Stagnant funding for the National Institutes of Health may be taking a toll on young researchers and threatening the United States' long-term status as the world's leader in biomedical advancement, according to a glossy report released Tuesday by Brown and six other research institutions.
Following a major federal investment in biomedical research that doubled the NIH's budget between 1998 and 2003, the report says, budget increases have slowed and allowed inflation to "erode the purchasing power" of the NIH, a multi-billion dollar federal agency that provides the vast majority of public funding for biomedical and health research in the United States.
As a result, competition for NIH research funding among professors at Brown and nationwide has increased dramatically, placing a particular burden on young investigators trying to establish themselves.
The report, entitled "A Broken Pipeline? Flat Funding of the NIH Puts a Generation of Science at Risk," was released Tuesday in Washington by Brown, Harvard, Duke University, Ohio State University, the University of California at Los Angeles, Vanderbilt University and Partners Healthcare.
It presents the institutions' concerns and profiles 12 early-career researchers - including Assistant Professor of Chemistry Carthene Bazemore-Walker and Assistant Professor of Medical Science Tricia Serio - whose potentially important research endeavors have been hindered by the dwindling availability of funds, the report says.
Brown derives about 45 percent of its external research funds from the 27 institutes that make up the NIH, according to Vice President for Research Clyde Briant, making it a "major funding source" for the University.
Since 1999, the report notes, the success rate for grant applications to the NIH has dropped to 24 percent from 32 percent, meaning that researchers must spend more time developing and revising grant proposals and have a harder time securing funds for more ambitious but riskier proposals.
The size of the grants being awarded has also been cut, the report says, and the average age at which researchers are receiving their first major grants from the NIH is rising.
Those major awards - known in biomedical research circles as R01 grants - are considered the lifeblood of academic researchers, officials say. Receiving R01 funding is a major benchmark for any young investigator seeking to become established in his field, but as approval rates drop, the hurdles young researchers must clear to earn R01 approval are growing more daunting, the report says.
The result, the report contends, is that more intense competition and difficulty initiating research will drive a generation of young investigators away from academia, leaving a dearth of established researchers to build on current advances.
Joseph Balintfy, an NIH spokesman reached Tuesday afternoon by The Herald, did not immediately have any response to the report. But in an earlier statement posted on the NIH Web site, Norka Ruiz Bravo, the agency's deputy director for extramural research, said the NIH gives a variety of special considerations to young researchers to help them achieve the funding they need to become established.
"We at NIH remain committed to identifying and attracting new independent biomedical researchers and will continue to explore novel ways to accomplish this," the statement says. "However, we cannot do it alone. Institutions - our partners in this venture - must continue to look for ways to reduce the duration of graduate and postdoctoral training and find new ways to enable new investigators to compete successfully for extramural funding."
But the dozen researchers profiled in the report say new hurdles have emerged in the last several years that are threatening their research - and, in some cases, their ability to save lives.
Bazemore-Walker was profiled because, according to the report, her research could potentially improve diagnosis of kidney damage from diseases like lupus and diabetes but has not been funded by the NIH. Since 2005, in her time as a junior faculty member at the University of Virginia and at Brown, she has submitted about 15 grant proposals to the NIH and other organizations. But she has, "not been able to secure an independent research grant from (the) NIH," she said.
Governmental funding, especially from the NIH, is considered "the hallmark" for young researchers in the life sciences, Bazemore-Walker said, and a major grant like an R01 is "the gold that we're seeking." She has focused on smaller grants, however, because without them she can't produce the kinds of preliminary data that are often necessary to secure an R01 in the current competitive environment.
But even those smaller grants are tough to come by right now, she added, because many more established researchers who would normally pursue R01s are turning to alternative sources of funding in the more competitive environment.
Bazemore-Walker also said that her troubles are compounded by the fact that she spent several years in a full-time teaching position when she was first starting out and is several years older than many researchers are at the same stage of their careers.
As a result, her grant proposals are often scrutinized more than are those from younger applicants, and she is ineligible for some programs targeted at new researchers.
"I'm very concerned about the future for our generation of scientists," Bazemore-Walker said. "A lot of us, both senior and junior, are spending so much more time in our offices writing grants," instead of working in the laboratory.
"We have to write so many more to try to increase the odds that one of them will get funded," she added.
Serio was traveling Monday and Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.
Despite the NIH's plateauing funding, which the report says has effectively shrunk the agency's budget by 13 percent when inflation is accounted for, Briant said that Brown has not seen its total revenue from the NIH drop off in a harmful way.
"We've been able to hold our own right at the moment," he said. But Brown is nonetheless concerned by the potential implications nationwide and the possibility that young researchers drawn by the funding boom in the late '90s and earlier this decade will now be driven away, he added.
Brown has also not seen an exodus of junior faculty, Briant said. In recognition of the difficult environment, University officials have tried to provide more start-up research money internally to junior faculty and to help young investigators write better proposals and navigate the more rigorous funding environment, he added.
Although Brown's funding has held up so far, faculty here are having to work much harder than in years past to earn grants, according to Professor of Community Health Terrie "Fox" Wetle, associate dean of medicine for public health and public policy, who also worked at the National Institute on Aging, a sub-agency of the NIH, from 1995 to 2001.
"Even experienced researchers are finding themselves having to work much, much harder," she said, adding that everyone is having to submit more grants in order to secure the same level of funding. "It feels as if the treadmill is going faster - that you have to work harder to keep your place."
The problem is especially acute for young researchers, Wetle said, because the competition means more preliminary data and "up-front" investments are required to get approval. Junior faculty, she said, find it "harder to get (a) foot on the first rung of the ladder."
Despite her own difficulty finding her footing and the report's contention that young investigators will be driven from the public research "pipeline," Bazemore-Walker said she will not be deterred from making her career in academic research.
"Like many of us who have taken these positions in spite of the environment ... I still feel positive," she said. "I think that my research is in one of the better areas to be funded, because of (its) pot
entially significant impact on human health and disease."
"I'm confident in my ability, so that's another reason why I'm positive that I will, in fact, be successful," she added.