Most times, scientists are calm and reasoned sorts who abhor hyperbole. But at a forum at the National Academy of Sciences, researchers embraced the word "crisis" to describe current federal funding for basic biomedical research.
The health scientists are in a self-described "near panic" because "lethal cutbacks" at the National Institutes of Health "threaten to bring the system to a grinding halt." The researchers said they were worried that they were becoming "an endangered species."
A congressional staff member at the Wednesday forum, however, warned that Congress is probably not going to like hearing scientists use words like "crisis" to describe the NIH budget, which is currently about $7.5 billion. Year after year, Congress has consistently added to the administration's budget request.
The problem, in essence, is this: Despite moderate increases in the NIH budget over the last two years, the number of so-called "new and competing grants" awarded to scientists is down from about 6,400 in 1988 to around 4,600 this year. These grants are often described as the lifeblood of basic biomedical science: the $200,000 grants given to individual researchers who run labs with the help of a couple of graduate students and technicians.
Ironically, at least part of the funding problem was caused by researchers themselves, who demanded that their grants be awarded for four and five years, rather than three and four years. The longer commitments have created a funding squeeze.
At the National Academy of Sciences, the day-long forum at times took on the air of a religious revival, with Nobel prize winners preaching to the converted about the need for more support. The problem, everyone agreed, was lack of money. Salvation, everyone agreed, was more money.
To give a human face to the crisis, the organizers brought young scientists before the crowd to witness. The scientists feeling the pinch most are the young investigators applying for their first grants. Less than one in five of these young researchers will succceed.
If scientists fail to get NIH support in the first few years, their careers can stall. Without money to run labs and generate the new findings that get published, a young researcher's life can quickly nose-dive.
Katherine Wilson, a young assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, described how after a decade of training as a graduate student and post-doctorate assistant, she looked forward to setting up her own lab and making a contribution to science and medicine. Unfortunately, despite receiving high scores on her grant application to NIH, Wilson failed to make the cutoff and was rejected. A similar fate awaited her peers.
"For a young scientist, not getting an NIH grant means not making it," Wilson said. She ended her remarks with a plea: "We're coming through the pipeline. Don't cut us off now." Her comments were met by lively applause.
Rene Bernards, a young researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital and a self-described "victim of the current funding crisis," told the audience how failure to secure an NIH grant brought his research to a "grinding halt." Bernards asked how, in such an atmosphere, "can I continue to encourage my students" in biomedical research?
Scientists at the forum, who included some of the biggest names in biomedical research, spent much of the day discussing the impact on scientists at the beginning of their careers. Many of the scientists said there just appears to be too many good researchers out there struggling for funding.
"Today's climate will affect the decisions of bright, young people for years," said David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate and president of Rockefeller University in New York.
"The future of this country depends on young people and young people's ideas," said Purnell Choppin, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a private group that is attempting to support a growing number of young, smart and increasingly frustrated scientists.
There are other effects as well. As money becomes tighter and tighter, the scientists warned, the system is in danger of becoming more and more political. Grants are awarded based on the recommendations of independent peer review "study sections" made up of the friends and rivals of researchers in the same field.
In discussing how to change current practices, many of the scientists said they wanted more attention spent on lobbying. Indeed, for the first time, some scientific societies have hired lobbyists. But one scientist said he did not want researchers to be preserved as mendicants begging for money.
One consensus did emerge. The scientists agreed they must do a better job of letting society know more about the benefits of their work. "Federal funding is not a God-given right and it's not in the Constitution," noted one researcher in the audience.