Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Academia, Science, Business, The Economy.


This post is inspired by three excellent posts by Juniorprof and Bikemonkey.

Firstly, Juniorprof absolutely nails it when he says “……..academia, at least the academia I know, is an important cog in a giant economic wheel. The sooner you come to terms with this, the better off you will be.”
Then, he follows that up with another excellent post ---where he analyses his place and role in, and what he can do for, the economy---including this outstanding paragraph, “So here we have a bit of evolution in legacy building, from wanting to pursue science for the sake of knowledge to wanting to alleviate suffering to hoping to be a part of the rebirth of a sustainable economy by creating and maintaining a few jobs right in front of me that might eventually blossom into a series of successful careers. I may never fix my aching leg even if I dedicate every waking moment to it. However, with a bit of cooperation from the feds and a little personal creativity, I am quite sure I can create a few jobs and foster a few careers.”

Finally, Bikemonkey follows up his election-time thoughts on Obama’s Kennedian call for participation with a great post in which he exhorts his fellow PI s to examine what they can do to answer the president-elect‘s call for action…….He starts with “Buy American. Create jobs. Simple. Isn’t it?” and ends with “we’re in this together. How about it? What changes are you going to make in your PI role to help the situation? Me, I’m planning to create jobs.”

I agree in principle with what Juniorprof and Bikemonkey are advocating. I think people in science should think and act along those lines if they do not already. That having been said, I think that what JP and BM advocate will make only a small dent in the problems we face --- if there isn't also a simultaneous and serious increase in federal funding for science.

And the reason is pretty simple---most people in academia (and small life-science companies) already operate along those principles, consciously or otherwise. Pounding the e-pavement for sources of funding, conventional or otherwise, is job mandate #1 for most PIs anyway. And as far as allocation of funds go, much of grant money goes to salaries so that fraction of money largely turns right back into the American economy. And if any grantee has the funds to create another job on a sustainable basis, he or she would be trying to hire a person as we speak. Heck, who can’t use more talent and pairs of hands? But if a grantee has some money in reserve that he/she is hesitant to use on hiring, it is likely because he/she isn’t sure that the money may not be better used elsewhere or better saved for a rainy day, i.e. he/she isn’t convinced that the potential hire is sustainable. ‘Creating’ jobs is all fine and dandy, but if you hire people and it only accelerates your departure from the job-provider scene then your hires were a dumb move. Money is tight everywhere and, for the people we are talking about, surviving as a job provider is an essential prerequisite to becoming a job creator. Sustainability is an extremely important factor to consider and sustainability requires continued money and resources. Let’s say you ‘create’ jobs and hire people----unless all your hires are people who have no wish to advance in science, how do you propose for the economy to provide conditions for the growth and advancement of those people in coming years?

As far as ordering supplies and equipment. Bikemonkey encourages PIs to buy American wherever possible but that is hard to do across the board. Labs generally scout the field and go with the best option w.r.t the price-to-performance balance. In cases where the good options are many, a number of labs would opt for local/national businesses anyway. Furthermore, in all my exposure to life-science research I have found that most of the major vendors for supplies and instrumentation have significant operations in the USA and contribute to the US economy in substantial ways (jobs, tax revenue etc) even if they are foreign-owned companies. Do you think buying from Promega over Roche is really going to make a significant difference to the US economy? I don’t.

Again, I’m not saying these ideas are no good---they do have merit. What I’m saying that in the absence of sustained funding growth they amount, essentially, to a tightening of the belt---a good and necessary move, but one that's terribly insufficient in the long run.

What we can do to really help the economy through science, however, is to hammer home the point that the NIH budget needs to be increased dramatically. Not just increased, but with a plan for year-over-year budget growth that is meaningful. That is the only way to better the economy through the scientific arena. This is the time to do it. We have an administration waiting in the wings that is smart enough to recognize the importance of science and education.

Most importantly, and we should make this case in a myriad ways, the government’s investment in the form of the NIH grant-dollar consistently results in one of the best returns on investment (ROIs) for any govt. investment. What can we really show for the trillion and a half dollars we will be spending on the Iraq war?---A bunch of Halliburton and Blackwater multimillionaires! What can we really show for the $700 billion bank-bailout?---not even an accounting for that money! What can we show for the 2 trillion dollars the Fed has lent in light of the financial crisis?---not even the identities of the entities that were the beneficiaries of this generosity!

