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NIH Funding Woes

This week's issue of Nature contains a provocative article (see below) suggesting that the National Institutes of Health is missing the mark by funding "safe" science rather than novel and potentially game-changing research. The claim is hardly new. In fact scientists often joke that in order to get NIH funding one needs to have already completed the experiments and have data in hand. The Nature article now backs up the charge with data of its own – the majority of the nation's most influential scientists are not receiving NIH funding. Why this is happening may be easy to explain. How to fix it is likely to be problematic.

While this issue will be the topic of ongoing discussions for months and years to come at NIH, Congress, and academic institutions around the country one thing is starkly clear: there is a great need for organizations like RSRT that do not shy away from high-risk projects.

"Capecchi got the grant and put all the money into the part the reviewers discouraged. 'If nothing happened, I'd be sweeping floors now,' he said. Instead, he discovered how to disable specific genes in animals and shared the 2007 Nobel Prize for medicine for it."
—Sharon Begley in Nature

"Conformity," "mediocrity" win biomedical funding, say critics

By Sharon Begley for Reuters

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Accusations that the leading U.S. funders of biomedical research "ignore truly innovative thinkers" and "encourage conformity if not mediocrity" are seldom heard in the polite precincts of top science journals. Yet they are front and center in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature, which concludes that fewer than half of America's most influential and productive biomedical scientists now receive funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Critics have long argued that NIH, which spends some $30 billion a year on biomedical research at universities and medical centers worldwide, funds conventional, incremental science rather than swing-for-the-fences studies more likely to produce breakthroughs. But the new analysis goes further: It marshals data to show that U.S. biomedical researchers who make the most influential discoveries are not getting NIH support.

"I was astonished" by the findings," said Jack Dixon, vice president and chief scientific officer of the nonprofit Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), who was not involved in the study. "It's just amazing that most of NIH's $30 billion is going to scientists who haven't had the greatest impact."