Canary in the research lab

Bill Snyder
Published: January, 2009

Illustration by Ken Perkins
There are ominous signs that all is not well in the nation’s biomedical research enterprise.

Thanks to five years of flat budgets at the National Institutes of Health, which supports the bulk of basic biomedical research in the United States, only about one in 10 research proposals is funded on the first submission, down from 30 percent a decade ago.

As a result, young scientists increasingly are leaving university research labs, taking jobs in other countries like Singapore that have more robust research budgets, or are leaving science altogether. Perhaps most ominous: U.S. students rank below their peers in other—mostly Asian—countries when it comes to mastery of math and science.

As Microsoft founder Bill Gates put it to the House Committee on Science and Technology last March, “Too many of our students fail to graduate from high school with the basic skills they will need to succeed in the 21st century economy… Although our top universities continue to rank among the best in the world, too few American students are pursuing degrees in science and technology.”

“My fear is we’re going to lose a generation of young investigators,” adds William Lawson, M.D., assistant professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt Medical Center. Lawson contributed to a March 2008 report by a consortium of academic health centers, including Vanderbilt, which warned that the nation’s research “pipeline” may be “broken.”

Some observers dispute this “sky is falling” reaction. By many measures, from R&D spending to the annual number of highly cited publications, from the reputation of its universities, to the lion’s share of Nobel laureates who work here, “the United States still leads the world in science and technology,” conclude RAND Corporation scientists Titus Galama, Ph.D., MBA, and James Hosek, Ph.D., in a 2008 report, “U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology.”

That may be true, but these statistics are, in a sense, “historical,” replies Lawrence Marnett, Ph.D., director of the Vanderbilt Institute of Chemical Biology.

“This (report) reflects that you’ve got people who have been around a long time… who are in the prime of their careers and well supported for a long time and are doing a great job,” Marnett says. “Looking at the future, it’s very clear to me that we can’t even judge how many… young people are turned off on the whole notion of going into science.”

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