April 2011

Budget challenges in biomedical sciences

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.


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The excitment felt in the sciences is limited to a very few. Incidently, these very few gather the major share of federal funds. Consequently, these very few are very powerful and thus influence federal agencies into policies that enable them to garner even greater funding (reminds us of the Wall Street bankers). While we clamour for more funding into the NIH, NSF etc, it is imperative that we use the current funds equitably and to the greatest cost benefit. For instance, anyone with 2 NIH R01s must be 2x as productive than one with just a single grant. A person with 3 R01's, 3x more productive and so on. Medical schools must find ways, other than bilking the tax payers, to pay their researchers. Sincerely, Concerned researcher.



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