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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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« Daley named president of stem cell group | Main | Sherley protests pending MIT closure of his lab »

Monday, June 18, 2007

NCI director discusses budget realities

niederhuber.jpgThe director of the National Cancer Institute said today that researchers around the country are telling him their labs are cutting staff and trimming some goals of their research while they turn to philanthropic support to make up the shortfall in government grants.

"There is real pain in individual labs," Dr. John E. Niederhuber (left) told a group of cancer and stem cell specialists gathered in the Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital. "They are dangerously close to the point that the amount of dollars doesn’t allow the job to be done."

He hears from individual investigators worried that "big science" –- which he prefers to call "team science" -- will divert funding from small projects in favor of broader efforts. He said there's room for both, even in an era of stiffer competition for initial awards and of grant renewals with their value eroded by inflation.

"The world has changed. The technology available to researchers today has changed. It couldn’t go forward unless we invest in teams," he said, pointing to last week’s reports of stem cell scientists turning back the developmental clock in mature mouse cells so that they behaved like embryonic stem cells, regaining the potential to become any kind of cells.

The researchers gathered in the historic surgical amphitheater may have wanted to turn the clock back to 1998 through 2003, a period during which the NIH budget doubled. The budget for the cancer institute, like that of the rest of the National Institutes of Health, will fall next year once inflation is factored into the 1.5 percent increase over 2007 levels that a House subcommittee is considering, Niederhuber said. This follows four years of flat budgets.

Dr. David M. Livingston of Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center pressed Niederhuber on how well he was communicating to Congress and to concerned scientists the need to sustain work that was launched during the doubling era.

"The degree of success in discovery has jumped geometrically," he said. "The budget was always a way of letting Congress know just how urgent the need was for funds" to shorten the time to translate research into patient care.

Niederhuber, defending his efforts, said he tells Congress science has never moved more rapidly than today.

"I remind them we simply can't lose this opportunity to invest in biomedical science," while still being realistic, he said.

The result is "more a reflection of where we are in society and the demands on our budget," he said.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:09 PM
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