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Looking for a Research Bailout

Arguments over the state of funding for research at the National Institutes of Health, and for the younger generation of life science researchers in general, continue. As the new administration considers candidates for the next NIH director, the question of how the government will bail out various sectors of the economy weighs on the issue of money for R&D.

Friday, Nature published an interview with former NIH Director Elias Zerhouni in which he talks about balancing the playing field between young and established investigators and providing for research in the midst of an economic downturn (HT: David Bruggeman at Prometheus):

What solution do you see to the NIH financial crisis?

The solution is that the economic situation has to turn around. I studied the NIH budget over time. And it’s directly correlated with the federal surplus and gross domestic product growth.

But look at the situation today. The economic stimulus package is $500 billion, with $1 billion for science. It’s outrageous. This is the future of our country. So now we’re subsidizing the industries of the past at the expense of investments in the industries of the future. It’s almost an insult, frankly.

The Washington Post followed up Saturday with a profile on Zerhouni that examined, among other things, the possibilities for redoubling the agency’s budget when President-elect Barack Obama takes office. Donald Light explored one point upon which that argument might turn last week–comparative effectiveness research as a way to reduce health costs. Wrote David Brown at the Post:

A major question facing the new administration is what role, if any, the NIH will play in the huge number of cost-effectiveness, comparative-effectiveness, quality-improvement and patient-safety studies that many health-care policy experts say must be done to get the full value of the products of medical research.

In an effort to make up for the impact of budget deficits on R&D spending, the American Association of Research Universities sent a letter to the incoming administration with six recommendations for how to help schools that support the economy in midst of the crisis using some of the $700 billion set aside for the financial services industry. The first proposal deals with ensuing access by helping students secure the grants and loans to, and the remaining five deal with improving academic infrastructure–both physical buildings and research grants. The Chronicle news blog has a summary, and Science Insider has the full letter, which is short.

Rick Weiss confronted the issue of NIH funding earlier this year and wondered if there wasn’t a spare $2 billion sitting around that Congress could invest in biomedical research for the health of the American public.

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