- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2007

Paperwork is trumping lab work: Funding for new biomedical research has gotten so anemic at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that scientists are spending more time seeking grants than cures, say representatives from major medical and scientific institutions who appeared on Capitol Hill yesterday.

The field is rife with missed opportunities and demoralized investigators burdened with the business of keeping their labs open, the consortium told the Senate Appropriations Committee. Currently, eight of 10 research grant applications go unfunded, they said.

“Researchers shy away from real discoveries. They’re becoming worriers, not explorers,” said Dr. Stephen Strittmatter, a professor of neurobiology at the Yale University School of Medicine.

“When scientists have to spend most of their time trying to get funded, caution wins out over cutting-edge ideas, creativity sacrifices to convention, and scientific progress gives way to meetings and grant applications,” said Dr. Robert Siliciano, an infectious disease specialist with Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“Very, very productive scientists are doing too little research. Instead, they are spending their time trying to get their labs funded again,” he added, noting that many researchers now spend up to 60 percent of their time filling out paperwork.

Some are growing old waiting for the money: In 1970, a first-time grant recipient’s average age was 34; today it is 42.

The two doctors were among the authors of a report criticizing flat funding for NIH. High-profile contributors to the independent study included physicians from Harvard University, the University of California, Columbia University, the University of Texas, Washington University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The NIH purse, meanwhile, has become slim. The federal health agency typically enjoyed 15 percent budget increases in other years. The budget grew by 2.5 percent in 2004, 2 percent in 2005 and one-tenth of 1 percent last year, for a total of $28.3 billion. Numbers for the fiscal 2007 budget have yet to be released, though an increase of eight-tenths of 1 percent is projected in 2008, according to NIH figures.

The trend could stunt potential treatments in cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and neurological diseases, the report said, while discouraging a new crop of researchers vital for the future health care needs of aging baby boomers. It warned that some researchers may turn to foreign funding.

NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni also appeared before the committee, reminding lawmakers that NIH research pays off: Cancer deaths have declined for the second year. He also used his appearance to call for lifting restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell research.

“From my standpoint as the NIH director, it is in the best interest of our scientists, our science, our country that we find ways, that the nation finds a way, to allow the science to go full speed on both adult and embryonic stem-cell research,” Dr. Zerhouni said.

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