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.


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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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