As investment in biomedical research has changed, investigators have become more competitive and focused on work that has a clinical application, Harold Varmus, the outgoing director of the US National Cancer Institute, tells the New York Times. Today is his last day at the agency.
NCI has less money now — in actual dollars, he says, not just inflation-adjusted dollars — than when he took up his post in 2010. Not only has this led to fewer grants and jobs, but also to a "sense of hypercompetition," Varmus says. That, he adds, is unfortunate as "[y]ou want to have an environment where there is some sense of leisure, so you can think freely and feel that you can take chances."
The environment is also leading researchers to focus on work with clinical applications because they think it has a better chance of being funded, but Varmus cautions that basic research cannot be ignored.
"I'm worried about that, because I look at the big things that have changed the face of health care, and it's usually the result of some pioneering discovery not made in conjunction with the notion of how to treat somebody," he says.
"If we become slackers on funding the absolutely most fundamental things, we will not hit upon the real answers," he adds. "To understand how a normal cell becomes a cancer cell — we can't lose sight of that."