Watching my mother and my older sister suffer with heart disease encouraged me as a second grader to become a cardiologist. But after losing both of them in a span of just 10 days as an 11 year-old, my focus changed.
I decided instead to become a biomedical researcher with the hope of finding a cure for heart disease. After obtaining my PhD, I came to the United States in 1987 and have been involved in research at the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center ever since.
During my early training years, I became aware of the role of federal funding in advancing biomedical research. In the early to late 1990s, my mentor was supported by National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding and although we had a few brief minor lapses of resources, I never faced the possibility of losing my job or giving up something I loved so dearly. Advances made through basic research around that time, funded by federal resources, gave us statins that changed the outcome of heart disease completely.
While it has never been easy to secure research funding, we have reached a stage where the pursuit of funding is overtaking the pursuit of conducting science. Success rates for obtaining research funding from NIH dropped below 15% last year compared to the peak of 32% in 2001. Almost 6 months of a researcher’s time is spent writing grants in the hope that one will be funded, so he or she will not have to shut down their lab and stop their work, even when they may be on the verge of a breakthrough. Science has encountered short-term setbacks before, but the challenges in life sciences have now extended over a decade and the impact may not be quickly reversed.
To give an example from my own laboratory, this drop in success rate has led to discontinuation of NIH funding for the projects that had achieved significant progress in reducing heart disease in pre-clinical studies. I am fortunate to have institutional support as well support from the American Heart Association to continue my work and move towards translating these pre-clinical studies and evaluating their therapeutical potential. However, not all scientist have these other resources available and many are facing the tough choice of changing career paths and abandoning significant new developments for reducing the risk of disease development and/or prevention due to the lack of ongoing federal support.
However, the greater and probably irreversible impact of reduced funding is on attracting and retaining a younger generation of scientists who continue the foundations laid by the senior investigators. My laboratory lost two bright postdoctoral trainees (a married couple with two small children) since April 2014 because of the insecurity associated with jobs in academic science.
Federal funding is critical for basic science that is far removed from final products and profits, the two major considerations that stir pharmaceutical companies or the private sector to invest in Research & Development. Federal funding is also needed to help bridge the often wide gap between basic and applied research. A reduction in federal funding slows the “flow” of new discoveries in the development of novel therapeutics.
In addition, the impact of reduced federal funding on our national economy cannot be ignored. Science is productive work, employing people who conduct the research and people who produce the equipment and materials used by researchers. A recent study found that nine universities spent almost $1 billion of research funding on goods and services from large and small U.S. companies.
Reduction in federal research funding directly impacts our health, our national economy, our industries and our future standing as a beacon of scientific discovery.
Thanks for reading my story – it’s what’s made me passionate about advocacy and helping our legislators understand how very critical research funding is.