Brown University and six other academic research institutions today released a report that concludes that five years of flat funding for the National Institutes of Health puts a generation of science at risk. The report, released at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., also warns about the consequences of continued lack of action on the nation’s biomedical budget.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Flat funding of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) budget over the last five years is deterring promising young investigators at Brown University and other major research institutions across the country and threatening the future of Americans’ health, according to a new report.

Released today (Tuesday, March 11, 2008) in Washington, D.C. by Brown and a group of six other academic research institutions, the report describes the toll that stagnant NIH funding is taking on the American medical research enterprise and warns about the consequences of continued lack of action. If NIH does not receive consistent and robust support in the future, they report, the nation could lose a generation of young investigators to other careers and other countries.

With those researchers, a generation of promising research might be lost, the report warns – research that could cure disease for millions for whom no cure currently exists.

“This is a daunting time for young academic researchers,” said Clyde Briant, vice president for research at Brown. “It is difficult to get their research funded – which is critical for getting their laboratories up and running and for meeting requirements for tenure. But stagnant NIH budgets are not only creating a crisis in academia, they may also create a crisis in America. The exciting pace of medical progress we’ve seen in recent years – with life-saving advances in imaging, vaccines, cancer tests and treatments – may slow dramatically.”

The report, A Broken Pipeline? Flat Funding of the NIH Puts a Generation of Science at Risk, profiles 12 junior researchers, including two from Brown. One is Tricia Serio, assistant professor of medical science, who is conducting research on infectious proteins linked to mad cow disease. The other researcher featured is Carthene Bazemore-Walker, assistant professor of chemistry, who conducts research on lupus and kidney disease.

Serio and Bazemore-Walker, along with those profiled from around the country, attest to the funding difficulties that they and their professional peers are experiencing.

For example, junior faculty face increasingly high hurdles for receiving R01 grants – the major, multiyear NIH grant that is a required credential to launch an academic research career. During the 2006-07 academic year, Brown junior faculty in biology, medicine, and public health had only a 24-percent success rate for R01 applications. In recent years, the average commitment for laboratory startup costs for new biology hires has doubled, in large part as a response by Brown to the weak NIH funding environment for new investigators.

“My worst fear is that we will lose an entire generation of researchers,” Serio said. “Young investigators are hired based on the promise of future potential. Yet so many struggle – even the most gifted scientists with the most creative ideas. If they leave academia, they won’t come back. And as a nation, we would lose all of our return on the investment we made to train these biomedical researchers in the first place.”

Brown co-authored the report with Duke University, Harvard University, The Ohio State University, Partners Healthcare, the University of California–Los Angeles, and Vanderbilt University. The report follows up on a related report released by a group of academic institutions in March 2007, Within Our Grasp – Or Slipping Away? Assuring a New Era of Scientific and Medical Progress. That report, issued by a similar group of eight institutions, showed how stagnant NIH funding was slowing discovery and squandering the significant opportunities for breakthroughs that past investment had put within reach.

The new report shows that competition for limited resources is affecting scientists at every point of the academic research pipeline.

Between 1998 and 2003, the Clinton and Bush administrations and Congress doubled the budget of the NIH, an effort that, in many ways, transformed whole fields of biomedical research through achievements such as completion of the human genome project. In 2003, however, the budget increases stopped. Since then, the NIH has experienced a 13-percent drop in real purchasing power. The President’s latest budget proposal calls for another year without an increase.

As a result of curtailed funding, research progress has slowed. New ideas are stuck in a queue where only one in 10 of first submitted grants are funded. Rejected grants, revised and resubmitted, create a backlog of high-quality research proposals, and young investigators often wait years longer to receive the funding that would allow them to begin working on their most promising ideas.

Scientists who review NIH proposals have also become more conservative when judging the merits of funding research projects, inadvertently changing the way science is being conducted. They are demanding more evidence of eventual success of proposed theories prior to approving funding and rejecting ideas that they would once have viewed more favorably. Big and innovative scientific thinking is discouraged in place of safer approaches for incremental progress to scientific discovery.

Highlights of how flat funding is affecting research include:

  • in 1990, young researchers received 29 percent of R01 grants. By 2007, that dropped to 25 percent
  • while the success rate has dropped for all R01 applicants, it is particularly low – only 18 percent – for first-time applicants;
  • first-time R01 recipients also are older. The average age is now 43, up from 39 years in 1990.

At Brown, officials are taking steps to support junior faculty, including hiring additional research assistants for the Division of Biology and Medicine for fall 2008. But Briant said urgent action is needed in Congress to increase funding for NIH, the source of nearly half of Brown’s federal research funding.

“The NIH spends more than 80 percent of its annual budget on public-domain research at academic institutions like Brown,” Briant said. “And there is a direct link between this research and life-saving new ideas.”

Copies of A Broken Pipeline? Flat Funding of the NIH Puts a Generation of Science at Risk can be obtained beginning at 9 a.m. today at A web cast of the press conference will be available at the same address.