Can the big ship NIH turn at all?

The National Institutes of Health is the major funding agency for biomedical research in the United States. Nevertheless, there are shocking disparities in grant awards for investigators according to race, gender, age, institution, and state. Such unbalanced allocations must be corrected as they do not encourage the varied perspectives, creative ideas and experimental approaches that are needed for a strong research enterprise.

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TWiV 335: Ebola lite

On episode #335 of the science show This Week in Virology, the TWiVumvirate discusses a whole Ebolavirus vaccine that protects primates, the finding that Ebolavirus is not undergoing rapid evolution, and a proposal to increase the pool of life science researchers by cutting money and time from grants.

You can find TWiV #335 at

TWiV 334: In vino virus

On episode #334 of the science show This Week in Virology, the TWiVles talk about endogenous viruses in plants, sex and Ebolavirus transmission, an outbreak of canine influenza in the US, Dr. Oz, and doubling the NIH budget.

You can find TWiV #334 at

TWiV 333: Naturally curious chimeras

On episode #333 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent returns to Vanderbilt University and meets up with Ben, Megan, Bobak, and Meredith to learn about life in the Medical Scientist Training Program, where students earn both an MD and a Ph.D.

You can find TWiV #333 at

Would we have an Ebola virus vaccine if not for NIH cuts?

Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, believes that we would have an Ebola virus vaccine if not for the past ten years of flat budgets for life science research:

NIH has been working on Ebola vaccines since 2001. It’s not like we suddenly woke up and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we should have something ready here.’ Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready. (Source: Huffington Post)

I do understand that Collins needs to be a champion of life sciences research, but to promise that a vaccine would be ready by now is overly optimistic. Vaccines are not easy to design, as the efforts to make an HIV-1 vaccine illustrate. There is no guarantee that even unlimited resources would have produced an approved vaccine. However, more money might have allowed clinical trials of the Ebola virus vaccine candidates currently beginning phase I testing.

I believe that Collins should take the Ebola virus outbreak as an opportunity to emphasize the need for continuous, strong support of basic life sciences research. Michael Eisen, who is particularly annoyed with Collins’ statement, is right about what Collins should have said:

But what really bothers me the most about this is that, rather than trying to exploit the current hysteria about Ebola by offering a quid-pro-quo “Give me more money and I’ll deliver and Ebola vaccine”, Collins should be out there pointing out that the reason we’re even in a position to develop an Ebola vaccine is because of our long-standing investment in basic research, and that the real threat we face is not Ebola, but the fact that, by having slashed the NIH budget and made it increasingly difficult to have a stable career in science, we’re making it less and less likely that we’ll be equipped to handle all of the future challenges to public health that we’re going to be face in the future.

Don’t get me wrong. I get what Collins is trying to do. I just think it’s a huge mistake. Every time I see testimony from NIH officials to Congress, they are engaged in this kind of pandering – talking about how concerned they are about [insert pet disease of person asking question] or that and how, if only they could get more money, we’d be able to take make amazing progress. But guess what? It hasn’t worked. The NIH budget is still being slashed. It’s time for the people who run the biomedical research enterprise in this country to make basic research the center of their pitch for funding. Collins had a huge opportunity to do that here, but he blew it.

Federal funding for science research

Margaret K. Offermann, MD, PhD, President of FASEB, sent the following email:

The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to consider the Labor, Health and Human Services (LHHS) bill that will provide fiscal year (FY) 2014 funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Although we don’t know when the House Appropriations Committee will vote on NIH funding, the spending limits in the House Budget Resolution could mean another 18 percent cut for biomedical research – below sequestration! NIH needs $32 billion in FY 2014 to prevent further erosion of the nation’s capacity for biomedical research and provide funding for additional grantees.

Please go to to email your Senators and Representatives today to urge them to support $32 billion for NIH in the FY 2014 LHHS Appropriations bill. When you are done sending your email, forward this alert to your friends and colleagues to make sure that the voice of the biomedical research community is heard across Capitol Hill!

FASEB (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology) is the United States’ largest coalition of biomedical researchers, representing 27 scientific societies and over 110,000 researchers from around the world. FASEB is now recognized as the policy voice of biological and biomedical researchers.

