March 14, 2008

Bold research ideas threatened by funding cuts

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Pampee Young, M.D., Ph.D., speaks at Tuesday’s panel discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on the shrinking availability of federal support for young scientists. (photo by Tom Kochel)

Bold research ideas threatened by funding cuts

It seems an oxymoron.

Why are our young scientists starved for research dollars at a time when Vanderbilt University Medical Center is receiving unprecedented amounts of funding from the National Institutes of Health?

And yet it's true.

A steadily shrinking NIH budget means there are fewer dollars for young investigators with bold but risky ideas. Instead, most of the money is going to larger, established programs and safer bets.

That's the message that was delivered this week by a consortium of U.S. medical centers to lawmakers and reporters in Washington, D.C.

“With this tight funding situation, I've stepped away from the riskier stuff,” said Pampee Young, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of Pathology and director of Transfusion Medicine at Vanderbilt, in a report released this week.

Young, whose research involves the potential of adult bone marrow stem cells to block tumor growth and repair damaged heart muscle, also participated in a panel discussion at the National Press Club on Tuesday.

Unless the situation changes, young investigators will either leave their research positions or “pursue the safe path,” she said during the discussion. “Progress will continue, but it will be slower. Ultimately, it will cost us far more than money.”

William Lawson, M.D., assistant professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt, studies idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, an often-fatal lung disease. He participated in a meeting with the Washington Post editorial board on Monday.

“For us junior investigators, watching experts in the field having trouble getting funded is devastating,” Lawson said in the report. “We ask ourselves: 'How am I, as an unknown, going to be successful?' That feeling — questioning your ability to be successful — is concerning and real.”

The report, entitled “A Broken Pipeline? Flat funding of the NIH puts a generation of science at risk,” was co-authored by Brown University, Duke University, Harvard University, The Ohio State University, Partners HealthCare in Boston, the University of California, Los Angeles, and Vanderbilt University.

Between 1998 and 2003, Congress doubled the NIH budget. Vanderbilt's share of the pie has grown more rapidly than most, increasing by 37 percent in the past five years, to $282.3 million in NIH grants in the 2006-2007 fiscal year. Vanderbilt ranks 10th among U.S. medical schools in NIH funding.

Overall, however, the NIH budget has actually lost ground to inflation since 2003. As a result, the institutes are currently able to fund only one in four original research applications.

As a result, the report stated, “many of the brightest young minds are leaking out of the pipeline because they no longer see the promise of a career in academic science. Many are following opportunities in private industry or in places like China, Singapore, India and the European Union, where public investment in scientific research is a top priority.”

“Ironically, American science has been making giant strides in unraveling the myriad of genetic and environmental factors that presage not only better treatments, but also the early detection of disease,” said Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., Vanderbilt's associate vice chancellor for Research.

“Realizing the tangible benefits of these advances and future discoveries will be thwarted if young people leave science.

“We will sacrifice the cures they were destined to discover,” Balser warned.

For more information about the report, go to