This summer you couldn’t miss the videos of friends and celebrities dumping themselves with ice water and challenging others to do the same and/or donate to the ALS Association. Over 300 million people donated $100 million and counting to the ALS Association thanks to the viral ice bucket challenge (as of Aug 29th). Money donated to the ALS Association supports research for a cure for ALS, advocacy efforts, public education and outreach, and community services for those suffering form ALS. You can learn about ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in one fun cartoon by Dwayne Godwin & Jorge Cham.
While the outpouring of individual charity has been heartening, disease specific foundations don’t have the resources needed to fund research into cures on their own. To date the ALS Association has committed $99 million to support biomedical research on ALS compared to over $229 million invested by the NIH in ALS research in just the past 5 years. The NIH and other federal science funding agencies also have more consistent funding and the ability to strategically spend money on basic science research in addition to large scale clinical trials. As I’ve discussed before, the sequester, biomedical inflation, and flat funding to the NIH and NSF have decreased federal funding for biomedical science by ~20% since 2003.
So, keep supporting your favorite charities, but increase the chances that biomedical researchers find a cure by asking your elected officials to support continued investment in science. Call your representatives and ask them to support Senator Tom Harkin’s Accelerate Biomedical Research Act. This bill would increase NIH funding in 2021 to the level it would have been if funding had kept pace with inflation after 2003 ($46.2B).
Go here for Research!America’s easy contact form and email template supporting the Accelerate Biomedical Research Act. If you prefer to call your representatives you can find contact information here.
Want a 4 minute explanation of the value of basic science research? Check out the winner of the Stand Up for Science Video Contest sponsored by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). It is important to remember that so many of the biggest achievements in modern medicine came about as side effects from research on a completely different topic. When asked whether the government should fund the development of a new treatment for diabetes or a study on how bacteria defend themselves, most people will choose the diabetes treatment. As the video clearly points out, though, studying how bacteria defend themselves has led to unexpected advances in many fields, including the treatment of diabetes. So next time you hear someone scoff at funding research on fruit flies, bear DNA, or duck genitalia, send them a link to this video.
Screen shot from ‘Funding Basic Science to Revolutionize Medicine’
You should also check out the other award winners for some fun facts on science funding – like the fact that life expectancy of an HIV+ person has increased from a few months in the 1980s to 50+ years now.
Action Alert: Ask your senators to support the FY2015 NSF Funding Bill.
I will be using this blog to keep you up to date on good times to contact your legislators to urge their support for relevant bills, especially related to science funding. The budget process stretches from February, when the President submits a budget request, to September, when Congress hopefully passes a budget for the fiscal year beginning in October. Of the ~$3.8 T in federal spending every year, 2/3 of the spending is mandatory funding for things like Medicaid, Social Security and paying off the national debt. Of the remaining discretionary spending, over half goes to defense ($728 B). Most of the debate rages around the non-defense discretionary spending pool ($535 B), which includes funding for scientific research. There are many points during budget negotiations where advocacy can be effective in maintaining favorable science funding levels. If you are interested in more detail about the budget process, I suggest the Society for Neuroscience webinar section: The Federal Budget Process.
This week the Senate is debating the fiscal year (FY 2015) Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) Appropriations bill (HR 4660) that funds the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). This bill would provide $7.255 B in funding for NSF, an increase of $83 M (1.2%) above the current level and allow the funding of an additional 140 competitive grants from NSF. The Senate bill would also increase funding for NOAA by $105 M and the USDA would receive an additional $17 M for intramural research and an additional $8.5 M for extramural research. While the bill did leave the Senate Appropriations Committee with bipartisan support, Senators are allowed to add amendments. It is expected that amendments decreasing social science funding are likely. For more on this bill, see here.
You can show your support for increased funding for research at NSF, NOAA and USDA by contacting your senators (in CA our Senators are Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein). Many organizations have easy email forms to fill out, but it often helps to personalize your letter or phone call with information about how this funding will affect you, your lab and/or your students. You can use this site to find out who your legislators are at all levels.
It seems like every week a new opinion piece is published about the potentially disastrous effects of cutting the budget for scientific research. Most scientists, myself included, have stories of friends who left academic research discouraged by the budget situation or know of established labs that have had to lay off technicians or postdocs after losing funding. Even the NIH Director Francis Collins is singing the blues. But the government invests billions of dollars in research funding every year, so can the state of science funding in the US really be that bad? After looking at the evidence, I am convinced that yes, it really is that bad and that we as scientists need to do a better job of communicating to our elected officials and the public the value of investing in science.
How Has Science Funding Changed Over Time?
The NIH budget was doubled over a 5 year period (1998-2003), and since then funding has remained flat in real dollars but decreased by ~20% if you account for biomedical inflation. NSF Funding since 2003 has shown a similar trend (1). NIH’s FY 2014 Budget is $30.15 B, an increase of $1B over the first year of the sequester (FY 2013), but still lower than the FY 2009 budget. Together, NIH and NSF receive ~$37B in funding or less than 2% of the federal budget.
What Do We Get For Our Investment in Science Research?
The list of advances that have been at least partially funded by federal money is too long to list here. Federally funded research has laid the groundwork for advances in medical treatments (polio vaccine, chemotherapy, antiretroviral AIDS drugs; 2) and the development of technologies that we take for granted (Google search engine, GPS, solar panels 3). If you were offered the opportunity to buy a stock with the return on investment that federal science funding generates you would be a fool not to buy it. It is estimated that every $1 invested in the NIH generates $2.21 in economic activity (and here in CA that number is estimated to be $2.40; 4). Similarly, every $1 invested in NSF is estimated to generate $2 in economic activity (5). NIH and NSF also support students and trainees at all levels, including the MARC, RISE, LSAMP and RUMBA programs here at SJSU.
How Have Grant Success Rates Changed Over Time?
As funding levels and the number of awards have remained flat since 2003 and the number of applications has increased, the percentage of grants funded have decreased. Success rates for NIH R01 grants have plummeted from ~30% in 2003 to the historic low level of 17.5% in 2013 (1, 6). Success rates for first time applicants to NSF fell from 22% in 2000 to 15% in 2006 (7). With falling success rates, investigators need to submit more grants in order to remain funded–NSF estimates that an increase in proposal number of 30% from 2000 levels was needed to receive the same number of awards in 2006 (7). It is hard to find a good quantification of how much time researchers spend applying to grants instead of conducting research, but an Australian study estimated that each proposal took ~34 working days to write and cost the country ~ AU$66M in salary (8).
Bottom Line: The past decade has seen a drop in federal investment in scientific research, even though the economic return on investment is about $2 for every $1 spent in addition to the knowledge, technologies and treatments the research produces. Decreased funding has led to falling success rates for grants and uncertainty about the future for researchers. It is hard to predict the full effect of these cuts in terms of delayed medical advances or the loss of talented scientists.