The decreasing Federal support of biomedical research has had serious consequences for this important activity, well summarized in this Facebook post by a virology colleague:

July 1st, this coming year’s installment on both my AIDS grants came in, less 10% eaten by the Sequester Monster. I’m fortunate 1) to have funding at all, since NIH barely funds 10% of new grants, and 2) to have a hard money job (BC pays my salary). Most of my friends doing research in AIDS, cancer, drug addiction and infectious disease have to cover most or all of their salaries out of the same grants that support their research, such that cuts means they will lose their labs, and in some cases, their jobs (meanwhile, nations like China and Singapore continue to pump money into research, having learned from the US and Europe that innovation PAYS). I have had no less than FOUR desperate colleagues ask me this month what they are supposed to do now – four established, productive scientists that the US stands to lose. Four people that the US invested in, whose research will slow down or stop before those investments pay off. And no political finger pointing! The problems predate the current administration and both parties have their favorite ways to muddle up US science. Maybe it’s time to elect at least some scientists to office (from either party? Please?)? Instead of more MBAs, lawyers and career politicians?

The following information on science funding in the US was recently provided to virologists by David Sander:

National Institutes of Health (NIH)

The NIH funding request is $31.3 billion in FY 2014, a 1.5 percent increase over FY 2012, but amounts to a real cut when inflation is considered. As compared to the FY 2012 enacted level, the budget supports 36,610 research project grants, an increase of 351.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The CDC budget request is $6.6 billion, a decrease of $270 million from FY 2012. Emerging and zoonotic infectious diseases would receive $432 million, or a $70 million increase over FY 2012, including $40 million for the new Advanced Molecular Detection Initiative (AMD) to allow the CDC to “more quickly determine where emerging disease comes from, whether microbes are resistant to antibiotics and how microbes are moving through a population”
– $1.3 billion is proposed for public health preparedness and response, a decrease of $48 million from FY 2012, reducing funding to state and local health departments

National Science Foundation (NSF)

– $7.6 billion is proposed, a $520 million or 7.3 percent increase over FY 2012
– $6.2 billion is requested for research and related activities, an 8 percent increase.

Department of Agriculture (USDA)

The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) would receive $383 million or a $119 million increase over FY 2012, for competitive research grants.
– $1.3 billion is requested for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), a $7 million decrease from FY 2012.
– $82 million is designated for research on zoonotic animal diseases and $119 million for food safety research

Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science

– $5.2 billion is requested, a $217 million or 4.4 percent increase over FY 2012

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Research

– $784 million is requested for Science and Technology, a $10 million reduction


TWiV 219: Fauci pharmacy

Fauci PharmacyOn episode #219 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent and Rich meet up with Anthony S. Fauci, MD, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

You can find TWiV #219 at

NIH grant success rate hits all time low

Informative and sobering blog post from Sally Rockey, NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research, on 2011 grant application success rates. It’s all summarized in this graph, taken from the NIH Data Book:

Research Project Grants 2011

The success rate, which is the number of funded grants divided by the number of applications, has dropped from a high point of just over 30% in the 1990s to a new low in 2011 of 18%. According to Rockey,

A number of factors contributed to the lower RPG success rates in 2011. One of the most obvious was an 8% increase in the number of competing RPG applications. We received a record 49,592 applications.

Jocelyn Kaiser has a good analysis of the data at ScienceInsider.

According to the data, 60% of all research project grants funded in 2011 were the investigator-initiated R01 grant, which has been the mainstay of basic science research at NIH. In my opinion, this number is too low. As you can see from the graph, the number of awards made has been declining since 2003. The US needs to invest more money in allowing investigators to explore – that  has historically been the proven way to generate innovative results which have the greatest impact on our health.

NIH head defends new center for translational science

Head of the US National Institutes of Health Francis Collins was asked some tough questions by a House of Representatives subcommittee examining the new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, NCATS.

The goal of the new center, opened in 2012, is to reduce the amount of time needed to develop new drugs, diagnostic tests, and medical devices. One concern, voiced by Representative Michael Simpson (R, Idaho)  is that the center will divert funds from basic research:

Can you ensure that the development of NCATS will not take resources away from basic sciences?

Colllins replied that the amount of money for NCATS is small. Which lead to an attack by Roy Vagelos, former CEO of Merck, who noted that the pharmaceutical industry spends far more money without solving the problems targeted by NCATS:

Does anyone in the audience believe that there is something that NCATS is going to do that the industry thinks is critical and that they are not doing? That is incredible to think that. If you believe that you believe in fairies.

Translational science takes the findings of basic research and applies them to practical problems. Without basic research there would be no translational science. Therefore it makes no sense to take funds from the former to support the latter. Especially when the funds are being used to support a translational center of questionable value.

TWiV 208: The biomedical research crisis with Jon Yewdell

On episode #208 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent is joined by special guest Jon Yewdell to discuss solutions for ending the current crisis in American biomedical research.

You can find TWiV #208 at