In this series, you’ve read about steps that the American research community can take in order to build a robust and sustainable biomedical research enterprise. We can begin to shape the biomedical research workforce for the needs of tomorrow through workforce improvements, such as making better use of staff scientists and improving the experiences of postdoctoral trainees. Sadly, one key element of sustainability that is entirely outside of the control of scientists is access to robust federal investments in research.
Since the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Sustainability Summit in February, former ASBMB president and current editor-in-chief of Science Jeremy Berg has done extensive research into modeling the impact of boom-and-bust funding trends for basic biomedical research.
In Berg’s Science editorial “Benefits of Steady Growth,” which appeared on Aug. 26, he explains the problem. “Such fluctuations have important consequences,” he wrote. “Outstanding applications that would have been funded one year go unsupported the next year, so that potentially ground-breaking research may be missed for arbitrary reasons of timing. Low success rates result in scientists spending more time writing and reviewing proposals instead of conducting research. Investigators, particularly those at vulnerable career stages, can become demoralized by the apparently capricious nature of funding decisions.”
Berg developed a model that predicts, with a 0.866 correlation coefficient, the impact of funding levels on grant-application success rates at the National Institutes of Health. The model gives us a tool through which we can begin to build a case for sustainable growth. For example, Berg’s analysis compared the doubling period of the National Institutes of Health’s budget from 1998 through 2002 with a hypothetical sustained-increase model. He found that sustained growth of 7 percent over the same time period, instead of rapid growth followed by a period of flat funding that we have experienced, would have had the potential to provide funding for 35,000 more grants than the number actually funded during that time period.
The impact of fluctuations comes as no surprise to researchers who are at the front lines, whose very existence depend on the success of their latest grant applications. Funding agencies like the NIH are very aware of the impact that unpredictable funding has on their constituencies. We appreciate the hard work done by Berg, because the ASBMB’s advocacy efforts now will use the tool to support our arguments to policymakers in Washington that we are served best by robust and sustained investments.
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