Medical research hits walls sresearesearchy researchers

Work that can show immediate benefits generally receives more federal funding.

Haley Madderom

Tay Netoff has spent about two decades researching epilepsy. Now, the associate biomedical engineering professor has to shift his research’s focus to Parkinson’s disease, as it’s more likely to secure government funding.

The University of Minnesota’s support from the National Institutes of Health — the world’s largest funder of medical research — has dropped by about 6 percent over the past five fiscal years. While many researchers like Netoff say they’re feeling the squeeze, those whose work can show more immediate impact have been more successful at obtaining federal funding than others.

The NIH is homing in on research that promises to directly impact public health, like studies that design and test drugs or explore ways to lower the cost of medication, rather than work that answers basic questions with no immediate results.

“There’s much, much more pressure on NIH to show sort of shorter-term gains,” Netoff said.

His lab, which began its research in 2006, has yet to win a grant from the NIH.

Netoff said there’s recently been a push for research that can easily translate from the lab to medical practice.

Though he has had to rethink his research’s focus in the interest of garnering funding, Netoff said he’s still doing a similar type of work, which is based on improving deep brain stimulation techniques used to treat diseases.

The University’s College of Pharmacy has maintained stable funding from the NIH despite national trends, said Esam El-Fakahany, the school’s associate dean for research, in an email.

El-Fakahany said his school was able to secure NIH grants partially because pharmaceutical research tends to attract national funding agencies.

The NIH’s budget for grants has declined by about one-fifth in the past 11 years because the federal government hasn’t adjusted the institute’s budget for inflation, said Tucker LeBien, vice dean for research of the Medical School.

“The grants are harder to get, they’re more competitive and the amount that you can obtain has dropped,” LeBien said.

These financial constraints make it tough for risky research ideas to take off, he said.

Breast cancer research isn’t excluded from funding cuts either, said Jason Weber, an associate professor of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis.

Weber said he had to drop preclinical trials on a new drug treatment for triple-negative breast cancer because his team couldn’t financially support it.

“The thing is the general public, I don’t even think, is aware of what’s happening to the funding situation,” he said.

Weber said Washington University’s collaborative Siteman Cancer Center delves into both preclinical and clinically applicable research — giving it an edge in the eyes of funding agencies that are concentrating on public health effects rather than basic science.

“We’re not just asking questions to get the answers — we’re asking the m in a way that we can translate them into the clinic,” he said. “As the dollars get tighter … Congress and the public seem to want to know what that money is being spent on.”

Netoff said he’s dedicating an increasing portion of his time to applying for grants. This year alone, he said, he will have spent about 12 to 13 weeks writing grant applications.

“Nowadays, you know, people have to write a bunch of grants and … hope that one eventually hits,” he said. “That takes away from your research.”

Waning NIH funding is a problem that spans research universities and ultimately hurts young scientists, LeBien said.

“There are students who may not have the opportunity to go into those laboratories,” he said. “It’s the reality that that environment is no longer where students are going to want to work because there’s no resources.”