Will cuts to the National Institutes of Health kill us?

Will the leveling of NIH funding limit scientific progress? Labs will close, grants won’t get funded and people will lose jobs. But will smaller labs and fewer scientists inevitably slow efforts to prevent and treat disease?

That’s what critics of NIH cuts say will happen. But, is it possible that we’ve been overpaying?  How do you define the proper level of NIH research funding? Do you have to be a member of the Tea Party to ask whether the billions the agency spends on academic research are being spent wisely?

images nihYesterdays’ OnPoint program included a panel of scientists talking about how hard it is to get an NIH grant these days. Gone are the days of “the doubling”– a period in the ‘90s when the NIH budget doubled, In recent years funding has remained steady or dropped slightly. It is harder for young scientist to start labs.  The “success rate” – the percent of grant applications that get funding – is also going down.

Massachusetts is always one of the top recipients of NIH funding, so sequestration will hit hard here.

But, does that really mean we’ll never cure Alzheimer’s? Or, were there too many scientists and labs before the cuts?  Why does MIT have two neurology research labs? Is more always better when it comes to medical research?  Lots of numbers get thrown around. But the problem may not as simple as funding rates or employment stats for scientists.

images on pointThe only On Point voice questioning the harm in NIH cuts was Barney Keller from the right-wing, limited government group Club for Growth. He resorted to the tired tactic of citing oddly named studies as evidence of ridiculous funding.  Someone needs to tell him we’re not interested in the sex lives of fruit flies; fruit flies are commonly used for genetics research.

Still, Keller asked a legitimate question: …”whether every dollar being spent by the federal government is being spent appropriately and efficiently.”  He said many of the researcher complaints sound “catastrophic.”  Host Tom Ashbrook groaned and cut him off: “That doesn’t cut it.”  And on to the rebuttal from a scientists who needs more money to cure your disease.

But, are the complaints catastrophic?  Is it meaningful to compare the broadly-defined cost of Alzheimer’s care to amount of funding for Alzheimer’s research? This is science, so it would be nice if someone could quantify the impact of cuts rather than relying on anecdotes about the impact on individual lab or scientists.

Mike the Mad biologist offers these thoughts:

The problem isn’t the overall funding, it’s that the NIH (and to a lesser extent, the NSF) have created an unsustainable system built around a cheap supply of graduate students and post-docs (especially since the idea that they work only forty hours per week is ludicrous)

Well, at some point, all of these cheap workers eat their spinach, grow up big and strong, and want to sit at the grownups table. Unfortunately, the NIH model doesn’t allow for enough PIs (grownups). So funding for R01s has become really tight. …. NIH needed to realize that the increase of funds, if not managed responsibly, would increase the PhD ‘birth rate’, while there was no equivalent increase in either positions or in the PhD ‘death rate’ (retires). “

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