Where'd the Scientists Go? Grant Shortage Jeopardizes Texas Biomedical Research

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Medical Education Feature - December 2007  


By Ken Ortolon
Senior Editor  

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 biomedical research."

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 2003."

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. 

Building Collaboration  

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 effort.

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 proposals.

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 crowd.

"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 during residency.

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 email at  Ken Ortolon .   


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