Pandemics and research funding

by revere, cross-posted from Effect Measure

I’ll soon be at the end of my career, funding-wise, although I plan to continue as an active scientist for as long as my neurons will process information in a logical order. I mention this so you won’t take this as special pleading. I’m not going to benefit from it. But if we want to continue to make advances in science and health (as well as other things), we’re going to have to invest more heavily in basic research. And when we do, we’ll have to do it smarter than we’ve done it before. Notice I didn’t say anything about competing economically as a nation, although any nation that fails to invest in science will fall behind. Science doesn’t care about national borders and neither do I. I’m talking about learning enough about how the world works that we can deal with major threats like influenza pandemics — to take an example not at all at random.

Many readers here are surprised (and some shocked) at how little we know about basic influenza science — like why it is seasonal, what are the major modes of transmission, what makes one strain more virulent than another and much more. The community of flu scientists is surprisingly small and research on the virus now requires a wide range of expertise it didn’t in the past. Bioinformatics and biophysics have revolutionized virology, but it takes time for knowledge and skill to build up in any specialty. Right now there are far too many questions being chased by far too few scientists. And if history is any gauge, we are about to see a currently bad situation in research funding get even worse.

It’s not because there isn’t sufficient money, at least at the moment. It’s the consequences of how the money is being spent. Here’s a story from my days in medical training. I spent a rotation in the impossibly busy downtown emergency room in a hospital in the largest city in the country. My home base was another hospital in midtown. To get from one to the other you had to go down a large drive that was three lanes in each direction. We usually hitched a ride in an ambulance. Depending on the time of day, traffic moved faster or slower — but usually it moved. Until, that is, they decided they would do some road work and widened the drive from three lanes to five lanes — but only for a couple of hundred yards. Cars immediately spread out to occupy the full width but within a minute had to squeeze back down to three lanes. Like the turbulence caused by an aneurysm, the result was a terrible traffic jam.

We saw the analogous thing happen with research funding when Congress doubled the NIH budget in 1998 but then dropped it back to the previous level and then below, in real terms. New labs, post docs, graduate students and young faculty came on board, started active and vigorous research programs and suddenly found funding lines drop from 21% of NIH grant proposals to 8% or less. The ensuing crisis and loss of talent in basic biomedical sciences is having a lasting effect. Now a sudden infusion of stimulus money into NIH, to be spent in two years, is threatening to do this again in a system still reeling from the budget doubling fiasco. Researchers are already worrying about what’s going to happen:

NIH’s $10.4 billion windfall in stimulus funding runs out in 2011. Today, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) issued a report claiming that the number of competing grants—essentially new awards—will plunge about 40%, from 16,564 to 9850, if NIH’s base budget stays at the $31 billion requested by President Barack Obama for 2010. That would put many scientists out of work, FASEB suggests. “We’re going to slow progress; we’re going to end careers; we’re going to be terribly discouraging to young scientists,” incoming FASEB President Mark Lively told reporters at a press breakfast this morning. (Jocelyn Kaiser, ScienceInsider)

It’s not about me. I’m very well funded and I’ll be fine. But as I look at my students, post docs and younger colleagues I wonder how many of them will be active scientists in ten years if we don’t face up to the fact that while finding out important things pays off handsomely, it costs money. Modern science is powerful, but it is also expensive. FASEB functions like a trade group for scientists, so you could see its warning as just another special interest lobbying effort. It is a lobbying effort by a special interest, all right, but it’s not just another special interest.

FASEB’s analysis suggests that NIH will need a 10% boost in 2011 and then another 3% above inflation in subsequent years (i.e., 6 – 7% each year). That may be a hard sell for politicians (and Obama is as guilty as any) whose tendency is to pander to voters by throwing money at dread diseases like cancer. But we never know where the new insight will come from that unlocks some other health problem. Research on fruitflies and yeast is central to much of what we know about cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease — and influenza. Research that targets diseases may sound efficient, but it doesn’t pay off as much as across-board-investments in basic research does.

Late yesterday afternoon word came that the Obama administration will finally nominate geneticist Francis Collins as Director of NIH. Collins is somewhat controversial among scientists for his religious views — he has some — but he knows research, has a track record as a capable science administrator, and with any luck he’ll be able to represent basic biomedical research in a way that will prevent terrible damage to our scientific infrastructure.