Report: NIH cutbacks deter future researchers

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University of Iowa research assistant separates lymphoma patients' DNA to store for future medical research under NIH grant. Source: The Daily Iowan  

Five consecutive years of flat funding the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is deterring promising young researchers and threatening the future of Americans’ health, according to a report compiled by seven academic research institutions.

The report, “A Broken Pipeline" Flat Funding of the NIH Puts a Generation of Science at Risk,” was co-authored by Brown University in Providence, R.I.; Duke University in Durham, N.C., Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.; The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio; Partners Healthcare in Boston; the University of California Los Angeles; and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

In the report, the group of concerned institutions described the toll that cumulative stagnant NIH funding is taking on the U.S. medical research enterprise. The institutions warned that if NIH does not get consistent and robust support in the future, the nation will lose a generation of young investigators to other careers and other countries and, with them, a generation of promising research that could cure diseases for millions.

The authors profiled 12 junior researchers from U.S. institutions who, despite their exceptional qualifications and noteworthy research, attest to the funding difficulties that they and their professional peers are experiencing. For example, the researchers are devising new ways to manipulate stem cells to repair the heart, revealing critical pathways involved in cancer and brain diseases, and using new technologies to diagnose and treat kidney disease.
The 20-page report follows up on a related report, “Within Our Grasp—Or Slipping Away" Assuring a New Era of Scientific and Medical Progress,” released by a group of academic institutions in March 2007, which showed how stagnant NIH funding was slowing discovery and squandering the significant opportunities for breakthroughs that past investment has put within reach.

“This is a real problem, discussed at almost every meeting one attends on campus, that can’t be simply dismissed,” said Drew Faust, PhD, president of Harvard. “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 “Broken Pipeline” report focuses on the effect that recurring flat funding is having on young researchers in particular. Junior researchers—typically assistant and associate professors who are trying to establish their own research laboratories—are getting a much smaller piece of the NIH funding pie to conduct their medical investigations, according to the report. However, competition for limited resources is affecting scientists at every point of the academic research pipeline.

Between 1998 and 2003, the Clinton and Bush Administrations, along with Congress, doubled the budget of the NIH, an effort that transformed many fields of biomedical research, the report said. However, in 2003, the budget increases stopped and, since then, the NIH has experienced a 13-percent drop in real purchasing power.

As a result, research progress has slowed, and leading researchers’ new ideas for funding are stuck at a toll-gate that only allows one in ten grants to be funded upon first submission.