The University’s Life Sciences Institute kicked off its 13th annual symposium on Wednesday, highlighting the work of researchers from around the nation who came to the institute to present and discuss their projects.
The event, which also commemorated the 10-year anniversary of the LSI, featured presenters who were affiliated with the University at some point in their professional careers.
University President Mary Sue Coleman used the symposium as an opportunity to praise the research being conducted at the University. Coleman, who conducted research in biochemistry early in her career, discussed her plans to establish an office in the LSI after her tenure as president ends this July.
“The collaboration, the innovation, the discoveries emerging from here really do allow us to understand disease better (and) have new approaches to treatments and to cures,” Coleman said. “It’s been a stunning decade of accomplishment, and we look forward to the next ten years.”
In her remarks, Coleman lauded the “intellectual depth” of the researchers present at the symposium, calling it a testament to the University and the strength of U.S. biomedical research efforts.
However, the ten years that LSI has been in operation have, on a national level, been ten of the most challenging in the history of biomedical research in the United States. In an interview prior to the event, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, expressed his frustration at declining federal support for such research efforts.
“The pace of progress, much of it built upon the success of the study of the genome, has just been incredibly gratifying,” Collins said. “The frustrating part of my job is that the support for all this has not kept up with the opportunity.”
The NIH, which allocates the bulk of federal funding for biomedical research under the governance of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the single largest contributor to research funding at the University. In recent years, it has accounted for around 40 percent of the University’s $1.3 billion research budget.
Over the last decade, the institutes have become a political target, facing budget cuts that resulted in a 25 percent loss of purchasing power.
The result, Collins said, is that researchers today face the “lowest chance in history of actually getting funded,” with as few as one in six grants being approved.
LSI director Alan Saltiel noted that Coleman has been a strong supporter of research on campus during her tenure, overseeing the investment of over $1 billion in research expansion projects that added more than one million square feet of University research space.
“We’ve been honored by the leadership of a president who truly gets us,” Saltiel said. “She’s a president who’s enabled us to pursue our scientific dreams, who’s stimulated creative collaboration and who’s helped us as a group to become more than the sum of our parts.”
But even Coleman’s strongest efforts could not counteract the national downward trend in research funding. Under the latest pressure of government sequestration, which eliminated about $1.5 billion in federal research funding, NIH estimates that the institutes approved about 640 fewer project grants in the 2013 fiscal year than the year prior.
“A lot of great science is being left on the table because of the shortfall of resources,” Collins added. “We are not short on ideas, we are not short on talented people who want to pursue those ideas, but we are hurting when it comes to resources.”
In addition, funding cuts could eventually drive undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom rely on financial aid packages to remain in scientific fields, to pursue alternate career options, resulting in a long-term decline in the U.S. biomedical workforce.
A 2013 report from the American Association of Medical Colleges indicated that U.S. graduates are being drawn out of research fields and that some faculty are being lured away by well-funded labs in China and Hong Kong.
“This is the thing that keeps me up at night,” Collins said. “Have we already discouraged some of the next generation, who otherwise would have embraced careers in biomedical research, are they already deciding to do something else?”
“There are already individual examples of people who have made those decisions, and I don’t think those individuals are coming back to join us if things get better next year,” he added.
The one change Collins said he has observed recently is the willingness of federal lawmakers from both parties to acknowledge the need for greater funding. Getting there, however, is the major hurdle, as neither party can agree on the best way to increase funding to research programs.
Collins contended that, dollar-for-dollar, medical research is one of the best economic investments the federal government can make — improving the health of the population while also supporting high-paying research jobs.
“We could get past this difficult ten year period and see a stable, predictable trajectory for medical research that would encourage all those bright scientists here and elsewhere to chase after really risky but potentially highly rewarding research that would push this momentum even higher,” he said.