The Economic Stimulus and Science

A fixed percentage of a country's GDP should be committed to research.

By | March 1, 2009

<figcaption> Credit: © Brian Stauffer</figcaption>
Credit: © Brian Stauffer

In early February, the House voted to approve the $787 billion economic recovery package and this was signed into law by President Obama. The bill contains something for everyone including scientists—$10 billion for National Institutes of Health (NIH), $1.3 billion for the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), including $1 billion for construction and renovation of extramural research facilities, $700 million for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and $2.5 billion for the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Were it not that the purpose of the bill was to attempt a rescue of our teetering economy, this would indeed be a time to celebrate. The additional funds to the scientific enterprise is sorely needed and long overdue but it is hard not to have some misgivings at the manifest "short termism" of the overall scientific funding process. For example, language included in the bill instructs the NIH director that $800 million of the additional funding "shall be used for purposes that can be completed in two years." The time has come to fundamentally reexamine the process of funding scientific research in The United States.

Scientific research is a never-ending process of painstaking work and long-term commitment; few projects of true scientific merit can be started and finished in two years.

The return on investment in scientific research has been staggering both in terms of economic progress and in the improvement in health and quality of life. Yet research is funded as though it was "white-coat welfare", with money doled out episodically and unreliably.

The disconnect between our science-based future and bricks-and-mortar past was never clearer than in the discussion of the economic stimulus package where states vied for funding by convincing Congress that their projects were "shovel ready". The country's future lies in high-technology and science, not just in wielding shovels. Funding must encourage our brightest young people to enter careers in science and to obtain the qualifications and training to do so by demonstrating the nation's long term and sustained commitment to the scientific endeavor. Demonstration of the nation's long term commitment will require protecting the budget for scientific research from the vagaries of the annual congressional budget negotiations.

The current system of funding results in boom and bust cycles that sap confidence and continuity. The doubling of the NIH budget from 1998-2003 increased the number of funded grants but these came up for renewal when the budget was not keeping up with inflation, resulting in loss of jobs, confidence and commitment. The average age of R01 funded investigators is now over 50, while the average age of first time R01 awardees is almost 43, and even higher for MD investigators. This is unsustainable. What intelligent young person will commit to a career in which the first measure of independent funding does not occur until their mid-forties?

We need a radical change to the way we fund scientific research. A fixed percentage of the nation's GDP should be committed to research funding. Such a predictable commitment will demonstrate the recognition that our future rests in scientific advances. Such a reliable commitment will ensure that well qualified individuals will see a future for themselves and their families in joining the research endeavor. Such a dependable commitment will allow universities to rationally plan their investments in research infrastructure and will restore our international scientific competitive position, which is being lost to countries who have adopted such commitments.

Alastair J.J. Wood is a managing director at the biopharmaceutical investment firm of Symphony Captial and a member of The Scientist's Editorial Advisory Board.




Posts: 34

March 4, 2009

I agree and disagree with the author. First the disagreement; the purpose of the stimulus package is to get money into the economy, that is it. Shovel ready projects are the easiest way to get money into the economy quickly. Just this week the first stimulus dollars went to work, 60 people have a job because of this. There are two things that need to be done to fix this economy. 1) Fix the banking/housing crisis, and 2) stabilize the work force and give them confidence that their paycheck will continue to come. The stimulus focuses on the second point, and the first point is also being addressed.\n\nBack to science:\n\nIt is incorrect to state that, "few projects of true scientific merit can be started and finished in two years." The R21 mechanism is 2 years, many small grants are 1 to 3 years with less money per year than is proposed in the stimulus package. Therefore, there are projects that can be completed, or perhaps the argument is that all those other granting mechanisms should be disbanded. I have an R21 that has a score that is above where one would expect to get funded, but these are different times. In that R21 there are 2 jobs that will be created, and the project will be finished in 2 years.\n\nNow where I agree; there is a structural funding problem, and it would be very nice to see a more stable funding situation.\n
Avatar of: john toeppen

