How to Get Fewer Scientists

By Gene Sperling
Tuesday, July 24, 2007

President Bush told cancer researchers gathered at the National Institutes of Health in January that we need to "make sure that our scientists are given the tools and encourage young kids to become scientists in the first place." Yet his administration's stingy NIH budgets over the past five years and its threat last week to veto the appropriations bill giving the NIH a small funding boost sound more like components of a Discourage Future Scientists Act.

The NIH budget doubled from $8.9 billion in 1992 to $20.5 billion in 2001 and then grew to $27 billion by 2003. Adjusting for inflation, however, the NIH has not gotten even a penny increase over the past four years. The administration's fiscal 2008 budget would cut NIH funding by $250 million. The proposed budget in the House has only a small increase above inflation -- yet the veto threat puts even this modest gesture at risk.

There is simply no policy that will inspire a new generation of scientists if current NIH funding trends are continued. The American Association for the Advancement of Science predicts that the percentage of NIH proposals receiving funds will be cut nearly in half by the end of 2007, compared with 2001 levels. The demoralization resulting from these cuts is already trickling down to our future scientists.

Consider three negative trends:

· NIH freezes are causing fewer hires, lower salaries and increased layoffs among those who represent America's scientific future -- the 60,000 "postdocs" who seek lifelong careers in research. Such cutbacks don't just discourage PhD candidates; they send signals to college students that perhaps they should consider other career paths. As Hillarie Plessner, a fourth-year graduate student in immunology at the University of Pittsburgh, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review last year, "It's very scary and kind of sad. I don't know if I would've gone to graduate school if I had known it was going to be so hard to get funding when I got out."

· When the NIH cannot afford continued support even for proven research in areas such as Alzheimer's disease and asthma, less funding flows to the one- to five-year research project grants that are the agency's primary mechanism for supporting new ideas and helping faculty members start their careers. The average age for first-time NIH grant recipients has risen to 41.7 from 34.2 since 1970. "Our biggest concern," George Weiner, director of the University of Iowa's cancer center, told the Daily Iowan last year, "is that these people are going to give up on a research career."

· Many of the postdocs who are headed toward faculty positions fear that even if they get jobs, success is uncertain. Karyn Catalano, president of the Graduate Student Association at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, told the USC Daily Trojan last year that when they see professors struggle to maintain grants, "a lot of graduate students are really thinking twice about entering into the world of academia, because we know there is a very high potential of failure."

Established researchers, too, feel the squeeze. Those whose highly rated proposals might once have been approved are finding that rejections leave them without the funding and research necessary to prepare viable requests for the next application cycle.

This strategy of implicitly discouraging homegrown scientists could not be more illogical for our economic future, especially as more of the foreign-born scientists we have traditionally relied on are returning to their countries. As the United States increasingly competes to host research and development facilities -- and often loses -- raising NIH funding for university research could help foster the types of technology clusters that encourage companies to keep R&D plants on U.S. shores.

NIH grants are also a proven engine of entrepreneurship. One-quarter of those receiving funding from the NIH's National Cancer Institute between 1998 and 2003 have started their own businesses. A Harvard Business Review article last year applauded the NIH Roadmap -- launched in 2002 -- as a key effort to foster the "kind of research [that] translates basic scientific findings and concepts into specific product opportunities."

Shortchanging the NIH to compensate for the fiscal impact of tax cuts and rising defense and prescription-drug spending is penny-wise and pound-foolish. As Rockefeller University President Paul Nurse wrote in an editorial in the journal Cell in January 2006, NIH funding policies in recent years "are set to damage a whole generation of young research workers, and the negative impact on recruitment of the next generation of research scientists will be seen for years to come."

The writer, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, was national economic adviser from 1997 to 2001.

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