Feeling grant money pinch

Lacking federal funds, scientists look to industry

April 16, 2006|By JULIE BELL AND JONATHAN D. ROCKOFF | JULIE BELL AND JONATHAN D. ROCKOFF,SUN REPORTERS

A financial deal between Johns Hopkins Medicine and an upscale cosmetics company is just the latest high-profile example of how academic research institutions turn to industry to sustain their growth in an era of stagnating federal research funds.

Pressure to form such relationships has accelerated in the past two decades as governments hungry for economic development pressed for more cooperation between academic institutions and private enterprise. And universities, flush with federal research funds, were eager to expand by adding programs and researchers.

But now these institutions are facing what some say is the "perfect storm" as the National Institutes of Health puts the brakes on federal research spending, and government and businesses attempt to rein in health care costs.

The pullback threatens to slow one of the nation's growth industries and provides a window into the pressures pushing academia into arrangements with private industry.

"There was a boom, and now we're having a terrible bust," said Pat White, director of federal relations at the Association of American Universities, which represents Hopkins, the University of Maryland and 58 other research institutions.

During good times, from fiscal years 1998 to 2003, federal money for biomedical research doubled to $27 billion, encouraging a building and hiring boom at academic research institutions. But since then, National Institutes of Health funding has not kept up with inflation - and scientists nationwide are feeling the pinch.

Hopkins and other institutions say NIH belt-tightening, coupled with downward pressure on Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance payments, create conditions that encourage them to make deals with industry. But critics say other forces are at work.

Academic centers, they say, have begun to think like big, for-profit businesses that have to grow to compete. The research system, they argue, is based on a model of unlimited - and perhaps unsustainable - growth.

Typically, established scientists hire ambitious postdoctoral fellows, who work in their bosses' labs but expect to establish their own research operations, where they can hire younger scientists to repeat the cycle.

Now, critics say, the cycle has slowed for some and put others in jeopardy. Researchers are spending more time submitting multiple grant applications and less time in labs. Their institutions are performing triage, cutting renovations and other projects to subsidize their most productive researchers, while reluctantly preparing to say farewell to others.

There have been cuts in scientist-in-training positions at the University of Maryland. Ohio State University is deciding which struggling faculty members to help, based partly on how likely they are to get future funding.

From smaller but growing schools such as Wake Forest to established medical powerhouses such as Hopkins, Duke and Washington University in St. Louis, officials are digging out money to tide researchers over - hoping for better times.

"What's going on at academic health centers is the perfect storm," said Sally A. Shumaker, associate dean for research at Wake Forest. "There have been lots of negative things occurring that impact on revenue." Among them, she said, are stock-market dips that cut into endowment returns, declines in clinical revenue and now, the NIH stagnation.

Academic medicine is a cutthroat business, and plenty of people leave it each year because they haven't made tenure.

But now scientists such as Harvard's Alan Schneyer and Hopkins' Ebony Boulware are contemplating an early end to their careers for a different reason: They might not be able to find money to go on.

"If I don't get a grant in June, I'll be out of a job in July," said Schneyer, an associate professor who studies reproductive diseases.

For these researchers, the numbers are discouraging. The NIH is expected to award about 9,060 grants for research this year, a 13 percent decrease since fiscal year 2003. Its total funding for outside research will drop 3 percent.

Meanwhile, the number of scientists competing for each grant is rising, reducing each researcher's chances, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology says.

Even some senior faculty, with established records of published research, find their jobs and labs in jeopardy. Many researchers pay the majority of their salaries out of grant funds, getting a smaller percentage from the institutions where they work.

Many of their institutions went on building and hiring binges during the heady days when NIH was expanding and the mapping of the human genome symbolized the economic promise of biotechnology. Hopkins, for example, established operations in Singapore, Abu Dhabi and Beirut.

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