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April 1, 2008
As NIH Funding Dries Up, Young Scientists Are Leaving Biomedical Research

Five consecutive years of flat funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is deterring promising young researchers and taking a severe toll on American medical research, according to a new report by seven major academic research institutions.

The report, “A Broken Pipeline? Flat Funding of the NIH Puts a Generation of Science at Risk,” documents the toll and profiles junior researchers from institutions across the country who are facing funding difficulties.

“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,” said Drew Faust, PhD, president of Harvard University.

The report focuses particularly on the effect on young researchers, who are getting a much smaller piece of the NIH pie. However, the report notes that “competition for limited resources is affecting scientists at every point of the academic research pipeline.”

Between 1998 and 2003, the Clinton and Bush administrations and Congress doubled the NIH budget—fueling such innovative projects as the completion of the human genome project and the creation of powerful new tools that create a window into biological systems. Everything changed in 2003, when the budget increases stopped. Since that time, NIH’s budget has experienced a 13 percent drop in real purchasing power—a drop opposed by IDSA and other supporters of biomedical research.

Today, only one in ten grants is funded upon first submission. Rejected grants must be resubmitted, which clogs the system and results in a queue in which young researchers feel they are “at the back of the pack.”

“The feedback I received from one reviewer was that my ideas were ‘very innovative and had the potential to make a big impact, but they were too risky,’” said Tricia Serio, PhD, an assistant professor at Brown University whose research is focused on Creutzfeldt-Jakob and other progressive brain diseases. Her point was echoed by other young researchers who said they have stepped away from riskier research.

Their fears are well founded. The overall success rate for NIH research project grants dropped from 32 percent in 1999 to 24 percent in 2007. Only about one in four original research applications is being funded, and many of those are only partially funded.

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. It and a companion report, “Within Our Grasp—Or Slipping Away? Assuring a New Era of Scientific and Medical Progress,” are available online at www.brokenpipeline.org

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