Canary in the research lab  pg. 3

In 2004, under then-NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, M.D., it launched the Pioneer Awards, $500,000, five-year grants to selected recipients, which gave them the rare chance to conduct high-risk, high-impact, high-potential biomedical research.

Steven McKnight, Ph.D., professor and chair of biochemistry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, was one of the first Pioneer awardees. He used the funds to investigate the metabolic cycle of yeast, later transferring those discoveries to the brain in hopes of laying the groundwork for understanding what biochemical reactions drive sleep and exhaustion in living organisms, and what molecular processes are restored by the act of sleeping.

Vanderbilt’s Mark Magnuson, M.D., says NIH is the “most successful agency.”
Photo by Joe Howell
This kind of research, McKnight says, might not be “sexy,” but it may be extremely important.

Zerhouni also implemented the Young Innovators Award, based on the concept that the NIH should expand beyond its standard policy to promote higher-risk research projects.

Survival of the fittest?

Marnett calls the NIH the “the crown jewel” of the U.S. government in terms of its effectiveness. Adds his colleague, Mark Magnuson, M.D., who directs the Vanderbilt Center for Stem Cell Biology, it’s “probably the most successful agency that the United States government ever created in terms of its impact and how well it spends money.”

Vanderbilt’s Nancy Brown, M.D., says scientists must tell their story better.
Photo by Joe Howell
And yet because its purchasing power has dropped by 13 percent due to inflation since 2003, the NIH is less able to do what it used to do so well. The scarcity of funding is particularly troublesome for young scientists.

“It’s been said that in the past we raised physician-scientists like guppies where you gave birth to thousands of them and a few survived,” says Nancy Brown, M.D., chief of the Division of Clinical Pharmacology at Vanderbilt.

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