How the Recession Has Affected Medical Research

Question: How has the recession affected the NIH's funding priorities?

Francis Collins: Having the economy struggling at the level that it is and having rising concerns, understandably so, about the federal deficit has certainly had an impact on funding for biomedical research through the National Institutes of Health.  When you look at the support we’ve had, we are grateful that even in tough economic times there has been a willingness to try to keep up at least with what we were doing before.  But we haven’t gained much in terms of buying power over the last 10 years, we’ve been pretty much flat—even though the dollars being put in medical research have gone up a big, inflation has eroded that.  The one exception was a $10 billion dollar increment as part of the Recovery Act, which needed to be spent in two years and which was invested in ways that I think are truly exciting. But science doesn’t operate on two-year cycles, so now that the Recovery Act money is running out, we are facing what could be very lean times indeed for medical research.  

That forces us to be even more specific about how we set priorities. It forces us to say, we can’t do everything.  It forces us in some instances to close down programs that have been reasonably productive, but compared to what we’d like to do now in terms of new an innovative projects aren’t quite as compelling as if we had unlimited resources.  It makes the job of a science manager a lot tougher, but is the reality of what we are currently living with.

Question:
Does the tight budget make it less likely that unorthodox or creative studies will get funding?

Francis Collins:
I think there’s been a lot of concern that when budgets get tight, the peer review process can tend to be a little more conservative.  And budgets are tight right now.  If you send a grant to the NIH that’s got your best ideas in it, the chances that you’ll get funded is less than 20%.  In some of our institutes, it’s down around 10%. That’s a terrible stress on the system. That means that investigators are having to write and rewrite grants over and over again in order to just keep their labs going.  That means that reviewers who come to look at those grants spend time going into the details of a big pile of exciting applications knowing that probably they’re only going to be able to fund a small number.  

And if you were a reviewer, and you’re looking at a pile of grants and amongst them are some very solid applications from very well-established investigators who have a really amazing track record.  And then there’s another pile of new investigators you haven’t heard of who are just getting into the scientific arena, and don’t have as much preliminary data and haven’t published as much.  There is a tendency, I think, to go with the proven entities and that may mean you are missing out on the innovative stuff from the new investigators.  

To try to counter that, NIH has established a number of programs which can only be applied to if you have a slightly wacky idea.  So those include things like the Pioneer Awards, and the New Innovator Awards, and the Transformative R01 Awards.  All of those have a pretty high bar for innovation and a pretty limited requirement for preliminary data.  And they are some of the most exciting science that we are currently supporting, but it’s a small fraction of the total.  But it is an effort to try to avoid the conservatism that might otherwise become more prominent in times of difficult budget support.

Recorded September 13, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

Having a smaller budget is forcing the NIH to be even more specific about how it sets priorities, and, in some instances, to close down productive programs.

China's "artificial sun" sets new record for fusion power

China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.

Credit: STR via Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.

But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.

Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.

Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.

According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.

The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.

But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.

Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.

Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.

We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.

Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).

With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.

The science of sex, love, attraction, and obsession

The symbol for love is the heart, but the brain may be more accurate.

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Golden blood: The rarest blood in the world

We explore the history of blood types and how they are classified to find out what makes the Rh-null type important to science and dangerous for those who live with it.

Abid Katib/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Fewer than 50 people worldwide have 'golden blood' — or Rh-null.
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There never was a male fertility crisis

A new study suggests that reports of the impending infertility of the human male are greatly exaggerated.

Sex & Relationships
  • A new review of a famous study on declining sperm counts finds several flaws.
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