Saturday, January 22, 2011

Should we cut the NIH budget by 44%?

I was watching an episode of Fareed Zakaria's GPS program the other day, and the thesis of the hour was innovation. One of the points that was made by some titans of business and innovation is the crucial role of government in research funding. Whether we're talking about 60% if not more of cancer research, the internet, the global positioning system, government research money has been behind a lot of the major advances in our society.

The Republicans want to pass budget cuts - and certainly we need them. However, they don't want to touch social security, medicare, or defense. To be politically safe, the GOP is focusing on "discretionary spending". This includes the NIH, the FBI, environmental protection agencies, education, and the list goes on and on.

We're really going to have to think long and hard about our priorities as a nation, because we can't have it all. Do we want to continue to nation build in Afghanistan? Should we continue to accept our role as the world's policeman with a 500 billion dollar military? Should the government continue to pay people to stop working at the young age of 65 (ie, social security). Or, do we want to invest in the future, by putting more money in education, science, and research?

Something tells me that the Chinese won't be cutting their education and research budgets anytime soon. Its OK though. All of the new jobs in the biosciences can be created in China just as easily. Maybe in the future we will import our cancer and other medical treatments from China like we do with toys today. The most intelligent young American scientists will compete to earn a Ph.D. spot in a Chinese laboratory. The top American medical researchers will move their laboratories to China where funding is reliable and easy to get. The pharmaceutical companies might start following the researchers over there.

The research is going to get done. It is just a matter of where.


Anonymous said...

Yes. The NIH budget should be massively cut because there are too many labs working redundantly. One lab scoops others that are working in exactly the same topic/area. As a result, the effort and resources of the other labs goes to waste. There is too much redundancy in biomedical research, so eliminating academic labs would not affect the pace of discovery.

The savings from cutting the NIH budget could be redirected to foster the creation emerging biotech companies in the US. By redirecting NIH resources from the academic sector to the private sector, I believe that pace of discoveries actually reaching the market and having a benefit in society would be accelerated.

Nicholas said...

We at least agree that investment in science and research in net should not be cut. I would take exception to a few points though.

1. Scientific research could more accurately be thought of as a team relay race, rather than an individual sprinting competition. The whole point of the peer-reviewed publication system that our scientists use is precisely *to allow* other scientists to scoop on the most cutting edge research and get up to speed. It makes no sense for people to be tinkering in an outdated area.

2. There is a funny anecdote that I once heard about a scientist making a groundbreaking physics discovery. When asked what the discovery might allow humans to do, the response was, in a nutshell, "I have no idea, but isn't it an amazing discovery!"

The private sector is a very important part of the American biomedical effort, there is no doubt. However, the private sector is most concerned with research with imminent potential application to humans (and thus, could be marketed).

Yet translational research is built upon a foundation of basic sciences research. Often the investigator may not even have a vision of what therapeutic use a basic science discovery could have, but the sum of those discoveries is the foundation that our future breakthroughs will be built upon. In my eyes, this is the single most important goal for the government in funding scientific research: to expand human knowledge for the sake of human knowledge, confident that the innovations of tomorrow will be built upon that strong foundation. If you ax that funding, you're cutting the legs out from under the biomedical researchers of tomorrow.

Like in my initial post, the government has done this before. Did the government ever dream that the internet would become what it is today? Of course not, but the government invested in a project through DARPA that the market wasn't interested in, and that work formed the basis of our modern economy. So I agree, we should be pouring more investment into the private sector, encouraging new biotech companies and other risky startups. But we should be expanding the budget of the NIH in the meantime, not axing it. I'll finish by including an excerpt from a new book by Tyler Cowen, one of my favorite economists. I think this is a useful illustration of how important a strong science foundation is for our economy:

"Charles I. Jones, an economist at Stanford University, has “disassembled” American economic growth into component parts, such as increases in capital investment, increases in work hours, increases in research and development, and other factors. Looking at 1950–1993, he found that 80 percent of the growth from that period came from the application of previously discovered ideas, combined with heavy additional investment in education and research, in a manner that cannot be easily repeated for the future. In other words, we’ve been riding off the past. Even more worryingly, he finds that now that we are done exhausting this accumulated stock of benefits, we are discovering new ideas at a speed that will drive a future growth rate of less than one-third of a percent (that’s a rough estimate, not an exact one, but it is consistent with the basic message here). It could be worse yet if the idea-generating countries continue to lose population, as we are seeing in Western Europe and Japan."

