Politicians say NIH funding is “perfectly adequate”. Bullsh*t.

by morgan · 6 comments

 

The message below was forwarded to me by a colleague about the dire funding situation, and in particular, about the lack of understanding that the present Whitehouse/administration/congress has of its effects.  These colleagues have started an official petition via the “We the people” site (sponsored by the Whitehouse), and if this petition gets enough digital signatories, there will be an automatic trigger for the executive branch to consider and respond to this issue “officially.” 

So, if you’re at all concerned about science funding in the US, now’s the time to speak up!  Do you really want politicians continuing to believe that things are just fine?

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Here’s the forwarded message from my colleague:

I was on a recent conference call with White House officials, during which research funding was discussed. It seemed to me that these officials did not fully understand the central importance of NIH funding to our national research enterprise, to our local economies, to the retention and careers of our most talented and well-educated people, to the survival of our medical educational system, to our rapidly fading worldwide dominance in biomedical research, to job creation and preservation, to national economic viability, and to our national academic infrastructure. In response to a question from a participant, they staunchly defended the proposed flat $30.7 billion FY 2013 NIH budget as being perfectly adequate, remarking that “The NIH receives more funding than any other research entity; it will continue to be strong; it will do just fine.”

This statement is patently false. The proposed flat NIH budget will severely exacerbate a catastrophic crisis that has been ongoing since 2003, when growth in NIH funding fell (and has continued to fall every subsequent year) behind the rate of inflation. As a consequence of this deeply flawed public policy, promising careers have been cut short, amazing research projects have been aborted, hundreds of laboratories nationwide have shrunk or been shut down, established and accomplished senior researchers have been forced to abandon their programs, young scientists have departed from research of even left the country (even after many years of productive training), thousands of ancillary jobs have been lost, our worldwide medical research dominance has been eroded (ceded to China, India, and other nations), and a large support network of laboratory supply and biotechnology companies has been drastically attenuated.

We successfully rescued the auto industry because we understood the ramifications of letting it fail. Our biomedical research infrastructure is just as far-reaching and vitally important to our nation’s economy as is the auto industry. I hope that our Administration understands this.

In response to this apparent lack of understanding of the current medical research crisis, I started the following petition:

Dear friends,

I write to let you know about a recently created petition on “We the People”, a new feature on WhiteHouse.gov <http://WhiteHouse.gov> , and ask for your support. If this petition gets 25,000 signatures by March 18, 2012, the White House will review it and respond!

We the People allows anyone to create and sign petitions asking the Obama Administration to take action on a range of issues. If a petition gets enough support, the Obama Administration will issue an official response.

“You can view and sign the petition here:

http://wh.gov/R3R (added 2/19/12: this is the new link after the White House shut our other one down with >24,000 signatures and 10 hours to go)

Here’s some more information about this petition:

Increase NIH budget to $33 billion dollars next fiscal year! A flat $30.7 billion will kill jobs and hurt research.

Increase NIH spending to $33 billion! The proposed flat NIH budget will close labs nationwide, kill good-paying jobs, damage our worldwide medical research dominance, and hurt state economies. NIH jobs cannot be outsourced. NIH funding created 350,000 jobs and contributed $50 billion to the national economy in 2007! Insource our jobs!!

Stephen J. Meltzer, M.D.
The Harry & Betty Myerberg/Thomas R. Hendrix Professor
Departments of Medicine (GI Division) and Oncology
The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine & Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center
1503 E. Jefferson Street, Room 112
Baltimore, MD 21287

Please, don’t delay in taking action on this petition!

signature small 150x90 Politicians say NIH funding is perfectly adequate. Bullsh*t.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Aditya Savara

When you put out an opinion, you implicitly accept the risk of receiving a reply from someone who disagrees with you :)

People having their grants rejected, or even people losing their jobs are not legitimate arguments for claiming NIH is underfunded. It could be that it was overfunded in the past, or simply that the optimum level of funding has decreased, and with that decrease there would have to be a decrease in jobs or grants allocated etc.

