As expected, the $8.2 billion for extramural research that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) received from the 2009 stimulus act put many scientists and their staffs to work. But a congressional watchdog agency found it hard to be more specific about the impact of the controversial spending on the U.S. biomedical workforce.
When NIH received its 2-year windfall in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), NIH acting director Raynard Kington assured Congress that each grant would boost the economy by creating several jobs. The report last month from the Government Accountability Office (GAO)—requested by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Representative Fred Upton (R-MI) and committee member Representative Joe Barton (R-TX)—finds that Kington was at least partially correct.
The money supported an initial 12,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions in December 2009. That number grew for 9 months then leveled off to about 21,000 in June 2011, according to institutions' reports to a federal database. That works out to be about one FTE for each of the 21,500 grants NIH gave out. But because the jobs are reported quarterly, it's hard to calculate the overall total. NIH officials told GAO that they're still compiling jobs data; they believe the stimulus funds could eventually support 54,000 FTEs.
NIH used the ARRA money both to fund proposals that had just missed the normal funding cutoff and to support new grant programs. The GAO report supports anecdotal reports that this helped many labs stay afloat. For example, while 30% of 50 principal investigators (PIs) surveyed from the five institutions that got the most ARRA money used their grants to hire new staff members, half of these PIs used it to retain staff or avoid cutting their hours.
Scientists filled about 58% of the ARRA-supported jobs, with postdocs, information technologists, and other staff taking the rest (see graph), according to the PI survey. Some universities had said they would avoid using the money to hire scientists on the grounds that the jobs were only temporary. Many PIs also used their stimulus grants to buy lab equipment, services, and reagents that could support more jobs indirectly, the GAO concludes.
The report doesn't discuss what will happen to these jobs after the ARRA funding disappears. That's expected to happen sometime next year.