The U.S. biomedical research enterprise is in serious trouble, writes Laura Newman in the December issue of CLN.

While the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—the country’s main funding source—still boasts an impressive $30 billion annual budget, the agency’s spending power has declined more than 20% since 2004. This belt-tightening after a period of surging funding has thrown the system into disarray, with institutions and principal investigators grappling for grants and PhD candidates and post-doctoral fellows struggling to find permanent, satisfying positions.

A variety of initiatives representing academic researchers, trainees, and bioscience policy experts are mobilizing for change, according to Newman, a freelance bioscience and medical writer.

In analyzing the root causes of today’s challenges, many blame the once-admired vision of endless growth, introduced in 1945 by Vannevar Bush, the nation’s first presidential science advisor. His report, Science: The Endless Frontier, set long-term government support for science in motion. Federal budgets expanded into the late 1960s and 1970s, but dollars declined in the 1990s, surged from 1998 to 2003, then fell again.

This misalignment of funding eventually created more demand for than supply of research dollars, leading to more failed grant applications, more time spent on administration, and a growing dependence on low-paid PhD candidates and postdoctoral fellows.

The boom-and-bust cycle of funding is having repercussions far beyond research financing, writes Newman. When academic institutions continued to expand their biomedical research enterprises even as federal funding stalled, this gave rise to a hypercompetitive, strained environment, with adverse consequences for trainees.

Reform of the U.S. biomedical research system must encompass not only financial change but also workforce reorganization, Paula Stephan, PhD, a professor of economics at Georgia State University, told CLN. “You’ve got to change the incentives,” she said. Stephan also backs increasing postdoc salaries, capping the percentage of a person’s salary that can be charged off grants, helping students get a realistic understanding of the job market, and expanding career options.

Pick up the December issue of CLN and read more about efforts to reinvigorate biomedical research in the United States.