A Broken Pipeline

By Daniel R. Matlis

Yesterday, a group of seven leading academic research institutions issued a report entitled “A Broken Pipeline? Flat Funding of the NIH Puts a Generation of Science at Risk.”

The report was co-authored by Brown University, Duke University, Harvard University, The Ohio State University, Partners Healthcare, the University of California Los Angeles, and Vanderbilt University.

The authors make the case that the U.S. stands to lose a generation of young researchers to other careers and other countries as well as the innovative cures they could discover if the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget remains stagnant.

The report profiles 12 junior researchers who, despite their exceptional qualifications and noteworthy research, have experienced funding difficulties. These researchers are devising new ways to manipulate stem cells to repair the heart, revealing critical pathways involved in cancer and brain diseases, and using new technologies to diagnose and treat kidney disease.

Between 1998 and 2003, the Clinton and Bush Administrations and Congress doubled the budget of the NIH. This increased funding transformed many fields of biomedical research. During that time, we saw the completion of the human genome project, and the creation of powerful and innovative tools that provide a window into biological systems unavailable in the past.

According to the report, in the 5 years beginning in 2003, the NIH has experienced a 13-percent drop in real purchasing power. As a result, research progress has slowed, and leading researchers’ new ideas are stuck at toll-gates that allow one in ten grants to be funded upon first submission.

According to Drew Faust, Ph.D., President of Harvard University, “this is about the investment that America is – or is not – making in the health of its citizens and its economy. Right now, the nation’s brightest, young researchers, upon whom the future of American medicine rests, are getting the message that biomedical research may be a dead end and they should explore other career options —and in too many cases, they’re taking that message to heart.”

Under the best circumstances, NIH funding gets researchers to animal models. On the other hand, Big Pharma tends to be interested in funding products in late stage clinical trials.

This situation has created a widening funding gap for the research of new medical products. Although I have seen some Big Pharma companies willing to take more risk and get involved earlier in the clinical process, this gap is typically filled by Entrepreneurs and pioneers, often backed by friends and family, angel investors and venture capitalists.

Innovation is the engine that keeps societies and economies growing. It is also the driving force behind improving the human condition and eliminating suffering.  Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to keep the scientific innovation engine going full speed ahead.

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