WASHINGTON _ The number of life scientists under the age of 37applying for research grants from the National Institutes of Health(NIH) has plummeted more than 50 percent during the last decade,according to a new report. The reasons for the marked decline in grantapplicants was blamed on a decreasing pool of life science Ph.D.s andthe harsh funding environment in the U.S. created by the huge nationaldebt.The report, sponsored by the NIH, the National Science Foundation,the National Research Council (NRC), the U.S. Department of Energyand Department of Defense, concludes that these trends could erode theglobal scientific dominance of the U.S. in biomedical research."The NRC considers the findings . . . so striking and of such concernthat it's already developing plans for a follow-up study to determinethe causes of the trend," Bruce Alberts, chairman of the NRC, wote inan introduction to the report.Overall cuts in government spending have hit younger researchersdisproportionately hard and thus the nation's future supply of Ph.D.s inthe biomedical and biological sciences is dwindling. The report notesthat while the U.S. spent $838.5 billion on health care in 1992, only 1percent of that ($10 billion) went to the NIH, which funds the basicresearch that could one day revolutionize medicine."Expenditures of new funds should be viewed as an investment thatwill not only extend and deepen our understanding of basic lifeprocesses, but also speed the development of biotechnology and relatedindustries that will spring from fundamental new knowledge," thereport stated.About 700 fewer young scientists are conducting NIH-sponsoredresearch today than were during the mid-1980s. In 1985, 3,040applications were submitted by scientists 36 years old and younger forindividual investigator grants from the NIH, and 1,002 received awards( for a "success rate" of 33 percent). In 1993, 1,389 applications weresubmitted by scientists in the same age group, and 302 received awards(success rate of 21.7 percent).The drop in success rates of young investigators mirrored a generaltrend of lower success among all applicants for NIH grants (due to tightbudgets and increased competition). But the mix of age groupsrepresented among applicants changed dramatically: between 1985 and1993 the number of young investigators dropped 54 percent and thenumber of older applicants increased by 26 percent."To maintain its economic and academic leadership in life-scienceresearch, the United States must not only maintain a stable fundingenvironment for established life scientists but also provideopportunities for young scientists_our nation's source of establishedresearchers," the report concluded.Blow To U.S. Competitiveness?The report warns that the implications could be dire for the U.S.pharmaceutical industry, which needs a continuous source of trainedbiologists to remain competitive. Industry builds its own appliedresearch efforts on the foundation of fundamental science discoveriesmade in universities and independent research institutes."A weakened basic-research endeavor or a decrease in the availabilityof trained scientists would have a damaging effect on thecompetitiveness of the U.S. pharmaceutical industry," the report stated.An estimated one-third of the scientists employed by thepharmaceutical industry will need to have both doctoral andpostdoctoral training. However, of the 4 million U.S. high schoolsophomores in 1977, only 10,000 (0.25 percent) were estimated toreceive Ph.D.s in science or engineering by 1992. It takes about 26years of schooling to make it to the postdoctoral level: 12 years inelementary and secondary school, four years in college, at least fiveyears in Ph.D. training, and usually two to five years in postdoctoralresearch.The report argued that any reduction in the quantity or quality of youngpeople embarking on scientific careers both jeopardizes scientificprogress in the years ahead and seriously weakens the current pool oftalent from which science flows.Before 1940, philanthropic organizations and industry outpaced thefederal government in supporting biomedical research. From the 1940suntil the late 1980s, the federal government emerged as the majorunderwriter of biomedical research. But in recent years, industry hassurpassed government in expenditures. In 1991, the U.S.pharmaceutical industry invested about $9.2 billion in biomedicalresearch and development (16 percent of total sales).With an annual budget of $8.4 billion in 1991, the NIH providedapproximately 29.2 percent of the national expenditure in healthresearch and development. Its critical role means that any significantfluctuations in the supply or distribution of NIH funds has a profoundimpact on the nation's research. NIH distributes about 85 percent of itsbudget in the form of extramural awards to independent hospitals,research institutions and universities.According to the report, members of the Pharmaceutical ManufacturersAssociation (now called the Pharmaceutical Research andManufacturers of America) and the Industrial BiotechnologyAssociation (now merged into the Biotechnology IndustryOrganization) were surveyed for their approach in funding basicresearch. The 47 respondents indicated that in-house and off-sitepostdoctoral research support increased from an average of $528,000and $185,000 per company, respectively, in 1985 to $2,634,000 and$219,000 per company in 1990. Targeted grants were the mostcommonly used vehicle.In handing out industrial research grants, companies surveyed favoredestablished investigators and their postdoctoral fellows over newlyindependent investigators, who are considered a more risky investment.Survey respondents said their preferred solutions to the impendingshortage of scientists were to enhance high school science programsand to increase federal and industrial support of trainees and newlyindependent investigators.The report recommends_in addition to its numerous proposals forincreased government funding of science_that the U.S.pharmaceutical industry establish a foundation dedicated to supportingyoung, independent life science investigators who engage infundamental research.Such a foundation could disburse funds more systematically than the adhoc, decentralized mechanisms working today. Industrial support of thefoundation could be through endowments, annual donations ormultiyear subscriptions, with the funding amount scaled to the size ofparticipating companies.
-- Lisa Piercey Washington Editor
(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.