After more than six years as director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Elias Zerhouni will step down at the end of October. Zerhouni presided over the nation’s primary public funding source for biomedical research during what can, at best, be called a difficult period.
Although the NIH budget doubled from 1998 through 2003, President Bush’s anti-science, pro-war budget policies virtually erased that gain. A major project of Zerhouni’s, the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, became an important method for pushing scientific discovery forward with a reduced budget.
With Bush soon on his way back to Texas, might brighter times for the NIH lie ahead?
To understand that brighter future one must first look to the past. In the late 1990s lawmakers and researchers hailed a doubling of the NIH budget over five years as a boon for scientific discovery. Congress’ 1998 budget request included a goal of funding the top 40 percent of research grant applications, up from 34 percent in 1997.
In 2001 the success rate of all grant applications had reached almost 36 percent. But by 2007, only a quarter of requests obtained funding . Much more disturbing is that the funding of new research grant proposals (as opposed to continued funding of on-going research) fell from 21 percent in 1998 to eight percent in 2006, according to an article in Science. As a result, some speculate that scientists in the U.S. may be leaving for other countries or other careers.
President Bush’s 2009 budget request will do nothing to buck this trend: the request was for $29 billion, the same as in 2008 and only slightly higher than 2007. To put this in perspective, the president requested $515 billion for the Department of Defense for fiscal year 2009 alone, a 7.5 percent increase over 2008.
As young research careers end before they begin and labs struggle to stay afloat, the biomedical research outlook appears bleak. There is, however, some good news: Presidential candidate Barack Obama has pledged on several occasions to double the NIH budget over ten years if he is elected to office. Even John McCain has cited the need to increase basic research funding. With a turnover at the top of NIH coming in such close proximity to the upcoming presidential election, perhaps the NIH roadmap might lead to a smoother road ahead.
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