Will declining funding stunt scientific discovery in the U.S.?

May 17, 2015 at 10:30 AM EDT
As federal funding for biomedical research has been declining in real dollars over the past 13 years, getting a grant for many scientists who depend on government money has become more difficult. Now, many say this hypercompetitive atmosphere may stunt not only the careers of promising scientists but also America's preeminent role in global science research. Karla Murthy reports.

KARLA MURTHY: Loredana Quadro left Italy 19 years ago to pursue a career in science here in the U.S.

LOREDANA QUADRO: The United States was always seen as the place to be a scientist because there were a lots of opportunities.

KARLA MURTHY: So was it your dream to, you know, one day have your own lab?

LOREDANA QUADRO: Of course. Of course.

KARLA MURTHY: Quadro has now been running her own lab at Rutgers University in New Jersey for almost 10 years. And Quadro has now been running her own lab at Rutgers University in New Jersey for almost 10 years. And she’s built her career on answering a very specific question: How vitamin A is absorbed by embryos and understanding that basic function could ultimately help prevent birth defects.

LOREDANA QUADRO: When you actually understand or think you might have understood a little tiny thing that is going on into a cell. It’s really rewarding.

KARLA MURTHY: But now, all of her years of work is in jeopardy. Like many scientists working at a university, she depends on grants from the Federal Government to run her lab. They pay for everything from supplies to her team of researchers. If Quadro doesn’t get a new grant by July, she’ll be out of money.

KARLA MURTHY: So you’re in danger of losing your lab.


KARLA MURTHY: The National Institutes of Health, the NIH, is the single largest funder of biomedical research in the world. but over the last 13 years, the NIH budget has actually declined more than 22 percent in terms of purchasing power.

And tighter budgets have meant that getting one of these coveted grants is even more difficult. In the past, a third of all grants submitted were funded. Today it’s about a sixth of all grants. And many say this hypercompetitive atmosphere is threatening not only the careers of promising scientists but the advancement of scientific breakthroughs.

LOREDANA QUADRO: It’s very stressful

KARLA MURTHY: Quadro says that she’s constantly worrying about money. She estimates that she spends about 80 percent of her time working on grants.

KARLA MURTHY: How does having to focus on grant writing, how has that affected your work in the lab.

LOREDANA QUADRO: I don’t work in the lab. I can’t because I have to work on grant writing most of the time.

DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: People who could be doing experiments are instead writing, rewriting, submitting, resubmitting, trying to get that grant. And what a terrible waste of talent

KARLA MURTHY: Dr. Francis Collins is the director of the NIH and has been pushing for more research funding.

DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: Whether it’s in cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, basic science, clinical applications, we’re at a remarkable moment scientifically. But paradoxically we’re at about the worst moment we’ve been to support that, at least in this country.

KARLA MURTHY: One would think that when you’re in an environment that’s this competitive for dollars, that only the best of the best science is gonna get funded.

DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: Turns out that’s not true. Cause we can look back now, can we actually say that the top sixth was better than the next sixth? Turns out we can’t. You can’t tell them apart. So what does that say? That says we’re leaving half of the great science on the table that’s coming to us now ’cause we can’t find the funds for it.

KARLA MURTHY: Dr. Collins recently testified before a House Appropriations Committee, asking for a three percent increase to the NIH’s budget, enough money for 1,200 new grants. But Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole warned that while everyone supported biomedical research, a big increase to the NIH was not likely.

TOM COLE (R-OK): Given the reality of funding allocations, we might not be able to do everything that the administration is proposing

FRANCIS COLLINS: Science is not a 100-yard dash. It’s a marathon. And what that means is that the science we’re not doing today, because we don’t have the resources, is hurting our future 10, 15, 20 years from now in ways that we don’t even know.

KARLA MURTHY: Why should it be, you know, the government’s responsibility to be the primary funder for biomedical research? Why not foundations or private industry?

DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: Private industry, frankly, is not going to do that. Their stockholders are expecting a return on that investment, and increasingly expecting that return to happen quickly in a matter of a couple of years.

KARLA MURTHY: And Dr. Collins says that philanthropy funds only a tiny fraction of research compared to the NIH and often has a narrow focus on specific diseases.

JUDITH STORCH: He left academia.

KARLA MURTHY: Judith Storch is a colleague of Loredana Quadro’s at Rutgers. She’s been a scientist for more than three decades and has seen the dramatic change in the competition for science funding over the years. Her lab is just downstairs from Quadro’s, where she studies how lipids move around in cells. Although it hasn’t been easy, she’s been consistently funded during her career. She says having years of experience can give senior scientists like her a leg up.

JUDITH STORCH: Part of the reason I think it’s easier for a senior investigator to get funded than a junior investigator is because we have a track record.

KARLA MURTHY: And some in the next generation have decided to drop out altogether.

JUDITH STORCH: We have graduate students that decide not to finish, we have graduate students who finish and then go and do something entirely different. But people are opting out like crazy.

KARLA MURTHY: Including Lesley Wassef-Birosik. She was Quadro’s first postdoctoral fellow and came to the U.S. from Australia in 2006. But after seven and a half years in Quadro’s lab, she decided to switch careers. She’s now working as a medical writer.

KARLA MURTHY: I mean, that’s a big decision, to change course like that?

LESLEY WASSEF-BIROSIK: Yeah. It was a tough decision. I thought I could do it. But I was very naive. I didn’t see how hard it was to get a grant. And no matter who you spoke to, no matter which lab you spoke to, everyone would say, “It was tough.”

DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: What wakes me up at night is this next generation and what’s happening to them. And they’re invariably excited about the science that they’re doing, but invariably anxious about where there’s a future

KARLA MURTHY: The environment for science funding has left some questioning whether the United States will remain the same worldwide leader in science research that attracted Loredana Quadro and so many others here.

A recent survey of scientists in the U.S. by advocates for more funding found that 18 percent were considering leaving the country to pursue their careers.

DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: We are still the leader, but not by a lot. And I can’t help but point to China in particular. In another four or five years, they will be spending more in absolute dollars than we are. And the consequences are already apparent. China filed more patents in biomedical research last year than the United States did.

KARLA MURTHY: I mean, if there is a biomedical breakthrough in China, won’t I still, as a citizen here, benefit?

DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: But it’s the country that is in the lead that is gonna have lots of the most immediate consequences. Research that goes on in the U.S. has the highest likelihood of influencing our medical care in the short run. It also is the country that’s gonna have the greatest economic benefit.

KARLA MURTHY: Dr. Collins points to the Human Genome Project, which he led before becoming direcro of the NIH. A study estimated that each dollar invested led to $178 in economic benefit for the U.S., including jobs, tax revenues, and additional funding for genome research.

To help scientists with funding, the NIH is experimenting with different models of funding, grants specifically geared towards younger scientists and allowing investigators to re-submit grants multiple times.

But for Loredana Quadro, time is running out.

She has received some bridge funding from her university and continues to work on grants, including to the NIH.

KARLA MURTHY: Would you ever consider leaving this field?

LOREDANA QUADRO: It’s a very difficult question. If somebody doesn’t get funded for five years, you are automatically out of the picture. It would be very tough to go back in. And if this happens, I will have to make a decision.