john toeppen

Posts: 52

March 4, 2009

The Stimulus article states - $10 billion for National Institutes of Health (NIH)??.language included in the bill instructs the NIH director that $800 million of the additional funding "shall be used for purposes that can be completed in two years." \n\nSo, 8% of the total is to be used to provide immediate results. This is not unreasonable. If we hope to get more funding we need to show that the money is well spent. If we can?t do this, then we had better improve our methods.\n\nThe article also says that research is funded as though it was "white-coat welfare", with money doled out episodically and unreliably. Clearly we need to change this perception if we wnat different results. Yes, many projects are long term but this is no reason why we can?t consistently and visibly deliver results.\n\nJudging from the McCain attitude toward science we would do well to address our public relations problems. Scientists must become more vocal participants in society and politics.\n

March 5, 2009

Alastair J J Wood is correct that steady inflow of money into scientific research is desirable. But when a house is on fire you can not do any creative work. A stable economic environment is sorely required. Nero playing the flute when Rome was on fire can not be valid for economies. Destabilization do take place when economies are in a bad shape. These are passing phases. But yes younger scientists should have money for research. But research should be monitored for two reasons. Because of public funding and because of social implications. Elder scientists should dispassionately judge scientific works of younger scientists solely based on societal implications and not profits and laurels successful scientific works bring. Proper evaluatory instruments are greatly needed. - Sharbani Ranjan Kundu, Scientist, NISCAIR, New Delhi, India;
Avatar of: Tamara Combs

Tamara Combs

Posts: 1

March 9, 2009

Wouldn't it be nice to really make science a priority in this country ? We've moved on from a manufacturing based economy to a service based economy, in which the US no longer produces much that is tangible. We've sat back while other countries - some "3rd world nations" to be directly anti-PC - gained on us and over took us in science and science education. \n\nNow, that the creationists are out of power - at least nationally - perhaps, we will see a more rational approach to funding science in this country. And, this means more than a blip of "stimulus" short term investment.
Avatar of: Hongrong Cai, MD

Hongrong Cai, MD

Posts: 14

March 31, 2009

Science, including medicial science, is a luxery. Just like jewery, you do not need jewery to survive, you only need enough food, clothing, and housing to survive. But science do make you live better.
Avatar of: Denis Demarais

Denis Demarais

Posts: 3

June 3, 2009

Business culture has transformed the field of science into another tool for the investors to generate profit. So doing has gradually disrupted the core of what science stands for: that of acquiring knowledge under the sole pressure of enlightenment.\n\nNo one is contesting that some scientific works by either enhancing output: e.g. robotization of labor or meeting the needs of a market: e.g. pharmaceutical drugs, have more economical values among others. The contact between industry and academia had in the earlier days, loose connectivity. Now industry, with a growing dependence on R&D in order to keep competitors at bay, lures academia to the cause of business movers and shakers. A substantial amount of grants are bias in one way or another towards the industry. On the other hand, students are being ushered towards economically valued scientific endeavor than the path of the lonely tenured-professor in the shadows of the basement laboratory.\n\nWhile the image of the basement laboratory clearly has students walking away from the trade, hip-science, by praising economically valued research, serves only the industry in the long run while on the short run, meeting the needs of university application quota. Therefore the gradual withering of the profession is in a lack of vision in addressing the role of science in the economy.\n\nEconomy remains the utmost benchmark by which science can claim relevance. This bottom line crushes any romanticizing idea society at large, conceives of science. In that profession, expanding into my primary interest, that of medical science, the lack of vision there has been in the outstanding effort of world-class scientific movers and shakers consume under the straightjacket handed by a perception of the economy; the outdated perception of economic growth through sales, a model championed by the pharmaceutical industry. \n\nWhat remains to be pioneered in a concerted fashion for a revival of science, is economic growth through sustainability. What tops the list here is the societal burden of healthcare cost in which sustainability is best charted through treatment that quickly phased out while restoring and retaining health. Patients by regaining heath can resume their active participation in society thereby contributing to the economy while relieved of income encumbering prescription bills alongside illness incapacitating workforce. Science aligned on this economic perspective may not suit the business culture but satisfy political, economical and societal demands.

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