Harold Varmus knows what makes America great! #SCIENCE #RAawards16 @ResearchAmerica

Research America hosted its annual Advocacy Awards this week, which included honoring Dr. Harold Varmus with its Legacy Award.

Dr. Harold Varmus received the Legacy award for his lifetime commitment to advancing research.  In the 20 years we have hosted advocacy awards evenings, this is only the 4th time we have bestowed the Legacy Award.  I hope you will take a moment to consider the timely challenge Dr. Varmus delivered to us all via his acceptance remarks, in which he refers to science as representing the best of what we have been and must continue to be as a nation.

Dr. Varmus made an amazing speech during his acceptance of the award promoting science and research in America. Can Varmus run for President? He actually knows what makes America great!

What to get NIH director Francis Collins for Christmas #tistheseason

NIH director Francis Collins wants only one thing for Christmas this year (well, maybe alsoan increase in NIH budget, but I guess he checked that one off the list already)… your thoughts! Specifically, your thoughts on how to make his blog better:


From my “house” at NIH to yours, I’d like to wish each of you and your loved ones a wonderful holiday season and a happy, healthful New Year. Throughout the past year, I hope that you’ve enjoyed the entries in this blog, sharing just a few of the many breakthroughs in biomedical research and introducing you to some of the young scientists who fill me with such hope for the future. As we prepare to turn the NIH Director’s Blog calendar to 2016, I look forward to bringing you even more exciting discoveries that show the power of science to build a healthier tomorrow.

But I need your help! In this season of giving, I’d like to ask each of you for a little something: your thoughts on how to make what I think is a good blog even better. So, please click on the “gift” below to take part in a brief, anonymous survey that should take no more than a couple of minutes. Thanks so much for your time!

Fill out the Director’s blog readership survey here!!

Senate approves $2billion boost for NIH!

HALLELUJAH! This is great news (and a great birthday gift for myself).  The senate appropriations panel has just approved a $2 billion raise for the NIH in 2016. More details on the next steps and what this means for biomedical research in Science.

Boost in funding for NIH?! #AboutTime #StillNotEnough

Covered in Politico last week, looks like NIH is finally getting the attention it deserves and hopefully a much-needed boost in funding as well.

In summary, the “21st Century Cures Act” just passed the vote in the house of representatives (yippee), and now goes on to the senate.  A lot of the provisions on this bill are administrative stuff (think: how long the NIH director can serve, etc); HOWEVER a key provision creates a new NIH Innovation Fund and calls for $9.35 billion in funding.  This will be particularly helpful for those of us early in our careers.

After a dozen years of flat funding, the National Institutes of Health has become a top target on Capitol Hill — not for less money but more, potentially billions more by 2020.

It’s a remarkable turnaround for the huge medical research agency, one triggered by a confluence of circumstances. Fears that the United States is losing ground to international competitors in science and technology synched with lawmakers’ need to show frustrated voters that they can work in a bipartisan manner, and NIH offered “an easy win” on both, advocates say

Add in the institutes’ director, Francis Collins, a scientific celebrity with guitar-playing, motorcycle-riding everyman charm, who has wooed over 300 lawmakers in recent years. Plus crowds of patients flooding the halls of the Capitol and headlines about the fantastic promise of new cancer immunotherapies.

All of this has made for a billion-dollar movement — or $2 billion, as Senate appropriators have proposed adding to NIH’s budget next year. Even lawmakers whose usual mantra is fiscal restraint and less government spending are now among the agency’s most vocal cheerleaders.

If anything, said Emily Holubowich, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition for Health Funding, there’s “competition among lawmakers of who is going to save NIH first.”

As the largest supporter of biomedical research in the world, NIH has long had an aura about its work that gave it almost sacred space amid partisan bickering. Although that didn’t protect it from sequestration in 2013, the fallout may have been a blessing in disguise, underscoring the urgency for funding and reinvigorating efforts by advocates and the research community to help the agency regain ground.

