NIH director loses sleep as researchers grovel for cash

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The National Institutes of Health is being strangled.

Every day, NIH Director Francis Collins finds out about another lifesaving discovery by a U.S. scientist. Then he remembers that for many the discovery came too late thanks to budget cuts.

“We could be doing so much better. We should be going so much faster,” Collins said, to a dinner audience. “Why can’t we turn this around, why can’t this be a real national priority?”

David Rubenstein, president of the Economic Club of Washington, interviewed Collins Tuesday at the Fairmont Washington hotel.

Collins is the former director of the Human Genome Project and was nominated for his current job by President Barack Obama in 2009. He has since guided the NIH through a devastating downturn in funding, including a $1.55 billion gash from the sequester in 2013.

The NIH provides more than $30 billion in funding to 300,000 science researchers each year, most of whom work at independent research institutions. That amount is nearly unchanged since 2003, amounting to a nearly 20 percent decrease in funding.

“The consequences of that for losses in terms of human health advances, loss to our economy and damage to our generation of young scientists is so hard to look at,” Collins said.

Privately, Collins said both political parties agree on the importance of research but blame the other side for the situation.

“It is so frustrating that we have in this town this kind of gridlock with all of this unfortunate hammering of innocent bystanders – the medical research community – to the detriment of our own country,” he said.

Worse, Collins said the slowdown is devastating a generation of young scientists, who now have half the chance of getting NIH research funding as their science heroes. Many young scientists are leaving the field.

“That’s something that wakes me up at night. We are at risk now of losing a significant fraction of that new generation of talent,” Collins said.

One in five scientists is thinking of leaving the United States to continue research projects, according to 2013 survey by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Three-fourths of respondents said that the NIH funded them.

That research is needed more than ever. The largest outbreak of the Ebola virus in history is taking place in West Africa, with more than 1,201 cases and 672 deaths since March. In the United States, bacteria are increasingly resistant to antibiotics, with 2 million Americans infected each year and few new antibiotics on the way. And autism spectrum diagnoses spiked to one in 68 births in 2010, with an exact cause still uncertain, though Collins said vaccines have been ruled out.

Reach reporter Gavin Stern at gavin.stern@scripps.com or 202-408-2735. SHFWire stories may be used by any news organization that credits the SHFWire and gives the reporter a byline.

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