Point of View

Getting more bang from research bucks

January 11, 2014 

The sequester, which has fortunately been somewhat ameliorated by the passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, has self-inflicted another wound to the U.S. research engine and, by extension, the public good since the benefits to public health and the economy are diminished.

These benefits are considerable because National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense and Department of Energy research provides advances that enhance the health of the public, protect our citizenry from evolving threats, advance our energy independence and sustain a powerful research capability unmatched in the world.

In my career in research spanning nearly a half century, the sequester was just the latest in numerous cycles of federal research funding growth and retraction. These yo-yo funding cycles are not in the best interest of anyone because productive efforts are reduced in funding busts and then re-initiated again during relative booms.

A much better approach would be to find a way to institute more stable funding over a longer horizon and avoid the peaks and valleys that characterize the funding patterns over several decades. For example, the level of NIH funding for research could be pegged to the total annual health-related expenditures in the country. And even if a stable funding level, adjusted for inflation, were slightly lower than the recent 10-year average, the result would be a considerably better deal for those who fund the lion’s share of research in the U.S. – the taxpayers.

There are several reasons why this is so. Productive laboratories are forced to lay off trained personnel when funds are cut and, in some cases, those labs are never reopened. When grants are refunded, labs must retrain new personnel with consequent delays because valuable experience has been lost. Even more important in the longer term, this cycle decimates our human resources. U.S.-trained graduate and postdoctoral students are our nation’s investment in a highly trained workforce that moves the frontiers of research and spawns the next generation of entrepreneurs and scientific breakthroughs.

Grant-funding probabilities are among the lowest in recent history so most investigators are forced to write grant proposal after grant proposal. While grant writing is important to creating research priorities and strategies, a primary focus on writing grants detracts from the conduct of the research itself and peer-reviewed publications that describe the research for other scientists and benefit the public at-large.

This eddy current of grant writing and rewriting activity is particularly devastating for productive young investigators, in many cases forcing them out of the fields for which they were trained and largely destroying taxpayers’ previous investment in these scientists. These negative experiences are not lost on the generation of young people planning a career in science and engineering. Indeed, they are likely to deter the most capable students from entering the nation’s R&D enterprise.

As many have pointed out, once the spigot is turned off, it can take the better part of a generation to regenerate this powerful brainpower resource. This is devastating to our economy, to be sure, but also to the intellectual capital and long-term trajectory of our nation, and it makes the United States vulnerable to being surpassed by other larger economies.

No one can argue that some belt tightening doesn’t benefit almost all efforts, including R&D, and that we all must become able to do more with less in order to keep government budgets under control. But a more constant level of R&D funding, even if it were slightly lower than the peaks seen in the past, would immensely benefit the taxpayer by ensuring that the flow of developments from our research community that is so central to our future economic success is not crippled.

Ken Jacobson, Ph.D., is Kenan Distinguished Professor of Cell Biology and Physiology at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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