support pre-clinical drug development; and creating a renewable and donor-free source of functional human platelets for infusion (a full list of my projects can be found here).

For those unfamiliar with the importance of platelet research, platelets are small discoid cells in the blood that are essential to control bleeding, and are often considered the “band aids” of the bloodstream. More than 14 million platelet units are transfused yearly worldwide at approximately $50 per platelet unit – or $700 million per year – to treat low platelet counts resulting from complications during pregnancy and birth, HIV infection, chemotherapy and surgery. Platelets are currently derived entirely from human donors and platelet transfusions carry risks of clinically significant immune response and bacterial/viral contamination. Moreover, because of premature platelet activation and a limited storage capacity (five days), maintaining inventory remains a significant problem and platelet shortages are common. New strategies for generating platelets outside of the human body from donor-independent sources are necessary to obviate these risks and meet global transfusion needs.

Despite the importance of this research problem to human health and my significant contributions to this field, my future in academic research relies on future external scientific funding. Both the ASH Fellow Scholar award and BRI Translational Technologies and Innovation grant are set to expire next year (June 2013) and are themselves insufficient to support research costs, fringe benefits, departmental and institutional overhead fees and my present research salary of $47,000, requiring my supervisor to make up the difference through his personal research grants. Researchers typically do not draw a salary from their host institutions that they or their principle investigators did not bring in, there are no bonuses awarded for performance, and no mechanism beyond diminishing federal grants to retain highly qualified investigators; begging the question of what we define as “institutional support.”

Researchers rely on “soft” money (research grants lasting two to four years at a time that are subject to change at a moment’s notice) to sustain their careers, and are often forced to devote nearly half of their tax-payer funded tenure to writing the next round of grant applications instead of making scientific headway. Low funding rates such as those we are seeing now, and a looming “fiscal cliff” in the U.S. threaten an already strained relationship. As a result, job insecurity has come to define the academic profession this half-century, like Damocles’ sword forever hanging over our heads, and like Damocles, it is not surprising that we are losing a generation of young investigators to this system. For example, in June next year, I will effectively be unemployed.

To support my career in academic science, I recently submitted a K99/R00 grant application to pick up where the ASH Fellow Scholar Award drops off, and as protection against the possibility of being unable to secure a faculty position before then (this is a realistic concern for scientists of this generation and has been written about extensively in previous posts. As a Canadian researcher in his fifth year conducting biomedical blood research in the U.S., this is the only grant available to me. The K99/R00 grant represents a directed effort by the NIH to address a growing concern in biomedical research – namely that the median age of first-time (new) principal investigators obtaining R01 research funding from the NIH (basic research grant for an academic investigator) has risen to 42 years for PhD degree holders such as myself, and 44 years for MD and MD/PhD degree holders. I am 31.

While this award was designed to accelerate career advancement for the most productive young trainees, it has now become the only means for the most successful established senior trainees to cling to their academic careers. This grant is very rarely awarded to first-time applicants as there is a backlog of qualified applications each year, and qualifying trainees are permitted only one resubmission. Knowing my funding would expire in June 2013, I began the application process in 2011, budgeting time for the expected resubmission. My second submission in 2012 was awarded an outstanding priority score of 20, which means funding will be determined by the selection committee in February 2013. While past K99/R00 pay lines (the priority score below which all applications are funded) have been set at 25 for FY2012, 30 for FY2011, and 40 for FY2010 (the trend here should be obvious), it is generally impossible to predict where it is going to land this year.

NIH funding has not kept pace with inflation, necessitating funding cuts which result in fewer funds awarded each subsequent year, and the looming sequestration in January risks worsening an already hurting system. Government inaction complicates matters, as previous inabilities by the current administration and Congress to compromise on budgets have delayed NIH assessment of how much money it will have in its coffers any given year to award what limited grants it is able to afford. Most likely, a final decision by the Council of January won’t be decided until late May to early June, meaning that I will be forced to make a career decision on whether to remain in academic science – or not – before all the facts are in. Worse still is the knowledge that I am in the best possible situation going into this decision, given my early career success and productivity these last five years. By comparison, I feel that too many of my colleagues (many of whom are exceptionally bright and talented investigators) have already been forced to leave the field – abandoning world-changing research projects that will never be realized.

To put the value of biomedical research in perspective, the very recent application of the scientific method to health has significantly extended the average human life-span from about 45 years through all of human history and up until the 1900s, to roughly 78 years today. That is a three-decade increase – and we continue to gain about one year of life for every six years of basic research investment – making this human-kind’s single greatest achievement. In addition to extending (and saving) lives, biomedical research supports industry and produces an average annual return on investment of 17% after taxes, or $2 in corporate operating income over six years for every $1 invested. Why we should choose to stall this rate of progress by putting at risk an entire generation of scientists is dumbfounding!

There is no doubt that difficult decisions await us in the new year as the fiscal cliff looms – but the NIH is quite possibly the worst place to target for cost savings. It’s not just our livelihood, it’s our life.

ABOUT JONATHAN THON
Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the Founder and CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon Founded Platelet BioGenesis where he served as CEO and Chief Scientific Officer. Before Platelet BioGenesis Dr. Thon was an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School.
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