Researchers “Unflinchingly” Grateful for ARRA?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a commentary from our friends at AAMC entitled, Key for Future Investment: Researchers’ Response to America’s Recovery Act. And what is the proper response?

Researchers should continue to be unflinchingly positive about the opportunities that the Recovery Act has presented.

Unflinchingly. Indeed. The first comment submitted in response to this piece flinches a bit, certainly (“Unfortunately, most of the Recovery Act money was given to those who already hold NIH awards- so the rich get richer … I fail to see how this is going to provide much innovation, much added technology or job creation, and a stimulus to biomedical research other than that which already exists.”)

The authors urge beneficiaries of ARRA funding to demonstrate “thoughtful stewardship of those resources” so as to “bolster the nation’s future enthusiasm for science as a socially responsive and effective enterprise.” They caution that “future support for the NIH and research throughout the country could depend on whether Congress and the public perceive that scientists have taken appropriate advantage of [this] opportunity.” With regard to the reporting requirements on job creation and “other economic impacts of the grants”,

… such requirements will allow scientists to engage the public by putting in plain words the practical, present benefits from academic research, as well as potential future economic and societal gains that result … Some institutions already track the potential economic impacts and multiplier effects of research investments within local communities, such as job creation and the attraction of “high tech” health-sector jobs. … The willingness of researchers to create and improve upon such methodologies will reflect a commitment to be held publicly accountable for the generous public and private support they receive.

BICO already does this, and certainly, research, technology, health care, and education have replaced manufacturing and milling as the economic engine in our region – with spectacular success. But does that make universities here more worthy of increased federal funding? No, only the sound, peer-reviewed science that made such an economic transformation possible should be rewarded – here and elsewhere. As for public accountability … I guess you PIs should start disclosing those multi-million dollar bonuses you get every year.

But getting back to why we all should be “unflinchingly positive” about ARRA,

The act ends a five-year hiatus in real growth of the NIH’s budget, which had declined in inflation-adjusted terms by more than 14% since 2003. The recent rapid infusion of dollars illustrates the confidence of Congress in the ability of the NIH and other science agencies to play a vital, more immediate role as an economic engine essential to our national recovery. But those funds notwithstanding, the Recovery Act’s political significance for biomedical research goes far beyond material support, reflecting the trust of Congress and the administration in the medical and scientific communities as responsive and essential to long-term economic development and health.

I’m not sure ARRA ended the loss of “real growth” in the NIH budget, as the base appropriation will go up by just 1.3% for FY10 and probably not much more for FY11. If the impact of this unanticipated and hastily (frenzily) planned and implemented $10.3B infusion turns out to be mediocre at best (at least in the short-fuse time span acceptable to elected representatives), and if Congress therefore feels justified in maintaining flat-lined federal spending, this would seem to be akin to basing the future of the US research enterprise on the outcome of a pop quiz. Put another way, would someone who proposed this high-risk experiment as a pioneering or innovative project to demonstrate the value of research to US society have been funded?

On the other hand, a glimmer of hope for the Administration’s commitment to science. The NSF can be grateful to the White House for their concern over the Senate plan to reduce funding to the NSF and NIST (Natl Institute of Standards and Technology) by $200M and to “transfer … icebreaker operations and maintenance funding from the NSF to the Coast Guard.”


  1. qaz said

    The problem with all of this is that the government is starting to have the same short-time vision that businesses do. If this work was going to produce major gains in the next several quarters, big business would fund it because then they would own it and make big profits in those next several quarters. But it doesn’t work that way. Science has a thirty-year timeline. There’s really nothing you can change about it. Every major transition from bench to bedside has taken on the order of thirty years from first basic-science discovery to actual in-your-hands production (this is true in physics, engineering, computer science, and medicine). The translating we’re doing is from 1980. The problem is that if you don’t invest in this basic science now, there won’t be anything new in 2040. I don’t see why NIH and NSF can’t just explain THAT.

  2. writedit said

    Couldn’t agree more. Consider the policy forum in Science last year that pointed out exactly this fact (well, a 24-year lag between first mention and wide citation).

  3. whimple said

    From the New York Times today:
    While acknowledging the importance of basic sciences like biochemistry and genetics, he said he wanted scientists to consider clinical or therapeutic implications in their work. “We’re not the National Institutes of Basic Sciences,” he said. “We’re the National Institutes of Health.”

    • whimple said

      — Francis Collins, your new NIH director.

      • qaz said

        In that same article, they cite that Collins was part of a team that discovered the gene for cystic fibrosis and that clinical trials are underway. But (as noted in the article) that was 1989. So 20 years from discovery to clinical trials. Give 10 years for clinical trials (right?), and we’re right on our standard 30 year schedule.
        It really shocks me that these administrators don’t see this. Do they not see it or do they not think they can sell it?

        PS. Did anyone notice the Nobels this week? The timeline for CCD, fiber optics, and telomeres all fit our approximately 30 year timeline.

  4. I found myself shaking my head in disbelief at the notion that researchers should be grateful for ARRA funding for the reason you noted … I am one of those who didn’t qualify for the majority of the opportunities because I was not already funded.

    And just when I thought the whole situation was scary and absurd, whimple’s link to the interview with Francis Collins sent chills down my spine.

    Be afraid. Be very afraid.

    • writedit said

      And then there’s this cheery observation:

      For additional priorities, Dr. Collins will have to … find a way to get more money out of a president and a Congress who, after showering the institutes with $10 billion in stimulus money, appear to be in no mood to spend more.

  5. NIH has always been saying shit like this for public consumption. It doesn’t mean jack fucking shit.

  6. John M said

    I am not so enthusiastic about how any ARRA funding affected or rather didn’t affect me. As a new/early stage investigator whose R01 scored at the 13th percentile for the first cycle of FY2010, it is disconcerting to think that I could be on the bubble for funding, but that NHLBI funded NI/ESI grants at up to 30% or more with ARRA funds. I feel great for my colleagues who got money last year, but there has to be some system that allows sustainability of the public research funding enterprise.

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