American science losing ground

You win some, you lose some. That appears to be the current state of affairs with federal funding for research. Congress recently passed legislation providing a modest increase in funding to the National Institutes of Health, which funds research at the Johns Hopkins University and other universities, academic medical centers, small businesses, and independent research institutions across the U.S. That's the good news.

The bad news is that this increase doesn't make up for the $300 million-plus cut the NIH received in the last budget go-round; much less does it keep pace with the increasing cost of conducting medical research. As we reflect on a year that brought scientific breakthroughs that will ultimately improve the treatment and prevention of disease, we must pay heed to the extraordinary challenges facing scientists, particularly young scientists. They have always aspired to making world-class contributions, but as they very well know, their chances of success in the U.S. today are fading by the week.

Our nation's elected leaders are not championing science — or even talking about it, during presidential debates or on the floor of the Congress — even as other nations are stepping up their determination to match and exceed the U.S. in discovery. It takes years to realize the multiple benefits of science; without adequate, sustained funding for research, the careers of many bright, young scientists may come to a screeching halt.

Federal funding for biomedical sciences plays a critical role in training the next generation of scientists. Research dollars from the NIH and National Science Foundation, Department of Energy and other agencies do more than just pay for test tubes and microscopes. Most of the budget of a research lab goes directly toward the training of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Critical thinking and a strong curiosity for finding that "needle in the haystack" are skills that must be acquired to support creative, outside-the-box initiatives. Our trainees leave federally supported labs to apply their new skills at research institutions and in industry, and in doing so sustain America's world leadership in science and innovation.

In my own lab, I support young researchers who study a very broad area of biology, from the fundamental molecular structure of telomeres, or chromosome ends, to the role of telomeres in mediating human disease. It was this connection of fundamental chromosome biology to diseases such as cancer and age-related degenerative processes that led to my Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 2009. My own early training fostered the habits of mind and ingenuity that led to award-winning discovery. It is essential, if we want to continue to reap the benefits of science, to commit as a nation to preparing more young people for extraordinary careers in science.

How is that possible in this economic climate?

According to the NIH's Office of Extramural Research, the agency funded just 17.4 percent of research grant applications in the last fiscal year, a historic low. If we continue on this path, young investigators may well take their brain power to other countries where research and development is now a growing, not shrinking, share of the gross domestic product. This should raise concerns here at home — and indeed, a recent Research!America poll shows approximately 80 percent of Americans believe the U.S. is losing its global competitive edge in science, technology and innovation. Given public concern about stalled economic growth, and the slowdown in innovation and its resultant benefits, why haven't our elected leaders stepped up?

Students and postdoctoral fellows largely depend on the support of the public sector to finance the training and research that will make them world-renowned scientists. They're worried about their future and their capacity to establish and sustain careers in a tough fiscal environment. This is the time for our elected leaders, and those who aspire to be, to become outspoken champions of research, calling for greatly enhanced investment in the next budget cycle, before the U.S. loses our competitive edge and with it more and more of our young talent pool.

Carol W. Greider, a 2009 Nobel laureate in physiology/medicine, is Daniel Nathans Professor and director of the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She is a Baltimore resident. Her email is cgreider@jhmi.edu.