Brugge, colleagues urge Senate to increase NIH funding

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Testifying Monday afternoon (March 19) before a U.S. Senate committee hearing on National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, Harvard Medical School Cell Biology Department Chair Joan S. Brugge warned that “four years of flat [NIH] funding have had a devastating impact on the trajectory of cancer research,” threatening “the rapid progress in developing effective and less toxic treatments for the myriad different cancers.”

Noting that decades of NIH funding have brought researchers into a new age of cancer research and treatment in which “we now have multiple examples of effective treatments that target the molecular alterations of specific subsets of tumors,” Brugge told members of the Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C., she fears “we are losing the momentum and the dedicated careers that were fueled by the previous federal investment.

“We are now damaging the infrastructure, and this will certainly delay relief from the cancer burden,” testified the HMS researcher whose sister died of a brain tumor when Brugge was in college.

Brugge’s testimony came on an afternoon that Harvard and eight of the nation’s other leading research universities and institutions presented a new report to Congress calling for increased NIH funding to protect the health of the present and future generations, retain the nation’s corps of research scientists, and protect an American leadership role in biomedical research that previous decades of NIH funding have made possible.

The title of the report, “Within Our Grasp – Or Slipping Away? Assuring a New Era of Scientific and Medical Progress,” sums up the message it contains, a message reiterated by Brugge; Brent Iverson, University Distinguished Teaching Professor of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Texas, Austin; Robert Siliciano, professor of medicine, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator; and Stephen Strittmatter, professor of neurology and neurobiology, Yale University School of Medicine.

The report’s contributors, including Brugge, Jon Clardy, professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at HMS and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), and Vamsi Mootha, assistant professor of systems biology at HMS and Massachusetts General Hospital, point out that the doubling of NIH’s budget between 1998 and 2003 enabled advances in basic research that transformed understanding of diseases affecting millions of Americans. But the NIH budget has been virtually frozen since 2003 and has shrunk by at least 8 percent after inflation is considered. Most recently, a small increase approved by Congress in the 2007 budget would be virtually wiped out by the Bush administration’s proposed 2008 budget, continuing the downward spiral in inflation-adjusted dollars. The implications, add the report’s authors, are far-reaching for science, medicine, the economy, and U.S. leadership in biomedical science.

In addition to Yale, University of Texas, Austin, and Johns Hopkins, the coalition of research institutions pulled together initially by Harvard includes the University of California; University of Wisconsin, Madison; Columbia University; Washington University, St. Louis; and Partners HealthCare.

Harvard Medical School Dean Joseph Martin said, “We hope that these efforts in Washington can begin to turn this around. In this post-gene mapping era, the opportunities for major research advances are so abundant our research community is justifiably frustrated that the grant resources are not only failing to keep up with the pace of the science, but are declining in real dollars.”

Report co-author Siliciano told the Senate committee that “when scientists have to spend most of their time trying to get funded, caution wins out over cutting-edge ideas, creativity sacrifices to convention, and scientific progress gives way to meetings and grant applications. Right now, very, very productive scientists are doing too little research. Instead, they are spending their time trying to get their labs funded again.”

Commenting on the report and effort to increase NIH funding, Harvard Provost Steven E. Hyman, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said that “the current prolonged period of stagnant NIH budgets is unprecedented and discouraging, particularly because it comes at a moment when the potential for therapies and for new discovery has never been more promising. The National Institutes of Health are not simply another government agency, but the engine driving the nation’s world-leading biomedical enterprise.

“Based on its strong peer review system,” Hyman said, “the NIH has supported outstanding research at universities and hospitals across the country. This system has produced the basic discoveries behind the vast majority of current treatments, a cadre of highly trained scientists, and a competitive position in the life sciences that is the envy of the world.

“If our great academic research institutions,” Hyman added, “are going to continue to lead the way toward better understanding, preventive interventions, and treatments for the gamut of human disease, we must support reasonable growth of the NIH budget. To do otherwise will be to lose ground against our competitors, and more importantly to slow our progress against suffering, disease, and disability.”

As recently as the 2003-04 academic year, NIH grant renewal rates for researchers with established projects was around 46 percent. Now, according to the report, it is less than half that – around 20 percent – which means that eight out of 10 established scientists are having their research slowed by gaps in their funding. When the report was in the preparation stages, a quick survey of Harvard Medical School faculty found that two postdoctoral fellows generally considered rising stars in their fields – people who, in the past, could easily have started their own labs, chose to leave academic careers because of the NIH funding situation. A third young researcher took a position at a prestigious institution, but his position is now in jeopardy because he cannot get funding.

Copies of “Within Our Grasp – Or Slipping Away? Assuring a New Era of Scientific and Medical Progress” can be obtained at