Researchers at the Georgetown University Medical Center are facing the highest funding pressures in recent years.
GUMC researchers said that recent federal budget cuts to the National Institutes of Health have hindered their ability to conduct desired research and have put the careers of junior researchers in jeopardy.
Rebecca Riggins, assistant professor of oncology at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, said that while the NIH saw their funding double in 2003, the budget has not grown in tandem with the increased number of researchers or grant applications since that time.
“When one factors in inflation, the NIH budget has been reduced to the point where fewer than one in 10 grants will be funded,” she said.
GUMC researchers are almost entirely dependent upon external funding for their research, which is the norm at academic medical centers according to Riggins.
“This money is needed to cover everything from faculty, staff and student salaries to research supplies to travel in order to present our work at scientific conferences,” she wrote in an email.
Some researchers at Georgetown consider it their responsibility to ensure there is enough funding for their students. While the university guarantees the salaries of tenured faculty even if they lose all funding, students and other faculty would still fall out of work. R. Scott Turner, a professor of neurology and director of the memory disorders program at Georgetown, said that this uncertainty is a source of discouragement for many students and a turnoff for prospective ones.
“We’re losing a generation of new investigators in biomedical research because of funding pressures,” he said.
William Rebeck, professor of neuroscience and director of the interdisciplinary program in neuroscience, added that the GUMC also lacks funds for basic upkeep and the purchase of new equipment. He noted that the hallways in his building have not been painted in eight years.
Turner is also suffering from funding shortages. He said that federal funding for Alzheimer’s disease has dropped from $600 million per year to about $425 million in the past two years nationwide.
“Unfortunately the trends are going in the wrong direction,” he said. “There’s a huge underinvestment in research funding, particularly since Alzheimer’s disease has such a huge economic impact on medical costs.”
Although a reduction in the availability of federal funds has forced researchers to turn to other foundations, such as the American Health Assistance Foundation, Rebeck said that these sources are less reliable because of the economic downturn.
Turner added that the lack of money leads to a great deal of wasted time writing applications that are not funded.
Rebeck and Riggins agreed that funding is the foremost preoccupation of medical researchers today.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is the number one topic of discussion among scientists. When you see people at meetings, it seems to be the first thing we say to each other. People don’t ask about each other’s most recent exciting discoveries but instead ‘how’s your funding?'” he said.
Rebeck said that Georgetown has gotten better at soliciting philanthropic donations for science in recent years, however.
“There have been a couple of prominent gifts to help science here, so hopefully we will see concrete evidence of the use of those gifts in terms of help for individual labs,” he said.
Nonetheless, researchers agree that it is primarily the responsibility of the federal government to provide research funds.
“Federally funded medical research allows scientists to dig deeply into a problem, exploring all angles of it with the goal of finding a way to contribute to its solution. There are private sources, but these are more limited and couldn’t possibly support the volume of research required to fully address major public health concerns like cancer,” Riggins said.