NEW YORK--How much scientific research is enough? In the best
of all possible worlds, an appropriate response might be, "one
can never have too much of a good thing." But in the real
world, the question must be rephrased: "How much research
is possible with the resources available?"
W. Maxwell Cowan, MD, PhD, vice-president and chief scientific
officer of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Chevy Chase, Md,
made this point in his address to the Science Policy Association
of the New York Academy of Sciences.
Dr. Cowan, who helps to distribute the roughly $250 million that
the Howard Hughes Institute spends annually on biomedical research,
told the Association that over the next several years, the budget
of the NIH--the principal supporter of medical research in the
United States--is likely to be either cut or, at the least, held
at about its current level of $11.4 billion annually.
"This means," he said, "that the challenge facing
those responsible for administering the NIH budget is to determine
how best to utilize these monies to ensure that the best research
continues to be adequately supported." At the same time,
he added, the scientific community will have to face the challenge
of adapting to a new era of zero growth and in a climate of diminished
"It is reasonable to ask if the country is presently getting
$11.4 billion worth of good research," Dr. Cowan said, "or
if significant adjustments can be made in the distribution of
the budget that will enable research to continue at something
like its current pace, in the face of possible cuts and the inroads
His sense is that most of the best research will continue to be
supported and that many of the more dire predictions that have
been made will not materialize. "It all depends on how wisely
the available funds are distributed," he said.
Like most scientists, Dr. Cowan is concerned about the earmarking
of funds by Congress and the Administration for particular organizations
or specific projects. But he also said that the current peer review
system is not without its faults.