Terra Sigillata

Interesting to see the Wall Street Journal this morning with an article carrying this title (here, but subscription req’d – hence, I will quote heavily).

Everyone knows that US NIH funding cuts have made it difficult for all academics who depend on the nation’s health agency for research support.

When 27% of proposals were funded, it wasn’t that hard to separate the top quarter, says molecular biologist Keith Yamamoto of the University of California, San Francisco. “There was a natural cutoff,” he says. But at 10% “the ability to distinguish a grant that deserves funding from one that does not vanishes. It becomes a crapshoot, with every grant in jeopardy.”

However, Sharon Begley writes in the WSJ Science Journal on a more disturbing trend whose rumblings I have also begun to hear: the trend toward “safe,” non-risky, non-innovative projects.

Alan Schneyer of Massachusetts General Hospital, for instance, has been funded by NIH for 17 years. He recently discovered that when a certain gene is disabled in mice, the animals become more sensitive to insulin (the opposite of what happens in Type-2 diabetes), their islet cells make more insulin and they lose abdominal fat. This was a surprise, because the gene was thought to affect reproduction, not metabolism. He wanted to identify the biochemical pathways the gene affected, hoping to develop a therapy for obesity or diabetes. In June, NIH rejected his grant proposal.

NIH was never known for supporting risky ideas, but scientists say it has become even worse with the budget crunch. Grant reviewers are increasingly unwilling to gamble scarce money on speculative/bold (pick your adjective) approaches to understanding and treating disease.

“If an idea is more than a little out of the ordinary, even if you have data to support it, they won’t take a chance,” says Dr. Schneyer, 52 years old. “The science they’re supporting isn’t bad science, but much of it is too-safe science.”

At the research institutions where I am affiliated, I have seen several very bright folks leave academia for drug companies or alternative careers in journalism and science writing:

His last NIH grant will run out this month. MGH has given him $50,000 in bridge funding and is trying to help other scientists who are suddenly without NIH support. Although MGH has doubled that funding to $1.5 million, says Jerrold Rosenbaum, who oversees its research, it will fall short. Dr. Schneyer estimates that some 5% of MGH scientists have only a few months left on existing grants and no new ones in sight.

“These are people who could make an important contribution to knowledge,” says Dr. Rosenbaum. “It’s just devastating.”

Fortunately, major institutions with a significant financial backstop are able to provide these bridging funds. However, very few people understand that academic researchers are often little more than private contractors to the universities where they work. At some institutions, one feels like one is simply renting lab space for the privilege of having one’s name associated with a well-known university.

For the first time I can recall in the MSM, Begley makes this point:

Although scientists may be “geneticists at MGH” or “neuroscientists at UCSF,” unless they have tenure their salary comes out of a grant, not from the ostensible employer. [emphasis mine]. As grants disappear, therefore, it isn’t just that studies won’t be done; researchers will have to look for another line of work, especially if they are Ph.D.s rather than M.D.s, who can at least see patients to bring in income.

Among them is MGH’s Jose Teixeira, 42, who had been funded by NIH since 1998. His last grant ran out in 2005, and his proposal for a study on how a disruption in the stem cells of uterine tissue can lead to fibroids was rejected. Dr. Teixeira was one of thousands of smart young Americans who, in the 1980s, heeded the call to go into science — a call that is being sounded again. “I feel betrayed,” he says.

Faced with NIH cutbacks, more biomedical scientists are pleading their case to private foundations. UAB’s Dr. Welch, for instance, has a grant from the National Foundation for Cancer Research. But these groups can’t make up for more than a small fraction of the NIH cutbacks, says foundation president, Franklin Salisbury. His group has received three times the number of grant requests this funding cycle that it did two years ago.

Is this really what the US wants to happen to the large investment made in scientific research in the 1980s?


  1. #1 Mike Dunford
    September 1, 2006

    “Is this really what the US wants to happen to the large investment made in scientific research in the 1980s?”

    Of course it is. This administration is fully committed to undoing all of the harm inflicted on this country by earlier liberal elitist Presidencies.