(Washington, D.C.) - Years of stagnant budgets outpaced by inflation threaten the progress of biomedical research and could thwart advances in treatments that are within reach, nine of the nation's most preeminent scientific and medical institutions told Congress today. In a new report on the status of U.S. medical research and its funding, the group explained how perennially flat funding of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has halted promising research in mid-stream, challenged seasoned researchers to continue to achieve scientific progress, and threatened the future of young investigators pursuing careers in academic research. And, if left unaddressed, these problems could undermine U.S. global leadership in biomedical research, the report warns.
"When scientists have to spend most of their time trying to get funded, caution wins out over cutting-edge ideas, creativity sacrifices to convention, and scientific progress gives way to meetings and grant applications," said report contributor and infectious disease expert Robert Siliciano, M.D., Ph.D., at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "Right now, very, very productive scientists are doing too little research. Instead, they are spending their time trying to get their labs funded again," he said.
The report was co-authored by The University of California, Columbia University, Harvard University, The Johns Hopkins University, Partners HealthCare, The University of Texas at Austin, Washington University in St. Louis, The University of Wisconsin Madison, and Yale University.
The group says that to fulfill the promise of previous investments by Congress the country needs to provide more consistent and robust funding of NIH. According to the report, Within Our Grasp--Or Slipping Away? Assuring a New Era of Scientific and Medical Progress, the doubling of NIH's budget between 1998 and 2003 enabled advances in basic research that transformed understanding of diseases affecting millions of Americans. But the NIH budget has been virtually frozen since 2003 and has shrunk by at least 8 percent after inflation is considered, with recent estimates up to 13 percent. Most recently, a small increase approved by Congress in the 2007 budget would be virtually wiped out by the Bush Administration's proposed 2008 budget, continuing the downward spiral in inflation-adjusted dollars. The implications are far-reaching for science, medicine, the economy and U.S. leadership in biomedical science, they add.
The 21-page report says that the country reaped a strong pay-off from previous years of robust funding of basic biomedical research, achieving progress in treating and preventing many devastating diseases and conditions. But the American public will ultimately pay the price for slowing the pace of research as scientists downsize their laboratories and abandon some of their most innovative work.
The report argues that research momentum gains have slowed, and in some cases may be lost, if flat funding continues. For example, in the fight against cancer, "The number of drugs moving into the pipeline that are based on our new, more profound genetic and molecular understanding of cancer is extraordinary--and there's no money to handle the testing of these compounds," said Joan Brugge, Ph.D., who chairs the Department of Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School.
A similar situation faces the quest to cure spinal cord and brain injuries. "Ten years ago, the search for treatment of spinal cord injury was a daunting and hopeless task," said Stephen Strittmatter, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of neurology and neurobiology at Yale University's School of Medicine. Today that is changing, in part due to the discovery of NOGO, a molecule that prevents regeneration of spinal cord nerves. Scientists are investigating whether the molecule can be inhibited, allowing the spinal cord and neurons in the brain to repair themselves.
"The neurological sciences are on the launching pad of a revolution," according to Strittmatter. "We are at a juncture where we can begin identifying multiple molecular targets for the neurological diseases that have stymied us for so long. Without funding, they may go undiscovered, and we will have only weakly effective therapies."
The Threat to Future Scientific Endeavor
Despite the great push forward that accompanied the doubling of the NIH budget, subsequent flat funding has put many projects at risk. Today, eight of ten research grant applications are unfunded, according to the report. Those that are funded often require multiple submissions and suffer lapses in funding. Certain NIH institutes, such as the National Cancer Institute, report that they can only fund 11 percent of research project grant applications, rejecting many of exceptional quality.
The effects are being felt by both principal investigators and young researchers new to the field. For young researchers, the decreased funding contributes to another problem: a multi-year wait for receiving their first grant. In 1970, the average age recipient of a first grant was 34.2 years; today it is 41.7.
"Our product is not just our technology or medical breakthroughs," said Dr. Brent Iverson, Ph.D., The University of Texas at Austin. "Our College of Natural Sciences alone puts 1,000 undergrads in research situations in labs, most with NIH funding. That is a catalyst for creating innovative new scientists," he added.
Consequently, senior scientists fear that young people will turn away from science because the funding situation is so bleak. Scientists report that many of the brightest young minds no longer see the promise of a career in science, choosing law, business, and other professions. Losing young scientists today will cost the U.S. a lot later, the report warns. "That will have a generational impact that will take 15 years to fix," said Richard Davidson, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In addition, scientists are increasingly having to abandon some of their most innovative and promising research in favor of more conventional projects with more predictable results that are more likely to be funded. Principal investigators also must spend enormous amounts of time fundraising and writing grants rather than conducting research.
Others are following research dollars overseas, to countries in Europe and Asia that are making investment in biomedical sciences high national priorities and actively recruiting star U.S. scientists, according to scientists interviewed for the report.
Said Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel at Columbia University Medical Center, who contributed to the report: "The scientific community is one of the driving forces of the economy. In biology, it helps drive the pharmaceutical industry, and helps people live longer in a productive way. Now, the rug has been pulled from under science in this country. We'll lose scientific manpower to European countries, and to India, China and Japan."
The funding problem is so great that the NIH's 2007 "Fiscal Policy for Grant Awards," urges decisionmakers to consider "the goal of not losing outstanding laboratories," as they allocate limited funds, says the report.
The group says that addressing the funding crisis now is imperative given the demographics of the population. "Medical treatments take decades to develop," says Harvard's Dr. Brugge. "If we wait until the baby boomers retire to find the most effective means for prevention and treatment for diseases like Alzheimer's and cancer, we will break the bank."
Copies of Within Our Grasp - Or Slipping Away? Assuring a New Era of Scientific and Medical Progress, can be obtained as of Monday, March 19, 2007, at 3 p.m. ET at: http://hms.
The press conference is being live Web cast at: http://hms.