Unfreezing Federal Funding

June 1, 2008

Officials at Duke and other top universities are warning that several years of essentially flat budgets for the National Institutes of Health are stifling the research careers-and the potential discoveries-of a generation of young biomedical researchers.

At a news conference this spring in Washington, a coalition of health-sciences leaders said another year without funding increases, as proposed by President George W. Bush, could deal a devastating blow to young scientists. The coalition called upon Congress to fund research budget increases.

"This is a real problem, discussed at almost every meeting one attends on campus, that can't be simply dismissed," said Drew Faust, president of Harvard University. "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 they should explore other career options-and in too many cases, they're taking that message to heart."

The coalition also released a report, A Broken Pipeline? Flat Funding of the NIH Puts a Generation of Science at Risk, that profiles junior researchers from institutions across the country who face serious funding difficulties. Included in the report are cardiologist Kristin Newby, an associate professor of medicine at Duke who studies how the protein troponin and other markers in the blood can help physicians determine a patient's risk for heart attacks and strokes; and oncologist Anil Potti, an assistant professor whose research looks at the genetic patterns in tumors that make it possible to predict which early-stage tumors are more likely to recur and should be treated most aggressively.

Between 1998 and 2003, the NIH budget more than doubled, from $13.3 billion to $27.3 billion. Today, its budget is closer to $30 billion, with 85 percent of the money going to fund biomedical research. But whereas a third of all grant requests were funded in 1999, today only one in four is funded. In addition, researchers have to wait longer for their first award and usually have to apply multiple times.

The most common and important NIH award for biomedical researchers is the RO1 grant, which is typically hundreds of thousands of dollars disbursed over several years-good for building labs, buying materials, and hiring staff to translate promising research into useful techniques and products. The average age at which a researcher gets a first, coveted RO1 used to be thirty-nine. Today it is forty-three.

"If you don't get funded, you don't have a career in research," says Ross McKinney, a professor of pediatrics, molecular genetics, and microbiology who is a former vice dean for research at Duke. "This is a crisis."