Scientists Must Adapt to Reduced NIH Funds

July 1, 1995

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?"

NEW YORK--How much scientific research is enough? In the bestof all possible worlds, an appropriate response might be, "onecan never have too much of a good thing." But in the realworld, the question must be rephrased: "How much researchis possible with the resources available?"

W. Maxwell Cowan, MD, PhD, vice-president and chief scientificofficer of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Chevy Chase, Md,made this point in his address to the Science Policy Associationof the New York Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Cowan, who helps to distribute the roughly $250 million thatthe Howard Hughes Institute spends annually on biomedical research,told the Association that over the next several years, the budgetof the NIH--the principal supporter of medical research in theUnited States--is likely to be either cut or, at the least, heldat about its current level of $11.4 billion annually.

"This means," he said, "that the challenge facingthose responsible for administering the NIH budget is to determinehow best to utilize these monies to ensure that the best researchcontinues to be adequately supported." At the same time,he added, the scientific community will have to face the challengeof adapting to a new era of zero growth and in a climate of diminishedexpectations.

"It is reasonable to ask if the country is presently getting$11.4 billion worth of good research," Dr. Cowan said, "orif significant adjustments can be made in the distribution ofthe budget that will enable research to continue at somethinglike its current pace, in the face of possible cuts and the inroadsof inflation."

His sense is that most of the best research will continue to besupported and that many of the more dire predictions that havebeen made will not materialize. "It all depends on how wiselythe available funds are distributed," he said.

Like most scientists, Dr. Cowan is concerned about the earmarkingof funds by Congress and the Administration for particular organizationsor specific projects. But he also said that the current peer reviewsystem is not without its faults.

It has become increasingly difficult to persuade senior scientiststo serve on NIH review panels because of the amount of time ittakes to evaluate the large number of proposals submitted, hesaid, but he cautioned that these evaluations should not be leftto younger investigators.

Put an End to 'Recyling'?

In addition, it seems that the whole grant system is being boggeddown by the repeated submission of grant applications, eitherin the same or a slightly modified form. "There needs tobe some way to determine after one or, at the most, two unfavorablereviews that a proposal is not worth further consideration,"he said. "Proposals should not be endlessly recycled in thehope that sooner or later they might be funded."

One factor that contributes to this pattern of recycling is thatonly a small proportion of all submitted grants are disapproved;the overwhelming majority are "approved, but not funded,"he said. At present, depending on the Institute, 10% to 20% ofthe approved grants are being funded, and one might well be leftwith the impression that the remaining 80% to 90% are all deservingof support.

"The truth is that most reviewers know that the proportionof proposals that merit funding--even in the best of times--iswell below this level, possibly as low as 50%," Dr. Cowansaid. "In the worst of times, one might hope that at least20% of the approved grants would be funded by all Institutes,and that this 20% would be distributed so as to adequately supportthe best of the best."

In light of the diminished federal support, it has been suggestedthat private agencies and corporations might pick up the slack."This suggestion fails to recognize that the level of researchsupport from the largest private philanthropy--the Hughes Institute--amountsto only about 2% to 3% of the NIH budget."

In the past decade, an increasing proportion of research beingdone at academic centers has been supported by

industry. Dr. Cowan, who reviews numerous material transfer andconsulting agreements, said that industry, particularly the biotechsector, has become increasingly acquisitive about university basedresearch.

"One can understand this," he said, "because mostbiotech companies are new and anxious to acquire intellectualproperty that they can exploit." Dr. Cowan said that thefruits of research should be developed for the benefit of society,and "companies are in a position to exploit new researchfindings to this end."

NIH Can Cut Cost

In his talk to the New York Academy of Sciences (see above), Dr.Maxwell Cowan suggested ways the NIH might save money, beginningwith the NIH Clinical Research Center. "The hospital shouldbe scaled down and become more focused," he said.

The same is true of the intramural program as a whole, Dr. Cowansaid. He believes that the NIH granted tenure too readily overthe years, and that some of these tenured scientists are not particularlyproductive today.

But the picture is not all bleak, he said. "Even in thesevery difficult times, good people wanting to do research continueto get fellowships and grants."