Tough Times for Federal Funding

September 30, 2011
Randy Schekman, Director of the BSA, reflects on the current state of the Fund

From the National Library of Medicine and the Department of Special Collections and Archives of Stanford University:

We have completed our selection of graduate students. It was unusually difficult this year, I thought, because of the very large number of first-rate candidates . . . I think they are a very bright group; many of them have had extensive research experience and all of them are eager to conquer the world! The only concern I have is what will happen to these people four to five years hence. If there is in fact a constriction in the opportunities for biochemically trained people at that time, we shall have on our hands the responsibility of trying to figure out what to do with them and how to place them. This doesn’t even take into account the problem of what will happen if the Training Grant funds are eliminated (more about that later).


The grant situation seems to be deteriorating rapidly. There are all kinds of rumors many of which are hard to believe but the gist of the story is that both the level of support and the type of work that will be supported by, for example NIH is undergoing serious review.


— from a letter written to Arthur Kornberg by Paul Berg, dated April 3, 1970

Yes, the current federal funding situation is bleak, but as the note above documents, times have been tough before. The group of students to whom Berg refers, including yours truly, survived and flourished through generations of up and down funding at the NIH. I have every confidence that we will weather this funding contraction and emerge with an essentially intact biomedical enterprise. But how to deal with the current crisis in which NIH pay lines are likely to hover around the 10% level of success? Clearly, the situation calls for changes in funding mechanisms to ensure that beginning and worthy established research groups have an opportunity to continue at some level of support. Simple policy changes could help during this difficult period. For example, the Stanford Biochemistry Department, of which Berg and Kornberg were charter members, had a policy of sharing all reagents and making joint decisions on major equipment purchases. The resulting efficiencies provided a buffer to keep their enterprise afloat. Current accounting procedures for federal grants greatly discourage such consolidation, but is this really necessary if the result is to foreclose opportunities for group collaboration? The R01 mechanism remains the preferred path for most investigators, but without greater flexibility, we will lose many established and early career scholars who fail to meet the impossi- ble standards that the budget situation dictates. One might even consider giving special consideration to joint R01 proposals from groups of investigators who wish to consolidate their programs into a single collaborative effort.

Fortunately, the situation in funding of Jane Coffin Childs fellows is not so bleak. We enjoy continued support from the Childs’ endowment and crucial additional support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Genentech Foundation, The Anna Fuller Fund and Merck Corporation. This year we were able to increase the number of new fellows from 23 to 26. The need is great and we continue to look for new funding opportunities.

As always, I am grateful to my colleagues on the Board of Scientific Advisors for their efforts on behalf of our fellows. One of our enduring strengths is the scientific judgment and collegiality of this group. Of course, as we renew the team, we lose the services of veteran members. This year, we say goodbye to Elaine Fuchs (Rockefeller University) but welcome Carol Prives (Columbia University) and Haifan Lin (Yale Medical School). I am so pleased that such notable scholars are willing to devote precious time to this effort.