Sep 072013

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A decade of neglecting the National Institutes of Health budget has left a sector of science scrabbling to survive

I am a mass murderer of squid. I have cut off more Loligo pealei heads than you, and watched those heads writhe around in a bucket for a good three or four minutes post-decapitation—all in the name of federally funded science.

My squid-murdering days were back in the late 1990s, as a teenager in Woods Hole, Mass. I worked for a couple of summers at the Marine Biological Laboratory, an internationally renowned independent research institute famous for its basic science work; in particular on marine modelanimals like squid (which have a couple of easy-to-study giant nerve cells that I dissected out hundreds of times), lobsters, sharks and many others. In certain ways it represented a unique experience: The MBL is on a relatively short list of independent research institutions around the country that are discovery- and application-oriented counterparts to the university-based research enterprise.

And that laboratory is now the latest to feel a government-induced financial crunch that has made the MBL not so independent anymore. In June, the MBL voted to form an affiliation with the deep-pocketed University of Chicago; the MBL will remain a non-profit institution, but now has a stern “parent” paying out at least some of its allowance.

NIH funding going south

The MBL’s move and other independent institutes’ latest struggles can be accredited to a single acronym: NIH. After a massive decade-long expansion of funding for the National Institutes of Health (from $10 billion in 1993 to $28 billion in 2004), in the past nearly 10 years the budget for the country’s primary scientific funding arm stagnated and even declined some years (in 2013 the budget is $29.15 billion, down five percent from 2012, and well below the 2004 budget in today’s dollars). A science-unfriendly president (President George W. Bush) and Congress seemed unconcerned as the agency’s budget failed to keep up with inflation. Acceptance rates for grant applications have dropped precipitously as a result. More acutely, this year’s federal budget sequestration is cutting more than $1.5 billion and 700 research grants from NIH. At latest count, the acceptance rate for the standard grants known as R01s was14.9 percent, meaning more than 8 out of 10 applications go unfunded: there were more than 24,000 submitted in 2012.

“It’s going to slow down the pace of research,” says Larry Keinath, the current president of the Association of Independent Research Institutes  and VP for finance and administration at the independent Wistar Institute in Philadelphia. AIRI represents the 80 or so independent research institutes around the country. “There are so many discoveries that we’re just on the verge of making…To pull back resources now is just a terrible time to be doing it.”

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