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Concerns Mount Over Future of NIH Spending: What About Proteomics?

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Amidst all the upbeat quarterly earnings reports in the proteomics sector, concerns over the future of NIH spending have begun to surface over the last two weeks. As national agencies, the mainstream press, and vendors ring warning bells, ProteoMonitor has found that concern among academic proteomics researchers is high as well, but is offset by positive short-term indicators.

NIH funding has over the past year been booming for proteomics — particularly for academic projects — even as biotech and pharma spending have lagged (see PM 7-18-03, 9-12-03, 4-9-04, for example). Although the budget grew by only a few percentage points in FY 2004, RFAs for proteomics have skyrocketed. But two weeks ago, the American Association for the Advancement of Science released an analysis of US President George Bush’s proposed FY 2005 budget, which showed that only three large federal agencies — the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration — would have increased R&D budgets if the budget passes. The NIH budget would see a small increase over the next five years due to increases in biodefense research, but funding for non-biodefense programs would fall by 7 percent.

This was followed this week by a New York Times story reporting that the US is beginning to lose its scientific dominance. Like the AAAS report, the article also pointed to a disproportionately large allocation to military-related spending as an issue.

Proteomics instrument vendors have been taking notice too: Last week, Dennis Winger, chief financial officer of Applied Biosystems’ parent company Applera, said that ABI “believes there is a possibility that customer concern about the timing and level of future NIH funding could lead to more conservative purchase behavior by laboratories operated or funded by the NIH.”

While biodefense spending has contributed to proteomics funding in the past year (see PM 9-12-03), the real issue goes beyond that area, according to Bill Hancock, professor of chemistry at the Barnett Institute at Northeastern University. “We’re finding that if you look at the gross numbers of the NIH it’s one thing, but money’s being pulled out of the NIH budget for other things, so the actual money available for research is undergoing a significant decrease,” Hancock said. “One example is AIDS funding, which I think we all support — the problem is that other areas have suffered because of it.” Further, a general drop-off in the growth of NIH funding will always come back to haunt nascent technologies such as proteomics, according to Philip Andrews, director of the Michigan Proteome Consortium. “If it becomes a reality that NIH funding drops off, any cutting-edge technology ... is going to be disproportionately affected — [because] when a field is rapidly growing, dollar investment per investigator has to be higher,” Andrews said.

Hancock and Andrews both expressed deep concern for the future of NIH funding and for US investment in basic science in general. But funding for the infrastructure necessary to do proteomics research could experience a particular squeeze, Hancock said. “Proteomics has not really reached the point where it has a stable technology base … so the platforms are being rapidly improved,” he said. “So now you’re in a situation [like one] where you have to replace your PC every 18 months … but [with mass specs], you’re talking about $300-400,000 at least,” which requires a lot of funding input, he said.

To continue to convince the NIH to spend its funds on proteomics, researchers are going to have to start to produce results, said Paul Tempst, director of the Protein Center at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. “It’s been good for awhile, probably too good, and a lot of money has been spent. Maybe the NIH at one point will say, ‘hey, what’s going on? Are you guys making good on your promises here?” he said. Tempst and Hancock both saw a potential backlash from unfulfilled high expectations of proteomics, and Hancock warned that disappointment could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “It’s a real worry that the field is not going to deliver because it will not get the significant investment it needs,” he said.

As far as Tempst could tell, however, the day that the NIH lets up on its proteomics spending is not coming soon. During a meeting that Tempst had with NIH representatives two weeks ago, he said, “they didn’t give me the impression that they are going to stop funding this.” And while Tempst thought there would come a day where funding would begin to dry up, he didn’t think the NIH would be the first one to pull out. “The NIH is usually slow in that,” he said.

Indeed, most researchers interviewed for this article expressed confidence that, at least in the short term, NIH funding for proteomics research and infrastructure would continue to be fairly stable. “I was under the impression that the funding was going to continue going upward,” Gary Siuzdak, director of the Center for Mass Spectrometry at Scripps Research Institute, said. “Even if it doesn’t go up as much, it’s still at a pretty good level now.”

Daniel Liebler, director of proteomics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said he thought that NIH funding in the next year, particularly for instrument purchasing, will be a mixed bag. “On the one hand, because the rate of growth [at NIH] has slowed down, there’s going to be a tightening up of budgets for a lot of areas, simply because much of the stuff that was funded is potentially renewable, and so many people are competing for the dollars available,” Liebler said. “On the other hand, there are still emerging a number of programs in which people want to do ¯omics science, and some of these permit the purchase of equipment.” Liebler said that the NIH roadmap initiatives in particular (see PM 10-3-03) — which he thought would be a part of the NIH budget that will likely grow in the next several years — would likely lead to more instrument-buying opportunities as well.

It’s unlikely that those doing research or selling instruments will ever be satisfied. “No matter what is available, it will never probably be enough,” Siuzdak said.”

— KAM

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