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Nobel Prizewinner In Medicine Thinks The N.I.H. Needs Help

In our Oct. 15 broadcast, Dr. James Rothman, a newly-minted Nobel Prize-winner in medicine had some hard words for the National Institutes of Health, a source of much of his early professional research funds at Stanford University.

“In the late 1970s when I started my own lab at Standford University, if you had some reasonable education and went to a good department, you had a 50-percent shot of getting a N.I.H. grant. And that NIH grant in current dollars would be larger than many grants are for senior scientists…This is a great country and we can decide if we want to continue to make it the greatest country or not.”

Rothman, who is now a professor of biomedical sciences and chemistry at Yale University, expressed his concern that raw funding for the N.I.H. and the allocation of those funds is getting muddied up and watered down in recent years.

“The N.I.H. budget in real terms after the doubling in the late 1990s and early 2000s,  after the doubling has been reduced gradually, eroding by the double-digit range. That’s one issue. It would be far better to have an R&D budget that was competitive, growing organically, perhaps a modest few percentage points. That would be reliable. A few percent above inflation. That would be great.

But that’s only part of the problem because there’s also been a sea change in how the money is allocated. It’s happened gradually over the decade and what’s happened is, progressively more and more of the funds have been allocated to top-down big science projects where the government really is organizing what should be done in one way or another. There’s been more and more applied research and actually that was all needed and we all called for it. But sometimes the pendulum goes a little too far and I actually think it’s time that we have a reexamination of whether there’s been mission drift of the N.I.H. from its start, which was all about scientific investigation initiated by a individual scientist with a good idea and giving the scientist a chance to succeed. But also understanding that most good science fails because it’s on the cutting edge. I would really call on this administration today to initiate a top-to-bottom review, fully external to the N.I.H., in which we come to understand the funding patterns, the priorities and we have an open understanding of how these priorities may exist. “

Rothman’s concerns flew in the face of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who later told NPR’s Here & Now that same day that the N.I.H. remains well-funded and well-organized.

“My feeling is that in the long run, the freedom of the American economy, the talent of American enterprise, the incredible support that we give for science and research and development will continue to have us be the strongest economy in the world and the currency of last resort for everyone. I think it would take a full-blown default to actually break that.”

Who knows more about science and research funding — a Nobel Prize-winning scientist or a sitting U.S. Senator? You be the judge. Leave your comments below or tell us on Facebook, Tumblr and @OnPointRadio.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Jan M

    By all means, listen to the scientist over the politician. My understanding is that successfully applying for NIH funding now requires researching political “pet” ideologies. Anyone trying to move away from current “received wisdom” has little hope of receiving a grant.

    • Sergei S

      I believe that’s the problem – grants are rewarded on political bias and not scientific merit. That’s like choosing R&D projects in a corporate environment based on which employee you like best, versus which employee had the best idea. But, by all means…

  • JGC

    .

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