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Science  08 Dec 2006:
Vol. 314, Issue 5805, pp. 1515
DOI: 10.1126/science.1137742

The editor's desk at Science is so full of complaints about papers that it's almost a relief when we get something like this, from a department chair at a medical school: “I am wondering why Science hasn't been more vocal about the tremendous decline in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding levels currently being experienced in the United States. This is a true crisis—a tragedy!”

Before calling out the Bengal Lancers, let's review some data. First, Science covered the budget allocations for fiscal year (FY) 2007 twice this past summer and published a good Editorial by J. Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus on the issue (Science, 28 April 2006, p. 499). Though it's unfair to have called us asleep at the wheel, it is fair to direct our attention to a situation that is producing much anger and frustration. Biomedical scientists are justified in complaining about NIH pay levels, but what about those supported by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy?


In analyzing circumstances contributing to the NIH problem in a recent Science Policy Forum (Science, 17 November 2006, p. 1088), NIH Director Elias Zerhouni pointed out that although the NIH budget doubled, so did the number of grant applications! The current supply/demand problem has other causes too. Institutions that have been churning out new Ph.D.s, assuming that the world would never change, bear some responsibility. Furthermore, the NIH allocation went flat right after it doubled. Annual increases in research costs mean that under constant-dollar funding, NIH loses about a billion dollars a year. NIH management didn't do that—the Congress did for the past 4 years, and all indications are that it will continue to do so.

The problem goes beyond NIH. For example, it and other federal agencies support a lively industry producing tools for research. At the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Atlanta this fall, the exhibit hall looked big enough to accommodate the football game under way at the Georgia Dome. It was full of corporate booths featuring high-tech equipment, symbolizing the interdependence between this growing industrial complex and federal funding. The industry would disappear without that funding: Scientists need the tools, so they order them. Because the real purchaser—the government—cannot control price, the inflation rate for biomedical equipment rises, driving research expenditures upward.

What about the universities? Zerhouni emphasizes that our scientific strength flows from an early, well-understood co-investment between government and academia. We 1960s department chairs welcomed government support for infrastructure to assist faculty growth. As federal budgets tightened, universities used debt or donor financing for new buildings and spent general funds to help new faculty recruits get a head start. Such co-investments enhanced the institution's scope of research and the means to support it, but the trend in federal funding sends a message that Congress and the administration no longer support this historical partnership.

Looking at the research universities amplifies one's unease about the future. New goals for capital campaigns run up to $4 billion, partly to make up for shortfalls in federal funding. Some of the gifts will be for new endowed professorships, whose incumbents will want graduate students and fellows. Some will fund research buildings or programs. The leveraging effect of past government funding has thus prompted larger institutional research commitments. Leveraging by federal funds has thus prompted more institutional commitments. But the current NIH disinvestment will mean trouble for universities, who may be unable to recoup their own recent investments.

Is there a solution? First, scientists might consider advocacy for a research investment floor in all agencies that could keep pace with the growth of research costs, instead of promoting their disciplinary interests at the expense of others. The government must decide whether it wants to preserve the investments made over the past 20 years or instead tolerate long-term damage to our national competitiveness. The biomedical complaints to NIH are misdirected; it's doing the best we can expect. The scientific community has a broader challenge here: to avoid talking about its self-interest and instead tell the administration and Congress and the public what it can accomplish for our society.

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