RSNA: NIH director stresses need for stable funding

CHICAGO—Current biomedical research is tackling a number of major issues and contains myriad opportunities for imaging, but financial concerns loom large as research budgets fail to keep up with inflation, according to National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, who delivered a special lecture last week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

“That makes this a paradoxical time,” said Collins. “The science has never been more exciting and the resources have never been so stressful, and that calls upon all of us to use those resources in the most creative way we possibly can.”

Collins led with the good news and highlighted several projects poised to make big gains in healthcare research. This past September, the NIH awarded $46 million to more than 100 researchers in three nations to develop technologies and techniques to support the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. This project is aimed at delving into the mysteries surrounding the brain and conditions that affect it, such as Alzheimer’s disease, and minimally invasive imaging techniques are poised to play a big role.

Melding genomics and imaging data is another major effort being undertaken by research with gains being made in understanding genome data that affects Alzheimer’s and cancer. Capturing and using all this data will take new tools as well, which is why another project, the six-year Big Data to Knowledge initiative, was launched, according to Collins.

Despite the enormous opportunities, Collins stressed that unstable funding has been an issue. NIH funding doubled from 1998 to 2003, but then flattened out and, other than a brief bump from stimulus funds, has failed to keep up with inflation. While NIH funding had been rising at a rate of 3.7 percent per year over inflation in the late 1990s, it is currently $11.2 billion short of where it would have been had this growth rate persisted over the last decade.

This lack of funding is directly limiting investigators who are struggling to earn grants. Prior to 2003, the grant approval rate was between 25 and 35 percent, but is barely above 15 percent today. Collins noted that studies have shown there is little difference between the productivity of funded projects in the top 10th percentile and those in the 20th and 30th percentiles. “That means we’re leaving half the good science on the table,” he said.

Collins said this era of limited funding has created a critical need to reinvigorate biomedical research and bolster resources, including the next generation of researchers. If this can be accomplished, the number of opportunities for biomedicine and imaging to improve care will only continue to grow.