I think that NIH is overfunded. Whether a branch of science is overfunded or underfunded has to be based on some objective metric — we cannot just fund science infinitely, the economy could not function that way. So there must be some optimum level of funding. As I said, I think NIH as a whle is overfunded. I am willing to accept that some project categories in NIH are underfunded, but not NIH as a whole. I think that certain other very narrowly defined categories of science are also underfunded (outside of NIH). And I also think that some categories of science outside of NIH are also overfunded.

The numbers quoted by Meltzer “NIH contributed $50 billion to the national economy in 2007″ are not referenced, nor are they broken down by category of funding expenditure.

Until we see some evidence, not only do I disagree with this petition, I consider it irresponsible to encourage the use of so many tax dollars without evidence that it’s a good idea.

Meltzer writes: “In response to this apparent lack of understanding of the current medical research crisis, I started the following petition…” Yet despite this statement, Meltzer has chosen not to increase our understanding of this crisis. So how can he expect us to sign this petition?

Reply

adriano

Hi Morgan, I’ll give my cent for this, though I don’t think I should be signing for not being a american citizen. Should this not matter please let me know.
The “cutting policy” is a widespread attitude of all western countries that have in common the idea that governing of a state is a purely business-oriented activity, and that everything can be explained in terms of “how much of 1 goes into 2 for producing 3″. I am not saying it’s wrong, but would expect at least scientists, who apply correctly their innate skepticism to everything, would put this under the same criticism of “who said that works?”. After all it is true to state that resources are not infinite and one has to make a choice. The problem is that money is only being diverted into something else but science. Anyone ever tried to calculate how many average labs could be supported for 3-5 years with the 40 million $ that a single F35 costs? Is this disproportion being made evident to the tax payer whose will of putting money on biomedical research is sometimes implicitly questioned?
Money is diverted, and this is generally done with a slight modification of the above to “how much of 1 goes into 2 for producing 3 QUICKLY”. So anything that would be a real “Investment” in the long term is being reduced, because” there is no evidence it is going to work”.
I am sure that even the ones that disagree with all this until they see some evidence will have submitted applications for funding experiments to come, and for which (hopefully I would say, or else what would discovery be?) there was no evidence. Spending money ONLY on evidence is trying to discover something that already exists, relying on evidence goes against innovation. The whole evolution itself is a meaningful example. Can we imagine the result of keeping with the same ancestral organism because there was no evidence that a change might have helped? Indeed, during evolution, at some point there has been evidence that the more one could eat and the bigger one could be, the better……

Reply

Stephen J. Meltzer

Dear Aditya,

Thank you for your very thoughtful comments. Please allow me to respond to each of your perceptive criticisms:

1) I did not intend to imply that people getting their grants rejected was reason for increasing funding. In fact, that has been happening since the NIH was founded in the mid-1960′s! Rather, I wished to point out the percentage of applicants getting rejected: this has increased from below 50% in the 1960′s to about 90% today. During most funding cycles over the past 30 years, the percentage has hovered in the range of 20%-35%. During the mid-90′s until 2003, the percentage funded was in the high 20′s to low 30′s (depending on individual Institute). However, the current absolute funding cutoff for the NCI (for example) is between 7% and 15%. What this means is that hundreds of perfectly high-quality scientific projects, along with their Principal Investigators and associated employees, are no longer being supported. Whereas prior to 2003, good science had a reasonably good shot at getting funded (or at the very least, being funded on a resubmission round); now, the number of permitted resubmission applications has fallen from 2 to only 1, and 75% of all new grant applications are triaged (i.e., not even discussed in committee review). The reason for this drastic decrease in funding rates is that NIH funding has not kept pace with inflation for the past years. Failing to keep pace with inflation means that, when annual inflationary cost increases are factored in, each subsequent year represents a de facto cut.

