U.S. cuts could lead to 'brain drain' in medicine

Some researchers head overseas amid uncertainty over funding

  • Bo Wen, a former scientist at Johns Hopkins, left the United States to pursue his research at Fudan University in China.
Bo Wen, a former scientist at Johns Hopkins, left the United… (Handout photo )
February 23, 2013|By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

BETHESDA — — Scientists at the nation's leading research institutions are warning that continued uncertainty over federal funding could lead to a brain drain that will undermine the country's global status in medicine.

With funding at the National Institutes of Health stagnant since 2003 and other countries increasing research spending, some scientists have chosen to work overseas rather than endure what they expect will be a years-long wait for the grants they need to launch their careers in the United States.

Experts discussed the threat as federal agencies brace for $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration. The reductions will begin Friday unless Congress and the White House reach a deal to delay them — an outcome that appears increasingly unlikely.

At the NIH, which is responsible for more than 80 percent of federal biomedical research funding, sequestration would take a $1.5 billion chunk out of a $31 billion budget. That could slow research on cancer, Alzheimer's and other illnesses, said the agency's director, Francis S. Collins.

It would also exacerbate funding challenges that many scientists already face.

"If you're talking to a young researcher who has lots of ideas and they hear that if you're willing to take your research to China or India or Brazil ... the support is much stronger, that sounds pretty appealing," Collins said. He described the problem of scientists leaving as "modest, but growing."

Funding for the NIH has remained mostly flat over the past decade as medical costs rose, reducing the agency's purchasing power by nearly 20 percent since 2003. The problem has affected about 325,000 scientists at research powerhouses, including Johns Hopkins Medicine and the University of Maryland School of Medicine, both of which rely on NIH grants.

The effective reductions meant that just 18 percent of researchers who applied for an NIH grant in 2012 received one, down from 30 percent in 2003. The average age of scientists receiving their first grant has risen from 34 in 1970 to 44 last year, according to NIH data.

Paul Matsudaira spent 24 years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before taking a job in 2009 running the Department of Biological Sciences at the National University of Singapore.

"Funding is getting tough, to the point that most U.S. researchers feel the granting review system is broken," the Seattle native said by email. "The sense is that if you get a grant, you're lucky."

Matsudaira, 60, said many factors informed his decision to leave. One was his concern that tighter budgets are forcing the NIH to award grants for less ambitious projects rather than forward-thinking, riskier science — the kind that is usually more likely to lead to breakthroughs.

In Singapore, he said, the research environment reminds him of how it used to be in the United States.

"There is a feeling of entrepreneurship, go-go, can do. There is the heady rush of taking a gamble," he said. "The grass is definitely greener on this side of the fence."

Japan spent about 3.5 percent of its gross domestic product on research and development last year, compared with 2.8 percent in the United States and 1.6 percent in China. But China, like Japan, has increased science spending over the past two years, while U.S. spending has remained flat. That includes spending by the government and private industry.

No one tracks how many scientists are leaving the United States and for what reasons. Despite dire warnings, officials at the NIH, the University of Maryland and a dozen advocacy groups struggled to identify scientists who had actually departed, though most eventually did find examples.

Four scientists interviewed for this article stressed that funding was only part of the reason for leaving. Many of the scientists who are leaving were born overseas and are returning to their native countries in part to be closer to family or because of complications with visas.

Biologist Bo Wen arrived at Hopkins in 2005 from Fudan University in Shanghai. Five years later, he returned to Fudan, where he now runs his own laboratory studying stem cell differentiation, or how cells become other types of cells. The research could lead to improvements in cell therapy and new drugs.

Wen, 38, said concerns over funding were about half the reason he returned to China, along with a desire to be nearer his family.

"It's really hard to get grants in the U.S., especially for foreigners like me," said Wen. "Scientists can't survive without grant money, [and] it is much easier for me to get research funding in China."

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