Why the U.S. funding system for biomedical research is broken
The second half of the 20th century was a time of unprecedented growth for U.S. biomedical research, both in funding availability and medical advances. The trend began with the expansion of universities following World War II and peaked in the early 2000s. The National Institute of Health (NIH), the government arm that funds 36% of all biomedical research in the country, doubled its research budget between 1998-2003. The increase culminated a four-decade period where the NIH research budget roughly doubled every ten years.
However, Congress began scaling back research funding in 2003 due to competing budgetary priorities with national security and the deficit. The NIH budget peaked at $31.2 billion in 2010, falling to $30.15 billion in 2014. Adjusted for inflation, the budget has lost 25% of its purchasing power over the last decade. The NIH once funded one in three applications it received, but this number has dropped to one in six. New investigators now wait an average of four to five years to receive their first federal grant, as opposed to just one year in 1980.
There are certainly alternatives to federal funding, including foundation grants and other academic institutions, but the hypercompetitive environment has extended into these areas as well. Pharmaceutical companies represent a large amount of the biomedical research taking place across the country, but accountability to shareholders and profit margins allows for few for-profit companies to invest in high-risk, lengthy research.
Fewer Funds, Fewer Scientists
Due to the budget cuts, fewer scientists are able to obtain funding for their research, and as a result, many scientists will choose more conservative research areas or will leave the profession altogether. First-time awardees of NIH grants are an average of four years older than they were in 1980. After investing an average of ten years in higher education and several years of low-paying postdoctoral fellowships, the nation’s best young scientific minds are being lured to more financially appealing career paths with a stability that doesn’t exist in the current boom-and-bust cycle of grant funding.
“Many early career scientists are trapped in a research ‘Catch 22,’” explains a report by the organization United for Medical Research. “They can’t get the NIH R01 funding they need to establish a lab and launch an independent career because NIH reviewers say they don’t have the data to support their grant applications. Yet the preliminary data and proof that experiments will succeed is hard to come by without that very funding.”
No Incentivization for Innovative Research
The direst consequence of the shortage of research funding is the discouragement of high-risk research in areas such as spinal cord injury (SCI) and paralysis.
“Really exciting science is harder, takes more effort, and comes with more risk. Yet, limited resources are forcing NIH review committees to be more conservative in their funding decisions,” says United for Medical Research.
Grant reviewers want to see models that are more likely to succeed. Desperate for funding, researchers are adapting their research tracks to reflect more conservative research areas that they believe will secure funding. Many grants will fund a research project for one to two years, but high-risk, groundbreaking research can often take up to a decade to see results.
“Hyper competition for the resources and positions that are required to conduct science suppresses the creativity, cooperation, risk-taking, and original thinking required to make fundamental discoveries,” explains a paper published by the National Academy of Sciences. “The low success rates [of federal funding applications] have induced conservative, short-term thinking in applicants, reviewers, and funders. The system now favors those who can guarantee results rather than those with potentially path-breaking ideas that, by definition, cannot promise success.”
High-Risk Needs High Investment
The entire system is at capacity—low funding discourages young scientists from continuing in the profession, more conservative funding leads to more conservative research, and time pressures can even affect the quality of research and peer review that is funded.
In response, Conquer Paralysis Now has launched the CPN Challenge to incentivize and reward high-risk research in the area of SCI with $20 million in grants in prizes over the next ten years. During Stage I, CPN offers several grants to recognize and fund new investigators, interdisciplinary collaboration, cross-over research, reaching and grasping research for SCI, and out-of-the-box research that explores risky, high-potential research ideas. Stage II incentivizes moving research from animal to human trials, and Stage III will offer a $10 million prize for any individual or consortium to show functional recover in at least two functions of SCI patients within 10 years.
Alex Koenig, PhD., a member of the Innocentive prize design team who worked with 50 SCI researchers around the globe to design the CPN Challenge Program, hopes that the prize structure will incentivize high-reward research and will support innovative dark-horse candidates who aren’t gaining funding elsewhere for SCI research.
“There’s a lot of smart people out there, and I think the current system prevents some of them from bringing the purple cow ideas—the high-risk, crazy ideas—to life,” said Koenig.
He describes the current system by using the analogy of a mountain, which represents the biomedical problem scientists are trying to solve. The typical approach that institutions take is to ask for a plan with the exact path that they plan to take up the mountain before they will promise funding.
“We stand at the top of the mountain and say that we don’t care which way you go,” he said.
Interested to learn more? Click here to read more about the CPN Challenge.