Scientists: too much $$ for bioterror

758 microbiologists sign letter saying basic research at NIH is being compromised

Mar 1, 2005
John Dudley Miller(

More than 750 microbiologists have signed an open letter to the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), complaining that huge increases in biodefense research funding over the past few years have forced deep cuts in NIH grants allocated for basic research. The director of the NIH institute that allocates many of those grants was quick to call the figures misleading.

Meanwhile, confusion involving Richard Ebright, a professor at Rutgers University who helped organize the letter-signing effort; Science, where the letter was published; and members of the national media who had received embargoed versions of the letter led Science to release it yesterday, a day before Ebright had intended.

Ebright told The Scientist that NIH's spending on biodefense is leaving critical basic research going undone. That imbalance makes it more likely that the next breakthroughs in microbial biology will not be made by American scientists, he said.

While 38% of the current National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) budget is being spent on biodefense research this year, according to NIAID, only 29% is going to non-AIDS, non-biodefense funding, Ebright said. As recently as fiscal year 2001, biodefense spending accounted for only 2% of NIAID's budget, while non-AIDS, non-biodefense research got 51%.

The number of NIAID's grants for six potential bioweapon diseases that kill relatively few people in the United States each year—anthrax, plague, tularemia, brucellosis, glanders, and melioidosis—has increased 1500% since the late nineties, according to Ebright's search of the NIH grants search engine, Computer Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects (CRISP). Meanwhile, NIAID's grant totals for research on non-biodefense model microbes have decreased 41%, while the number of grants to study non-biodense pathogenic microorganisms has dropped 27%, a second search concluded.

"The diversion of research funds from projects of high public-health importance to projects of high biodefense but low public-health importance represents a misdirection of NIH priorities and a crisis for NIH-supported microbiological research," the letter reads.

But NIAID Director Anthony Fauci quickly rejected the claims in the letter, which was signed by 758 scientists who have all either served on or received grants reviewed by the NIH microbial physiology and genetics review group or the bacteriology and mycology initial review group, according to Ebright. In an interview last Friday (February 25), Fauci told The Scientist that he had negotiated personally with various high-level officials in the Bush administration to make sure that biodefense money paid for many basic biology grants, but Ebright's numbers don't reflect that "crossover" funding. While Fauci said that funding is "impossible to quantify," "there is an enormous benefit." Ebright disagreed, saying yesterday that it is "not much."

Stanley Maloy, a professor at San Diego State University who signed the letter and who is the American Society for Microbiology's president-elect, agreed with Ebright. He said that relatively little basic microbial research can honestly be construed as directly related to bioterrorism.

Fauci presented his own funding numbers for non-biodefense work in NIAID. While Ebright showed a precipitous drop in non-biodefense funding, Fauci said that NIAID funding increases have been as good as those for other NIH institutes over the past several years. Fauci said that if one looks only at funding for AIDS and basic microbial research, the year-by-year increases NIAID received since 2001 have been roughly equal to the increases in NIH as a whole. Not only did non-AIDS, non-biodefense funding "not suffer from the money that went to biodefense, [it] actually did as well or better than the mean of the NIH increase," he said.

In 2002, for instance, non-biodefense funding in NIH rose 12.7% while NIAID's funding increased 15.8%. In 2003, NIH's increase was 10.9%, while NIAID's was 8.6%. "It's a wash," Fauci said.

Fauci also claimed that Ebright's analysis is flawed because it implicitly presumes that if the huge increases in biodefense funding hadn't been approved by Congress over the last few years, money would now be available to spend on non-biodefense research. "If 9/11 and the anthrax attacks [in October 2001] had not happened," he wrote in an E-mail yesterday, "the biodefense money that now constitutes 37.3% of the budget is new money and would not have come our way."

Fauci also charged that the letter's request for NIH to redirect some of its biodefense money to basic microbiological research ignores the political reality that the administration and both parties in Congress all support a large biodefense program.

Maloy conceded Fauci's point. "We as scientists have to educate the American public," he said yesterday. In addition, "we need to educate Congress."

But Ebright said that the NIH would be within its rights to change its definitions of biodefense, which emphasize individual diseases rather than basic science.

Fauci said that comparing money spent on biodefense versus non-biodefense is somewhat unfair, because it is not clear how big the bioterror threat is, whereas the threat of AIDS or other fatal infectious diseases is well known. So the country must spend heavily on biodefense not to underestimate the risk, he said.

Meanwhile, news outlets waiting until the embargo had lifted today to report the story scrambled when Science magazine unexpectedly published the letter and an accompanying news story yesterday, a day before the embargoed release today set by its organizers.

For the past few weeks, Ebright has been confidentially informing interested reporters that he was gathering signatures for the letter, which he sent as a draft embargoed until 2 pm EST today. One of the news organizations he contacted was Science, and on February 23, the magazine's assistant letters editor e-mailed Ebright, asking if Science could publish his letter. He agreed.

When Ginger Pinholster, director of the office of public programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, found out that Ebright had set an embargo, she and others at Science decided yesterday that to keep Ebright from showing favoritism to some reporters over others, the magazine would release the letter and Science's news story to all reporters who subscribe to an advance description of the contents of each upcoming issue. Later, Science posted the letter and a related news story on its Web site.

"It's not his embargo," Pinholster said. "It's the Science embargo. And that's determined by me." She said that Ebright had published in Science before, so he should have known that the magazine's instructions to authors obligate them to honor Science's embargo. Ebright said that no one at Science asked him to agree to those rules for the letter.

Correction (posted March 2): When this story originally appeared, it stated that Etta Kavanagh at Science asked Richard Ebright for permission to publish the open letter, and Ebright agreed. In fact, Ebright had already asked another Science staffer to publish the letter before Kavanagh asked his permission. Until Monday, The Scientist was not aware that Science planned to publish the letter as correspondence. The Scientist regrets the error.