Basic research may face Tea Party-like activism

The NIH might soon have its own Tea Party-like activists to give it grief!

I was invited to speak last week at a meeting of the Translational Medicine Alliance. Most talks were on important but well-worked themes. What struck me most, however, as one of the few academics attending, was the animosity expressed by so many speakers towards the policies of the NIH. Repeatedly mentioned with disdain was the amount of money that went into R01 grants, the single investigator grants that are the backbone of fundamental research in the US. Over 80% of the grants go to R01s, it was said, while only 2 to 5% go to translational research, the mantra of the meeting participants. This unbalanced distribution of funds was said to be the reason that we are seeing so few new therapies emerging to help patients. The reason funding was so “imbalanced” was that the basic scientists were using their powerful clout at NIH to benefit their own professional ambitions, thus ignoring the pressing needs of our society. I was reminded of the disrespect of many school reformers for teachers’ unions!

Criticism of the NIH was matched with enthusiasm for private foundations that are turning away from “slavish” support of basic research to a new appreciation of the need to support the drug development process, often outside the universities.

None of the complaints were new but the intensity of their delivery surprised me. I believe that those of us who value the importance of basic research should act quickly to put our house in order and mount a major public education campaign to validate our position. By putting our house in order I mean we need to do even more to counteract the conservatism of the study section mechanism, to reduce the amount of duplicative research, to establish mechanisms that recognize disruptive innovations and apply them quickly to important health problems, to be cognizant of what needs society wants solved by our discoveries and to drop our antiquated and counterproductive animosity to the “commercialization” of our science. Once we have convincingly demonstrated to ourselves that basic research is indeed the most effective route to faster cures, we need to publicize the statistics and the patient histories that bolster our claims.