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US Biomedical Research at a Crossroads

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#1 Dr. Joseph Lorenzo

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Posted 23 April 2014 - 08:23 AM

Biomedical Research in the United States is currently in turmoil over the mechanisms that provide its funding. This is predominantly the result of a contraction in US Federal support for biomedical research when calculated to account for inflation (a 25 percent decrease in real dollar terms since 2003) and a failure by institutions that employ scientists (both academic and non-academic) to anticipate this event. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the continued growth of Federal funding for research, which was rapid from 1998 to 2003, was not sustainable and eventually would end. Now two American scientific journals have published articles that address this issue. The first is a series of articles in the April 4th issue of Science (1), which detail the travails of principal investigators at various career stages who are at institutions around the United States. The articles describe a relatively junior investigator, searching for her first NIH RO1 Grant, a senior investigator who had recently lost NIH funding after many years of support and a very successful senior scientist who is among the small number of US biomedical researchers with greater than $1,000,000 in direct NIH support per year. There is even a story about a scientist who completed her research project using a crowd-source web site. All of the stories describe a feeling of anxiety by even the most successful scientist over the uncertainty of the future of funding for research in the US.

The second article is in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. It was written by four senior US scientists: Bruce Alperts, Mark Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman and Harold Varmus (2). The article is entitled “Rescuing US Biomedical Research From Its Systemic Flaws”. In it the authors outline the causes of the current problems in funding, the long term outlook for US biomedical research and they propose a series of changes in both the way research grants are awarded and the responsibilities of research institutions that employ research scientists. Chief among their recommendations, which are too numerous to outline in complete detail here, is a three-pronged approach to redirect the course of biomedical research in the US. Firstly, the authors advocate for predictable budgets and for an altered composition of the research workforce to make the research environment more sustainable. Secondly, they propose to rebalance the research portfolio by recognizing the inertia inherent in large projects, and by improving the peer review system so that it can more easily fund imaginative long-term projects. Finally, they encourage changes in current US government policies that promote the unsustainable growth of biomedical research.

Specific recommendations include a call for Congressional appropriations that have a 5-year fiscal plan to acknowledge the need for long-term support for biomedical research. They also advocate that RO1 and other research grants not support graduate school education. Rather, they believe this should be the purview of training and direct educational grants. The goal of these recommendations is to limit the number of biomedical trainees so that it better matches the number of job openings in biomedical sciences. Similarly, they advocate significant increases in salaries for postdoctoral fellows to better reward them for their contributions and to limit the number that can be supported. They also encourage the growth of the staff scientist position to add stability to laboratories and provide work for scientists who do not necessarily want to write grants and be principal investigators.

The authors also recommend significant changes in the way grant applications are scored for funding. They believe that there should be more emphasis place on the quality of a scientist’s previous work in addition to the quality of the proposed studies. They feel that large research programs can breed inertia. Hence, they recommend limits on the amount of time these could be funded. In contrast, they encourage funding for more innovative and high-risk projects that may have great rewards. They also urge restrictions on the total funding that any one lab can accumulate. Finally, they emphasize the duty of all scientists, but particularly senior scientists, to serve on grant review panels.

Clearly, both of these publications should be of interest to all members of our Society as the problems of US science are also replicated in other countries. I appreciate that the current situation is grim and that the number of opportunities to fund investigators is nowhere near the number of investigators seeking support. However, good science is still being funded and, eventually, the system will right itself. These proposals are a first step and, hopefully, they will prompt a thoughtful discussion about the role of science in our society and how it should be funded. Until these issues are sorted out and funding becomes more stable, each of us needs to evaluate why we have entered science as a profession and appreciate the beauty and rewards that scientific discovery can provide not only to us as investigators but to all mankind.

Joe Lorenzo,
Farmington, CT, USA

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