Flat Funding of Biomedical Research: The Threat to America’s Health

Reading time: 4 – 6 minutes

According to a report released earlier this week, five years of consecutive flat or below-inflation funding of the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is discouraging promising young researchers and endangering the future of America’s health [1]. The study warns that many of the brightest young minds are leaking out of the academic research pipeline because they no longer see a promising career in academic science. Indeed, America could lose a generation of promising researchers to other careers and other countries.

The report, “A Broken Pipeline: Flat Funding of the NIH Puts a Generation of Science at Risk,” was written by a consortium of seven institutions, including:


  • Brown University
  • Duke University
  • Harvard University
  • The Ohio State University
  • Partners Healthcare
  • University of California Los Angeles
  • Vanderbilt University

The report profiles 12 exceptional junior researchers from institutions across the country who were selected by senior scientists and university leadership for their potential to make significant scientific contributions. The young researchers are working on new methods to manipulate adult stem cells to repair the heart, identifying critical biological pathways involved in cancer and progressive brain diseases, determining the mechanisms of pain and heat sensation, searching for genetic causes of age-related hearing loss, and using new technologies to detect kidney disease in its earliest stages.

The report, which I’ve linked to below, summarizes the problem quite succinctly:

Science itself is taking a hit. As the NIH has less grant money to award, the scientists who review grant applications are predictably becoming more and more risk averse in their evaluations, preferring to see incremental steps rather than bold visions. This conservatism among reviewers is changing the way researchers write grant applications and design experiments. There has been a fundamental narrowing of the scientific vision, with the primary scientific query shifting from “what is possible?” to “what is fundable?”

The harmful effects of these breaks in the scientific pipeline are felt, ultimately, in America’s health and economy. Conservatism and delays at the research bench reduce the scope and pace of scientific discovery and, eventually, the rate at which medical advances improve health outcomes for all of us.

The report can be downloaded directly from BrokenPipeline.org. You can also download a related report released last year by a group of nine institutions across the country titled “Within Our Grasp — Or Slipping Away? Assuring a New Era of Scientific and Medical Progress”. The report showed how flat NIH funding, combined with inflation, was eroding research budgets and forcing scientists to downsize their laboratories and abandon innovative and promising work [2].

In spite of all this, the President’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2009 recommends a sixth year of flat (and with inflation, decreased) funding for the NIH.

What can you do?

Congress has begun work on funding for biomedical research to improve health in fiscal year 2009. Several Representatives are leading an effort to increase NIH finding by 6.5% and have invited their colleagues to join them on a letter to Appropriations Chair David Obey (WI) and Ranking Member Jerry Lewis (CA). Research!America, an alliance for discoveries in health, makes it easy to contact your Representative and urge them to sign this important letter.

Biomedical research innovation and advancement are critical to transformation of medicine from reactive to preventative, predictive, and personalized. I encourage you to support increased funding for research to improve American’s health.

UPDATE: March 14th, 2008

Research!America reports that the Senate overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the FY09 budget resolution that calls for an extra $2.1 billion to the NIH budget. You can read more about this First Step Toward Unflattening the NIH Budget at Research!America.


  1. A Broken Pipeline? Flat Funding of the NIH Puts a Generation of Science at Risk. Brown University, Duke University, Harvard University, The Ohio State University, Partners Healthcare, the University of California Los Angeles, and Vanderbilt University. 2008 Mar 11.
  2. Within Our Grasp — Or Slipping Away? Assuring a New Era of Scientific and Medical Progress. The University of California, Columbia University, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, Partners Healthcare, The University of Texas, Washington University in St. Louis, The University of Wisconsin, and Yale University. 2007 Mar 19.
About the Author

Walter Jessen is a senior writer for Highlight HEALTH Media.


  1. When I started my Biomedical Research career in 1978, there was a sense that nothing was impossible, that science was on the verge of conquering all illness. Money wasn’t an issue, we were motivated young scientists – we didn’t need money, we needed ideas…

    We ourselves made some breakthroughs in the treatment of infertility and cryptorchidism without any significant grant monies. At the University of Western Australia, my colleague, Dr Barry Marshall, the 2006 Nobel Laureate in Physiology and Medicine, discovered Helicobacter Pylori essentially using excess Departmental funds.

    Barry didn’t have to persuade his peers that stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria before he could get the grants needed to prove it up. The manner in which medical science has consolidated into a money-making machine is a travesty. The Public needs to start looking back through history, and identify which of the major breakthroughs came about as a result of NIH-Style funding? (here is a clue – IMO the last cure developed for a disease was the Polio vaccine…)

    History has not shown there to be any significant correlation between the level of research funding and the cure(s) which have resulted from that research.

  2. Hi Dr. Marshall: Respectfully, I disagree that reduced funding levels don’t stifle innovation. Perhaps not in individual cases as you describe, but industry-wide I believe there is an impact.

    Here’s why: with an increase in biomedical scientists over the past 10 years, there has been a concomitant decrease in NIH funding. Since grant funding includes personnel costs, the question is “how do you pay those people?”

    Additionally, many of the young scientists I have worked with have left research because the prospects of fighting an uphill battle for funding didn’t appeal to them. Most research institutions expect assistant professors to have an RO1 within 3-5 years, and there are significantly less RO1 applications funded today than there were 10 years ago.

  3. I agree with Walter that if you reduce funding levels then innovation is bound to be stifled as a result. If funding is not in place to guarantee jobs, equipment or even spaces in labs how can research be expected to progress?

    I appreciated your report, but read the news with a distinct sense of sadness. It’s simply the state of the world today that people will follow income over their calling. After all, we all have to survive.


  1. […] A new public service campaign called the Rock Stars of Science (ROCK S.O.S.) features eleven of America’s leading biomedical research scientists appearing alongside rock stars such as Joe Perry, Sheryl Crow, will.i.am, Seal and Josh Groban. The campaign is designed to increase public awareness of the researchers and their work while showcasing the need for increased science funding. Although biomedical research received additional funding earlier this year through the economic stimulus, continued investment is critical for the development of future advances. Indeed, just last year a report writing by a consortium of seven institutions warned that the flat funding of biomedical research was a threat to America’s health. […]

  2. […] budget, excluding the $10.4 billion received this year in stimulus spending [5]. This continues a trend of flat or below-inflation funding for the NIH since 2003. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius claims that since the NIH received $10.4 […]