Scientists Hope Stimulus Will Give Jolt To Research

Laboratory pipettes

hide captionBiomedical researchers say they have many projects awaiting funding.

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The stimulus package contains billions of dollars of funding for the National Institutes of Health — money that could create a quick financial jolt for young workers and university towns.

There are 3,000 institutions around the country that receive NIH grants to fund biomedical research. Raynard Kington, the NIH's acting director, says those labs are also well-positioned to absorb a jolt of financial stimulus quickly.

"We have literally 14,000 applications that have been peer reviewed, that have been found to be scientifically meritorious and that have been approved for funding — but that we don't have funds to support," he says.

Give the NIH the money, he says, and in just a few weeks the money can flow out the door and into a thousand labs or more. And those labs are hungry. Some universities have seen endowments fall. Others are losing state funding. And they've all been suffering for the past six years from a serious budget crunch. NIH funding has fallen 17 percent, in real terms, since 2003.

Reaching Research Labs

Stefanie Otto, 29, is right in the middle of a postdoctoral research project at the University of California San Diego. There's a real chance her grant won't get renewed.

"If I don't get funding by October, which is when the fellowship I'm on now runs out," she says, "I'll have to try to find another postdoc at another lab, or jump ship, period."

Otto says she loves her work: She's trying to understand how brain cells wire themselves together to make a mind. But she says some of her friends and colleagues in science have bailed out, gone to law school or into business, because the economic climate in biomedical science is so bleak.

"We have all this training and we've come this far, and to have to give it up is just frustrating," she says.

It's also a drag on her research. "Science is hard enough as it is. Everything is stacked up against you most of the time, and to have to produce results all the time to maintain funding, or to try to get funding, is very hard," she says.

Funding Grants

Otto works in a world-class laboratory run by biology professor Anirvan Ghosh. The lab's purpose is to spur intellectual and possibly medical advances. But Ghosh says he also feels like a small businessman. He's responsible for 10 people, including students, postdocs and a lab technician.

"At the end of the day, all these people who work in the lab get stipends or get paid, and this is, in fact, their job," he says. "They come in the morning, they work all day — in fact, [they work] harder than most people in the country because they're here most weekends."

So money for science is actually money for people. It's not just in his lab, but in the companies that make the chemicals and machines that Ghosh buys. Ghosh says funding has gotten so tight, it's come to a point that grants that would have been funded easily five years ago no longer make the cut. There's just not enough money to go around.

"For the first time in my career, I'm faced with these decisions where there are very real concerns about whether or not people in my lab — really in the middle of a training period — whether I can fully support them through that process," he says.

Bad Economy Could Affect Future Of Science

The impact could fall hard on individuals like his postdoc, Otto. But they also can affect the future of science in the United States. Ghosh thinks of both as he looks to the stimulus package to provide his lab — and many others like it — some relief.

"Being able to provide some support right now has an immediate effect in stabilizing the positions of postdocs and graduate students and research scientists now so they don't leave the system," he says. "But in the long run, as we look forward with our regular budgets, one has to think of ways in which this can be sustained."

That's actually the bigger challenge. Sure, labs are eager to get a two-year infusion of cash under the terms of the stimulus package. But if the money disappears just as quickly, labs will be back in trouble again. The NIH's Kington says they're trying to be careful to avoid that hangover.

"The greater the flexibility we're given in the legislation, the more options we have to plan so that we don't have a problem two years down the road," Kington says.

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