As many of you know, I spent a fair amount of time last month engaged in debates about the wisdom of California’s Proposition 37, which would have mandated the labeling of genetically modified foods. While many of these discussions were civil, one particularly energetic fellow accused me of having been brainwashed by the “cult of the NIH” into believing that anything science does must be good.

At the time I just giggled. But his Tweet stuck in my head. After the election I looked back on my twenty years as a scientist in the “NIH system” and I began to see the signs. So I read about cults – about what differentiates them from normal, run-of-the-mill organization. And I started keeping score (on a 1-9 scale, of course, with 1 being the most cult-ish).

Charismatic Leader

Every cult has a charismatic Svengali-like leader at its helm,

obsessed with their own self-image,

who ingratiates themselves with powerful leaders to further the cult’s agenda,

demands everyone call him “The Director” and publishes books and other materials espousing a personal philosophy, and inviting comparison to deities.

Score: 1

Isolated Compound

Cults always have a compound,

with high levels of security

where The Director and his minions sit ensconced in a grandiose “Building 1″

complete with easily recognized signs of Roman imperial dominance.

Score: 1


Cults commonly have an elaborate process for selecting new members to ensure that they are appropriate and will not cause undue trouble. These often involve length screening periods during which potential members undergo different types of hazing.

Aspirants for membership in the NIH are forced to go through a grueling initiation ritual in which they are forced to recite a set of personal “Aims” and explain how they will further the cult’s organization’s “mission”. These applications are reviewed by existing members who are locked in windowless rooms without food or drink for extended periods of time where the merits of aspiring members are dissected by their potential “peers” flown in expressly for this purpose from across the country.

Many are rejected out of hand for a wide range of undisclosed failings. Those who survive this “triage” process are subjected to further scrutiny and, after extensive wrangling and wheeling and dealing under the supervision of a “program manager” assigned to prevent violence, every aspirant is given a score. The solemn receiving of the score and assessment of the “peers”, printed on ceremonial pink paper, is one of the most stressful moments in the life of an NIH aspirant. They then are forced to endure months of additional waiting while receiving little or no information or encouragement, until their application is reviewed again by a mysterious organization of elders known as Councils who select new members according to the needs of their cell – also known as an Institute.

Newly selected members – known to insiders as "grantees" – are immediately given an obscure code containing a unique identifier along with a signifier of their rank decipherable only by other members of the organization. I have deciphered some of them. “K99″ designates novices. Routine workers are known by “R01″. A select group of “pioneers” bear the mark “DP2″. Many aspire to be a local leader, known as a “P01″. And, in recent years, a new group of members known as “U01″‘s have emerged to carry out special mission at the express behest of “The Director”.

Score: 2


Cults often have an active process for recruiting new members, often by indoctrinating children and naive young adults who have the misfortune of finding themselves under the influence of existing members.

The NIH has several national indoctrination programs, but the most dangerous and effective is something known as the “Training Grant”. These NIH cells, found on most university campuses across the country and always led by an established “grantee”, prey on impressionable youths just out of college and eager to shed the structure of their parents’ worlds. The NIH takes them under its wing and gives them a generous personal stipend and a structured program of research and experimentation. They dangle the carrot of one day becoming a “grantee”, but they do not tell them about the lonely, grueling years to come, or that only a handful of them will actually make it to the point where they are even allowed to submit their first application for membership.

By the time they are done with this program, most have drunk the NIH Kool Aid, and can think of nothing they want more than to become a grantee. And those who do not feel they have sunk too much of their time and energy into these first steps along the grantee path to give up.

Score: 3


People who have broken free of cults often complain that they were initially given easy rewards within the organization – special quarters, access to leaders, choice of the best jobs – but that once they were in for a few years, these perks were not longer so easy to obtain.

The NIH has been known to give species status to first-time applicants – making it far easier for them to get selected than those already in the system, who are forced to endure a “renewal” process every 3-5 years during which time they have to justify their continued status in the organization (there are few things as tragic as an ex-grantee).

Score: 4

Separating members from family

Cults almost always work to separate members from friends and family who are not members of the organization – cutting them off from support and from the outside world.

The highly competitive review process engineered by the NIH forces aspiring and existing members to work all hours of the day, night and weekends, eschewing family and friends in the interest of furthering the NIH agenda and their own place within it. This often leads members to marry within the organization creating additional challenges, including something called a “two body problem”.

Score: 2

Pet projects

Many cult members end up subjugating up their own aspirations for the pet projects of the cult leader, which are often insanely grandiose and often lead to the financial ruin first of the members then of the organization itself.

Increasing amounts of money siphoned from public coffers by the NIH are going to pet projects of The Director.

Score: 1

Giving away Possessions

Cults are renowned for forcing their members to give away all of their possession.

The NIH has a “Public Access Policy” which forces members to give away the single most valuable thing they produce while members of the system. And now they threaten to expel grantees who do not obey.

Score: 2

Gleefully reprinted from