Could the sequester mean more business for Retraction Watch?

congressConsider this a bit of a thought experiment, but hear us out.

The National Institutes of Health earlier this month notified the scientists it funds that, thanks to the sequester, many may soon face cuts in those grants as the agency tries to deal with a reduction in its $30.9 billion budget. In her March 4 letter to grantees, NIH’s Sally Rockey, deputy director for extramural research, wrote:

At this time, the Department of Health and Human Services and NIH are taking every step to mitigate the effects of these cuts, but based on our initial analysis, it is possible that your grants or cooperative agreement awards may be affected.  Examples of this impact could include: not issuing continuation awards, or negotiating a reduction in the scope of your awards to meet the constraints imposed by sequestration.  Additionally, plans for new grants or cooperative agreements may be re-scoped, delayed, or canceled depending on the nature of the work and the availability of resources.

Francis Collins, the NIH’s director, told the Wall Street Journal that all 27 of its subsidiary institutes would cut costs by 5%. Those institutes are what fund a good deal of basic life sciences research in the United States.

And the cuts could produce another casualty: The integrity of science.

As observers of research integrity have argued, scientists as a class are motivated in part by money. Not personal remuneration, but rather funding to keep the lights on in their labs, their computers up to date, for travel to meetings and to provide chow for their rats. And that money doesn’t simply come to those who ask. It comes as a direct result of productivity, which, in the world of science, is marked — for better or worse — to a large extent by the number of papers an investigator publishes and in which journals (the more prestigious the better).

In that sense, science operates much like professional baseball. Minor leaguers tough it out for peanuts and buy their own shoes while major leaguers get the big contracts and endorsements. And as in professional sports, the incentive to cheat exists.

Money is already tight at the NIH. In fiscal 2012, the agency overall approved just under 18% of the grant applications it received. In fiscal 1999, that figure was more than 32%. In other words, it’s now easier to get into Johns Hopkins – acceptance rate of 18.4%, according to US News & World Report, and home to one of the world’s finest medical schools – than it is to win an NIH grant.

So if funds shrink, it’s within reason to think that the pressures to fake results might rise. As readers of this blog well know, Ferric Fang, a microbiologist at the University of Washington, and editor of the journal Infection and Immunity, has studied research misconduct. He says he sees a potential connection between dollars and misdeeds:

It is difficult to draw a direct connection between funding pressures and misconduct.  However, most research misconduct relates to papers and grants, suggesting that there is a relationship.

Fang notes that psychologists have found that fear of losing a grant or a job provides:

hypermotivation for misconduct that may overcome barriers to cheating in individuals otherwise inclined to be honest.  I strongly suspect that intense competition for funding encourages less reliable science, not only from misconduct but also from sloppiness and error. …

We like to think that scientific fraud is rare, but retractions – two-thirds of which are due to misconduct — have already jumped in recent years, growing 10-fold over the last decade. Another rise could be an unfortunate unrealized consequence of the sequester. Even if that doesn’t materialize, Fang says science might well suffer corrosion:

In fact, there may be no simple relationship between funding stress and misconduct.  Perhaps the scientific enterprise is already maximally stressed and the additional insult will have no effect on misconduct.  But it is a reasonable question to ask.  As a working scientist, it feels like we are being kicked while we are already down.

Update, 5 p.m. Eastern, 3/15/13: Prompted by a comment below, Fang was kind enough to graph NIH data for R01 equivalent success rates vs. total retractions in PubMed by year of publication on a single graph (note it’s by year of publication). He offers some notes on the graph, which appears below:

A few caveats: (1) Success Rate is not the same as Payline.  There seems to be some confusion about this.  These data show overall success rate for R01 equivalents, which includes both new and competing renewal applications.  (2) ARRA awards are not included.  (3) The retraction data were taken from the database compiled with Arturo Casadevall and Grant Steen on 3 May 2012 for our study that was published in PNAS.  Therefore, retracted papers from the last 3-4 years are underrepresented.

To me it is clear that NIH funding success rates for individual investigators are lower than they have ever been in history and publication retraction rates are at their highest levels.  Readers can draw their own conclusions about whether there is a causal relationship.  The NIH Doubling only transiently affected success rates and it is hard to discern any effect on retractions.


0 thoughts on “Could the sequester mean more business for Retraction Watch?”

  1. I’m skeptical of the link. Yes there’s an increase in retractions, but much of what is being retracted now was published during (or immediately after) the golden days of the NIH budget doubling. The science and whatever misconduct led to the retraction would have occurred during a time of relative fiscal ease.

