April 2011

Budget challenges in biomedical sciences

There has never been a more exciting time in biomedical research. Given all of the tools and information currently available, questions can be tackled in ways that simply were unthinkable in the not-too-distant past. Yet many researchers are more frustrated than ever and stymied in their ability to carry out exciting and important research. I receive e-mails on a regular basis from members who receive 10th percentile ratings on grant applications but are unable to obtain funding for their highly regarded and important research.

In the past, I have been somewhat reluctant to discuss this problem, because I didn’t want to discourage our researchers-in-training. If faculty members at the top institutions are struggling to support their laboratories, how might students ever hope to compete? In the past, funding challenges were temporary, and therefore downplaying the challenge seemed justified. The current financial situation changes the equation; the fallout from the economic downturn has had major consequences for most scientists both in academia and in the pharmaceutical industry, and different countries (and companies) are responding in different ways.

"We must do more with existing research dollars, and all of us must be willing to make sacrifices to help make this happen."

On Feb. 19, the U.S. House of Representatives voted in support of a Continuing Resolution (H.R. 1) to fund the federal government for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year while cutting spending by more than $100 billion from the president’s fiscal year 2011 request, thus making the largest single discretionary spending reduction in the history of Congress. This legislation includes a $1.6 billion cut (5.2 percent) in National Institutes of Health funding from the 2010 level, reducing its budget to the 2008 funding level, and a $359 million cut in funding for the National Science Foundation from the 2010 level. If enacted, the entire cut would have to be absorbed in the remaining months of fiscal year 2011, significantly intensifying the impact of the reduction. At the same time, the president outlined his budget for fiscal year 2012, which includes a 3.4 percent increase in funding at the NIH over 2010 enacted levels. The Senate rejected the massive cuts proposed by the House, forcing Congress to pass several short-term continuing resolutions, thankfully steering clear of drastic cuts to NIH and NSF budgets. 

Of important note is the fact that during the debate on H.R. 1, several congressional representatives proposed an amendment in support of the NIH. Although this amendment did not make it to the floor for a vote, Reps. Edward Markey, D-Mass.; Janice Schakowsky, D-Ill.; Joe Courtney, D-Conn.; Brian Higgins, D-N.Y.; Rush Holt, D-N.J., and Susan Davis, D-Calif., deserve our heartfelt thanks for introducing an amendment (213) to H.R. 1 to restore funding to the NIH. If you haven’t done so already, please contact your senators and representatives and help them understand the importance of research funding in your home state and district; thank them for their continued support. Cures will require additional basic research, and research dollars bring jobs and economic benefits significantly beyond their actual cost.

In an excellent recent column in the New Yorker, James Surowiecki noted that while President Obama understood that the government needed to cut excessive expenditures (and thus called for a five-year freeze on domestic spending), he also called for sharp increases in investments in infrastructure, education and new technology, which will cost many billions of dollars.

Surowiecki wrote, “Instead of trying to stimulate short-term demand, the plan seeks to improve our long-term growth rate by boosting supply: increasing the pace of innovation, and making workers more productive and commerce more efficient … Why do this when Washington is obsessed with tightening its belt? Because spending on infrastructure, R. & D., and education has the potential to create more value than it costs. The return on investment from the building of the Interstate Highway System in the nineteen-fifties and sixties has been estimated at thirty-five per cent annually. The economists Kevin Murphy and Robert Topel have suggested that the social benefits of medical research reach into the trillions of dollars. And investments in military technology during the original Sputnik moment gave us, among other things, satellites, the microchip, G.P.S., and the Internet, the cumulative benefits of which are incalculable … At the moment, we’re spending too much on things that consume resources—like the military and earmarks—and not enough on things that create them.” I could not agree more.

Disaster insurance?

I just learned of a new faculty member at Sendai University in Japan, whose family and home are both safe but whose very expensive microscopes were destroyed in the recent earthquake. My own lab sustained damage in the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 – luckily nothing too major. Double water-jacketed tissue culture incubators toppled over, but we worked with those very dented (but still functional) units for twenty years after. Centrifuges and -80°C freezers waltzed away from the walls – now they all are secured to the walls with wires; glassware cabinets now have strong hinges and chemical shelves all require lips. Who pays when expensive equipment is lost? Although some relief funding was made available, institutions often are shouldered with the responsibility to insure, and most of them “self-insure.” For me, that meant that no new funds were available to replace damaged incubators. Now seems like an important time to re-evaluate how we protect our laboratories from natural disasters, as we watch the recovery just beginning in Japan.

It is unlikely that we will see significant increases in overall funding in the near future, and we will need to fight hard just to maintain current support. If outstanding research projects are going unpaid, we must do more with existing research dollars, and all of us must be willing to make sacrifices to help make this happen. This is a time to call on the leadership of all funding organizations to make budget allocations as transparent as possible. What review processes are in place to ensure scientists (and taxpayers) that the dollars already allocated are yielding maximal value and benefit? Are we doing enough to ensure rigorous review of all current intra- and extramural NIH and NSF-supported programs?

Bruce Alberts has written recently about the dependency of many institutions on NIH indirect costs to support construction of ever-growing research enterprises. Such growth is not sustainable, and Alberts has proposed a phase-in solution whereby institutions will eventually need to cover half of all investigator salaries. Alternatively, the NIH could negotiate with individual institutions the number of soft money positions that can be accommodated. Alberts wrote, “Regardless of mechanism, here is my bottom line: A new NIH policy must make it unambiguously clear that expansion through laboratory building and construction requires a substantial, non-reimbursable, long term commitment of resources, including ‘hard-money’ faculty support, by any institution that wants to increase its facilities and research staff.” To help current dollars go farther, others have proposed caps on indirect cost rates, either per grant awarded or per investigator, and caps on dollars awarded to a single investigator.

My personal hope is that action be taken soon that is preferably merit-based and as fair as possible to all investigators and institutions. We cannot wait much longer to take action, and all of us need to think hard about how to get the most bang for the currently available research bucks. As Alberts put it, “Although change will be painful, it is urgently needed to maintain a healthy biomedical research enterprise.”

ASBMB President Suzanne Pfeffer (pfeffer@stanford.edu) is a biochemistry professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

found= true1302