IN 1937, when the National Cancer Institute Act was signed, prospects for cancer patients were grim. Treatments for leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease were crude. Most patients died. Now, 77 years later, the chances of being cured of the most common type of childhood leukemia hover around 90 percent. Hodgkin’s is no longer a death sentence.
This progress didn’t occur on its own. It happened because generations of scientists did diligent research in laboratories largely funded by US government grants. This public funding was essential to studies that have advanced the understanding of many diseases, including cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and Ebola. But public funding also achieved something else: It reassured aspiring scientists that, if they completed their education and committed their careers to life-saving research, there would be a predictable stream of money to support innovative work.
Unfortunately, a decade of flat funding for the National Institutes of Health budget — coupled with a biomedical research inflation rate that runs about 2 percent a year — doesn’t just reduce the amount of research that occurs in the short term. It also risks thwarting the careers of a young generation of aspiring scientists, who see their mentors getting bogged down in paperwork as they patch together funding for their research. For the average investigator sending in a grant application to NIH, the odds are increasingly daunting. The chances of success in receiving a grant stand at around 17 percent — about one in six. Years ago, about 25 percent to 35 percent of grant applications were successful.
The situation is “profoundly discouraging,” NIH Director Francis S. Collins says. Whenever he visits a university, he always checks in with students and postdoctoral fellows to take a measure of the future. Today, he says, “those sessions are really psychotherapy. Most of the people who are in the room are intensely anxious about whether there is a path for them.” Although the NIH has tried to foster innovative models for scientists applying for their first grants, it has become harder to get a second. Younger researchers get squeezed out of academic jobs as investigators look for more established scientists who bring their own funding with them.
The funding crunch carries a potentially significant economic cost for this region. As the Globe recently reported, Greater Boston received more than $1.77 billion in grants from the NIH – 8 percent of the agency’s total awards, and a higher per capita rate than any other metropolitan area.
Funding from foundations and corporations is filling in some of the gap, but federal money accounts for more than two-thirds of research funding at Harvard University. A survey of 3,700 scientists last year by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology found that only 2 percent could find private funds to make up for the loss of federal grants. Nearly half reported that they had laid off researchers.
Some scientists are even contemplating leaving their field — or the United States. In the ASBMB survey, 18 percent said they were considering continuing their research career in another country. Meanwhile, China is increasing its support for medical research by an estimated 20 percent a year. South Korea and Singapore are not so far behind.
Congress can easily banish US scientists’ worries by recommitting to the steady growth in public dollars for vital research. Instead, as funding has flat-lined and as the number of new, tenure-track faculty positions at research universities has dropped, a generation of talented young researchers is caught in a holding pattern, with dashed dreams and an uncertain future.