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By Robert Siliciano, MD, PhD

Excerpts from testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, March 19, 2007.

The United States has long been the world leader in scientific discovery, thanks largely to government policies that encourage innovation, improve education, and facilitate the transfer of knowledge from the laboratory to the marketplace. Today we face serious threats to this preeminence. Other nations bring to the table strong educational systems, focused government policies, and low-cost workers.

Basic research is essential to our ability to meet this challenge. William R. Brody, president of The Johns Hopkins University and co-chair of a national committee on competitiveness, puts it this way: “Knowledge drives innovation. Innovation drives productivity. Productivity drives economic growth.” Our ability to compete in the global economy depends, first and foremost, on our ability to continue making new discoveries. The more we learn about how things work— the principles of basic biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics—the more opportunity we have to put that knowledge to work. When we know more, we can use that knowledge to make our world better, to build new businesses, devise new products, and to improve our standard of living.

America’s most innovative industries are built on decades of basic research, research that had no discernable practical application at the time it was undertaken. For example, the highly theoretical world of quantum mechanics spawned the semiconductor industry and the information revolution. Johns Hopkins scientists thinking about the principle of physics, called the Doppler effect, used it to invent what became today’s Global Positioning System. Two Johns Hopkins biologists shared a Nobel Prize in 1978 for using restriction enzymes to cut DNA into fragments that created today’s thriving biotechnology industry, which is based on genetics.

In the United States, funding basic research has long been a governmental function. Why? Because it takes a long time to do it, because there is always a risk that any single project will come to nothing, and because it is difficult to capture an immediate return on investment for an idea that has not yet been developed to the stage of a marketable invention.

Despite a societal consensus that basic research is a government responsibility, U.S. federal research and development spending, as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), peaked 40 years ago in 1965, at just below two percent of GDP. In the past 40 years, that percentage has diminished by more than half, to about 0.8 percent of GDP. Overall R&D spending, especially in basic sciences, continues to decline. We must reverse this trend now, by strengthening the nation’s commitment to science related federal agencies and departments.

The life sciences research funded by the NIH is a key component of our overall national science agenda. For example, Johns Hopkins University is the nation’s leading recipient of federal research grants. In FY2005, our researchers attracted nearly $1.3 billion in federal R&D funding and $1.4 billion in overall R&D funding, a category in which Johns Hopkins has led all US institutions for 27 consecutive years. This support enables us to improve medical care worldwide, advance human knowledge, and train new generations of innovative researchers.

While the President and Congress have embraced the notion that funding for basic research in the physical sciences is essential to strengthening America’s competitive standing in the world …, we remain concerned that funding for biomedical research has not kept pace with this commitment. Aggressive, stable, and sustained federal spending on the NIH and biomedical research must be understood and embraced as a critical component of America’s competitiveness.

On January 15, 2007, President Bush signed the National Institutes of Health Reform Act of 2006. While the law calls for a 6% increase for FY2007 and an 8% increase for FY2008, the reality is that this funding commitment has not fully materialized. For FY2006, the NIH budget was cut in both nominal and real terms. For FY2007, the NIH received a modest yet important increase of approximately $620 million. Despite this increase, however, FY2007 marks the fourth year in a row, when adjusting for inflation, that NIH funding has been cut.

At Johns Hopkins, we have annually led the nation in NIH research dollars and we have seen a marked decline in grants awarded to our School of Medicine. Fewer projects are being funded and NIH support of on-going investigations is being cut. Recent figures suggest that the number of grants and overall funding levels have declined. In FY2002, the average funding level per grant was $142,210 for the School of Medicine. By FY2006, the funding level dropped nearly $50,000 per grant to $92,683, a decline of 34.8 percent. Hardest hit are America’s young researchers. I fear that we may lose a generation of enthusiastic, inquisitive scientists if they conclude that NIH grants are out of reach.

AIDS Research Suffers

Everyone I know has had to scale back research efforts because of flat NIH budgets. In my own lab we are now finding it difficult to take on new staff and begin new projects. Typically, in the past, I would spend about 30 percent of my time applying for grants; now about 60 percent of my time is spent preparing applications. Furthermore, some prominent investigators are getting out of research. Few scientists want to tackle high-risk problems … because research of this type is more difficult to fund. In fact, a very good colleague of mine has made a major discovery on a unique group of patients who control HIV without medication. He has not been able to get funding even though the potential savings is more than $14,000 annually per patient. Additionally, a mentor of mine, and one of the most respected people in the field, is thinking of getting out of research because he has no funding.

— An anonymous AIDS researcher

Flat Funding Threatens Our Young Investigators

One of the first and earliest victims of declining NIH funding has been the young investigator. You have heard … often over the past several years … that we are discouraging and potentially sacrificing an entire generation of young scientists. This situation is compounded by the fact that not only is our country producing a shrinking number of researchers in the life and physical sciences, but the best and brightest of foreign-born U.S. trained scientists are increasingly returning to their home country as opportunities expand overseas.

Quite simply, we have to do more to support and encourage our young investigators. Most ideas that turn into Nobel Prizes come from investigators before they reach the age of 40. As a country, then, shouldn’t we be supporting these scientists when they are in their professional prime? Unfortunately, the statistics tell an entirely different story. In the case of initial R01/R29 awards, between 1970 and 2004, the average age by which an investigator with a PhD gains his or her first award has gone from 34.3 years of age to 41.7. In the case of MDs, during this same period, that age has gone from 36.7 years to 43.3 (AAMC 12 July, 2006). With diminished NIH funding, our young scientists are witnessing firsthand the decline in overall success rates for grant applications. In 1998, the first year of the doubling, success rates were over 50 percent for grant submissions. For 2007, the success rate is projected to drop to only about 18 percent. Left unaddressed, there is no question that the current decline in NIH funding places an entire generation of young scientists at risk.

Even at my own institution, where we have many of the best and brightest among the current generation of young scientists, we are seeing many of these men and women unable to gain funding support. Without sustainable and predictable increases in NIH funding, this nation is at risk of losing an entire generation of scientists.

Robert Siliciano, MD, PhD, is with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.


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