Challenging Times for Research Funding

13 December 2013 Written by  Explore Utah Science
Challenging Times for Research Funding Wikimedia Commons

Although a budget deal may finally be in the works to get rid of the mandatory sequester cuts, research funding has not kept up with inflation for over a decade and the impact is being felt by scientists, students, and Universities. Chris Hill and Wes Sundquist, Co-chairs of the Department of Biochemistry, wrote this letter as a response to what they are seeing in their department and throughout the country.

These are difficult financial times for biomedical research. In real terms, federal funding for research and development has shrunk by 20% over the past three years and is now lower than it was a decade ago1. Moreover, of the leading 10 research countries the U.S. is the only one to have reduced its investment in scientific research since 2011. This fundamental problem has been exacerbated by poorly planned growth, sequestration, political gridlock and earmarking for special projects. The result is brutal grant paylines that are causing irreparable damage to individual researchers and to the entire biomedical research enterprise. It is indisputable that America's continued economic success depends upon maintaining our competitive edge in high-tech fields like biomedical research. Instead, our historical advantages are ebbing as we fail to nurture discovery science. These are both the best and the worst of times2. The tools have never been more powerful and the opportunities more exciting, yet it is painful to see our talented colleagues waste their time struggling to obtain research funding rather than uncovering nature's secrets and producing healthcare breakthroughs. It is even worse to watch talented young scientists spend their most creative years in holding patterns that leave them increasingly disillusioned3. History has proven time and again that societies regress when their core institutions are neglected and their young people cannot fulfill their dreams.

All of the stakeholders in the biomedical research enterprise need to make changes. Academic scientists and administrators need to acknowledge that our current systems are unsustainable, and embrace alternative approaches that will reduce lab sizes and training periods while creating more flexible career paths4. These changes are difficult for individual departments to institute unilaterally, and we therefore strongly support the efforts of our national societies to facilitate global solutions. Industrial scientists and corporate leaders need to teach us how best to train young scientists for success in industry as well as academia, fight hard on our behalf, and pursue corporate strategies that emphasize fundamental health care advances over short-term profits. We cannot succeed without them, nor they without us. Most importantly, policy makers and the public need to provide strong, long-term investment in biomedical research programs that fire our imaginations, drive economic growth, and enhance public health. A wonderful system is at risk and we therefore urge you join us in pushing for stronger public funding of biomedical research!

Additional Reading:

1) NIH budget summaries and trends:
NIH FY2013 Operating Plan

ASBMB 2013 Survey

2) The costs of poor funding in a time of great discovery:
For 3 Nobel Winners, a Molecular Mystery Solved

3) Losses in scientific competitiveness and morale:
Nearly 20% of Scientists Contemplate Moving Overseas
Biomedical Burnout

4) Critiques of the sustainability of our current training and funding systems:
A Fair Deal for PhD Students and Postdocs
Toward a Sustainable Biomedical Research Enterprise

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