    Maybe there’s an opposing correlation – more easy money means more retractions? Maybe the ease of obtaining funding attracts less scrupulous types to pursue careers in science? In difficult times, only the folks with high integrity can stick it out. Maybe the sequester will be good for scientific integrity?

    Have you or anyone else made a histogram of retracted publications by the year in which the paper was published? How does that compare with NIH funding on the same time-scale?

    1. I think it will cause a short-term spike as those who think they can get away with it scramble to save their precious funding. Then, as people become aggressively defensive, reviewers will pick up their act and savage their competitors – more retraction => more disgraced names => less competition…. Weeding out the bad actors will be great for science. Sequester on!

  2. “In fiscal 2012, the agency overall approved just under 18% of the grant applications it received.”
    That seems too high, in my experience. More like 8% in my field.

  3. Is there a funding system that would not be subject to this type of manipulation (and would still encourage productivity)?

    One concern I have is that people might try to blame misconduct on these budgeting issues (as opposed to simply demonstrating a causal relationship in a value-neutral manner). That would be a serious mistake. There will never be enough money and we need to develop a system that minimizes misconduct regardless of the funding situation.

    1. Someone once mentioned, not too long ago on a thread here at retractionwatch, only being asked to give the 5 most important publications of the last x years (was it in the UK? I can’t remember). It doesn’t solve the misconduct problem as such (bad people will be bad people), but it does change the focus from “many publications” to “your best publications”. Thus, if you produce 2 solid papers every year, and that’s it, you have as much chance to get the funding as someone who publish 50 papers a year of which he can only select the 2 best papers.

  4. What if the opposite is true. Misconduct – sloppiness already affected the quality of science funded by NIH to the extent that the benefit from the investment in basic life sciences is not clear any longer.

  5. As someone who values the service rendered to the scientific community by this and other similar sites (several of which are now shuttered), I have to admit I find the title of this posting cloying and self-serving. Many of us are facing existential crises in our careers and personal lives with the sequester and you create a “business is great!” spin from our pain? I would argue that retractions could easily diminish over time as a result of the sequester, because there will be fewer honest and hard-working scientists left to self-police the scientific record. Right now, I do all my close examination of the scientific literature (in preparation or post-publication) as a peer reviewer or reader of articles in my field. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but if I’m driven out of science by a nation that has shown it places little value on what I do, the last thing I am going to do with my time is pore over autorad and immunoblot images looking for data manipulation to report to some blog as a volunteer activity. I will have to earn a living and support my family doing something else.

  6. This comment will be blatantly political.

    I sit here and think about the shaving and disruption of ongoing projects this sequestration is going to cause, and I think, well, it’s not affecting me, I’m over 65 and on Social Security. But the next thing the Republicans are going to go after is Social Security!

    Here is an argument for more taxes: reportedly, the US takes only 14% of GDP in taxes, as opposed to its average take over the last hundred years of 18%, that is, the taxes we pay to our government sit very lightly on us already. It would be much fairer to the suffering millions, and to research, and to education, to tax ourselves at the average of 18% of GDP, instead of starving especially education, the most important investment a government can make!

    1. In the US, education spending has doubled every ten years over the last 30 years, in real value (inflation-adjusted). Yet teachers are being paid less, and educational performance has remained stagnant (I guess at least it hasn’t gone down). Where is the money going? And what makes us think that spending more will do any better or worse for education?

      1. This doubling of education funding, of which you speak: is it possible that post-secondary education is included? College tuition has risen dramatically faster than inflation over the last forty years, not to mention spending on specialty schools (medical assisting, technologists, etc.)
        If we were to study spending on primary and secondary education, how would that compare? I submit that early education is the most valuable and that should be where the most increases should go. Tuition increases at the college and postgraduate levels, not to mention spending on specialty schools, are the least defensible of cost increases. Equitable (not dependent on local and property taxes) spending on primary education is the most critical type of spending for equalizing opportunities among children of low socioeconomic status.

