Primer: Scientific Funding

These posts, tagged “Primer,” are posted for two reasons: 1). to help me get better at teaching non-scientists about science-related topics; and 2). to help non-scientists learn more about things they otherwise would not.  So, while I realize most people won’t read these, I’m going to write them anyway, partially for my own benefit, but mostly for yours.

One would like to think that major universities spend their money on research for their various faculty members, but unfortunately for me, that typically isn’t the case.  Sure, there is a reasonable amount of money going to fund the research carried out by faculty members in biology, physics, and chemistry departments, but the reality is that in order for that research to occur, and moreover almost all of the important discoveries under the umbrella we call “Science,” money must come from sources other than the university.  In many cases, your tenure and rank at your given institution is determined by how much outside funding you bring in and where it comes from.

The majority of scientific funding in the United States comes from the Federal Government, mostly in the form of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and, to a lesser degree, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Department of Energy (DoE).  Scientific American did a great job recently summing up how much money goes into which pot at the Federal level with an easy-to-read graphic that I suggest you glance at.  Basically, the NIH gets $28.5 billion to divide amongst its various projects, including grants that professors and other individuals apply for.  The NSF gets $4.2 billion, and the DoE gets about $3.5 billion to devote to research.  For comparison’s sake, the Department of Defense gets $56.2 billion (excluding special funding in war-time).

Obviously, NIH is getting a substantial piece of that pie.  For the most part, if you are doing biomedical research like I am, then the NIH is the first place you apply to.  They will generally fund anything that you can tie to a disease or disorder.  Alternatively, NSF won’t touch any grant that even implies it could help with disease research, instead focusing on really basic research.  Chemists and Physicists can find applications in the NIH, but usually NSF and DoE (or others) are where they have to look for funding.  And that pot is much smaller than the NIH pot.

The process of applying in each agency varies, but for the most part, you go about it the following way:

  1. Find a grant application that applies to your research
  2. Write the application according to their explicit instructions
  3. Submit the grant by a given due date (usually a few times per year)
  4. The grant is assigned to a division of the agency and then further assigned to a committee
  5. The committee is made up of people who should know what they’re doing, and then rank each grant they get in a pile based on its merits, need, and contribution to science
  6. The committee is given a number of grants that they can fund (usually between 5-20% of total grants submitted)
  7. Funding is decided and you are notified of the decision

There are usually three decisions that can be made.  Either a). the funding agency can grant you the money and accept your project as-is; b). the agency can give your grant a rank or score and suggest you make some changes and resubmit it; or c). they can “triage” your grant, basically saying they didn’t even score it, and that it needs significant work to make the cut.  The committee in question will usually give you some kind of pointers as to why your grant was or wasn’t funded, but that experience will vary across agencies and committees.

The NIH has a few different grant series that you can apply for.  Some, like the one I applied for in early December, are considered “training grants.”  So in this case, the grant I applied for was a post-doctoral training grant (designated “F32”) that would pay my salary for 2-3 years, based on the project I outlined to them.  No equipment or anything would be paid for – just my subsistence.  Alternatively, the “Big Daddy” grant to get is designated “R01,” which is a big league research grant that awards up to $5 million to a researcher and their lab, paying for salaries, equipment, and even some travel money to conferences.  At many big academic institutions, you need to get an R01 before you can achieve tenure.  At some of them, you need two.  The going funding rate for these grants has been in the 8-10% range, which is pretty low.  It’s tough to get an R01 and you can spend a lot of your time writing these grants and trying to get them, rather than actually doing research.

There are alternatives to federal money, of course.  You could call these Private, or “Foundation Grants.”  These entities are frequently not-for-profit groups that are set up to fund research according to their specifications.  The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research is one you may have heard of.  The American Heart Association is another.  The grants these foundations fund are typically quite a bit smaller than those funded by the government, rarely reaching in the millions of dollars.  They are also quite competitive, and some could argue more competitive than federal funding.  Generally, you end up spreading yourself thinner across multiple foundation grants if that’s how you have to fund your lab, or you get a single federal grant (or two…).  It all depends on how large your operation is, how many people are under you, and how many projects you have running at a given time.

I’ll leave you with one last point about the funding of science (insert soap box here): the majority of scientific innovations and true breakthroughs come from the funding agencies listed above:  NIH, NSF and DoE.  Private Industry, such as Pfizer or Merck, carry out their own research and development programs, but they rely heavily on basic research carried out in academic settings.  They do this partially because these companies cannot patent what is published in a journal article by someone else, so they have to take other research, apply it to their own needs, and then create a patent that they can make money off of.  When federal funding for science drops or doesn’t even increase with inflation, that means that professors make less money and cannot afford to pay their workers.  That means that less basic research is done.  That means that Private Industry has to devote more money to R&D in order to make new discoveries.  That increases the amount of money they need to put into developing a drug (more on that in a future Primer…).  Finally, that means the drugs and treatments that then go to you cost more money, adding to the sky-rocketing health care costs we already have, mostly because that basic research that Private Industry did is now covered under a patent for 10 years and no one else can make money on it and compete.

Funding of science at the federal level is incredibly important.  It’s hard enough as it is to get a grant, and it is vitally important that the money NIH, NSF, DoE, etc. get does not decrease, but instead increases.  That’s where scientific innovation comes from in the United States.  It’s why people from all over the world come here to get a Ph.D. and do research.  Because the United States values innovation and discovery.

As well they should.

4 Replies to “Primer: Scientific Funding”

  1. The organization I currently work for is a long-time supporter of a local grant foundation. Most of the grants awarded are to first time researchers who go on to get bigger grants to continue their research career. Many go on to make great contributions to medicine and medical research, but few people know about the foundation–it’s my job to help fix that. Why isn’t research funding a bigger topic of discussion around the supper table?

    1. Yeah, those are very important grants, generally. Frequently called “seed grants,” they help you get the preliminary data you need to present for one of the multi-million dollar grants.

      Your question is an interesting one, for sure. I’m afraid most people just don’t know where their products come from, or how much money it takes to go “from bench to bedside.” Most don’t know that basic research is done by universities, while frequently, it’s the last few steps in the process that are actually carried out by industry. And moreover, many people don’t understand how long it can take for these important discoveries to actually take place (i.e. we don’t have a “silver bullet” for cancer yet because it’s more complicated than most people realize).

      The other thing, at least in the U.S., is that a lot of people want to get things for free. As in, we probably could have had a cure for cancer by now if the NIH budget and all of defense spending were reversed. Instead, we put less money into research, and the public still expects to get immediate results. Much like most people would rather get a pill to solve their depression, rather than visit a therapist over weeks.

      Long-story short: it should be a topic of discussion around the supper table. 🙂

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