2) The numbers quoted were released by the American Associate for Cancer Research (AACR) and can be found on their website. In fact, these numbers are quite conservative. A more comprehensive enumeration of the NIH’s economic impact can be found at the following website:

http://www.aacr.org/home/public–media/science-policy–government-affairs/resources-for-policymakers/economic-impact-of-cancer-research.aspx

3) I surmise, from the thorough and logical nature of your comments, that you are a scientist in another field. I wish to convince you that we, as scientists, should all unite in our petition to the government for more adequate R & D funding for all fields. During the previous administration, this area was neglected in favor of several massive tax cuts and massive military spending. Please, I submit that we, all of us, should collectively support the philosophy that scientific research in all fields is good for the economy, our nation’s health, infrastructure, energy independence, and our country as a whole.

I hope that these sentences above have helped to convince you that you and I are on the same side.

Reply

Aditya Savara

Dear Stephen,

Thank you for your references and your response! Your response was very enlightening, and I will be keeping it.
But I do have some points of disagreement.

1) Even if the percentage of grants awarded has decreased dramatically, that does not mean that NIH has become underfunded now. There are three reasonable interpretations: a) NIH was overfunded before b) NIH is underfunded now or c) NIH was appropriately funded both before and now. I will explain why I believe c has not been refuted. It could be that earlier in history, there were many low hanging fruit in science. For example, “let’s study the chemical composition of hair” — this led to knowledge that some metals are excreted into hair from the body. 100 years ago, the things to investigate seemed limitless. But now, we have had advanced science for many years, that most of the low hanging fruit are gone (I believe). This means that scientists have to be more clever now than before to find something useful to research. So the question becomes: are scientists rising to the challenge of submitting ever-more clever ideas? Until we answer this question, we cannot say that a lower percentage of proposals funded today is indicative of underfunding of NIH. It is even possible that it would be appropriate for government funding of science to become a smaller percentage of GDP as time goes on. Alternatively, it may be appropriate for government funded science to become a larger percentage of GDP as time goes on. But this distinction cannot be made based on percentage of grants rejected. It must be made based on some kind of forward looking projection related to other factors, and it certainly could be that the best system requires a forever-increasing percentage of rejections during grant proposals as the low-hanging fruit, then mid-hanging fruit, then high-hanging fruit get more and more depleted.

On a mildly related note, I think proposal reviewers should probably have more flexibility, and would need to exercise it (e.g., rejecting all grants during some proposal call, and then asking to fund 4 times as many as was intended during some other proposal call). Because it could very well be that the government has some priority (like curing AIDS), but maybe there will be only a few good ideas every year, and then ten good ideas in a certain year. So I do disagree with preventing resubmissions when funding is capped, and again I disagree with annual funding being budgets being so inflexible. They should have the flexibility to go up, but also down.

2) Thank you for the references, that was very useful, and I will keep these examples in mind, but I think there are major flaws in the economic analyses. Let me give you an example. For dental cavities, there are two major kinds of fillings: amalgam fillings and composite fillings. The composite fillings are new, and tend to be 25-50% more expensive but last 50%-75% as long before needing to be replaced [these numbers are roughly correct and easy to find]. So let’s say that 25% of patients now get the composite fillings, and that the average cost of fillings per patient per year has gone from $200 to $300 as a result [made up numbers]. Does this mean that we have now created economic value? That is not an easy question to answer. The new product performs worse and is more expensive, but some people still want it (since they prefer it for other reasons). Also, who gets the added economic value? Is half of the value the dentist getting more profit? So would it be appropriate for the government to fund the research that developed this product? While the “composite” industry has gained jobs, the amalgam industry has also lost jobs. What is the real net change in jobs? Would private parties have been willing to fund this research? Could we have done a private plus government matching for the research? These questions need to be asked for all research, especially medical research. I can’t trust the numbers in those references because they did not appear to ask these questions. So these questions need to be asked, and then we can more correctly understand which parts of NIH provide economic benefit or do not. I understand that the research always has risks of working or not working, and some are long-term (50 years) and some are short term. But we can still do the economic analysis properly.

