Slump in NIH Funding Is Taking Toll on Research

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 28, 2007

Stanford University biochemist Roger D. Kornberg won a Nobel Prize last year for work he began in the 1970s, but he is pretty sure that if he had been born a generation later, he never would have had the chance.

The scientist, 60, is convinced that his groundbreaking research, in which he figured out how information in the DNA of a gene is copied to provide instructions for building and running a living cell, would never have gotten the necessary funding support in today's tight budget environment at the National Institutes of Health.

"In the present climate especially, the funding decisions are ultraconservative," he said in an interview. "If the work that you propose to do isn't virtually certain of success, then it won't be funded. And of course, the kind of work that we would most like to see take place, which is groundbreaking and innovative, lies at the other extreme."

Kornberg, who testified before a Senate committee this month, is one of a growing number of high-profile biomedical researchers who are buttonholing members of Congress, cajoling the Bush administration and generally sounding the alarm over what they see as a slump in NIH funding that is starving important projects of cash and driving young scientists away from research careers. That, they say, is undermining prospects for scientific breakthroughs of the sort that have led to new treatments for cancer, heart disease and diabetes, and raised hopes for tackling Alzheimer's disease and spinal cord injuries.

"Unless we pursue these basic discoveries, we're going to really miss fundamental understandings of disease processes," said Joan S. Brugge, the head of the department of cell biology at Harvard Medical School, who appeared in March before the Senate Appropriations labor, health and human services subcommittee.

NIH officials do not dispute that times are tough, especially in light of rising federal deficits and spending on antiterrorism efforts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The pot of discretionary funding is not very large, relatively speaking, and there are a lot of competing priorities for it," said Norka Ruiz Bravo, NIH deputy director for extramural research.

At the heart of the problem, scientists say, is not merely the absolute level of funding for the NIH, the primary federal agency sponsoring and conducting medical research. Rather, it is the way funding levels have fluctuated dramatically -- with big increases followed by periods of stagnation -- instead of climbing predictably to allow for sound research planning.

Congress nearly doubled NIH's budget -- to $27.1 billion between 1998 and 2003 -- as officials sought to capitalize on new lines of research opened up by the Human Genome Project. Medical schools and other research institutions responded accordingly, adding faculty and beginning construction on new facilities. At the same time, the number of grant applications rose 44 percent, from 24,151 in 1998 to 34,710 in 2003.

But eventually the flood of new cash slowed to a trickle. At $28 billion, the NIH's fiscal budget for 2004 was only 3.3 percent higher than the previous year's. President Bush has recommended $28.9 billion for fiscal 2008 -- $379 million less than the NIH got this year, according to agency figures. Moreover, because the budget would increase by $201 million the government's contribution through NIH to an international AIDS fund, the reduction for research in 2008 actually would be more than $500 million.

A flat budget, plus rising demand for new research dollars, equals plenty of angst in laboratories and science departments across the country. Although the number of grant applications has continued to rise, the percentage that win federal funding has shrunk from 32.1 percent in 2001 to 20 percent in 2006, according to NIH figures.

Researchers say the situation is worse than those figures suggest. Many established scientists are having to submit grant applications two or three times before getting an award, and success rates for applications from younger researchers are in the single digits.

"It is really a very scary, sad situation out here," said E. Chester Ridgway, head of endocrinology at the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center.

Ridgway said a tenured professor in his mid-50s who directs a training program in cancer pathology there recently learned that none of the three NIH grants that support his research would be renewed.

"In previous years, he would have anticipated renewing all of them," he said. "That's his only source of support. I don't know what this guy is going to do."

In the endocrinology division, four young research fellows who were unable to land a crucial first grant decided to abandon research for careers in medicine or industry, Ridgway said. "They don't come back after they do that," he said. "I was very distressed by that."

Ruiz Bravo, the NIH official, said the agency is trying to mitigate the effects of a budget that has been "flat" since 2003 with new programs that help first-time investigators get a shot at grants and other initiatives to funnel funding to more established researchers.

"In terms of purchasing power of the dollar, it is in fact a reduction in the overall NIH budget," she said. "That's just the reality of it. So when investigators feel the pinch, it's a real pinch."

Of course, supporters of other federal agencies that could not dream of having their budgets double over five years might wonder whether the ruckus is an overreaction. Brent L. Iverson, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Texas at Austin, said it's not a fair comparison.

"Science and research and engineering research is different, because that's the engine that drives the economy," Iverson said. "Several billion more dollars spent on Medicare is not going to solve the Medicare problem. But it is quite possible that that same amount of money invested in medical research may create the breakthrough which helps solve the Medicare problem."

Help may be on the way. In a March 6 hearing, Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, noted that the Democratic-controlled Congress increased the NIH's fiscal 2007 budget by over $600 million more than Bush requested. He pledged to increase it again for fiscal 2008, although he gave no specifics.

"I'd suggest that the investments that you're talking about in this area are tremendously important -- not just to the public's health, but also to the productivity of the economy," Obey said during the hearing. "Healthy people are a whole lot more productive than sick ones."

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