As most scientists know, biomedical research is critically dependent on stable sources of funding. Research technicians, students and post-doctoral fellows, who typically perform the majority of the work in a laboratory, often take many years to master the complex technologies that are the heart of any successful research operation. Hence, it is essential that their level of expertise be maintained and seamlessly passed on to the next generation, in order that the work of a lab can efficiently continue. To preserve this expertise and maintain productivity, scientists need to regularly secure funding. For the majority of us, this is achieved through some type of grant review process. In the United States biomedical research is primarily supported by various Federal Government agencies. However, the U.S. Federal budget has been anything but stable and we are now in a period of decreasing Federal Government funding for research. Since 2010, Federal funding for research had decreased by 16.3%, which is the fastest three-year drop in U.S. Federal Government research support in over 30 years (1). This drop in research funding is compounded by a looming budget battle between the legislative and administrative branches of government that threatens to produce even more uncertainty. An additional concern is the structure of academic biomedical research in the United States, which often leverages funding for faculty salaries on their ability to maintain grant support.
In a survey of more than 3700 U.S. scientists by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, one third reported that they had laid-off researchers and almost two thirds said that their funding had decreased since 2010 (1). Francis Collins, the Director of the NIH, was recently quoted about the measures that are being used to temporarily fund the U.S. Government. He said: “Continuing resolutions discourage you from trying something new and bold. You’re suppose to tread water and science is very badly served by that tread-water message.” (2)
These trying times call for all researchers to consider innovative alternatives for how to deal with declining research support. A number of solutions have been proposed. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, of which ASBMR is a member, has advocated for a significant increase in the level of National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for U.S. biomedical research as a first step to keep pace with increasing scientific opportunities. However, prospects for that occurring are uncertain at best (3). A more radical series of suggestions was recently put forward by Frederick Grinnell in an article in Nature (4).
Grinnell states that: “we should revisit the relationship between how NIH grants are assessed and funded. Grant applications are evaluated on a relative scale, but are funded in absolute terms: all or nothing. This is illogical. Applications that fall on either side of the funding cut-off, or payline, are more or less of equal quality. As overall success rates decline, this practice becomes more difficult to justify. A better approach would be to link funding levels with the percentile scores used to rank applications. NIH institutes should agree on the total number of grants to be funded, then give full funding to applications with the best scores and partial funding to those with slightly lower scores.”
He also asks that there be a closer look at the relationship between research productivity and the total amount of grant funding. He points out that at least some data suggest that there is a point of diminishing returns beyond which additional grant funding is associated with decreased productivity as measured by the number of publications per grant dollar. He also advocates that universities support more of their faculty’s salaries so that they are less dependent on grant funding and he argues that different scales should be used to award funding in order to encourage research at less well-funded academic institutions.
Clearly, many of these suggestions are controversial and their chances of being implemented are uncertain. However, we need to be creative in these difficult times to maintain the maximum rate of scientific advancement.
Farmington CT, U.S.A.
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