“The broader pressures of sequestration and austerity” have “really put a lot of pressure on lawmakers, and rightfully so, that this is not acceptable,” Holubowich said.

Yet those other factors played heavily into the recent moves for greater resources. The emergence of key research-driven efforts like the president’s Precision Medicine Initiative and the House’s 21st Century Cures Act only intensified the interest.

Continue reading

Make your voice heard at the NIH! #FutureOfResearch #WeAreTheFuture

The NIH is calling for a Request for Information (RFI) in order to optimize funding policies and other strategies to improve the impact and sustainability of biomedical research.  This comes at a time where our biomedical research enterprise is suffering from an unsustainable cycle of not enough funding, too many postdocs/grad students, and not enough faculty positions.

The NIH wants to maximize the impact of the taxpayers’ investments in biomedical research.  The NIH is especially interested in identifying strategies that will: a) maximize the productivity and creativity of the biomedical research workforce it funds and b) ensure funding for a broad and diverse group of investigators studying a wide range of important questions.  These strategies should enhance the stability of individual research teams and the sustainability of the overall research enterprise. The NIH seeks input from researchers, academic institutions, professional societies and other stakeholders on potential strategies to achieve these goals.  We invite comments on any or all of the following areas:

1.  Key issues that currently limit the impact of NIH’s funding for biomedical research and challenge the sustainability of the biomedical research enterprise. We welcome responses that explain why these issues are of high importance.
2.  Ideas about adjusting current funding policies to ensure both continued impact and sustainability of the NIH-supported research enterprise.  We welcome responses that point to specific strengths or weaknesses in current policies and suggest how we can build on or improve them.
3.  Ideas for new policies, strategies, and other approaches that would increase the impact and sustainability of NIH-funded biomedical research.
4.  Any other issues that respondents feel are relevant.

It is critical that anyone involved or invested in biomedical research participate.  The deadline is May 17th.  Submit your comments here!

Or for more info, example responses, and commonly raised issues, check out the Future of Research blog.

NIH will NOT fund research involving gene-editing technology in human embryos #drama

From the NIH directors blog, Francis Collins just issued a statement on the NIH stance toward gene editing on human embryos:

NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos. The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed. Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain. These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos.

This comes in response to a Chinese group who has used the CRISPR/Cas9 system to delete a gene from human embryos that causes a fatal blood disorder.  There has been quite a bit of controversy on this new technique, which has led to the developers of the CRISPR/Cas9 system to call for a moratorium. Read the full statement from the NIH director here.

CauseScience would love to hear your thoughts on this new technology! Do we need to control the usage of this gene editing technology? Are scientists pushing the technology too fast without considering ethical implications? Is gene editing ethical?   Comment or tweet @CauseScience1

Retiring NCI director Harold Varmus reports on the condition of cancer research!! #science

Check out this insightful NYTimes article/interview with Harold Varmus, retiring director of National Cancer Institute, on what he considers the current condition of cancer research.

In a letter to colleagues announcing his departure as the director of the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Harold Varmus, 75, quoted Mae West. “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor,” he wrote, “and rich is better.”

The line was characteristic of Dr. Varmus: playful and frank, not what one might expect from a Nobel laureate. But it also distilled a central question facing biomedical research today. Is the decline in funding that has shaken universities and research labs here to stay? If so, what does that mean for scientific research?

Dr. Varmus, whose last day at the cancer institute is Tuesday, recently reflected on financial constraints in science, the fight against cancer and his own efforts to remain healthy.

Read the great interview here!!!

Anti-Science Quotable: Rand Paul bashes NIH funding and fruit fly research

Paul spoke at the American Spectator Annual Gala in Washington (at the 10:03 mark), and commented on how he has tried to point out potential areas where government spending could be reduced.