But a billion dollars in NIH money that goes to salaries immediately results in, say, an average of 15000-20000 jobs that pay an average of 50-60K a year (I think that's a fair estimate/average---If I'm way off, feel free to smack me upside the head in comments). There are no executive bonuses, no golden handshakes and golden parachutes, no creative accounting to funnel part of that to offshore shell companies and eventually into Swiss bank accounts. Just jobs that enhance the quality of everyone’s life and, not insignificantly, feed a ton of business that services the life-science industry.
And then we can we show even more, so much more, ROI for the approx 30 billion dollars the govt invests in the NIH each year. How would you like that information? In the survival stats and quality of life of cancer patients? In the survival stats and quality of life of people with cardiovascular disease? Or simply in this form---quoted from the then NIH director’s budget request for 2007----“The estimated total cumulative investment at the NIH per American over the past 30 years including the doubling period is about $1,334 or about $44 per American per year over the entire period. In return, Americans have gained over six years of life expectancy and are aging healthier than ever before.”

For a tenth of the cost of what an average American family spends on cable, the average American gains about 2.4 months in life expectancy, and enjoys a better quality of life (health-wise), every year. Now, the NIH alone is not responsible for this, but it is certainly the single greatest driving force behind it. Would you feel better if I gave the NIH only a tenth of the credit and said “For what an average American family spends on cable, the average American gains about 2.4 months in life expectancy, and a better quality of life (health-wise), every year.” Is even that not a pretty good return on investment?

There are lots more to say, on many fronts, but I’ll stop this here for now.

I guess what I’m advocating is to tell the government to SHOW SCIENTISTS THE MONEY. They make better use of it, and get more out of it, than most other groups of investees.

Stop the wars, stop bailing out crooks and start expanding the science. That’s what we can do to bring the economy back.


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Anonymous said...

All good points. One thing that I think people are missing though is that we should perhaps give a stronger consideration to putting effort into patenting our ideas (that are supported by data) and try to spin those patents into new and creative businesses or licensing opportunities. This is another avenue to create jobs and to achieve economic growth.

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, one more thing... I'm convinced that we've got to stop fretting about the size of our dents. You just never know which small innovation can lead to a quantum leap.

Anonymoustache said...

Agreed JP, as to the commercialization of inventions. However, that requires capital too. Your point on tech transfer offices is good, and applies here, but for that to transfer to jobs requires someone to put out money. Pharma can do it only if there's fairly immediate gain---but the bulk of univ tech is too early for pharma to sink much money into.
The federal SBIR/STTR programs address this issue somewhat, but the funding and timeframes are pretty tight from a commercialization perspective.
More money, dude. No way around it. As a nation we routinely find billions (now trillions, I guess) to piss away when the powers that be want it. The NIH budget is a mere trifle in comparison---just gotta get the powers that be to see the benefits.
As to your second comment, I apologize if I implied that any dents were inconsequential, esp. if you are talking about new innovations etc. One of the reasons I bang on about increased NIH funding for basic research is that I believe that we never know what piece of knowledge will lead to a quantum leap, as you put it. My comment on dents was directed more towards the generic job creation and economy-stimulation suggestions---which I feel will have limited utility in the absence of seriously increased funding.

Anonymous said...

My comment on dents was more to reaffirm that I am going to break myself of the habit of thinking that way. And, yes, I agree, the small dents can only accumulate with help from the feds.

SBIR/STTR programs are a good suggestion. I keep meaning to take a closer look at these... There are also U grants, which can take an existing patent (for a compound or treatment strategy for instance) and raise its value dramatically with some positive clinical results.

BikeMonkey said...

AM's R01 ROI Principle. Love it.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, its pretty brilliant.

Anonymoustache said...

JP, BM, thanks. I don't think that the basic RO1/ROI concept is anything new. Indeed it is the justification that accompanies, at least implicitly, virtually every NIH budget request.
However, I am constantly surprised at how little it gets used on a day-to-day basis. I don't know that many scientists themselves truly realize the value obtained for every NIH dollar spent when compared to the value obtained for most other dollars the govt spends. And I really think (at the risk of stepping into the 'framing' realm) that we should publicly discuss it more and more as investments and not just grants.
Grants often carry the 'hand-out' connotation in the minds of Joe Q Public. What we should really hammer home is the concept that there is an enormous economic return, year after year. To many of us, this is obvious. To anyone in big pharma/biotech this is obvious. To the average American, including many powerful politicians, however, I'm not so sure. I know I am beginning to sound alarmingly like a PR guy, but I really think that bringing the ROI factor to the public consciousness is important and it will help increase science funding on a long-term basis. And being convinced of the utility of such increases, I obviously think this is crucial to our country's future.

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