NIH scientists criticize agency

Microbiologists echo earlier claims that funding priorities are skewed against basic science

By | March 30, 2005

A group of 77 intramural National Institutes of Health (NIH) scientists has joined several hundred of their extramural microbiologist colleagues in criticizing the agency's funding priorities. In response to letters from both groups, NIH director Elias Zerhouni has agreed to meet with their organizers.

The NIH director will meet with Rutgers professor Richard Ebright, the main organizer of the original letter from 758 external grant reviewers and recipients, and with yet-unnamed "other interested people" probably in May, NIH spokesperson Don Ralbovsky said yesterday (March 29).

Zerhouni will also meet with Michael Yarmolinsky, a National Cancer Institute researcher who organized a March 17 letter to him from 77 intramural NIH researchers, and other of that letter's signatories, according to NIH's deputy director of intramural research, Michael Gottesman.

While the February letter attributed the cut in funding to huge increases in NIH support for biodefense research, the new letter avoids laying such blame. It merely restates the claim from that letter that the number of grants awarded to study non–biodefense-related model organisms has decreased by 41% over the past few years. Whatever the cause of this situation, the letter states, it puts the public health of the United States at risk.

"Rather than to try to raise hackles about that issue," Yarmolinsky told The Scientist, "we simply want the matter to be corrected and not try to waste time on how it got to be that way." He said that "at least 90%" of the NIH microbiologists he sent it to signed it.

Stanley Maloy, a professor at San Diego State University and president-elect of the American Society for Microbiology, called the meeting news "great, wonderful."

"I think that writing this letter really served the purpose of stimulating a dialogue," Maloy told The Scientist. "The important thing is that all the parties come to the meeting with the idea of finding solutions instead of airing complaints and acting defensive."

Robert Landick, a University of Wisconsin professor and another organizer of the February letter, called the meetings a very encouraging development "relative to what has seemed like a pretty negative response from the NIAID [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] so far." NIAID director Anthony Fauci has vigorously maintained that his institute's funding for basic microbiology has not decreased. On March 17, NIAID posted data on its Web site that it says proves his case and criticizing data from the original letter.

Science is scheduled to publish a letter from Zerhouni and Fauci on the issue later this week, a NIAID spokesperson said.

Gottesman said that Zerhouni does not intend the meetings merely as a forum for persuading the scientists they are wrong. "We're talking about senior microbiologists and scientists from all over the country and from the NIH," Gottesman said, "who probably have thought a lot about issues of biodefense and basic bacterial genetics and physiology, and probably have a lot of great ideas."

"He needs to listen to them, and he wants to," Gottesman said. Because of the disagreement about data, "I think there's going to be some effort to look at it as frankly as possible and figure out what it means."

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