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Report: Biomedical Research Renaissance Squelched under NIH Budget Belt Tightening

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) — Flat federal funding over the past five years for biomedical research has begun to stifle a generation of talented young scientists, and may be turning them away from pursuing the kind of cutting-edge science needed to treat and prevent disease, leaders from major US research institutions told lawmakers in Washington, DC, today.

The leaders trekked to the capital on a mission to paint a picture of a struggling and under-supported biomedical research community, but also to present a sketch of the kinds of successes that have come from National Institutes of Health-funded projects.

Many young investigators are struggling to get their first grants from the NIH, are waiting longer for their first grants, are winning their awards at a lower rate, are spending more of their time applying for grants, and may be lured away from science by the need to make a living, the representatives said in a new report and in testimony to a Senate committee.

The report, called “A Broken Pipeline? Flat Funding of the NIH Puts a Generation of Science at Risk,” was drafted by scientists, administrators, and executives from Brown University, Duke University, Harvard University, Ohio State University, Partners Healthcare, the University of California Los Angeles, and Vanderbilt University.

NIH director Elias Zerhouni is quoted in the report as saying that without policies to recruit and support young scientists, “in 10 to 15 years we’ll have more scientists older than 65 than those younger than 35.” Zerhouni said this is “not a sustainable trend in biomedical research and must be addressed aggressively.”

The system is backlogged with proposals and too few are receiving funding, the authors of the report claim, adding that “there is a sense of despair among leading researchers across the country.”

The themes and tones of the speakers and the report may sound familiar. A year ago, representatives from the biomedical community undertook the same exercise, issued a report, and gave similar testimony. The research community’s grim response to the funding numbers, like the numbers themselves, has not changed.

NIH funding between 1998 and 2004 doubled under a policy begun by former President Bill Clinton, and continued by his successor, George W. Bush. It rose during that time from $11.3 billion per year to over $27 billion per year. Since 2004, and into the White House’s proposed budget for 2009, that funding level has remained flat, and has actually fallen when inflation is taken into account.
The overall success rate for NIH research project grants dropped from 32 percent in 1999 to 24 percent in 2007, meaning that three out of every four research proposals now are not being funded, the report pointed out.

During that same time, the success rate for first submissions dropped from 29 percent in 1999 to 12 percent in 2007, a trend that means that "successful grants now require two or three submissions to the NIH peer review process before being funded," the report said.

“Five years ago, there was a sense of optimism about going into science,” Susan Lindquist, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology investigator and former Whitehead Institute head, wrote in the report, reflecting on the years of the doubling NIH budget program.

“The difference today is real and noticeable [and is] tragic because we’re just now getting to the point where our understanding of biological science is going to lead to true improvements in life and health,” she said.

The tack that the research community took today is to play up some of the positive results of NIH-funded research.

“We have lots of potential to have a positive impact on some really devastating diseases,” Tricia Serio, an assistant professor of Molecular, Cellular Biology and Biochemistry, said in the report. But Serio, who is studying the links of certain unusual proteins to brain disease, also said it took her over four years to get her first R01 grant and was only able to move her research forward during that lag time because of a Pew Charitable Trust grant.

Duke assistant professor Anil Potti and his colleagues have identified genetic biomarkers for the recurrence of cancer that has been approved for clinical trials in 50 medical centers, but he has been unable to obtain R01 funding.

“Reviewers told us we have good data, a strong team, and well-thought-out experiments,” said Jill Rafael-Fortney, an assistant professor of molecular and cellular biochemistry at Ohio State University who is studying proteins involved in heart failure and muscular dystrophy. But, Rafael-Fortney added, her group didn’t receive funding “because there were others going for their second and third round and we were waiting in line.”

“Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, you’re thinking about your grant proposals and wondering how to survive in this world where fewer people are getting funded, and proposals that are funded aren’t being fully funded or are being cut,” UCLA researcher Michael Rodriguez said in the report.

In a statement to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions today, Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust told lawmakers that young researchers “are telling us that the current system is discouraging them and their peers from entering or remaining in academic biomedical research.”

Faust said that the doubling of the NIH budget was a “critical infusion of funds [that] fertilized whole new promising fields like genomics and proteomics,” but said that we now may be “creating a climate where our position as the primary destination for the best and brightest researchers from around the world may be challenged.”

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