President testifies for increase in NIH funding

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New report warns that bright young researchers are increasingly frustrated by decreasing funding

With the careers of a generation of young researchers threatened by five years of flat National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, Harvard President Drew Faust and leaders of six other major research institutions were in Washington Tuesday (March 11) calling on Congress to repair the “Broken Pipeline” through which breakthroughs in the biomedical sciences should be flowing.

Testifying before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Faust said, “The 13 percent loss in real dollars over the last five years is having a cascading impact that is slowing progress and threatening future research that could lead to cures — and even ways to prevent disease.

“Leading scientists with quality grant proposals are caught in a protracted grant review process that plays out often over years, not months,” Faust told committee Chair Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and members of the body that oversees the NIH budget. “As a result, investigators are downsizing labs, slowing research, and producing more conservative, less ambitious proposals more likely to secure funding.

“Junior faculty who witness the struggles of their advisers are asking themselves how they can possibly compete with their mentors for a piece of the reduced research pie,” she continued. “At the same time, they are mentoring their own students and working to encourage the next generation of students who could and should be tomorrow’s pioneers in science. The result too often is a ladder of discouragement that we hope our country recognizes and begins to address today.”

“You can’t throw a rock around Harvard without hitting a scientist who is having trouble getting funding,” Anne Giersch, a Havard Medical School assistant professor studying the genetics of hearing loss, told a Boston Globe reporter writing about the funding crisis.

Faust’s Senate appearance — the first time in more than two decades that a Harvard president has testified before Congress — followed a press conference at the National Press Club, during which she joined in the release of a report titled “A Broken Pipeline? Flat Funding of the NIH Puts a Generation of Science at Risk.”

The report was prepared by representatives of Brown University, Duke University, Harvard, Ohio State University, Partners HealthCare, University of California, Los Angeles, and Vanderbilt University. It adds to the case presented by another group of institutions (also including Harvard): a report called “Within Our Grasp — or Slipping Away? Assuring a New Era of Scientific Medical Progress.”

According to the “Broken Pipeline” report, five years of flat NIH spending coupled with inflation has added up to a 13 percent drop in real purchasing power for research. That means, among other things, that:

• In 1990, young researchers received 29 percent of R01 grants (the premier NIH research grant needed to establish a researcher’s credibility and independence). By 2007, that dropped to 25 percent.

• While the success rate has dropped for all R01 applicants, it is particularly low — only 18 percent — for first-time applicants.

• First-time RO1 recipients also are older. The average age is now 43, up from 39 in 1990.

As a result, scientists who review NIH proposals have become more conservative when judging the merits of funding research projects. They are demanding more evidence for the eventual success of proposed theories prior to approving funding and inadvertently changing the way science is being conducted, discouraging innovative, big ideas in favor of safer approaches and incremental progress to scientific discovery.

“This is a real problem, discussed at almost every meeting one attends on campus, that can’t be simply dismissed,” said Faust. “This is about the investment that America is — or is not — making in the health of its citizens and its economy. Right now, the nation’s brightest young researchers, upon whom the future of American medicine rests, are getting the message that biomedical research may be a dead end and that they should explore other career options. And in too many cases, they’re taking that message to heart. The president’s latest budget proposal that calls for another year without an increase will only make the problem worse.”

Robert Golden, dean of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and one of the participants along with Faust, said in the morning press conference that “there’s been a lot of discussion in the last year about the negative impact of the tight NIH budget on senior researchers and their labs. But it appears that junior investigators may be having the toughest time in this fiscal climate. They’re competing for funding with established researchers, who are their mentors, and finding that the financial support just isn’t there, or that they can’t afford to support themselves while writing and rewriting grant proposals.”

Rachelle Gaudet, an associate professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard who is doing research on how the body senses pain and heat, states in the “Broken Pipeline” report, “My first and second [NIH funding] applications were scored low and weren’t funded. I submitted a similar proposal to the National Science Foundation, which scored the proposal very high but declined to fund it because they were certain it would win NIH funding.”

Commenting on the problem, Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey Flier said that “the situation would be dire enough if, as it was described in an earlier report, we only were having to cope with a slowdown in realizing the promises of discoveries. But as this new report points out, we are in danger of losing the members of the next generation of biomedical leaders, and if we allow that to happen, the results will truly be catastrophic — for our scientific knowledge base, for those suffering from disease, and for our national economy.”

Because it is working with reduced resources, NIH is experiencing a backlog in high-quality research proposals, and too few are getting funded. In fact, the overall success rate for NIH research project grants dropped from 32 percent in 1999 to 24 percent in 2007. Thus, only about one in four original research applications to the NIH is being funded, and many of those are only partially funded — and only after lengthy delays and cumbersome reapplications.

“Reviewers told us we have good data, a strong team, and well-thought-out experiments. We didn’t get funded just because there were others going for their second and third round who were waiting in line,” said Jill Rafael-Fortney, associate professor at Ohio State University, who is working on a new treatment for heart failure.

Both at the press conference and in their Senate testimony, the speakers stressed the long-term impact that reduced funding — particularly of bright young scientists looking for their first funding — has on America’s biomedical enterprise.

If these trends continue, Kennedy asked those attending the hearing, “Will we look back and regret a decade of missed opportunities and squandered potentials?” Referring to the “Broken Pipeline” report, he said, “We have before us a chilling statement of where our current budget policies will lead. … Unless we invest in the life sciences we’ll lose our leadership in biotechnology.”