Thursday, October 23, 2008

Research Funding & Lost Treasures of the Mind

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2008 was awarded to Osamu Shimura, Roger Tsien and Martin Chalfie for the development of the use of green fluorescent protein as a genetic marker in molecular biology (see Kenneth Chang's article entitled "Three Chemists Win Nobel Prize" dated Oct. 8, 2008). The announcement brought about a peculiar revelation. The researcher who first sequenced and cloned the gene for the protein, Dr. Douglas Prasher, was not included in the prize. Dr. Prasher is battling depression and has left science. National Public Radio's Morning Edition broadcast an interview with Dr. Prasher by Dan Charles in a segment entitled "Glowing Gene's Discoverer left Out Of Nobel Prize" on Oct. 9. Kenneth Chang published an article entitled "Man Who Set Stage for a Nobel Now Lives a Life Outside Science" about him in The New York Times on Oct. 16.  Tara Parker-Pope took up the issue to discuss the impact of depression on our lives and careers in her column Well in The New York Times on Oct. 21. Her post entitled "Depression and the Nobel Prize" has received more than 150 comments.

The decisions of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences on who shall win the Nobel Prize have been rarely discussed in public. Deserved scientists have been left out in the past. Lise Meitner who conducted the first experiments demonstrating nuclear fission in Otto Hahn's laboratory is a famous example.

Skimming through the comments on Well, I noticed that there were about as many entries lamenting the insufficient support for scientific research in the U.S. as there are about ways to fight depression. Doubtlessly, the constant struggle for funding in scientific research in this country may easily overwhelm the mind, diverting precious energy and time from the experiments the researcher set out to do. Funding and outcome are mutually intertwined in a vicious cycle. Without results there will be no funding, and vice versa. Was it predisposition that led to Dr. Prasher's depression? Was it the stress of his work? Most likely both played a part.

I can affirm more assertively the precarious situation of research funding in this country. Wherever American scientists convene around a table these days, the discussion quickly veers from research to funding. As a result of half a century of monetary infusion from Federal agencies and the encouragement to include increasing percentages of salary in the grants, private American academic institutions depend mainly on these funds to survive today, reducing themselves to mere subcontractors of the government.

In the past eight years, this support has been eroding. As I reported in my post dated Oct. 1, the largest Federal funding agency for biomedical research in this country, the National Institutes of Health, currently funds less than 1 in 5 research proposals. Such stiff competition for scarce resources inevitably favors the applicants who are invited to sit on the study sections where applications of other colleagues are appraised. The very junior and very senior applicants are disadvantaged most in the decision process. First-time applicants do not have the credentials yet to qualify. The judgment on the quality of their research mainly relies on the reputation of the hosting institution. The chances of success are greatly enhanced, if this institution is among the top ten of US News & World Report's ranking of colleges and medical schools. The very senior applicants are more prone to fail with time because their supporters wither. 

In spite of the crunch, academic institutions do not compensate their scientists extravagantly for their efforts to attract Federal money. I recently attended a commemorative symposium. The chancellor of the university and the dean of the medical school gave opening remarks, followed by four internationally renowned scientists speaking about cutting edge research. One was Scientific Director of a National Institute of Health, another was Chairman of a Department at an Ivy League School. The other two held similarly senior positions. While I was listening to their presentations, the thought struck me that their salaries combined amounted to less than half of the income of the first two speakers. I concurred with the brightest undergraduate students I took care of that attending medical school was a smart choice. One is currently in residency training for Neurology at a school with a good reputation and still may become a scientist.

I believe that the struggle for funding in a ferocious climate unsupportive of fundamental research helped precipitate Dr. Prasher's depression. I wish him well and hope that he soon finds an occupation he is passionate about. In my opinion, he deserves a share in the Prize for his contribution.


  • Beryl Lieff Benderly provides an interesting point of view on science as a career in today's U.S. in her cover story with the title "The Real Science Gap" posted online Jun. 14, 2010, for Miller-McCune (11/02/10).

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