Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Trees Do Not Grow to The Sky or, Why the State Legislature Should Not Write a Blank Check to BigU for Biomedical Research Buildings

Mr. Bonzo has been concerned for some time that the money for biomedical research just isn't there, and that the push for a blank check from the legislature for the construction of more buildings for this purpose is a serious mistake. The most recent issue of Science has an article, selections of which are quoted below. This is done in the belief that fair use applies since a direct link cannot be given.


The percentage of research proposals funded by NIH has dropped from 32% in 2001 to a projected 21% this year. Funded grants are routinely cut by 10% or more.

Dozens of investigators interviewed by Science, along with six NIH institute directors and agency head Elias Zerhouni, describe a climate in which young scientists struggle to launch their careers and even the most senior are trimming their research projects. Harold Varmus, a Nobel Prize winner who led NIH from 1993 to 1999 and is now head of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, has had his grant cut, although he won't say by how much.

Meanwhile, research institutions everywhere were breaking ground on new facilities and expanding their faculty. In a 2002 survey, AAMC found that new construction at medical schools had exploded: From 1990 to 1997, schools invested $2.2 billion in new construction, compared to $3.9 billion from 1998 to 2002. But that paled in comparison to what was to come: an expected $7.4 billion in new construction from 2002 to 2007.

Schools hired new faculty members to fill the buildings, expecting to recoup their investments from the NIH grants investigators would haul in. "Universities and their leadership did what I would have done too," says Zerhouni. "The government is indicating support for these activities," and the expansion was "exactly what Congress intended."

Yet the numbers fail to convey the gnawing unease and foreboding expressed by scientists across disciplines and at every stage of their careers. "The ripple effect here is amazing and paralyzing," says Steven Dowdy, a cancer biologist at the University of California, San Diego. At Brown University, molecular cell biologist Susan Gerbi, who helps oversee graduate training, canvassed 49 faculty members in eight departments recently, as she does every year, to see how many would take on a graduate student from next year's pack. "In the past, it was a majority," around 90% of those who responded, she says. "This year, only about 25% of the trainers said they would be interested … because they did not have a guarantee of funding for next fall."

Compounding the problem is that most universities and medical institutions rely on NIH money for the bulk of scientists' salaries and overhead costs and are not set up to support faculty members long-term. Traditionally, "bridge funding" could tide researchers over for a few months. But now, more scientists than ever are having to resubmit grant applications, with a gap of 8 months or more in between each submission. At NIAID, the percentage of proposals funded on the first try has gone from 27% in 2001 to 11% in 2006.

What brought biomedical research to this place of financial anxiety? The doubling flooded NIH with billions more dollars over a relatively brief time. Whereas a private corporation might conserve some of this windfall, by law NIH must spend nearly all the money it receives the year it receives it. That provoked a massive expansion in biomedical research, and expectations of federal support surged to a level that could not be sustained when the budget stopped growing. The crash is hitting labs, careers, and the psyches of scientists with a vengeance.

The big bubble

Nine years ago, Congress set out to double the NIH budget and within 5 years sent it soaring from $13.7 billion to $27.1 billion. But everyone knew the golden days would not last. In October 2000, eight senior scientists and policymakers began meeting informally to discuss how to maintain the momentum. In 2002, the group published a commentary in Science presenting different budget models and their impacts on research priorities (Science, 24 May 2002, p. 1401). Its most pessimistic prediction modeled annual increases of 4%. Says David Korn, a former Stanford University dean now at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) in Washington, D.C., who helped bring the group together: "We didn't model increases below 4% a year because the tradeoffs and the sacrifices that would have been caused … were too difficult for us to deal with in the model."

At NIH, senior officials found that "no matter what, there will be pain after the doubling," says Zerhouni, who became NIH director in 2002. To soften the blow, in 2002 and 2003, NIH tried to accelerate the pace of one-time expenditures such as construction, to free up money for the following years. But even "in the worst scenarios, people really didn't think that the NIH budget would go below inflation," says Zerhouni, an outcome he attributes to the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Hurricane Katrina.

This appears to have helped drive more applicants to NIH. In 1998, fewer than 20,000 scientists sought research grants from the agency; in 2006, that number was more than 33,000, and according to NIH forecasts, the number of applicants is expected to top 35,000 in 2007. The number of applications has grown at an even faster clip, as scientists, concerned about their chance of getting funded, are submitting proposals more frequently. Because growth at medical schools lagged somewhat behind the doubling, many institutions are still expanding. At Sloan-Kettering, for example, officials only recently began filling a new building with scientists. They expect to increase their faculty by almost 50%, says Varmus.

But as requests for NIH money edged upward, NIH's resources began to drop. After a 16% increase in 2003, the final year of the doubling, NIH received a 3% boost in 2004, an abrupt reversal of fortune. Although the general rate of inflation in 2006 was 3.1%, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the cost of goods and services in biomedical research and development rose 4.5%. The number of competing grants NIH funded peaked in 2003 and has been dropping since. The declining value of NIH's dollars and rising demand were "a perfect double whammy," says Zerhouni.

Some schools are beefing up their bridge funding. Dana-Farber, for example, is setting aside $3 million to $4 million this year. Historically, the institute reserved $500,000 to $1 million "and almost never spent it," says Benz, Dana-Farber's CEO.

Even "the senior investigator is turning out to be a challenge for us to support," Benz continues.

Many scientists complain that the tough funding climate is exacerbated by an excessive focus at NIH on costly "big science," such as the Cancer Genome Atlas, which is using large-scale genetic sequencing to decipher the molecular basis of cancer and whose 3-year pilot phase is budgeted at $100 million. Projects like this one, many scientists say, are coming at the expense of grants that sustain individual labs and have been the source of much innovation over the years.

Nowhere does the funding gap seem wider than when looked at through the lens of age. "It's just about inconceivable for a brand-new investigator to get an NIH grant funded on their first submission these days," says David Sweatt, chair of the neurobiology department at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. Sweatt has hired three young scientists in the past year and worries about their future. "I see it as this dark shadow hanging over people who are just starting out their labs," he says. "They're having to spend so much time being anxious over funding, to the detriment of having time to think creatively about their research."

It is time for a serious and honest conversation about this matter at BigU.

Mr. Bonzo

No comments: