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TRENDSPOTTER: Rethinking Government s Role in Scientific Research

I RECEIVED many thoughtful and challenging responses to my last column (“In Changing Times NIH, NSF Look Outdated”) in which I suggested that private companies using patented discoveries to fund biomedical research – with the emphasis on drug discovery and the commercialization of genomic information – is not only an inevitable outgrowth of the transformation of the research enterprise, it is critical to capitalizing on the vast number of scientific opportunities that await. I argued that in this new paradigm, government funded agencies are no longer the trendsetter. Rather, they are part of a virtual partnership between private industry, academia, venture capitalists, and non-profit disease organizations that have their own research programs. The government should seek to make the NIH, NSF and its other scientific institutes protectorates for medical innovation, encouraging the patenting of good ideas, the movement of bright researchers into the private sector, and the establishment of clear guidelines to improve medical care. 

And particularly in the wake of the historic shift from Republican to Democratic control in the Senate, it is worth turning over this week’s op-ed to the readers who challenged my views. One reader asked: “Are you suggesting the NIH extramural and SBIR/STTR funding programs are lacking in innovation, or are you just referring to the intramural funding? If it is the latter, based on my relatively limited perspective on internal funding, I agree with you. But we have a long way to go before recent scientific advances translate into viable commercial products and I would support an increase in extramural and SBIR/STTR funding and an expansion of fundable grant proposal topics. So if you are suggesting a reduction in funding for extramural programs too, then I wonder how you think the private sector could take the level of risk and long wait for returns.” 

Two points are well taken. First, I didn’t mean to suggest that the NIH extramural programs were lacking in innovation. Rather, NIH should indeed move in the direction of nurturing discovery partnerships – perhaps by increasing extramural and SBIR funding.  Second, I don’t think the private sector could take a long or high level of risk if the NIH were discouraged from shifting towards this model. I support increased funding for grant proposals with private, non-profit, or for-profit ventures. Unfortunately, the sort of politicians in Congress who have now seized control of key committees that have funding and oversight jurisdiction over NIH and the intellectual property protection of genomics companies has heavily criticized such arrangements.   

Another reader questioned whether the Celeras of the world would be inclined to support the training and education of future researchers if funding for public institutions was diminished: “This has never been the purview of the private sector, and I don't see any move in this direction implied in the ‘Celera model.’ Although certainly there are ways that the private sector can (and does) contribute to science training, have you thought about who is going to do science in this brave new Celera-dictated world, when all us ‘old farts’ are gone?  It seems to me that this is a central issue that needs to be dealt with for the health of the nation’s economy and future biomedical research enterprise. And, don't buy that old, by now hackneyed concern about how we're training too many PhDs. The commercial genomics enterprise is currently being hamstrung by a lack of qualified people to hire to take genomics to the next level. Where are these people going to come from?” 

Another excellent point. The NIH, NSF and other publicly funded institutions help to train some of the best scientists out there. Again, I did not mean to suggest that private companies such as Celera would pick up the tab for post-graduate science education and training. Rather, I think the basic research pursuits at the NIH and other private and public research organizations overlap and complement one another. Congress needs to begin thinking about how to apply public funds in order to strengthen the relationships between the research institutes, university labs, disease group research organizations, and private firms. 

Finally, one reader asked: “Doesn't Celera receive NIH funds?” It does, indeed, receive some funding and, as some have argued, Celera may have even used some public data in developing its maps. My question is, so what? Current thinking is that Celera is “profiting” from research funded “at taxpayer expense” and should turn back part of its profits or subject itself to federal pricing guidelines in return. Does that mean when we take a mortgage interest deduction for example, the government has a claim to the profits on the sale of the house or regulation of its specific purchase price?  

The purpose of the NIH is to encourage private investment of the sort that Celera engages in. The return on that investment, apart from the jobs created and taxes paid to the federal treasury is the significant advancement in understanding in genomics. If anything, what the emergence of the Celera model suggests is not that the NIH should be shut down.  Rather, as I wrote in my last article, the NIH mission should be adjusted so that the public investment in biomedical innovation is strengthened. I hope that the Democrats in Congress now in charge of science policy consider this and other thoughtful comments made by the readers of GenomeWeb before messing with a highly successful, but rapidly changing model, of market-driven medical progress in America. 

Robert Goldberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis and a senior research fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.  You can e-mail him at   [email protected]  . 

Trendspotter  is a weekly column that focuses on how trends in politics, patent law, and the US and European markets will affect the genomics industry. The column appears every Friday. 

To access previous columns just enter the word "Trendspotter" in the archive search window on the homepage.        

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