Paul, Feb. 11: Remember when we were talking about Ebola last year? Everybody was going crazy about Ebola, and they’re like, oh Republicans didn’t spend enough at the NIH. And they didn’t spend enough on infectious disease. Turns out, the budget had been going up for years and years at NIH, the budget had been going up for infectious disease. You know how much they spent on Ebola? One-40th of the budget was being spent on Ebola. But you know what we did discover? They spent a million dollars trying to determine whether male fruit flies like younger female fruit flies. I think we could have polled the audience and saved a million bucks.

Thanks to SciCheck (mentioned in a previous post) and common sense, we can check the facts behind his “claim”.  In brief:

  • Paul claimed the NIH’s budget has been increasing “for years.” That’s not accurate even in raw dollars. And when adjusted for inflation, the budget has actually decreased over the last decade.
  • He also suggested the NIH wasted $1 million on a study of whether male fruit flies prefer older or younger females, and in the process he belittled the impact of basic research using flies — which has yielded dozens of discoveries and even a few Nobel Prizes over the last century.

Check out the full detailed article.  If you think Rand Paul’s claims are legitimate due to his MD, think twice. Simply having a medical degree does not necessarily equate to understanding science and research. Not to mention, there are some issues with his board certification.

I’m constantly shocked at how ignorant elected decision-makers can be about the very topics on which they make policy decisions (for example…).  I don’t think this bodes well for science.

LIVE Budget 2016 coverage via ScienceInsider

The Obama administration today presents its budget request to Congress for the 2016 fiscal year, which begins in October. ScienceInsider will be tracking the numbers and providing analysis all day. Check back frequently!

A first look at the numbers from the budget request:
  • Would provide $146 billion for research and development, 5.5% above 2015 levels. R&D includes basic and applied research and technology development programs.
  • $32.8 billion for basic research, a 3% increase.
  • $34.1 billion for applied research, a 4% increase.
  • $31.3 billion for NIH, roughly a 3% increase.
  • 5.2% increase for NSF, up $379 million to $7.724 billion.
  • Repeats call to make R&D tax credit permanent.
  • Repeats last’s years request for $325 million for ARPA-E; Congress gave just $275 million.
  • Requests $450 million for USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative; current budget is $325 million.
  • $71.3 billion for overall Pentagon R&D, 9% increase.
  • $3 billion request for DARPA, $101 million over 2015.

Check out the full budget here

And also, check out the press release from NSF regarding the budget.


#ScienceQuotable Michael Eisen on careers in science

“It is an amazing time to do science, but an incredibly difficult time to be a scientist.”

This blog post from UC Berkeley HHMI professor Michael Eisen, despite being a year old, is still incredibly relevant today. Restructuring the NIH and its grant programs to ensure stable careers in science:

There is so much cool stuff going on. Everywhere I go – my lab, seminar visits, meetings, Twitter – there are biologists young and old are bursting with ideas, eager to take advantage of powerful new ways to observe, manipulate and understand the natural world.

But as palpable as the creative energy is, it is accompanied by an equally palpable sense of dread. We are in one of the worst periods of scientific funding I – and my more senior colleagues – can remember. People aren’t just worried about whether their next grant will get funded, they’re worried about whether a career in academic or public science is even viable (see Kate Clancy’s excellent post on the subject).

There seems to be a broad consensus among the leaders of our community, such as they are, that the solution is for Congress to give us (them) more money. I get emails or calls every few days urging me to contact my senators and representatives to urge them to increase the NIH budget. While I am, in the abstract, in favor of more money for research, if I were in Congress and Francis Collins came to me asking for more money, I’d say “I’m happy to bolster our support for scientific research, but we’re not giving you another single dime until you get your s**t together and stop using the taxpayer’s money to patch over bad decisions and bad policies.”

There are so many things wrong with the NIH today, I could write a book. It’s become an immense, bloated bureaucracy that’s lost sight of its central missions. If it were up to me I’d break it up – turning NIH intramural research into a stand alone entity and creating a separate Institute for Basic Biomedical Research charged allocating funds currently under NIH control to support outstanding and innovative research and to ensure that stable training and career paths exists for American scientists.

