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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University December 4, 2006 | Vol. 36 No. 13
Thinking Out Loud

William R. Brody

By William R. Brody

Dueling Scientists

I have been hearing of hallway conversations in research labs across the country bemoaning the new difficulty in winning Research Project Grants from the National Institutes of Health. The prevailing theories for this new intense level of competition for funding typically ascribe the problem to three main causes. First is the belief that money is increasingly being diverted to fund the NIH Roadmap. Then there is the conviction that more and more money is being moved from basic research to applied research, meaning clinical trials. Finally, there is grumbling that too many targeted initiatives are robbing basic scientists of their appropriate share of the NIH budget.

Elias Zerhouni, director of the NIH, has an article in the Nov. 17 issue of Science that provides factual data regarding this matter. He shows why investigators, despite the doubling of the NIH budget over the past decade, are finding it harder and harder to get research grants. And the news is not pretty. First of all, he carefully debunks the myths above, showing that funding for basic science and for Research Project Grants as a percentage of the NIH budget has not been shortchanged, and that spending on the Roadmap accounts for just over 1 percent of the total NIH budget. He reminds readers that the Roadmap is not a single large initiative but one that funds hundreds of individual investigators.

But most importantly, Dr. Zerhouni shows why the problems we are facing are more profound — and far more worrisome — than is generally appreciated. The real reason why investigators are having difficulty getting funded is attributable to two distinct factors. First, there is simply more demand. During the years of the doubling of the NIH budget, the number of research investigators applying grew by more than 80 percent. The number of grant applications has doubled. Moreover, because of inflation, each application today is 40 percent more costly than it was in 1999. Then there is the unhappy news about what has been happening to the NIH budget since the doubling: In real dollar terms, it actually has been decreasing. This is the third year in a row, when adjusted for inflation, that NIH funding has been cut. The biomedical research enterprise created by the NIH doubling has been cut by nearly 11 percent in real terms since 2003. If you consider these factors together, it doesn't take a statistician to predict that success rates for getting new grants will fall, and funding will become more competitive, for all scientists. This, of course, is exactly what has happened.

While the doubling of the NIH budget was a very good thing, funding for other scientific research agencies did not keep pace. Now nonbiomedical scientists are crying for much-needed increases in the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and other federal research budgets. Unfortunately (but perhaps not surprisingly), this has begun to create tension between different scientific groups over increasingly scarce resources.

In my view, internecine warfare between dueling research scientists is absolutely the last thing we need right now. It will be counterproductive for all research universities and all scientists in the long term. For instance, if Congress decides to give another $300 million to the NSF (an entirely worthy decision) but cuts $1 billion out of the NIH budget, the numbers show we have all lost. This is in part because such an action will seriously damage the scientific infrastructure.

Universities have made long-term commitments and borrowed heavily to rebuild core research facilities with the expectation that facilities and administrative costs recovered from federal research grants will cover a portion of those costs. We have constructed somewhere on the order of $15 billion to $30 billion of new research laboratories in recent years and have recruited new faculty to build upon U.S. leadership in emerging areas of science such as genomics, proteomics, nanotechnologies, microfluidics and other exciting new disciplines. If grant funding declines in inflation-adjusted terms, the indirect costs of these new facilities will reach excessively high percentage rates that may not be sustainable, even over the short term. The result will be financial distress for many research universities along with lowered direct costs available to individual investigators. If universities cannot balance the bottom line because NIH funding is cut below inflation, nonbiomedical scientists will feel the pain along with their biomedical colleagues.

When physical scientists argue that the NSF budget for physical sciences should be increased ("It's our turn now!") the result may inadvertently be less than a zero-sum game overall. While we may make cogent arguments for larger increases in funding for certain types of scientific research, dueling scientists in Washington fighting over a shrinking pie will ultimately make bad public policy for all.

That's why a consortium of CEOs, university presidents and senior officials chaired by Intel chairman Craig Barrett and myself have been advancing the concept that the United States' overall investment in scientific research must do better than simply keep pace with inflation. In part, this is a practical recognition that our nation's research establishment has made long-term financial commitments and infrastructure enhancements based upon that premise. There needs to be a funding floor — a rate of research funding growth we will always meet. At a minimum, I believe our country's commitment to science research should be at least the biomedical inflation index plus 1 percent.

The United States' dominance in basic science and technology is being challenged worldwide by other nations that are investing heavily in basic research and bolstering their research universities. We are all aware of the competition out there, as other nations are mounting an eyeball-to-eyeball challenge to American technological leadership. This is no time for the U.S. to blink.

I am asking all Hopkins scientists to join hands and speak a common message: The research funding floor should be inflation in the costs of research plus 1 percent.


William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins University.


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