Over the years science funding has changed significantly. In the past, funding would have been obtained through private benefaction or from wealthy individuals. Today, researchers are usually funded by a mixture of grants from government agencies, non-profit foundations and institutions. However, with the increasing popularity of social media and the internet, methods used to obtain money may be undergoing a shift. New routes linking funding sources with scientists are being increasingly explored. Tighter budgets and struggling economies are driving a need for new ways of funding and social media is proving to be invaluable in raising awareness of projects and linking like-minded people more effectively.
In this special Soapbox Science series, we focus on the new ways in which science groups and individuals are obtaining funding and how projects such as Petridish, Tekla Labs, Kickstarter and the #scifundchallenge may change the future of scientific research.
Dr. Thon holds joint appointments within the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston, and is an American Society of Hematology Scholar. Dr. Thon received his doctorate from the University of British Columbia, Canada, under Dr. Dana Devine where he worked closely with Canadian Blood Services for the improvement of the processing and storage of blood platelets. As a post-doctoral fellow in Dr. Joseph Italiano’s lab, Dr. Thon’s research now focuses on the cytoskeletal mechanics and signaling pathways leading to platelet formation. This research has set the groundwork for the development of biological model systems that will be used to (1) study the process of platelet release under physiologically relevant conditions, (2) develop bio-mimetic systems to generate useable numbers of clinically viable platelets for infusion, and (3) establish representative ex vivo models of human bone marrow and surrounding blood vessels to test drugs and develop treatments for thrombocytopenia.
The day-to-day rigors of academic biomedical research are difficult to appreciate, and it is necessary that scientists share their perspective of the knowledge market with politicians and government representatives who are burdened with making difficult decisions on our behalf. Unlike the airline industry which also does research and development (R&D) to create safer, lighter and more efficient airplanes, academic medicine does not build R&D into the pricing of its services. This is because biomedical research is a surprisingly random process which depends on chance observations, unexpected results and seemingly unrelated outcomes. As a result, downstream applications of research are almost impossible to predict at the outset and necessitate an altogether different model of cost recovery. To subsidize national biomedical research endeavors, projected costs are spread among citizens in the form of taxes, and distributed to multiple academic institutes as operating grants. Investments in research lead to licensed technologies which create jobs and revenues far in excess of the grants that support them, with every dollar invested in academic biomedical research generating two dollars in economic growth (Murphy K., Topel, R. The economic value of medical research, 1999).
A country’s biomedical advancement and innovation is thus tied to its investment in academic research. Funding of research comes entirely from government and private donors, and is as value-based, bottom-up and pork- and crony-free as it gets. In North America approximately two-thirds of academic biomedical research is supported through federal funding agencies such as the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR). The mainstays of NIH/CIHR support are grants made to individual investigators for reasonably broad research projects, and researchers compete for these funds through a rigorous process of peer review. Nevertheless, the lack of sustained growth for both the NIH and CIHR has forced success rates for primary operating grants to drop significantly over the last decade to approximately 12% (NIH, R01) and 15% (CIHR Operating Grant); Fiscal Year 2011. This means that only a very small percentage of outstanding applications for research projects are being actively supported to tackle the multitude of health needs in these countries. As a result, a majority of highly-rated research proposals will not be funded, opening the field for countries like Germany, India and China which are boasting funding rates of 47% and higher to take the lead.
Relatively flat funding rates in North America have meant that universities, hospitals and research institutes have been forced to implement hiring freezes of PhDs into faculty positions, effectively stranding their scientists in temporary, low-paying jobs with limited prospects of advancement. Not only does this risk exporting our scientists abroad, but private industry’s reliance on biomedical research, both in terms of scientific innovation and the researchers they help train, means industry will follow suit. Canadians call this the ‘brain drain.’
Indeed, 80% of PhDs in North America will not become professors (Fuhrmann et al., Improving graduate education to support a branching career pipeline: Recommendations based on a survey of doctoral students in the basic biomedical sciences, 2011). For the majority of these scientific investigators, the inability to secure a faculty position has meant that they must languish in a series of post-doctoral positions supported by grant-funded professors who are finding themselves increasingly with limited resources. The average age of independence in research is now in the mid-40s, a testament to the bleak prospects facing young scientists. Given the state of academic funding, it is not surprising that many investigators have chosen to transition into more secure professions like teaching, medicine or law. The loss hurts our competitiveness in biomedical research and forces industry abroad.
Given our current economy, it is imperative that efforts to improve the nation’s fiscal stability be grounded in the long-term competitiveness of industries we currently head, and that we leverage our expertise in medical science and capacity to do high-tech research. This does not need to come from increased government spending alone. Whereas academic medicine cannot build R&D into the pricing of its services, universities profit directly from tuition fees, patents and personal endowments. Since these revenues are derived from faculty teaching loads, the scientific success of their investigators, and established reputation of their research program, faculty support must be factored into departmental operating budgets. For American institutions, the Canadian system represents a more sustainable model in this regard, and universities on both sides of the border should be required to assume greater responsibility for investigator salaries and administrative support, freeing up tax dollars to directly support research innovation. Likewise, tax breaks for private donations to federal funding agencies would reduce their dependence on tax-payer dollars and incentivize industry investment in national research programs. Finally, limiting the number of federal awards issued per investigator (most of which are held by senior faculty) would open up more funding opportunities to help support young investigators and significantly lower the age of independence.
Science is a marathon, and if we fall behind now, while we lead health innovation in the world, the cost of recovering our position, in light of emerging economies with which we compete, will become progressively more expensive. Sustained increases in NIH/CIHR funding are critical to maintain North America’s innovation engines at a crucial time for research and the economy, and most importantly, improve the health and well-being of our nations. Now is the time for scientists to advocate most strongly for national investment in biomedical research. Senators, congressmen, and members of parliament are the decision-makers you elect to represent you – write to them. You can go here and enter your zip code (in the United States), or here and enter your postal code (in Canada), to access your representative.
While the argument for the government to prioritize an industry where the number of clinical advances, drug developments and cures is proportional to total research investment is not a difficult case to make – make it. Addressing these concerns forces the issue to light, and commits politicians to publicly defensible positions for which they can subsequently be held accountable. Government agencies cannot lobby for themselves and policy makers do not share your unique perspective. Our health, economy, and the future of scientific progress are at stake.
To find out more about science funding you can read this special Nature News feature, Finding philanthropy: Like it? Pay for it.