Rising Tides and Targeted Science Funding: The Gain for Basic Research

A key point of Harvey Black's Feb. 18 article in The Scientist on targeted research initiatives and earmarking of funds1—that, by sidestepping peer review, this practice may subvert scientific inquiry and, more specifically, reduce funds for basic research—is a valid concern. However, criticism of targeted research programs on this tenet alone amounts to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. After all, these initiatives are often created to fill specific needs otherwise unmet or

May 13, 2002
Jeff Cheek
A key point of Harvey Black's Feb. 18 article in The Scientist on targeted research initiatives and earmarking of funds1—that, by sidestepping peer review, this practice may subvert scientific inquiry and, more specifically, reduce funds for basic research—is a valid concern. However, criticism of targeted research programs on this tenet alone amounts to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. After all, these initiatives are often created to fill specific needs otherwise unmet or underserved, and I would argue that there are consequential benefits for basic research that result from this process. In addition, there is another compelling point in Black's article that merits elaboration: the need to educate the public about research priorities.

Admittedly, I am a biased observer on this issue. Colorado was one of the few states with the foresight to invest some of its proceeds (from the national Master Settlement Agreement with the tobacco industry) in research focused on tobacco use and its consequences. Modeled after the highly successful research program in California, which is supported by a tax on tobacco products,2 the Colorado Tobacco Research Program (CTRP) funds a broad portfolio of projects ranging from molecular biology to policy analysis. Coordinated by the California program, CTRP applications undergo a rigorous peer review modeled after that of the National Institutes of Health. While this ensures that scientific excellence is maintained, the fact remains that our programs are mandated to support only research that is relevant to our mission—programs such as ours are indeed "targeted."

Ideally, a comprehensive funding agency should balance its support for both basic and applied sciences, since basic research leads to the discoveries of those applications that fulfill the mission of the agency. Unfortunately, there is a political reality that targeted programs face: the need to show a return on investment relatively quickly, an environment that can be detrimental for basic research. The current economic recession exacerbates this pressure at the national and state levels, as legislators face tradeoffs between funding immediate needs vs. supporting long-term investments in research. Additionally, the contributions of basic research are less intuitive and thus harder for the lay public and legislative decision makers to appreciate. To maintain our respective livelihoods, researchers and funding agencies must produce results—but what exactly constitutes productivity, and in turn, longevity?

Herein lies a disconnect between the researcher's goal of "dissemination" (publications in the scientific literature) and a funding agency's ideal of "translation," or putting those data to work. If results published in the scientific literature are not applied toward a desired endpoint, does it help to achieve a funding agency's mandate? This divergence need not be conflict-ridden; there are means to bridge the divide between the needs of basic scientists and those of granting programs. Funding agencies must challenge their supported researchers to identify and pursue next steps toward translation of their findings. It is the investigators themselves who can best identify and propose ways to overcome barriers blocking this process. Conversely, funding agencies must take on the responsibility for dissemination of these translational efforts by their supported investigators: the funders have access to policy makers and legislators. Hence, we can play a key role in educating taxpayers and elected officials as to the necessity and significance of basic research.

It is clear that, in the absence of initiatives and financial support, bridging this gap will remain a challenge. Efforts to identify barriers to successful translational efforts in medicine3 provide insightful strategies. Funding—in particular from federal sources, because they have the resources necessary for financing translational research—should be increased. As exemplified by the joint program announcements from NIH4 and from the Agency for Healthcare Research and the Department of Veterans Affairs,5 partnerships between basic and applied scientists must be encouraged. With the means to facilitate application of basic research projects toward issues of public concern, funding agencies can better justify resources for basic science. While these approaches require those who wish to advance basic research and its application to break with our paradigms, cooperative efforts will ultimately benefit both the scientists and funding agencies.

A final thought on earmarking and targeted research: While a rising tide may not lift all boats equally, the fact that it's rising is a good thing overall. For example, some regard the current federal emphasis on research to counter bioterrorism as redirecting resources from other research needs. However, just as the Nixon administration's "war on cancer" primarily added to the National Cancer Institute's bottom line, has not the total NIH budget benefited from such initiatives? After all, tides ebb as well as flow—so rather than maligning the target of funding initiatives, we may best be served by supportively striving to attain both our means and our desired outcomes.

Jeff Cheek, PhD (jeff.cheek@cu.edu) is director of the Colorado Tobacco Research Program in Boulder, Colo., www.cu.edu/~vpaar/2.award.grant/2_11CTRP.htm.

References
1. H. Black, "Targeted science funding misses the target," The Scientist, 16[4]:46, Feb. 18, 2002.

2. University of California Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program, information available online at www.ucop.edu.

3. J.S. Pober et al., "Obstacles facing translational research in academic medical centers," FASEB Journal, 15:2303-13, 2001.

4. "Translational Research Grants in Behavioral Science," PA-02-061. National Institute of Mental Health and National Institute on Drug Abuse. Entire announcement available online at grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/pa-files/PA-02-061.html.

5. "Translating Research Into Practice—Joint Program Announcement," PA-02-066. Agency for Healthcare Research and Department of Veterans Affairs, Feb. 19, 2002. Entire announcement available online at grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/pa-files/PA-02-066.html.