Academic Research Is Not for the Faint of Heart

I perform cardiac arrest research and so I understand the heart fairly well. What I don't understand well, from a common sense stand point, is the granting process. There are many issues with the grant submission and funding award process that give me pause.
01/29/2016 05:14 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2017
Money tree snapped over with money falling to the ground, US currency
Money tree snapped over with money falling to the ground, US currency

I perform cardiac arrest research and so I understand the heart fairly well. What I don't understand well, from a common sense stand point, is the granting process. There are many issues with the grant submission and funding award process that give me pause. They should give you, the American public who could benefit from increased biomedical research and discoveries, pause as well. Especially when considering where we are today in terms of life expectancy, disease eradication and medical treatments, in large part because of biomedical research. You're welcome!

President Obama understands this, in his last State of the Union address earlier this month, he declared that "Medical research is critical." Though I am extremely biased, I couldn't agree more! But performing biomedical research is difficult, academia can be a rat race of publishing, lecturing, grant-writing, teaching, leaving one to wonder: is it worth it? The funding environment over the recent years would lead one to believe that it is not. And so you then have to ask yourself, "how badly do I want it?". This is a tough question in academic research where on one hand, in the current state, failure is an expected outcome when applying for grants, but on the other hand, you can't succeed in academia without being successful. Rock...meet hard place!

And here are the top 3 reasons why, though failure is not an option, it is more often than not the outcome:

Mo' money, mo' money: Funding

According to an NPR report earlier this year that analyzed National Institute of Health (NIH) funding data, they stated that "3,400 scientists lost their sustaining grants between 2012 and 2013." Whereas the NIH in the early 2000s could fund 1 in 3 research grant proposals, currently they are only able to fund 1 in 6. The federal budget for biomedical research has been decreasing over the years, down approximately 25 percent in the last decade. In 2015, congress increased funding to the NIH by a laughable 0.5 percent. However, the tide, it may be slowly changing, as the Senate approved a 6 percent increase in funding to the NIH for 2016, 2-billion dollars to be precise, though the House approved a lower amount. This is finally some good news for my research group, and many others, who submit the majority of our grant applications to the NIH's National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, which will receive a $118 million increase, or 4 percent from that appropriation.

So much time spent for such little return: The grant process

Though a 6 percent increase seems substantial, there are many researchers fighting hard for their share of these limited funds. Like many other research groups, my colleagues and I spend an enormous amount of our time writing grants that will more than likely never get funded. Not because they are poorly written, or poorly conceived, or unnecessary, but because the federal government only funds approximately 16% of grants submitted each cycle; most scientific grants, ~85 percent, just don't get funded. Meaning, we are all spending a tremendous amount of time writing grant applications that we know won't get funded, taking away from the time we could be doing other things, like say performing actual research. It is a vicious, cruel cycle and definitely not #whyidoresearch. This constant rejection of our blood, sweat, and tears can take its toll. As an academic researcher who relies on federal funding, you really have to be resilient.

The in-crowd: Who is and who is not being funded

Complicating matters, most of the researchers who are being funded are those researchers who have been funded in the past -- making it even more difficult for new researchers to be awarded a grant. The average age of a medical researcher when they receive their first R01 grant, one of the keys to the kingdom of a successful federally-funded academic research careers, is 45 years. In 2012, just over 1% of R01 principal investigators were aged less than 37 years. Academic research is not a young person's game currently (not that I think 37 is old, mind you...).

Because of all of this, biomedical researchers in general, and young investigators specifically, are having to think of other avenues for funding such as private foundations, philanthropic institutes, and industry funding. In addition other innovative solutions such as crowdfunding sites like Consano, Experiment, and Instrumentl, are becoming all the rage.

The unintended consequences of all this of course, is that the innovation that it takes to make the next groundbreaking discovery may not be performed and the next pioneering scientist may not receive the funding needed to perform their work. I encourage you to take the time to thank your members of congress for their 2016 gift of 6 percent and urge them to continue to increase funding for biomedical research in the years to come, because the thought of the next amazing scientific breakthrough going unfunded, never having the chance to reach the masses, is indeed a consequence too arresting to consider.