3) Targetting is the real issue. I actually agree that NIH and science as a whole could probably benefit from an increase in funding — but only when it’s targetted. It is a bit like the doctors shortage: they keep saying there is a shortage of doctors, but it is primarily a shortage of general practitioners, because too many medical students are choosing to become surgeons in order to make >$300,000 per year — which is not unreasonable, except the government is paying to make these doctors and it is not fixing the GP shortage. So the solutions need to be targetted: e.g., making contracts requiring students to become GPs or not paying for their medical school and making them take out the full amount in loans, or perhaps training additional army doctors who will then be deployed around the nation [that would be very cheap!]. In any case, the situation is similar for NIH funding, if we blindly increase funding, we will increase our scientific bridges to nowhere. It needs to be targetted. And the increases need to be more specifically allocated than just for “cancer research” or “solar power research”, it needs to be as specific as “prostate cancer” or “TB antigen research” etc. etc. One solution would be to have scientists review the DISTRIBUTION of how the funding will be dispersed, but only at at some mid-level [the top level breakdown would still be decided by congress]. And there can be a nice restriction that if a branch science can’t agree, then total funding for that branch will get cut by 50% with the decision being made by the politicians or bureaucrats, so then the scientists have a very strong incentive to reach consensus in some objective way.

Essentially, I have seen too many scientific bridges to nowhere paid for by tax money, and I have seen too much good research unfunded. Given this level of waste I do not agree with increasing research funding in a blanketed way [I think the waste is 25%-75% of all funding]. You are correct that I am a scientist. And I agree — we are on the same side! But I strongly oppose a blanket increase — I want more targetting: general practitioners vs. surgeons, amalgams vs. composites. And I hope that I have helped to convince you that this is the bigger problem. I cannot sign your petition as I don’t believe in it, but I don’t discourage you from making it if you do believe in it. But I will certainly try to discourage others from signing it, since I believe a blanket increase would do more harm than good. It would also give more fuel for those who say there is too much government waste in scientific research, as it would invevitably increase the amount of waste and give them more examples to point at [even if it also gives more useful research as well].

I do applaud you in your noble goals, I just do not agree.

Reply

Beth Luna

Dear Aditya,

I see two problems with your arguments. First, true discoveries don’t come as responses to specific requests for applications. As an example, RNAi and telomerase function, both of which show great promise for therapeutics in many areas, arose from basic biomedical research. No one could have put out a request for applications in these areas until after the basic discoveries were made, let alone linked these research areas to specific diseases. This type of “blue-sky” research is most in danger now because reviewer conservatism increases as funding rates decrease.

The second problem with your argument is that it assumes that there will always be researchers in all areas that may be needed in the future. Funding rates in the single digits mean that established laboratories are being shut down, junior faculty are being denied tenure, and students and postdocs are getting the message that academic science is not a viable career path in the US. These people then go elsewhere, often overseas. Still to come are possible losses of US research institutions that are heavily dependent on NIH funding.

Decreased current funding decreases our capacity to rise to future scientific challenges and reverses the brain drain from other countries that helped to drive economic growth in this country for so long. As you say, this is true in many scientific areas.

As to what constitutes appropriate funding levels, the answer depends on where you think that the US should fall relative to other countries. US investment in research and development (R&D) is around 2.6% of our gross domestic product (www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind10/c4/fig04-16.xls). Countries with higher investments relative to GDP include Japan, South Korea, Denmark, and Sweden. US investment in total research and development was stagnant, even before the current economic crisis, while R&D spending rates are increasing dramatically in China, Japan, and South Korea. Companies like Apple are building factories in Asia because of the ready accessibility to trained personnel coupled with lower costs. Continued reductions in R&D spending in the US will further accelerate the shift of technology and good jobs to other countries, and more innovations will occur elsewhere. This is a downward spiral that all US citizens should strive to reverse.

Reply

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