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U.S. Medical Research Gets $600 Million From Institute

Aware of the potential of her model, the Hughes Institute is banking on Pascual to deliver it.

"There is a tremendous freedom in terms of time to focus on the research, time for creativity, time to pursue whatever area you think is important," Pascual said.

By giving standards, the Hughes Institute's $600 million initiative is an unusually large investment. The institute, with an endowment estimated at $18.7 billion, is the country's largest private supporter of biomedical research.

But by far, the largest source of scientific research funding is the federal government. The NIH administers more than $28 billion in research grants each year. Congress nearly doubled the NIH budget between 1998 and 2003 to capitalize on new lines of research opened by the Human Genome Project.

Since the doubling, though, the NIH's budget has remained flat, and the cost of research has increased. This has created angst among scientists across the country who fear the funding slump is threatening prospects for breakthroughs.

"That's an enormous cutback in our nation's investment in tomorrow's medicine," Cech said. "We're mortgaging our future by not funding this research now."

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences is planning to release a major report June 3 calling on more funding for high-risk biomedical research, said Leslie C. Berlowitz, the academy's chief executive.

"No matter what the size of the pie, more emphasis, or a larger percentage of the pie, has to be invested in the next generation of scientists and high-risk, high-reward science if we're going to maintain America's competitiveness," Berlowitz said.

Without an increase in federal research funding, some leaders in the scientific community say, the United States' dominance could be threatened.

"Globally, the U.S. is still dominant in terms of biomedical research, but that share of the first-rank research is eroding, partially because our funding is eroding but also because other nations are ramping up their biomedical research capabilities," said Kei Koizumi, a policy analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni said the number of research ideas outweighs the number of grants the NIH can award. But, he said, the NIH is investing in programs to fund research by promising but unproven young scientists.

"Science is moving very fast," Zerhouni said. "In my view, the greatest risk in our science over the long run relative to the competition is that we stop taking risks."

Although philanthropy is no substitute for federal funding, Zerhouni said, it has a role in funding research. He called the Hughes Institute's investigator program a model and said it is "absolutely critical."

James J. Collins, a systems biologist at Boston University, is a newly named Hughes investigator. He is trying to determine how cells and their components are assembled, how they interact and what shapes their behavior.

Collins said that it could take years to answer these questions and that funding for such broad research has been hard to attain.

"Too many researchers are focused on getting enough productivity demonstrated to get the grant renewed, as opposed to putting your head down and going after the long-term problems," Collins said.

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