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 expectations.
"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 of inflation."
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.