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University Leaders Challenge NIH Funding Drought

Leaving their soil microbes and frozen mice ears behind for a day, a dozen Harvard scientists headed for Washington D.C. yesterday to lobby Congress on the behalf of biomedical researchers across the nation.

While the scientists said that U.S. researchers have made enormous strides in unlocking the secrets of human health and disease­, they said that this progress may come to a grinding halt in the wake of stagnant funding at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). And not only is flat funding taking a toll on research, but it’s also affecting the careers of younger scientists, according to a new report released yesterday by Harvard and the six other research institutions.

“The impact of [the flat funding] at a time where research is so exciting and prospects so achievable is creating a logjam in the grant application process,” said Kevin Casey, the associate vice-president for government, community, and public affairs at Harvard. “The pipeline for grants is really being stressed and clogged.”

According to the report, junior researchers­—generally assistant and associate professors in the midst of establishing their own laboratories—are queuing up at the end of the academic research pipeline.

Due to the increased competition for funding that is falling in real terms, junior researchers are having an increasingly difficult time winning grants to conduct their research—especially when they are forced to compete with their more senior colleagues.

HITTING CLOSE TO HOME

Anne B. S. Giersch, a professor at Harvard Medical School studying age-related hearing loss, has been grappling with the difficulties resulting from the limited resources at the NIH.

Giersch said she has been waiting for NIH funding for two years while the inner ears of the mice she already dissected remain unused in her freezer. Giersch just submitted another grant application last week.

“People are spending all their time writing grant applications and less time getting work done,” said Giersch, who is one of the scientists who went to D.C. “It’s not just me, it’s not just us [the 12 researchers profiled in the report], it’s the whole field.”

Rachelle Gaudet, a biology professor who researches how proteins on the surface of cells sense pain and temperature, spent a total of five years submitting and resubmitting her grant application.

Gaudet, who finally received her first R01 grant—which is seen as establishing a young researcher’s credibility—last month, said that she had to reduce the scope of her proposed research several times to render her vision more “conservative,” something that would make her proposal more likely to win funding.

“It’s especially difficult for junior faculty because this is the time you’re encouraged to be innovative, creative, and bold,” said Gaudet, who was also in D.C. for the past two days. “It’s difficult to become more creative if you start out conservative.”

SLOWED TO A TRICKLE

Congress doubled the budget of the NIH between 1999 and 2003, increases credited with facilitating breakthroughs in research like the sequencing of the human genome and dramatic advances in cancer treatment. But since 2003, the NIH’s budget has been flat, causing the overall success rate for research project grants has dropped from 32 percent in 1999 to 24 percent last year.

Also, the report noted, the average age at which professors win their first R01 grant has increased from 39 in 1990 to 43.

Casey acknowledges that Congress has had to appropriate funding for priorities like the war in Iraq and the military response to the Sept. 11 attacks, but he hopes that the next president will make scientific research a top priority.

“We’re hoping to change the vocabulary about NIH to one that talks about reinvestment to turn the tide,” Casey said. “There’s a goal to ultimately get consistent and stable support from NIH.”

Officials from Harvard and other universities say that the frustrations expressed by the Harvard professors are shared by researchers across the nation.

Norka Ruiz Bravo, a deputy director at the grant-making division of the NIH, said that there are several programs targeted at young investigators to aid them in their transition from being post-doctoral fellows working with established professors to being independent researchers.

“We are developing a statistical, systems dynamics model for how many [grants] is the right number,” Ruiz Bravo said. “We have to understand this to target our policies to make sure we have a bigger pipeline.”

Casey said that there are currently new ad-hoc programs at Harvard and its affiliated hospitals that lend support to researchers who are weighed down by the tight market for federal research dollars.

“It’s not supposed to be easy to become a biomedical researcher,” Casey said. “But it is an insurmountable challenge to tell young people to wait until 40 to build their career.”

—Staff writer June Q. Wu can be reached at junewu@fas.harvard.edu.
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