One of the (many) scourges of the Bush Era has been the suppression of science. From the block on funding of stem cell research, to the muzzling of climate scientist James Hansen, to John McCain mocking the use of DNA in conservation work on endangered grizzlies in the Northern Rockies, to the push for teaching "creation science" in the public schools, to a thousand other examples, the Right loves to use science as a punching bag.
So, the Obama Administration is likely to usher in a new renaissance in scientific research? Not so fast! Just as one door opens, another slams shut.
A pair of articles in a recent issue of Science (the official organ of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) caught my eye. First of all, there's the small matter of funding for scientific research (subscription so you probably won't be able to see all this), much of which comes from private charities like the American Cancer Society:
Uncertainty has become the new norm for economic forecasters. But scientists planning next year's experiments want to know how the stock market turmoil, a credit crunch, and a recession will affect their research. It's an urgent question, especially with the U.S. government facing a yawning deficit and a likely squeeze on domestic spending. Among the first to feel the slowdown are charitable foundations and other philanthropies, which provide billions of dollars in funding to scientists each year, including support for innovative, risky research that the government may be reluctant to back. Some are scaling back; some say they're holding steady. Others say they cannot plan far ahead--not even to predict what the next 2 months, normally flush fundraising time, will bring.
One of the hardest-hit organizations so far is the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Medical Research Foundation in Needham, Massachusetts, which has delayed $65 million in research funding to dozens of investigators for the second half of 2008 and 2009. Projects in melanoma, lymphoma, neurodegenerative diseases, inflammatory bowel disease, and others were ready to go, says Bruce Dobkin, the group's executive director and a neurologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Now, we're going to have to wait and see what happens." Dobkin says he doesn't know what, precisely, prompted such drastic action, and the foundation declined to comment further.
Whether it's in the matter of current year donations for operating expenses, or whether it's funding based on endowments invested in the stock market, things are very uncertain in the world of philanthropic foundations and private universities. Unknown amounts of research already underway may end up curtailed. And state and local budgets are in trouble, which spells likely trouble for public universities as well.
For organizations that live off endowment income, the drop in their value can be dizzying: The Burroughs Wellcome Fund fell from nearly $700 million at the end of July to $540 million last Friday, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation lost $3.6 billion between the beginning of this year and the end of September, to end with $35.1 billion. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute's (HHMI's) worth fell from $18.7 billion in August 2007 to $17.4 billion at the end of August this year--and that was before the big drop in the stock market. (Neither the Gates Foundation nor HHMI would release current figures.) "Sometimes you go into a meeting and by the time you come out the endowment's gained $10 million, and by the end of the day it's lost $20 million," says Burroughs Wellcome spokesperson Russ Campbell, describing the wild gyrations in the market.
HHMI is required by law to distribute 3.5% of its assets each year, and foundations like Burroughs Wellcome must give out 5%. This is normally not a problem because these groups offset the outflow with investment gains, keeping their principal intact. Not all may be able to manage that this year.
Numerous foundations have pledged to keep support up, even if it means additional hits on their endowments. But that's not sustainable, so it's only a stop gap measure.
All of which is to say that even without John McCain slashing and burning through research budgets, and with Hansen with greater freedom to educate the public about climate change issues, science is likely to be in suboptimal condition for the foreseable.
Demographics of Principal Investigators
But another, longer-term trend also caught my eye, regarding the demographics of the scientists getting funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The graph to the right says it pretty succinctly.
Just when we're in need of developing young science and engineering talent (for global "competitiveness", new technologies and so on), opportunities for launching scientific careers are getting scarcer and scarcer, almost by the minute. Good talent is getting lost, and it's a shame. And it's useful to keep in mind that a lot of Nobel Prize winning scientific breakthroughs come in the first decade of a scientist's career.
Here's an example of a PI who's helping skew that bar graph above to the right (same subscription issues at Science, sorry):
Roger Unger found himself drawn to research as a young internal medicine resident sometime around 1950, when he was treating diabetes patients in New York City. He had a controversial idea--that glucagon, a biomolecule then thought to be a contaminant in insulin made from ground-up beef and pork pancreases, might actually be a key hormone affecting blood sugar. Unger and colleagues in Texas had no direct evidence for this, but "we had the tools to answer the question, and we needed some money," Unger says. So at age 32, Unger applied for and won a research grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Today, at 84, Unger still runs a lab that enjoys NIH support. Now he's motivated by a new public health problem--the "meltdown" in Americans' health due to rising rates of obesity, he says. He's deep into exploring a concept his lab put forward: that a surfeit of lipids in obese people contributes to diabetes and heart disease. "I always decided I would retire when I ran out of ideas. But I didn't. The ideas got more exciting," says Unger.
Other scientists, such as geneticist Robert Well (70) at Texas A&M, are stepping aside to help make room for the young talent they've trained. He's planning to stay active as an advocate for science. Plus it's tougher to get start-up grants than in earlier decades:
One strong theme--a sense that the review process was more interested in originality in the past--emerged in comments from this generation of scientists who applied for their first grants in the 1960s or earlier, often in their 20s or early 30s. It was a different game, they say. Not only did NIH have plenty of money to go around, but peer reviewers wanted ideas, not preliminary data. Microbiologist Samuel Kaplan, 74, of the University of Texas Medical School in Houston says he proposed studying a "newish" bacterium that he had never cultured. "If I submitted a proposal like that now, the study session couldn't stop laughing," he says. Peter von Hippel, 77, who earned a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge at age 24 and then moved on to a postdoc there, found his grant waiting for him when he joined the Dartmouth Medical School faculty at age 28. "There was less to learn, and if you got on to a good project, things moved along pretty fast," says Von Hippel, now a professor emeritus and researcher at the University of Oregon, Eugene.
Some of these scientists were part of a cadre who created the field of molecular biology. Others were pioneers in areas such as spectroscopy and protein chemistry.
So, like I said in the opening: Just as one huge obstacle to good science is finally getting swept aside, others are looming up to be just as daunting.