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Funding science research as a sustained enterprise

1:03pm, December 4, 2009
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On August 17, Francis S. Collins was sworn in as the 16th director of the National Institutes of Health. In addition to identifying genes that contribute to diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s and type 2 diabetes in his own research laboratories, Collins led the Human Genome Project. At the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in October in Chicago, Collins discussed NIH funding and answered questions from reporters, including Science News writers Tina Hesman Saey and Laura Sanders.

In introducing the NIH budget, Collins said: “We had this remarkable deluge of funding from the Recovery Act. And the response to that in terms of applications coming to NIH … was just overwhelming. When the dust all settled, of course, we weren’t able to fund more than a small percentage of these great ideas.... The exciting part was this outpouring of creativity from the scientific community.”

Could the $10.4 billion NIH received from the Recovery Act hurt prospects for funding?

If you go back a few years to the doubling that happened to NIH between 1998 and 2003, we then hit a flat budget period for the next five years…. Many of those arguments we heard were, ‘Well, you got yours.’… I do think there’s a risk that that might also happen in this circumstance after such a remarkable infusion of those $10 billion.

But science is not a 100-yard dash. It’s a marathon. And certainly science projects don’t operate on two-year cycles. To rev up the engine of biomedical research only to take away the fuel seems like an unfortunate circumstance, to say the least. And what we’re hoping for are good scientific outcomes.

One of the things we’re working on very hard at NIH is to try to document what the Recovery Act has made possible, to point to specific projects … those are down payments on what needs to be a more sustained enterprise.... To fall off a cliff at this point, just as we’re picking up speed, is not going to be the way to make the most of what those Recovery Act dollars made possible.

What are the current projections for the NIH fiscal year 2011 budget?

There are none…. One of the things I think we all agree with is that science doesn’t resonate very well with feast-or-famine kind of circumstances. These ups and downs in funding can actually be quite painful and disruptive for projects and for investigators. And yet we may be in one of those circumstances where we had a considerable bolus of opportunity with the Recovery Act. And given that the economy is still struggling, there’s not a great deal of optimism that that trajectory can be sustained.

What is NIH doing to support and encourage investigators at the early stages of their careers, especially when more lucrative or stable careers are available elsewhere?

That’s a topic of great concern at NIH. I think all of us have seen this as one of the highest priorities in terms of our support of science. You can’t look at the current circumstances and not worry about the trends in terms of what’s been happening as far as young people’s interest in science and their ability to join in, get on the on-ramp, and have a successful career in biomedical research. That was particularly heightened during the five years of flat budgets, when overall success rates of all grantees began to fall. And that made it particularly difficult for early-stage investigators to feel optimistic after a couple of failed grant applications where they just missed the cutoff….

One [grant] that is funded through the common fund, called the New Innovator Award, is aimed at trying to pull in investigators who have not previously received an R01 [Research Project Grant Program] grant from NIH, and specifically to attract those who have created out-of-the-box ideas, to tell them that the door is open — we’re really interested in hearing what you have to offer.

Another thing NIH has done across the board, and all the institutes have agreed to do this as of last fall, is to set up a system so that the success rates for early stage investigators are kept at the same level as for experienced investigators. If you don’t have something of that sort, then those who have not previously been in the system may not have as much preliminary data, may not have as much experience in terms of grantsmanship and may not be recognizable names to their colleagues, so may not fare as well.

I must say we’ve also begun to take some flak for this. There was a piece in the New York Times [“Debate flaring over grants for research,” September 21] from the established investigator perspective that said we’ve gone too far.... Some of the very productive, mid-career folks are feeling like they’re not getting a fair shake.… Obviously these problems are worse when budgets are tight.

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