March 28, 2013

WHAT’S UP DOC?: Spread the Wealth! If There Even Is Any …

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Wealth, extravagance, celebrity, glamour! Ah, the life of a … scientist? As any young biology student entertaining a career in biomedical science quickly realizes, these luxuries are as common in the life of a scientist as selenium is in the composition of the human body (don’t worry, I pushed my nerd glasses up on my nasion as I wrote that phrase).  But it might appear that that norm is slowly changing, as two massive research funding initiatives recently hit the news.  One is a federal initiative to fund the Brain Activity Map Project, which seeks to delineate how neural networks in the human brain connect and interact and is an incredible undertaking on the scale of the Human Genome Project.  If approved, as The New York Times reported,  many hope that funding will exceed $300 million a year, or more than $3 billion over 10 years.

The other sensational announcement was that of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, which was founded by a team of Internet tycoons and awarded $3 million apiece to 11 top scientists.  Just to give you a relative sense of the magnitude of these scientific awards, the average federal grant to an independent faculty researcher is typically on the order of $100,000 dollars.  Even the Nobel Prize in 2012 came with a measly $1.2 million attached.  Thus, these recent immense awards must be a boon to scientists everywhere, right?  Everybody come get yours; the faucet is finally flowing, right?

Well, no, not really.  Despite the astounding nature of these announcements, it’s difficult to generate the requisite enthusiasm when one surveys the greater landscape of scientific funding.  In recent years, funding for the National Institutes of Health, which provides the vast majority of federal funding for biomedical research, has flat-lined. This has restricted the number of grant applications being approved and put pressure on scientists to seek funding elsewhere.  Sequestration, the across-the-board slashing of the federal budget, has turned this bleak situation all the bleaker.  To adhere to the principles of sequestration, the NIH must severely reduce its budget by $1.6 billion, according to an editorial in Nature.  Research institutions are bracing for the disastrous consequences: Cornell University recently calculated that it stands to lose $28 million in overall funding, and Weill Cornell Medical College predicts a loss of $8.3 million per year in federal research funding alone.  For most scientists at Cornell and at institutions across the country, the struggle just to tread water now comes with the addition of cement shoes.

As an M.D.-Ph.D. student with hopes of one day running a lab, I am usually reinvigorated when I learn of instances where science is being prioritized and heavily supported. Yet in the wake of the news of the enormous funds for the Brain Activity Map and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, I was surprised to find myself feeling almost indifferent.  It’s hard to find inspiration from these stories as I watch a vast majority of our junior faculty (in whose ranks I would like to one day find myself) struggling endlessly, pouring the entirety of their effort, focusing their every minute — not into the experimental projects that stimulated their passions and drew them into the field in the first place,  but into simply winning a little bit of money to justify their work for a few more years.  So when 11 already established scientists (less than a hundredth of a percent of the biomedical scientific workforce, according to numbers from the NIH) receive astronomical awards, as deserved as they very well may be, it raises some questions: Would it be better to share the wealth?  Should we give smaller awards to a greater number of scientists?  What about shifting the funding mechanisms in support of young investigators, the next generation of scientists trying to make a career for themselves, rather than the established scientists who in general have much more dependable funding sources?

Lest it sound like I’m advocating a Robin Hood-esque revolution for scientific funding agencies, it’s worth considering the potential value of massive private awards like the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.  Yuri Milner, creator of the Breakthrough Prize, discussed how the intention of the prize was to increase public awareness of science and make accomplished scientists “household names and heroes in society.” If the generous philanthropy of this group truly spurs other private donors to wake up to the value of biomedical research and take it on as a pet cause, this may benefit scientists as a whole.  With federal funding becoming increasingly tenuous and  less reliable, private donors could become the saviors of science, shifting the paradigm of research funding away from the strapped federal government.  While this would likely require more judicious conflict of interest management, private donations might ultimately be the answer for keeping our national research mission afloat. If this does indeed become the case, let’s be mindful that in addition to rewarding our current celebrities of science, we also ensure that the entire research community can flourish by continuing to support our next generation of scientific heroes.

Jeffrey Russ is a fifth-year MD-PhD student at Weill Cornell Medical College and a former WCMC Student Overseer. He may be reached at [email protected] What’s Up Doc? appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Jeff Russ