Can States Close the Research Funding Gap?

Last week, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick announced a plan to boost the state budget for life sciences by $1.25 billion. The proposal immediately grabbed attention for its vision of a vast stem-cell bank, the world's largest, which would open up new opportunities for embryonic stem-cell research. It's a reaction, of course, to the federal government's refusal to pay for such work. But amid the excitement over stem cells, another part of Patrick's proposal got overlooked. It, too, addresses a crisis of funding at the federal level, albeit one that has gotten far less press: the stagnating budget of the National Institutes of Health, a problem that is hurting not just stem- cell researchers but biologists at large, particularly young researchers at the most vulnerable points in their careers.

The NIH was once flush with money. Its budget doubled between 1998 and 2003 on the strength of enthusiastic support in Congress. Universities responded, hiring faculty and starting ambitious projects with the expectation that they'd be able to finish them. But in 2003, the Iraq War began—and the agency's annual budget stopped growing, peaking at around $29.2 billion. Since 2003 the budget has remained flat; according to a recent article in the journal Science, "This year will be the fourth in a row that the budget of NIH, the wealthiest research agency in the world, has not kept pace with biomedical inflation." The institute has cut back on grants as a result. It once funded almost a third of proposals it received; this year, it will probably fund just over 20 percent, and the individual grants it provides will likely be smaller than they used to be. "It's a very real problem across the country," says Kevin Casey, senior director of federal and state relations at Harvard University. "With the NIH funding having been flat, they've had to stretch the grants they're providing, and they're lowering the dollar value." Today, at some individual NIH centers such as the National Cancer Institute, he notes, as few as 5 percent of grant applications may get funded in any given cycle; the rest are rejected.

Research around the country has been stalling as a result, including some conducted at the most prestigious universities. Margaret Livingstone, a Harvard neurobiologist who studies how the brain reacts to faces, says she had never had much trouble getting a grant approved before the crunch. In the last three years, however, the agency has become far more stingy; twice it has turned down proposals she thought were a sure bet. "I spent a year and a half writing [my most recent] grant over and over and over again," she says. "And the science of it didn't change at all." Her lab is solvent now, but it ended up going for several months without funding it had been relying on.

Patrick's proposal for "gap funding" will target such promising researchers whose proposals almost pass NIH muster but ultimately fall short. The idea is not a new one, per se. Private institutions have long set aside money for near-miss projects, and in recent years they have started drawing on it more; Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has recently quadrupled the amount of gap funding in its budget. Patrick's plan, however, could take gap funding to unprecedented levels—overall, the proposal asks for "$250 million on research grants, fellowships, and sector-wide workforce training initiatives." A substantial portion of that $250 million could encourage thousands of midcareer researchers to wait out the NIH drought rather than leaving academia—and it would also help the universities who are considering those researchers for tenured positions. "Institutions are struggling to provide sustenance to these researchers," says Casey. "Rather than lay off their post-docs, let's provide that funding [at the state level], at least until the federal government re-establishes its priorities."

The governor's proposal will also target younger researchers who are arriving in the field just at its moment of crisis. Their work may be "too nascent" to attract serious federal funding, Patrick says. "They may not be quite eligible for an NIH grant at this point," he says. "They need a bridge, a way to get from here to there." But without them, of course, research will stagnate even more. These younger scientists are well aware of the chasm they face. Many now drop out of university programs after their first failure to get funding, convinced that the situation is too bleak. "We are really losing a generation of scientists," Livingstone says. "I'm old, so it's not going to bother me. I'll just keep grinding away. But right now we are pouring time into training young people and then they're saying, 'I can't do this.'" Patrick's proposal could turn some of those "can'ts" into "cans." Asked about it, Livingstone says, "I can't tell you how grateful scientists are that somebody has noticed we're in the middle of a disaster."