  7. I have to agree with Paul Brookes. When funding is easy, a lot gets funded and what is in fact a very tough career, because it is in fact not a career but a way of life, looks easy. When funding is tight, science then continues to attract those who would be doing it anyway, either funded, or as a hobby, but it becomes less attractive to at least some of the “operators” who are interested in status, etc., but not in science.
    So the cuts in funding will stress the system, but the response of the system isn’t pre-ordained. To take up DefendSmallScience’s point, those who are “too busy” to do a good job reviewing may actually now perform to an appropriate standard? In this (perhaps over optimistic) scenario, the system will adjust in time to the new funding levels so that there will be greater scrutiny.
    The more pessimistic view, which is an extension of DefendSmallScience’s comment, is that the reduced funding will be channelled to a small group, leaving the majority with nothing. There has been a very substantial discussion in the UK with respect to how the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has given out some of its funds without real peer-review (see some of the comments to the blog posthere). In this scenario, the fraudulent may prosper.
    In the end it is up to us and the most powerful tool remains very bright sunlight: nothing can hide. We also need to engage with the process whereby funding is allocated in a much more active way. How many on panels ask my simple question, which I first posed when money was much easier:
    “They already have x amount of money and have published y papers. If you double x will you double y? If not, then put the funding where you will have that effect”.
    This is not a question that is asked much.

  8. In terms of publication bias, there is some reason to believe that more funding results in more biased publications. See
    In case it is behind a pay-wall: “Bias index, ranked in ascending order, is plotted against the ratio of government R&D funding in science and technology to GDP, also ranked in ascending order, for 11 individual countries. There is a strong, positive correlation (rs=+0.65, p=0.032), suggesting that greater research spending is associated with a greater degree of bias.”

    The bias in publications referred to is not the same thing as retractions, but might be on the same spectrum of dishonest scientific behavior. Perhaps the greater funding allows investigators to pick and choose the more significant findings for publication. With less funding there might be less publication bias.

      1. The methods in the analysis were to do a meta-analysis of several similar studies (genetic association studies) and assume the mean effect across studies is the true association. The deviation from the mean in any particular study gives a measure of bias.

  9. Is there not the added pressure of not only funding one’s lab, but also using NIH funds to supplements one’s salary as well? This would seem to be the perfect storm for increases in the incidence of misconduct. Would be interesting to know if misconduct is higher in countries where salaries are taken from grants.

      1. And so we have the “eat your young” situation that exists now at most major academic medical centers. The senior folks are constantly jockeying for hard money enrichment (e.g. administrative titles, endowed positions, etc) and using the threat of moving to a different institution as a means to accomplish their goals. This results in large numbers of senior faculty members making well above the NIH cap in salary, with a significant share of institutional discretionary spending going to these salaries and retention packages instead of improving research infrastructure or helping everyone a little during a time of historically low funding rates. Meanwhile, the junior guys get no help from their so-called mentors (who are traveling all the time anyway) while being constantly bombarded with demands to teach more, see more patients, write more grants, to justify their salaries, which they are told should be at least 80% grant-funded to remain in good status at their institutions.

        1. ” institutional discretionary spending going to these salaries and retention packages instead of improving research infrastructure or helping everyone a little during a time of historically low funding rates.”

          This suggests some possible reforms. I’m not going to begrudge people who can negotiate for increased remuneration, but maybe it should be structured in a way that promotes the welfare of the university and science more generally. One possibility is for institutions simply to offer contracts to lower-ranking researchers (such as postdocs). Maybe senior researchers should get bonuses rather than a high base salary. Bonuses could be connected to the financial condition of the university, or the combined salary of people supported by their grants… so that it is not possible for them to fully protect their own salary by sacrificing underlings.

          To be clear, my proposal is not that they take lower salaries, but that they bear the burden of volatility since they have a high enough salary to absorb that volatility.

          1. Maybe postdocs should be supported primarily by training grants. Even if postdocs as individuals do not get guaranteed salaries, the class as a whole could have a guaranteed level of support to assure continued training of the next generation.

          2. I think Medical Schools are different from Universities. Medical Schools tend to have lots of people on “soft money”. Even professors at these places may have only 50% of their salary guaranteed, and even that may be somewhat illusory as probably they would be pushed out eventually, if they started pulling in no grant money. At Universities, if you are tenure-track or tenured, you salary is covered by your teaching. You may not get tenure, but until then it is covered. I’m not sure that a life on soft money is feasible for anybody these days, given the uncertainties of funding.

      2. Let me pose this question. Wouldn’t the NIH budget go further if they were funding science and not salaries and the onus was put back on the institutions to come up with salary support?

  10. For what it’s worth, I interpreted the title as a joke. As far as I can tell, this blog is not a “business”, in that it does not generate revenues. I see no advertisements and there is no subscription fee. My understanding is that the authors are dedicating their own time to bring attention to an issue that they think is important. As such, the title is a tongue-in-cheek was of expressing despair at the (potentially) worsening situation, and the increasing amount of unpaid work that may be required to stay on top of developments.

    1. Yup. The title just says that perhaps there will be more retractions as a result of the cuts. Nothing more than that, I think.

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