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Rural states seek to sap research funds from Boston

WASHINGTON — Two dozen rural states stretching from Maine to Mississippi and Montana are clamoring to increase their share of federal research dollars now disproportionately awarded to Boston-area institutions and scientists.

The effort, coupled with other National Institutes of Health initiatives, could mean less federal money would go to research powerhouses like Massachusetts, New York, and California. Some Bay State researchers fear it threatens Boston’s dominance and could diminish chances for national scientific breakthroughs.

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In a long-established trend, the Boston region’s hospitals, universities, and research institutions received more than $1.77 billion in NIH grants in 2013, or 8 percent of the agency’s total awards — more money than any other metropolitan area in the country. It pays for research into everything from potential cancer cures to creating advanced prosthetic limbs.

“It’s hard to compete against MIT or Harvard. . . . They’ve had their share. A lot of state colleges and universities all over the country, from Idaho to Maine, have some ideas too, and I think we should give these people from smaller schools in other states an opportunity,” said Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. “It’s time to fix that.”

Shelby is among many members of Congress advocating for the federal government to increase the amount of money set aside in a special program for researchers in 23 largely rural states that traditionally have had a difficult time competing for NIH grants. Backers of increasing the money in that program want to expand the number of states that benefit from it, as well as boost the amount of money by up to 14 percent.

“There’s a battle between merit and egalitarianism,” said Dr. David Page, director of the Whitehead Institute, a prestigious research institution in Cambridge affiliated with MIT. “If the table is tilted, we know the table is going to be tilted away from us. It’s straight out of Robin Hood.”

The battle is spilling from the halls of academia into the Capitol, where the lobbying fight is heating up.

The coalition of states that benefits from the NIH special program for rural states doubled the amount of money it spent on lobbying in the last decade, to $590,000 in 2013 from $300,000 in 2003. That number does not include direct lobbying by universities in those states.

During a March meeting, university professors and administrators in the coalition fanned out on Capitol Hill to seek support from their respective congressional delegations.

“Is it the right thing to leave half the nation behind in the biomedical research enterprise?” asked Carolyn Hovde Bohach, a microbiologist at the University of Idaho and president of a national association representing researchers in the rural states.

In one of the efforts, Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican on the Appropriations Committee, is proposing that funding for the special program to benefit rural states, formally called the NIH’s Institutional Development Award, be raised to $310 million, up from the current $273 million. The current amount equals just 1 percent of the institute’s research grants — a drop in the bucket compared with what Boston researchers win each year.

“I certainly understand that research centers like Boston are going to naturally attract a great deal of investment from the NIH,” Collins said. “Nevertheless, we need to remember that innovation can spring forth from the smaller research labs that traditionally have not had a lot of support from the federal government.”

Collins acknowledged that the coalition faces an uphill battle as lawmakers confront pressures from colleagues representing large states to scale back the special program in order to preserve the core NIH awards.

The regional fights are layered atop another effort to help the little guys. In a new threat to big labs, such as those in Boston, the NIH is increasing scrutiny of researchers who have won more than $1 million in grants. That move could eventually lead the federal government to strip money away from the big winners and send it to upstarts.

Under the new guidelines, well-funded researchers will undergo a special review to determine whether they qualify for additional support. An estimated 559 researchers in Massachusetts would be subject to the additional scrutiny, accounting for about 12 percent of researchers nationwide who receive grants of more than $1 million, according to a Globe analysis of NIH data.

Representative Michael Capuano, whose district encompassing the Boston-area research hospitals wins more NIH money than any other congressional district, said the Massachusetts delegation is playing defense right now.

“The system works reasonably well but it’s under attack in a serious way,” Capuano said.

Massachusetts is mobilizing. Hospital executives, university presidents, and Washington lobbyists make routine trips to the Capitol. Their not-so-subtle message: Boston is on top because its elite institutions offer the best chances of big scientific breakthroughs.

“There are people in Boston who deserve more than a million dollars in NIH money because that is the best use of those dollars,” said Dr. Barrett Rollins, chief scientific officer at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a top recipient of federal research funds. “Congress has a responsibility to spend taxpayer money in the best possible way, and to me, the most straightforward way to do that is to make sure the dollars are invested in the most meritorious work without regard to geographic distribution.”

Because the quality of science is not evenly distributed across the country, researchers should not expect federal dollars to be either, said Harry Orf, senior vice president for research at Massachusetts General Hospital, another top recipient of NIH grants.

“You have congressmen who can’t evaluate science sending money to places not rated for innovation,” Orf said. “As funds get more and more scarce, you want to make sure you’re betting on the best science.”

Sally Rockey, deputy director for extramural research at the NIH, said the idea of putting a “chicken in every pot” is one of the most fundamental issues facing the agency at a time of budget constraints. The NIH has floated several scenarios to more broadly distribute the pot of award money, such as limiting the number of applications an institution or individual researcher can submit, but thus far has only decided to impose extra scrutiny on those receiving more than $1 million in grants.

“You can’t distribute it evenly if you’re a meritocracy,” said Rockey, adding that she sees the special funding targeting the 23 states as a compromise to boost those that are not as successful.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat who is exploring options for additional legislation to increase federal research funding, said the battle between the haves and have nots is a consequence of “squeezing the NIH too hard.”

“It shouldn’t be a part of the conversation, this idea of pitting two groups against each other,” Warren said. “Our focus should be on increasing the investment in scientific research, not on how best to divide up a shrinking pot.”

But Warren’s wish is a tough sell in the current partisan environment, when a gridlocked Congress — particularly a spending-averse House — is not on track to boost NIH funding in any significant way.

Lawmakers who support spreading the wealth argue that they are just trying to level the playing field, and that the research dollars going to the 23 states are awarded on a peer-reviewed, merit basis similar to the way traditional NIH grants are awarded — but with less competition.

“The program stipulates that not everything goes to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford,” said Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat.

Representative Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, said he’s simply interested in supporting research that occurs “outside the normal corridors of power.”

“There is a network where you tend to reward peers and people you know, and I think the distribution of funds, not intentionally, is skewed a bit toward places like Boston,” Cole said. “We just want to make sure that the playing field is fair.”

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeTracyJan.
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