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Below the Line

The US government is letting the country's biomedical infrastructure crumble, writes Michael White at Pacific Standard.

From the late 1990s through the early 2000s, the budget for the US National Institutes of Health about doubled. But since then, White notes that success rates for NIH grants have dropped, as has the number of young investigators heading up labs.

"Like my former landlord who paid for a major remodel of his property, and then let his investment decay out of utter neglect, the US government built up our nation's biomedical research capacity, and then let the NIH's purchasing power steadily erode for a decade," White says.

White charts out NIH funding from 1990 through 2013 and compares it to what it would have been if its budget had followed its historical, before-the-doubling trend of 3.3 percent annual growth.

After the doubling, the NIH budget began to decline and then falls more dramatically in response to the financial crisis and the sequester, with the exception of the two-year influx of stimulus funding. Now, the chart shows, the agency's funding is below what it would have been if it had followed the path of modest annual increases it previously enjoyed.

"This new graph makes it very clear that we have not just returned to the 3.3 [percent] growth trendline for the NIH budget," DrugMonkey adds at his blog. "We have fallen off that line."

In addition to funding swings, there are also systemic issues plaguing biomedical research, White writes. Labs are staffed by postdocs and graduate students who are there for a few years before moving on, and, as he points out, there's an incentive to keep training researchers no matter what their job prospects may be.

At the Reality-Based Community, Keith Humphreys notes that he often encounters young investigators who have decided to leave research due to the difficulty in obtaining funding.

"There is no question that we have some enormously talented and productive senior citizen scientists," Humphreys adds. "But a decade or two from now, when an antibiotic resistant bacteria or new strain of bird flu is ravaging the planet, that generation will no longer be around to lead the scientific charge on humanity's behalf. That's why we constantly need a new stream of young people committing to health science careers."

HT: Mother Jones