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William A. Sahlman

How stop-and-go science funding puts the brakes on progress

By William A. Sahlman
September 19, 2010

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In light of the latest developments of the on-again, off-again, on-again government funding of human embryonic stem-cell research, it is time to consider the devastating implications of this chaotic funding environment. And to do that, one needs to understand how a modern research lab operates.

A typical lab has 20 to 40 people, led by a senior researcher (the “principal investigator’’). Most people in a lab are doctoral students or postdoctoral students who are pursuing careers in science.

Labs have many different projects under investigation simultaneously. Most labs have annual budgets of $1 million to $5 million, with most of that money coming from grants from institutions like the National Institutes of Health.

The NIH allocates money to researchers whose proposals are reviewed by a panel of scientists knowledgeable in the field. A typical grant proposal is 25 single-spaced pages and takes months to prepare. The NIH responds in approximately 9 months.

Because the demand for money exceeds the supply, only 20 percent of the proposals get NIH funding. A researcher receiving his or her first major NIH grant is over 40 years old, on average.

Lab leaders spend a great deal of their energy recruiting the right people for their lab, nurturing a portfolio of interesting projects, and raising money. Most principal investigators, even the most successful ones in the world, spend at least 25 percent of their time trying to get money. If they can’t get money, they lay off people and cancel projects.

Now imagine you are a post-doc in a lab and are working on a project to use human embryonic stem cells to cure diabetes by creating new beta cells in the pancreas.

This is difficult work that is high risk, but high reward. You have come to grips with the many ethical considerations in working with stem cells derived from embryos that were created during IVF procedures and were destined to be destroyed before the donors agreed they could be used for research. You have begun to get traction in your career, and have been a prominent coauthor on several articles in well-respected journals.

When you read the news that your research is now illegal, you are horrified. You are back at square one. Years of research are potentially wasted.

You have no viable research projects underway. It will take well over a year to begin a new research stream, and there is a low probability you will get funded in a new area. You may be fired. In short, your career is in danger of total meltdown.

That is the real cost of our randomized model of research support in the United States, in which a change in administration or a court ruling can outlaw work that was previously supported by the government. Funding can be canceled with the stroke of a pen.

The projects are less important than the people, particularly people who have invested years in developing their careers and selecting an area on which to focus. People need predictability — not in the research ideas they pursue, but in basic human issues like pay and employment.

It may be possible to restart projects with private funds, but that is by no means certain. Raising philanthropic dollars can be as hard and time-consuming as raising money from the NIH. And, these projects will have to be set up with duplicate equipment in geographically separate areas.

Sadly, great people will abandon promising projects. Great people will leave basic research and move to more predictable pastures. And, some great young people will decide not to go into research careers at all. The precipitous shift in the legal and regulatory environment for human embryonic stem-cell work will have adverse implications for years to come.

Unpredictability inflicts a heavy cost on scientific progress, whether in domains like stem-cell research or in searching for safe alternative fuels. It damages the United States’ competitive position because great projects won’t be completed here, and, more importantly, great people won’t do the kind of work that is necessary to make progress on our most intractable challenges.

Society pays a high price for randomization of research support — a fact that, sadly, is not recognized by the public, the media, or politicians.

William A. Sahlman is senior associate dean for external relations at Harvard Business School.

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