Anonymous said...

"Did the government ever dream that the internet would become what it is today?"

No. But that was accomplished by the NSF at a fraction of the massive NIH budget. Certainly the Return of Investment (ROI) on the NSF has been incredible, but not for the NIH.

While NIH budget has greatly increased in the last few decades, the numbers of drugs reaching the market has actually decreased. The funding for the NIH has not generated anything like the internet, and it is far, far away from so. Coming to think of it, the NIH has very little to show as of recent, at least compared to other sciences.

I think there is a lot of redundancy because when you go to a biomedical conference, one notices that there are at least 3 groups pursuing the very same phenomena, and though competition is a good thing, excessive competition has only corrupted the biomedical sciences. It has become too cut-throat, so labs are behaving unethically. Cutting the NIH would not alter the pace of discovery because that would mainly get rid of redundancy.

The biomedical workforce has also become sclerotic. PIs are too old, and are only pursuing safe projects that yield little gains. I think that generation has too go, but why would they? They got tenure and labs full students and postdocs thanks to a glut in the biomedical workforce created by the NIH budget.

I used to be like you and believe that more funding would yield more discoveries, but I have witnessed how this most recent doubling of the NIH budget has only increased competition and stress.In my opinion, a more healthy environment where PIs, postdocs, and students can actually think about big breakthroughs is badly needed. Nowadays, most decisions in labs center around the next grant or update, and not so much the long run prospects.

I believe that redirecting funds from the NIH would reduce the size of the biomedical workforce to a more optimal level. Like I said, if you really love science, those dollars can be alternatively used to bring those discoveries to society.

And I disagree with the notion that US is not discovering fast enough. The problem with the US, Europe, and Japan is that R&D is following the steps of manufacturing and migrating to China and India. If you want rising biomedical funding, that's where you should go.

Nicholas said...

"While NIH budget has greatly increased in the last few decades, the numbers of drugs reaching the market has actually decreased."

My understanding is that the goal of the NIH is not to produce drugs. We have a private industry for that. So the above point is useful to advocate for more private biotech research (as you did earlier), but it isn't really an argument to cut the NIH.

About your other comments: I've visited the NIH but I've never worked there, so I'm not really in a position to agree or disagree with your points about the workforce being sclerotic or that the atmosphere is noncompetitive. But I appreciate the perspective. It is definitely something I'll keep in the back of my mind as I go forward.

I don't think we should just accept that R&D will be the domain of the Indians and Chinese in the future. The pharmaceutical companies and biotech companies can benefit greatly from collaboration with the basic researchers. If that work goes abroad, our private market is going to take a hit, even though they may have access to that research superficially as it is published.

I will admit I still have major reservations about the ability of the private sector to make basic science discoveries that aren't imminently marketable. But there are solutions to that problem. We could make awards for basic science discoveries in the same way that the government created the X-Prize to encourage the private sector to pursue commercial space flight. Another change recently is the NIH has recognized that most of the grants go to older, perhaps less dynamic but more established PIs, and there is a new program that gives awards to young postgraduate students who are just getting started.

will_decker said...

Cutting edge biological research will never be done in China. If it's not done here, it's not going to be done anywhere. There is no other country in the world that has the cultural capacity to innovate in the same way as the United States. If the Republiscums want to cut government R&D spending, fine, let them and the rest of the nation suffer the consequences. I have long held the viewpoint that Republicans shouldn't be allowed to go to the doctor since they spend all their time trying to tear down the institutions that allow medical science to progress. They can go to their own Republican doctors who didn't benefit from any government funding during their professional training. They can take medicines that were developed wholly without any level of government funding. They can receive surgical interventions developed solely on the private dime. Result: Republican life expectancy would drop to about 27, the same as it was in primitive, prehistoric societies. And that would suit me just fine...

Anonymous said...

Here are my ideas for cutting the NIH budget:

No more flying around and staying in hotel rooms to review grants. Study sections should happen electronically, like via Skype.

Fewer MDs and more PhDs should be funded. The plain and simple reason: PhDs do better work for less money.

Cut the overhead that Universities can garner by 5%.

Cut the amount of money granted by 5%.