This latter issue is the one I want to focus on here. Despite all the challenges of the moment, a lot of outstanding work is getting funded. The problem is, outstanding science needs outstanding scientists. And a lot of outstanding scientists, especially young ones, are leaving academia, unwilling to spend their lives chasing – and in all likelihood not getting – grants.

If I were put in charge of this new institute (or the existing one for that matter) I would devote a large fraction of my budget (I think $10b a year would be a good start) to a “career” award program (not to be confused with the NSF’s CAREER awards).

I would put ~$1b into a pool for young investigator awards. These would be somewhat like current K-99s, in that they would primarily awarded to senior postdocs. These would provide modest startup funds and research support of ~$150k/year for six years – allowing researchers to establish their independent research programs without having to worry about grants. There would be a lot of these – on the order of 1,000 per year. These grants – which would be allocated on the basis of a “people not projects” review, and in all likelihood universities would compete to recruit soon to be independent scientists with these awards.

Recipients of these awards would be evaluated after five years in much the same way people go through tenure reviews today. The purpose of the review would be to assess the researchers contributions to the field and potential for further success. Some would fail to advance, others would be placed in to one of five tiers, representing annual support of between $100,000 (tier 1) and $500,000 (tier 5) – most would be in tier 2 or 3. Every three years research in the career system would be evaluated, with the result of an assessment of their work leading to then either staying in the same tier or moving up or down at most one tier. The total number of people in each tier would be fixed.

I will confess this idea was heavily influenced by the way European soccer leagues operate. At the end of every year, the top teams in each league are promoted to the next higher league, the bottom teams are relegated to a lower division. The system provides a clear opportunity for advancement, but buffers declines – people would only lose their funding after a prolonged period of poor performance, rather than precipitously as happens in the current system if grants do not get renewed.

I estimate that this would cost around $7b/year including overhead. The remaining $3b would support a pool of ~4,500 postdoctoral fellowships and ~12,000 graduate fellowships for trainees to work in career scientists labs. These numbers were meant to provide a pool of 1,500 rising faculty candidates and 2,000 new Ph.D.’s every year, my estimate of what it would take to continually replentish the system.

The $2b left would support a robust equipment grant program for career scientists, including core facilities at institutions with appropriate numbers of career researchers. If the powers that be decide we need more (or fewer) scientists, you scale the whole system by adding or subtracting slots in proportion to available funds.

The $10b was specifically meant not to take the entire NIH extramural budget, but to leave room to fund specific projects, especially high-risk/high reward ones from either career or other labs.

The main goals here are to separate the two crucial function of our granting systems: 1) to fund cutting edge science, and 2) to support a robust scientific infrastructure by providing stable careers to our successful scientists. As I’ve said before, (1) requires (2), but one of the most significant pathologies of our current system is that we mix the two together. In order to support their ongoing research operations, scientists are compelled to dream up “innovative” new projects that can sell in study sections, but often don’t make sense in the real world, while at the same time avoiding truly innovative projects for fear they will be penalized. If labs have a separate mechanism to ensure their financial stability, they will both have more bandwidth to dream up and implement new projects, and the freedom to aim for the stars without worrying they will end up on the street.

I’m sure there are a lot of things I haven’t thought about here, and countless details that need to be dealt with. And I’m equally sure that a lot of people will hate this proposal. But I wanted to put this on the table and open it up for discussion, because the one thing we can not do is nothing. We are dangerously close to losing a generation – or many generations – of scientists. Let’s figure out how not to let this happen.


Addenda: Commenter Jonathan below misunderstood the number of people who would be supported under this system. This was not meant to be an exclusive program. I based my numbers of ~1,000 PIs enter the system per year, with a steady state number probably around 15-20,000. This was a back of the envelope calculation taken from the current size of the NIH grantee and trainee pools. The idea was to stably support a pool of scientists roughly the same size as the current NIH grantee pool, with the PIs trading a more stable funding situation in exchange for lower average levels of support.