A Quarter Century of Fueling Science

History repeats itself, and so do trends in research funding.

Oct 1, 2011
Bob Grant

SEAN MCCABE

Twenty-five years ago, life science research was a different ball game. Few of today’s common tools and techniques, which afford researchers unprecedented glimpses into biology’s inner workings, were available, and if they were, they were rarely affordable. Genetically modified organisms were still largely the stuff of science fiction. Desktop computers were not yet standard pieces of equipment in the lab. And the Human Genome Project was little more than a glimmer in the eyes of its eventual architects.

But in 1986, the state of the economic engine that drives scientific research in the United States bore an eerie resemblance to the situation that exists today. Capitol Hill was focused squarely on the federal deficit, which was the highest the county had ever seen at about $220 billion. Discussions held then about possible budget cuts, spending caps, and tax hikes would sound familiar to modern ears. And, just as it is today, science funding was one of the many areas being considered for the chopping block.

“We’re reliving this history,” says John Edward Porter, a Republican who served in the US Congress for 21 years until his retirement in 2001. As anxiety grew throughout the 1970s and 80s over balancing the nation’s books, science budgets, along with other forms of discretionary spending, were whittled away. National Institutes of Health funding was plateauing, increasing at an average annual rate of only about 9 percent from the early 1970s through 1998, compared to an impressive 24 percent from 1959 through 1969. And when Porter took over as chair of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Labor, Health, and Human Services (Labor HHS) in 1995, he recalls, Republicans were newly in control of the House and passing big spending cuts, including some to the NIH budget.

Porter himself “was given the assignment of cutting 12 percent of my allocation from what it was the previous year,” he says. But he refused to accept that the country could afford to cut vital funding that was fueling the work of its researchers, who were seeking answers to basic and applied biological questions. Forming alliances across party lines, he devised a plan to double the NIH congressional appropriation from about $11 billion in the mid-1990s to about $27 billion in less than a decade—and it succeeded. Since then, the appropriations have increased to the current annual amount of nearly $31 billion.

[LOOKING BACK]

Scientists are very intelligent people, very dedicated to their work and their fields of endeavor. But many times they fail to communicate to the public policymakers the importance of the things that they’re involved in.

—Congressman Don Fuqua (D-FL), “Fuqua: Advice to Scientists,”The Scientist, November 17, 1986

Doubling the NIH budget in such a short time was one of the single largest triumphs in the past 25 years of US science funding, and it was thanks in large part to Porter’s dogged perseverance in a legislative branch that was more open to compromise and shared priorities than is typically seen today. “Often that’s all it takes,” says Michael Telson, a longtime Hill staffer and 1973 Congressional Fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)—“someone who’s really committed and having an environment that will permit him to do it.”

But without a clear plan to sustain such a robust federal investment in the NIH budget and other components of the United States’ biomedical research engine, the situation has again become tenuous, especially with the erosion of bipartisan cooperation in the legislative branch and increasing numbers of scientists looking for funding, according to Nobel Prize-winning biologist Tom Cech. “All of a sudden, new people came into the [NIH] system, and that might be great, but you need to have a plan for how you can sustain the [growing] system,” says Cech, a biochemist at the University of Colorado at Boulder and past president of Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Albert Teich, senior policy adviser at AAAS, agrees that doubling the NIH budget was a double-edged sword. It essentially spawned more scientists hungry for funding, quickly restoring the situation of not enough money to go around, he says. “The community has grown even faster than the amount of funding available.” So while the budget may be bigger, “there are more mouths to feed,” he adds. This trend is clearly illustrated by the decline in success rates for the NIH’s R01 grant proposals, which dropped from about 44 percent in 1973 to just 17 percent last year.

In addition, as happened in the mid-1980s, the stress of dwindling cash reserves and ever-expanding national deficits has even once-staunch supporters of research funding talking about drastic cuts. “We are seeing a real attempt to squeeze non-defense discretionary appropriations as perhaps never before,” says Porter. This, he adds, can lead to stagnation or decreases in the NIH budget he fought so hard to boost 15 years ago. “When the envelope is that much smaller, there’s increased competition, and when the music stops there’s going to be fewer chairs.”

Fast facts

Collectively funding research is a relatively recent development. Until the 20th century, individual inventors and researchers funded their own work.

As a percentage of gross domestic product, Israel is expected to spend more on R&D than any other country this year.

A 2005 Nature study reported that 15.5% of more than 3,200 NIH-funded researchers admitted to “altering design, methodology or results of their studies due to pressure from an external funding source.”

But the US government showed its commitment to funding science long before Porter’s tenure began. In the ashes of World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s science advisor, Vannevar Bush, wrote “Science: The Endless Frontier,” a report on the state of the nation’s research efforts. In that document, Bush encouraged the American people and their elected representatives to build upon the scientific progress made during the war years—particularly emphasizing biomedical research—by continuing to support the research enterprise with public funds. “He basically said that if you like what science did for the U.S. during the war, there’s a lot more it can do,” says Telson. “He knew that the way to argue for support for science was to reference people’s health.”

And that commitment has in general continued through the years. Though the global economy is still reeling from the massive downturn that started in 2008, and governmental science budgets all over the world continue to feel intense pressure, many science-funding insiders are hopeful that America will again rise to the challenge. Despite the grim economic picture, they are optimistic that the government will reaffirm its commitment to research funding. “There is interest in increasing the investment in science and research,” says Patrick Clemins, director of AAAS’s R&D Budget and Policy Program. “Once we get over this recession and the economy picks up, money will be more available, and we may see science starting to pick up some of the gains.”

Jesse Ausubel, vice president of basic science programs at the Sloan Foundation, agrees. “The level of prosperity in the U.S. will determine the health of life science research to a very large extent,” whether it’s corporate profits that enable companies to have active research programs, foundations and individuals banking on market stability to make more generous grants to researchers, or governments balancing national budgets so that federal science funding can be saved. “I don’t have a crystal ball in that regard,” Ausubel adds. “Obviously, I hope for prosperity.”

Bob Grant is a Senior Editor at The Scientist.