On posturing and policy

In a New York Times op-ed last month, U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., highlighted some problems facing the biomedical research community — problems that we wrestle with regularly while advocating on behalf of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and in support of the National Institutes of Health .

Harris, a physician and former NIH-funded investigator, notes that the average age of a first-time R01 grantee is 42 and that the median age of all NIH grantees is 52. He points to research showing that early-career scientists conduct some of the most innovative research. So far, it would seem, we have no beef. He sounds like a champion for our cause. But, reading on, we see that is not the case. Harris takes a laudable position but then promotes flawed policies found in draft legislation now in circulation.

First, Harris relies not on an increase in NIH appropriations, a possibility considering that he is in the majority party and on the committee that funds the NIH, but suggests eliminating a budget mechanism known as “the tap.” The tap siphons money from the NIH and other agencies to fund small public health programs. Second, Harris proposes a mandate to lower the average age of R01 recipients based on the flawed logic that age determines how innovative a scientist is.

First, let’s look at the tap. Congress established the tap in 1970, and each year since, the tap has funded activities that assess the effectiveness of federal health programs and identify ways to improve them. The tap also supports activities that cut across the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ¾ activities that build the infrastructure for research evaluation, including data collection and analysis.

The NIH contributes about $700 million to the tap — a sizeable sum, to be sure. I wonder, however, why Harris doesn’t simply propose a $700 million appropriations increase for NIH. Based on his voting record, perhaps his real plan is to defund programs with which he is at political odds while using the tap as cover.

Nonetheless, with that $700 million back in the NIH’s pocket, Harris’ plan next mandates that the agency lower the average age of an R01 recipient or face penalizing budget cuts. This would be a foolish way to fund science.

Yes, some young investigators do tremendous work. Craig Mello, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology in 2006 for the discovery of RNA interference, did his prize-winning work early in his career. But, if he were a young investigator in today’s funding environment, he likely wouldn’t win NIH funding ¾ not because the NIH hates young scientists but because the NIH is underfunded and rejects tons of great projects. Furthermore, age is not the determining factor for greatness. Senior investigators also do amazing research.

It’s appalling that Harris would propose that Congress knows how to best fund science. The peer-review process, while not perfect, should determine which projects to fund. To parcel out funding based on age is a mistake at best and malfeasance at worst.

You want to know how to fund the best science and get more young investigators into the fold? Adequately invest in science!

Paylines are dreadfully low but not because mostly senior investigators win grants. They’re low because Congress hasn’t passed an NIH appropriation in nearly a decade; because the NIH budget has been flat for more than a decade and its purchasing power today, thanks to inflation, is weaker than it was before the doubling period; and because members of Congress are more interested in perpetuating political dogma than perpetuating programs about which they claim to care so much.

Photo of Benjamin CorbBenjamin Corb ( bcorb@asbmb.org) is director of public affairs at ASBMB.