Stimulating Science

Crowdsourced wisdom on how to disperse the budget dollars

How far can we stretch $1 billion?

US President Barack Obama has shown us the money, again. A year after the stimulus package provided a windfall $10 billion for the National Institutes of Health and $3 billion for the National Science Foundation, the budget proposal for FY11 holds strong and somewhat steady for science and medical research. There are proposed increases nearly across the board and include a $1 billion boost (to $32.1 billion) in NIH funding.

Working backward from the apt observation by physicist Ernest Rutherford—“We haven’t the money, so we have to think”—we might ask: Are there pitfalls to these buckets of cash?

It can be difficult to imagine money as a bad thing. Indeed, many US...

The moral of the story is: Just because the money’s there, doesn’t mean you should spend it. Sure, this budget proposal adds $1 billion, but also recommends a declining level of NIH funding beyond FY11. Reader Mark Weber at research-based company Fermalogic, in a comment about the recent windfall for NIH from the stimulus package, provides this sage advice: “The biggest problem I see with NIH is surviving the ‘bad’ years when funding levels are low…one nonfunded year can destroy an entire career. Use this windfall to create an endowment that will carry the agency through bad years and give its scientists a sense of security.”

And if you’re going to spend it, do it on the right projects. For example, Obama’s budget includes more than $6 billion for the NIH to start 30 new cancer drug trials in 2011, and double the number of new compounds in clinical trials by 2016.

Yet as “Anonymous Reader” commented on The Scientist news blog:

Calling for a specific number of new novel drugs/compounds within a certain time frame is like saying we should schedule flights to distant galaxies in 5 years. It just ain’t gonna happen! [Drug discovery] should be left to private companies/entrepreneurs…This is just another way to siphon funding away from basic science to translational science. (Editor’s note: isn’t anonymity a drag on the scientific conversation?)

Indeed, we may already spend enough on clinical research—the top NIH-funded area in 2009 was clinical research, and the top funded investigators were carrying out applied research in the clinical realm. And Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag recently instructed science agencies to “empower their scientists to have ongoing contact with people who know what’s involved in making and using things, from cost and competitive factors to the many practical constraints and opportunities that can arise when turning ideas into reality.”

Translational research is certainly not trivial, nor lacking its own requirement for invention, but to mandate applied science from the upper echelons, at the expense of basic research, is not a healthy trend. As put by another Nobelist, Max Delbrück, in his “Principle of Limited Sloppiness,” researchers should be “sloppy enough so that unexpected things can happen, but not so sloppy that we can’t find out that it did.” While sloppiness does not equate with basic research, the two notions share a sensibility of the unexpected.

How about taking on more risk and increasing the percentage of grants funded, as noted by reader Maria Castro from UCLA and the Cedars Sinai Medical Center (also writing about the stimulus cash)? “The best way to spend the new influx of cash…is to increase the payline to at least 20 percent. The current payline of 10 percent will end up eroding substantially the science base of this country.”

Meanwhile, maybe it’s time we make our own budget. How far can we stretch $1 billion? You might be surprised—see A Penny Saved in this issue for bizarre ways biotech is cutting corners, saving millions per year. And let’s turn ‘round the Delbrück quote: We have the money, so we have to think. Now more than ever, wisdom from The Scientist crowd needs to be registered.

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