We Must Face The Funding Shortfall With New Ideas, Bold Action

Although being an advocate for science has always been rewarding for me, I've recently become somewhat hesitant on the matter--my hesitancy, in part, reflecting the difficulty that a number of my colleagues and I have encountered when speaking about biomedical research policy in Washington. 

Leon Rosenberg
Jun 9, 1991

Although being an advocate for science has always been rewarding for me, I've recently become somewhat hesitant on the matter--my hesitancy, in part, reflecting the difficulty that a number of my colleagues and I have encountered when speaking about biomedical research policy in Washington.

If we sound an alarm, we're told that negative messages are poorly received by lawmakers. If we say that current funding constraints are resulting in lost opportunities, we're told that scientists must quit talking about federal support as if it were an entitlement. If we say that people actually engaged in scientific research should have a voice in formulating a collective response to the administration's budget, we're told that scientists are na9ve and self-serving--that we should stay in our labs and let the cognoscenti work their magic on Capitol Hill.

Upon reflection, I've discovered two new pseudoscientific principles that explain this tension:

The first principle...

The second principle holds that the validity of the criticisms voiced by Washingtonians of policy viewpoints expressed by scientists is inversely proportional to the number of years since these Washingtonians last saw the inside of a laboratory.

But whether one is inside or outside of the laboratory, attention must be paid to the increasingly compelling evidence that a significant shortfall exists in scientific research funding in the United States.

The hard evidence:

* In 1965, 4.8 percent of the nation's total health expenditures went for research--the largest fraction the nation has ever spent for this purpose. During the next 25 years, the fractional spending for health research fell progressively, reaching a low point of 3 percent in 1990.

* In 1965, about 50 percent of approved new and competing research project grants submitted to the National Institutes of Health were funded. By 1980, the success rate had fallen to 34 percent. This decline has accelerated so that in 1990, only 24 percent of approved grants were awarded funds--that is, less than one in four proposals deemed meritorious by rigorous peer review.

* Meanwhile, the number of new and competing R01 grants funded by NIH has dropped by 28 percent in the last five years: 6,400 in 1986; 5,600 in 1989; 4,600 in 1990. The 1990 figure is the lowest number of funded grants in the past decade.

But the most compelling evidence for a budgetary shortfall is neither objective nor statistically verifiable. It has to do with the somber mood of young as well as established investigators in both private and public academic institutions across the country. I am especially troubled that so many young scientists are seeing their meritorious proposals fall below the payline at just the wrong time--when they are in transition from dependence to independence; from working in someone s laboratory to establishing their own. They know that if they don't obtain independent support within two or three years of joining a faculty, their academic research careers will be blighted.

Older, more established scientists are discouraged, too, because losing a grant is often synonymous with breaking up a team of colleagues who have been productive for years. None of the nation's institutions has the financial reserves to substitute for more than a tiny fraction of such unsupported, meritorious research initiatives.

A Tough System

We have all learned that we swim with federal funding or sink without it. It's a tough system, and it should be. But the implied social contract between the federal government as sponsor and the academic scientist was not designed to reward so few and demoralize so many.

Lest I be accused of misrepresenting the matter, let me hasten to emphasize that I don't view NIH as an entitlement program, and I am not saying that NIH has been treated badly by Congress. Between 1980 and 1990, the total NIH budget doubled. Nonetheless, when adjusted for inflation, this calculates to a real increase of 2.1 percent per year--a figure significantly less than the index of inflation for research costs. Thus, because legitimate requests (or the "demand") for funds have increased more rapidly than the supply, we have a shortfall.

On occasion, we might do well to view this shortfall from the positive side. It signifies that biomedical science is a growth industry--not unlike computer science. Were biomedical science failing, the scientific community wouldn't be complaining about too little money and we wouldn't be debating endlessly whether to call the matter an emergency, a crisis, or merely a problem. It is precisely because researchers have been so successful at ferreting out biology's secrets and using the information to promote health and reduce suffering that the current financial "crunch" has occurred. Science is doing what it is supposed to do; it is seeking and finding new and important truths about our universe and, by so doing, straining the structure that supports it.

