Several rural states are seeking to shake up the way that the government allocates research money. Traditionally, states like Massachusetts, California, and New York—all urban and coastal—have won outsized shares of federal research funding, disproportionate to their percentages of the national population. A number of senators from rural states, however, are aiming to change that trend. To that end, they seek to increase the amount of money—from $273 million to $310 million—allocated for National Institutes of Health’s Institutional Development Award, which funds researchers in 23 states, mostly rural, that have traditionally struggled to win NIH grants.
Massachusetts comprises only two percent of the national population, but researchers in the Bay State received more than $1.77 billion of the NIH funding in 2013—more than eight percent of the institute’s awards. Massachusetts is the frequent recipient of NIH awards because of the presence of world-class medical institutions in Boston. However, proponents of the change argue for what they consider a more egalitarian distribution of NIH funding—they believe that state colleges and universities in the rural US also deserve funding for research, even if they lack the facilities or experience of more frequently recognized labs.
The allocation of federal funding, however, should be based primarily on merit, not on a well-intentioned but misguided push for egalitarianism. Though the support of research outside of traditional areas is a laudable goal, the inherent purpose of NIH funding is to inspire scientific breakthroughs. While it is undoubtedly true that research labs in rural areas have the potential to be centers of innovation, established centers such as Massachusetts General Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute are still more likely to produce major discoveries. Institutions like MGH have a long and storied tradition of scientific innovation; research centers in rural states lack the same proven track record.
This is not to say that the current system is perfect. Many supporters of scientific research have long argued—and continue to argue—for an increase in the total funds awarded by the NIH; such an increase would allow for an expansion of the Institutional Development Award program without negatively impacting research in research powerhouses in Massachusetts and other such states. Furthermore, criticisms of favoritism have long dogged the NIH, especially given the consistent flow of money to certain states.
While the distribution of NIH funding may not be a perfect system, it is nevertheless a meritocracy—funds are awarded to research labs based solely on the quality of their proposals. It would be ill-advised to alter the system simply for the sake of ensuring the presence of research labs in every state—instead, the NIH should continue awarding research funds with the primary aim of fostering innovation and advancement.