Medical Education Feature - December
By Ken Ortolon
Texas is at risk of losing an entire generation of biomedical
researchers because of a real loss in purchasing power in federal
research grant money.
That is the conclusion of several experts who spoke during a
roundtable discussion hosted by the Texas Medical Association's
Council on Medical Education on the impact that shortfalls in
federal research grant funding are having on biomedical research at
Texas health science centers.
Inadequate funding is driving people away from careers in
biomedical research, says Brian Herman, PhD, director of research
for The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
"If we can't turn this situation around, the potential is to lose a
generation of future scientists."
Stretching the Dollars Thin
Concerns that TMA President William W. Hinchey, MD, has heard
during recent visits with leaders of the state's health science
centers prompted in part the council's roundtable discussion during
the TMA Fall Conference in October.
Dr. Hinchey, who cohosted the discussion with Council on Medical
Education Chair Dennis Dove, MD, says those leaders are worried
about a variety of funding issues, including lack of graduate
medical education funding and declining practice plan revenues.
Particularly disturbing is the impact of declining federal
research dollars on Texas' ability to recruit and retain medical
researchers, he says.
"We're losing scientists," Dr. Hinchey said. Decreased funding
from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other federal
sources for research dollars have prompted some states to take
their own initiatives to raise money "to keep their best and
brightest research minds in their states." Furthermore, many
researchers are leaving educational institutions for private
industry, he says.
"A lot of times we used to get doctoral fellows from other
countries who came and then wanted to stay here," Dr. Hinchey
added. "No more. They're going back to their home countries, and
we're starting to see other countries become the leaders in
Dr. Herman says a major part of the problem is an unprecedented
period of small growth in NIH grant budgets. "NIH is going on its
sixth year of continual low increases in funding, which has
resulted in about a 14-percent loss in purchasing power since
In fact, the total NIH budget fell $34 million in fiscal 2006,
and only one of its 27 components - the National
Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - received
additional funds that year.
And, a study published in the
New England Journal of Medicine
in September found that increased competition for research dollars
in the 1990s, when the NIH budget was increasing, compounded the
problem. The increased funding at the time prompted institutions to
expand their research staff and facilities, meaning there is now
greater competition for a shrinking funding pool.
According to Dr. Herman, grant application success rates have
dropped from 30 percent in 2003 to about 18 percent today.
The UT System is among institutions that have geared up to
compete for research dollars. It is in the midst of a $2.6 billion
expansion in its research infrastructure, Dr. Herman says. The
system is concerned it will not be able to recruit enough faculty
and researchers to fill new programs and facilities, he says.
With 80 percent to 85 percent of biomedical research dollars in
the United States coming from the federal government, the shortfall
is forcing institutions to look at new models for their research
activities, including sharing resources and focusing research
activities within individual institutions toward specific areas of
expertise, Dr. Herman says.
One new approach that might foster collaboration among
institutions is a series of Clinical and Translational Science
Award (CTSA) program grants that NIH launched in 2006. The CTSA
grants will link research institutions into consortiums intended to
energize patient-oriented research and speed the transfer of
laboratory discoveries into new therapies.
So far, two dozen academic health centers nationwide, including
UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and the UT Health Science
Center at Houston, have received grants to lead the CTSA
Kenneth I. Shine, MD, executive vice chancellor for health
affairs at the UT System, says Texas is fortunate to have received
two CTSA grants. Dr. Herman says most of the other major academic
health centers in the state are working on CTSA grant
Among those is UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, which is
one of 52 institutions that have received planning grants that
eventually would allow them to join the consortium.
Dr. Shine says this type of collaboration among institutions
could be very beneficial. "Interactions in a very difficult time
are much more likely to be productive," he said.
Still, Texas and other states may not be able to rely on federal
funding if they want to maintain their research infrastructure and
faculty. Other states already have launched initiatives to put more
of their own tax dollars into research. Dr. Hinchey says
Proposition 15, the $3 billion cancer research initiative that was
approved in November, is a major step toward Texas joining that
"Proposition 15 is very vital to this state and the academic
institutions in Texas," Dr. Hinchey said. "It's important to
understand what Proposition 15 will do to keep research monies in
Texas, as well as put monies into cancer prevention. And, although
it's a cancer initiative, it will have collateral effect on
research, in that it will benefit a number of medical specialties
and a number of illnesses other than cancer."
Dr. Shine says he's particularly pleased that there is a general
commitment to fund research into prevention as part of that
initiative, "including how and in what ways you alter behavior and
also how you do community research involving practitioners,
oncologists, and others who might influence their patients in a
meaningful way," he said. "How we affect eating habits and other
unhealthy behaviors is something we don't know how to do."
Dr. Herman suggested one way to encourage more physicians to go
into research would be to offer more fellowship opportunities
Dr. Shine also noted that UT System regents recently approved $9
million in additional funds to recruit new researchers.
Ken Ortolon can be reached by telephone at (800) 880-1300,
ext. 1392, or (512) 370-1392; by fax at (512) 370-1629; or by