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Scientists Hope Stimulus Will Give Jolt To Research

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Scientists Hope Stimulus Will Give Jolt To Research


Scientists Hope Stimulus Will Give Jolt To Research

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If state highway departments are talking up shovel-ready projects they'd love to see funded, biomedical researchers say they have a lot of beaker-ready projects, too. And the stimulus package contains billions of dollars of funding for the National Institutes of Health.

NPR's Richard Harris looked at how that money can create a quick financial jolt for young workers and for university towns.

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

Dr. RAYNARD KINGTON (Acting Director, National Institutes of Health): We have literally 14,000 applications that have been peer reviewed, that have been found to be scientifically meritorious and approved for funding, but for which we don't have funds to support.

HARRIS: Give the NIH money, he says, and in just a few weeks, the money can flow out the door and into 1,000 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.

Here's one example. Twenty-nine-year-old Stefanie Otto is right in the middle of a postdoctoral research project at the University of California San Diego and there's a real chance her grant won't get renewed.

Ms. STEFANIE OTTO (Postdoctoral Student, University of California San Diego): If I don't get funding after, by October, which is when the fellowship I'm on now runs out, I will have to try and find a postdoc at another lab or jump ship, period.

HARRIS: Otto 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.

Ms. OTTO: I mean, we have all this training, and we've come this far and, you know, to have to give it up is really - it's just frustrating.

HARRIS: So, how much time do you spend worrying about money, as opposed to thinking about science?

Ms. OTTO: Oh, a lot. I mean science is hard enough as it is. You know, everything's pretty much stacked up against you, you feel like, most of the time. And then to have to produce results all the time to maintain funding or try and get funding is very hard.

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

Professor ANIRVAN GHOSH (University of California San Diego): At the end of the day, all of these people who work in the lab get stipends or get paid and this is, in fact, their job, right? They come in, in the morning, they'll work all day, in fact, harder than most people in the country, probably, because they're here most weekends.

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

Prof. GHOSH: And for the first time in my career, I'm faced with these decisions where there are very real concerns about whether or not people who are in my lab, really in the middle of a training period, whether or not I can fully support them through that process.

HARRIS: The impact could fall hard on individuals like his postdoc, Stefanie Otto. But they can also 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.

Prof. GHOSH: Being able to provide some support right now has an immediate effect in terms of stabilizing the positions of postdocs, and graduate students and research scientists in the system now, so that it does not leave the system. But I also think that in the long term, as we look forward with our regular budgets, one has to think of ways in which this can be sustained.

HARRIS: That's actually the bigger challenge. Sure, labs are anxious 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. Raynard Kington at the NIH says they're trying to be careful to avoid that hangover.

Dr. KINGTON: The greater the flexibility that 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.

HARRIS: Obviously the NIH and the scientists it supports would eventually like a more long-term solution. Richard Harris, NPR News.

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