Clarion Call for More NIH Funding

Six research universities and a teaching hospital warn of a "broken pipeline" for young researchers in the biomedical sciences.
March 12, 2008

In recent years, many university presidents or scientific societies have called for more federal support for research.

On Tuesday, however, in announcing a new report on the "broken pipeline" for young researchers, a particularly high-powered coterie of presidents and professors argued forcefully for a significant increase in funding for the National Institutes of Health. Most prominent among them was Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard University and a historian who has been speaking out about biomedical research questions that are most serious at institutions that lack her university's resources.

"We are here today because five years of flat funding of the budget of NIH is putting America at risk," Faust said at the morning announcement at the National Press Club, adding that shortages are "discouraging our best and brightest researchers."

The report, a follow-up to one released a year ago, has a particularly alarmist take on NIH funding levels over the past several years.

"Science itself is taking a hit," the report says. "As the NIH has less grant money to award, the scientists who review grant applications are predictably becoming more and more risk averse in their evaluations, preferring to see incremental steps rather than bold visions. This conservatism among reviewers is changing the way researchers write grant applications and design experiments. There has been a fundamental narrowing of the scientific vision, with the primary scientific query shifting from 'what is possible?' to 'what is fundable?'"

The report offers several statistics that the assembled panel cited both at the announcement and at a hearing later that morning before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions:

  • The overall success rate for the vital NIH R01 (or Research Project) grants, or their equivalents, decreased from 32 percent in 1999 to 24 percent last year.
  • The success rate for applications on their first submission dropped from 29 percent in 1999 to 12 percent last year.
  • The average age of researchers receiving their first R01 grant was 43 last year, compared with 39 in 1990.
  • A quarter of R01 grants go to first-time investigators, compared with 29 percent in 1990.

NIH funding was doubled between 1997 and 2003, but since then its levels have marginally increased each year. According to the report, the agency's purchasing power in real dollars decreased by 13 percent since 2003.

"The effects of the NIH budget constraints are cascading down the academic research pipeline, causing leaks and clogs along the way," it said.

The report and its supporters emphasized that the funding situation would particularly disadvantage young scientists -- or those thinking about pursuing science -- just beginning their careers.

At the committee hearing, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) quoted the concerns of Joshua Boger, the CEO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals and president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization: “You can lose a generation of researchers pretty fast -- in 5 or 10 years. You create such a discouraging atmosphere they just go somewhere else instead of academic research. We don’t have to lose 50,000 researchers, just 50 really good ones. Once it happens, we won’t get those people back.”

The research establishment is setting its sights on the budget process and a typically bipartisan consensus on science funding. The number being floated around the halls of Congress, said Kevin Casey, Harvard's associate vice president of government, community and public affairs, is 6.7 -- as in a 6.7-percent increase in NIH funding for fiscal year 2009.

Advocates have circulated a "Dear Colleague" letter in the House of Representatives, and in the Senate, an amendment to the budget bill that would allocate an extra $2.1 billion for the agency has the support of Kennedy, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), among others. Already, the Senate budget resolution recommends $30 billion for the NIH, or $950 million over the 2008 appropriation.

The budget amendment doesn't specify where the extra funding would come from. "I think that's for Congress to figure out, not for me to figure out," Faust said about allocating the necessary funds.

The Harvard president came under fire from some quarters in recent weeks for seeming to belittle the research contributions of public universities and suggesting that they focus on social science and less ambitious projects instead, a charge that she disputed. Business Week, which printed the original remarks, later admitted that the quotes had been out of context. She emphasized at the announcement that the institutions represented in the report -- including Duke University, Brown University, the Ohio State University Medical Center and others -- "share in this partnership with the federal government and we are in this all together."


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