Science at Risk

August 1, 2008

In 2001, neurosurgeon John Sampson applied for and received his first research grant from the National Institutes of Health to pursue the development of what would become a successful vaccine for malignant brain tumors. In today's tough climate for biomedical researchers, says Sampson, now the associate deputy director of Duke's Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center, "I almost certainly would not have gotten funded."

In March, Duke was one of seven institutions that co-authored a report titled "A Broken Pipeline? Flat Funding of the NIH Puts a Generation of Science at Risk." It details the worrisome implications of the NIH's unprecedented fifth straight year of no budget growth, representing a 13 percent drop in purchasing power since 2003. It also documents how first-time research grants like the one Sampson received—called R01 grants—have become much more difficult to secure.

"The risks [of continued flat funding of NIH] are that people who have diseases that five or ten years from now should be curable are going to have to wait a lot longer," Nancy Andrews, dean of the Duke medical school, said in the report. "The knowledge is there, and we have the people who know exactly what to do to study the things that turn into cures. But they don't have the funding to do it."

As it did for Sampson, an R01 grant allows talented biomedical researchers to pursue promising therapies—stem-cell research, for example, or improved diagnostic tools—for treating a host of diseases. According to the report, R01s are considered "the gold standard in science…. [A] scientist is not considered established and independent until he or she is awarded an R01," which provides multi-year funds that enable scientists to hire staff members and buy equipment and materials necessary to conduct experiments.

From a practical standpoint, the high costs of setting up a lab preclude research institutions from supporting a multitude of start-up projects. And because medical advances are good for society as a whole, the responsibility for encouraging such advances has long been the purview of the federal government. As the major funder of biomedical research in the U.S., the NIH spends 85 percent of its budget to support research at universities and medical centers.

During a news conference announcing the report, Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust underscored the chilling effect that decreased funding is having not only on the career choices that researchers are making, but also on the future of health care. "This is about the investment that America is—or is not—making in the health of its citizens and its economy," Faust said.

"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 they should explore other career options—and in too many cases, they're taking that message to heart."

"Getting that [NIH] grant was critical for my research," ac knowledges Sampson. "Without it, I don't know that I could have moved forward."