I believe the shortfall has already led to significant short-term perturbations for all participants in the health research enterprise--Congress, the administration, NIH, working scientists, academic institutions, "umbrella" organizations, and the public. For example, in response to the falling success rate for new and competing grants and in an attempt to fund more grants, NIH staff began several years ago to reduce funds recommended for successful grants--a tactic euphemistically referred to as "downward negotiations." For many grants, from 10 percent to 18 percent of peer-approved funds were withheld annually. This often meant that less work could be done than described, leading not infrequently to writing more grant applications and to a futile cycle of unpaid proposals. Since most postdoctoral fellows and as many as half of all graduate students in the biological sciences are supported on R01 grants, the practice of downward negotiations translated into a loss of energetic young talent.

In response to this unhappy practice, some members of study sections tended to lessen their scrutiny of requested budgets, knowing that the investigator wouldn't get the peer-recommended funds in any case. These distortions have weakened the long-forged bonds of trust between NIH and academic institutions, and between Congress and NIH. It is welcome news that NIH recently has moved to end the practice of downward negotiations.

Dissension

A second, painfully obvious result of the funding shortfall has been the reappearance of dissension in the scientific community and its support groups. We in science are accustomed to disagreement and debate, but the bickering and sniping have reached unhealthy and unprecedented proportions. The working scientists are warring openly with the institutional representatives. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology disavows an Institute of Medicine report on research priorities. The Ad Hoc Group on Biomedical Research threatens to splinter over executive committee representation. Some academic scientists and NIH leaders renew their call for indirect costs caps. And Congress receives a cacophony of advice that can be likened to a modern Tower of Babel.

Who benefits from this dissension? No one. It has already exposed serious differences in opinion about scientific priorities, and serious weaknesses in our venue for discussion and decision making. The long-term consequences of the current shortfall are at once more speculative and more profound. If the shortfall continues, it will undoubtedly discourage many creative young people from choosing careers in research. This would be a catastrophe because young scientists often make the truly innovative leaps--the dazzling discoveries--that open whole new fields. Without this lifeline of new talent, U.S. science will falter and lose its position as world leader in science to countries that are still far from overtaking us.

Correcting a funding shortfall is straightforward. Appropriate more money for project grants, research facilities, and training. Surely a country that spends $2,400 per year for every woman, man, and child on health care can spend more than 3 percent of this amount on the most cost-effective part of such care--namely, health research. Surely a country capable of the military wizardry witnessed in Desert Storm can aspire to equal prowess in health research.

But we in the scientific community have a responsibility far greater than merely playing Oliver Twist and asking for more. We must understand that we are not entitled to any fraction of the federal treasure, that we must earn it by convincing the nation that a greater investment in science is better, wiser, and more humane than investments placed here.

We scientists, our institutions, and those who advocate our interests must strive for harmony in our common cause of working for a healthier nation. We must not let our legitimate differences distort our message or confuse our purpose in the public's mind. We must communicate with the national leadership and the public at large in ways we have never considered before.

Whether through direct political activity or by giving time as a volunteer in a local school system, we need to carry the message that biomedical research pays major dividends to our nation's health and to its economic well-being. We need to continue to provide the positive role models to inspire tomorrow's scientific leaders. We and our institutions must aspire to the highest ethical standards in an increasingly complex society.

I believe that only by addressing all of these issues can we provide our nation with the quantity and quality of health research our citizens need and deserve.

In the final analysis, solving the problems laid bare by the funding shortfall will likely turn out to be a greater challenge to the scientific community and the nation than the shortfall itself.

Leon E. Rosenberg is C.N.H. Long Professor of Human Genetics and dean of the Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn. This essay is drawn from an address presented in April at the Sixteenth Annual AAAS Colloquium on Science and Technology Policy. An expanded version will appear next fall in the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Yearbook.

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