Uncle Sam: Scientist  pg. 4

Vanderbilt Pharmacology Chair Heidi Hamm, Ph.D., believes research has a “fivefold multiplier effect” on the local community.
Photo by Dean Dixon
“There is a real economic benefit of doing research.”

For the next 35 years, various presidents and legislators continued to grow the NIH budget, convinced of the parallels between personal health and economic health, between innovative research and international leadership.

The hallmarks of American research have been its lack of hierarchy and its encouragement of independence. Grants submitted by young investigators are evaluated on a level playing field with grants submitted by senior scientists, even by Nobel laureates. Researchers are allowed to pursue their personal areas of interest, and even to change course if they so choose.

Also, they are not limited to government funding, as a number of private foundations, notably the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), provide substantial support for basic biomedical research. The career trajectory of Harvard’s Douglas Melton, Ph.D., illustrates this distinction.

An HHMI investigator, Melton was studying the developmental biology of frogs, when his infant son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Anxious to address the needs of his child, Melton turned his attention to stem cell research. He later approached the scientific review team at HHMI, explaining why and how he wanted to switch directions and study pancreatic beta cells. The reviewers examined his proposal and agreed to continue his funding. Melton is now one of the leading stem cell researchers in the world.

The advantage to this system, which is fairly unique worldwide, is that it’s a tremendous motivator to young scientists, says Steven McKnight, Ph.D., professor and chair of biochemistry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. “If they succeed, they get all the credit for their discoveries,” McKnight says. “The flip side is that if they fail during four, six or eight years in the lab, they don’t get tenure and they lose their jobs. Job security depends upon success.”

Based on any number of measurements, this system of rewards has tended to breed excellence. Americans have surpassed their European and Asian counterparts in the number of breakthrough discoveries, an advantage that continued throughout the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton presidencies.

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