Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Can the US Biomedical Research Enterprise Be Sustained? Implications for Informatics

Although I focus a good deal of my writing in this blog on the educational and career aspects of informatics, I believe that the research mission of academic informatics is equally important. Education and research are synergistic in successful academic departments, even in those where a majority of students pursue professional careers.

I have described some of the important issues in informatics research in various postings. For example, there is a need to solve the issue of data entry in order for informatics systems to provide usable data that can feed a host of functions. I have also noted that while data science is important to informatics, we cannot ignore the workflows that surround the best capture and use of data.

Unfortunately there are some challenges to the academic biomedical research enterprise in the US, not only in informatics, but in all fields. These were laid out nicely recently by Alberts et al. in a recent paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [1]. The authors note there are "deep flaws" in US biomedical research, stemming mostly from the consequences of the system, operating under a perception of sustained growth in funding, whereas in realty federal research support has slightly declined in real dollars over the last few years and is unlikely to increase substantially in the years ahead.

The current situation has, in essence, reached a "Malthuisan" situation, due to the slowing growth outstripping resources. This leads to a number of consequences. The first of these is a hyper-competitive funding environment, where the success rate of grants being funded has fallen from 30-40% to the low teens. This results in scientists having to spend more time writing proposals, not to mention worthwhile and important science failing to get funded. It also leads scientists to be more conservative in the work they propose, sticking to tried and true, incremental science rather than bold but riskier innovation.

Another consequence of the current situation is increasing demands on scientist time. Because proposals are competitive, and increasing numbers of scientists are competing for funds, it means that more time must be spent in peer review of proposals. The hypercompetitive environment also requires that funders and others be more vigilant that funds are being spent properly, resulting in more regulations, paperwork, and so forth.

A final consequence of the current situation is an over-supply of trainees. In many biomedical research labs, graduate students do the lions share of the work. This has always been done under the assumption that this would train the next generation of scientists. The problem is that the hyper-competitive environment means it will be difficult for these students to launch successful careers as they start to compete with their mentors for a fixed or possibly shrinking amount of funding. In fact, as the article notes, only 20% of all PhD students in biomedical science in the US will get faculty positions or achieve independent research funding, as the system just cannot accommodate so many new researchers seeking funding.

The article notes that the enterprise needs to be brought into "sustainable equilibrium." They advocate new approaches for evaluating scientific proposals that are more efficient and reward the best and most innovative science, although it will always be a challenge to determine how these exalted few will be selected. The authors also call for less work of grants being done by graduate students and more by "staff scientist" types of positions by well-trained researchers who are not PIs of research. They also note that graduate programs need to prepare students for different career paths beyond being grant-funded academic faculty. One of those paths could be staff scientists while others might involve working in industry.

How does this problem play out in informatics and for the OHSU informatics program in particular? There is certainly no dearth of funding for research involving informatics, although much of it is applied and specific to projects. One downside to this is that there is little funding of core research in informatics that might lead to novel techniques. A related problem is that a good portion of  funding goes to very short-term ends, which is good for demonstrating progress to Congress and others who authorize funding but less so for advancing the field in the long run. As for informatics research locally at OHSU, we are doing relatively well but maintaining funding is always a struggle. One outgrowth that has achieved some success is looking for opportunity beyond government funding, as exemplified in our Informatics Discovery Lab that is developing partnerships with industry and others. We also have a track record of our advanced trainees (PhDs and postdocs) obtaining diverse employment for their skills.

One goal I have for the informatics field is raising awareness of this challenge, and how we might collectively work to advance the case for a more comprehensive approach to the important research that we undertake. Informatics is an interdisciplinary science but also requires attention to advancing its core scientific methods and results.


1. Alberts, B, Kirschner, MW, et al. (2014). Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 111: 5773-5777.

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