Posted by: Dan | July 14, 2006

Rethinking NIH Funding Policies

I just got my copy of the latest issue of Cell, and Robert Weinberg has an intriguing commentary piece titled A Lost Generation. First, the summary, and then my thoughts on the essay below the fold:

The funding policies of the NIH have made it increasingly difficult for young researchers to procure research funds. This threatens to drive a whole generation of young people away from careers in basic biomedical research.

Weinberg cites the numbers that over the past generation,

the age at which American biomedical researchers with PhD degrees succeed in obtaining their first R01 award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has increased from 34.2 to 41.7 years of age. As a consequence, the biomedical community in the United States lives with the prospect of relying on an aging cohort of researchers to direct its research projects.

and asks the questions:

Why are R01 grants becoming so difficult to obtain? And what does this portend for future innovation and discovery by NIH-supported researchers?

These are two very difficult-to-answer questions, and Weinberg’s answer seems to be that the majority of NIH funding is being diverted to large initiatives inspired by the success of the Human Genome Project, more than problems of how much federal funding the NIH is allotted annually.

I chose molecular biology as my major in college because of my fascination with the Human Genome Project in the mid-90’s, and the bounty of useful information it has yielded would have been extremely unwieldy for small, principle-investigator (PI)-driven research to accomplish. So, such initiatives serve a very important purpose, there’s no question there.

But does this mean that other grand research initiatives (e.g. proteomics, nanotechnology, etc.) are deserving of large percentages of the NIH budget? Weinberg seems to imply that these promote the aging of innovative research programs into a system that preserves expired collaborations that are no longer advantageous, and stifles creativity and discovery. His position is clear:

The history of the last half-century demonstrates in a compelling fashion that much of the innovation in American biomedical research comes from young researchers working in relatively small, highly mobile, creative research groups. These groups tend to operate opportunistically to exploit new research findings and to catapult our understanding forward, often doing so with stunning rapidity. These younger researchers, ranging from predoctoral students to principle investigators in their 30s and early 40s, have time and again delivered on the promise that unfettered imaginations and boundless energy are uniquely suited to generate new conceptual paradigms in biology. These young people represent the cadre of researchers whose vitality we must preserve at all costs.

That makes a lot of sense. Sure, the Human Genome Project was a boon to biomedical research, but it is largely finished, with its large repository of information now to be sifted through by brilliant young and creative minds.

Of course, there’s a lot more there to think about, however, when arguing how the NIH should or should not be run.

Related topics:


  1. […] delay in attaining professorship that has been growing in the last decade or more, as lamented by Robert Weinberg last year. I think the point from von Bubnoff’s analysis is that there still are paths […]


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