For years, some biomedical researchers have worried that a push for more bench-to-bedside studies has meant less support for basic research. Now, the chief of one of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) largest institutes has added her voice—and hard data—to the discussion. Story Landis describes what she calls a “sharp decrease” in basic research at her institute, a trend she finds worrisome.
In a blog post last week, Landis, director of the $1.6 billion National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), says her staff started out asking why, in the mid-2000s, NINDS funding declined for R01s, the investigator-initiated grants that are the mainstay of most labs. After examining the aims and abstracts of grants funded between 1997 and 2012, her staff found that the portion of NINDS competing grant funding that went to basic research has declined (from 87% to 71%) while applied research rose (from 13% to 29%).
To dig deeper, the staffers divided the grants into four categories—basic/basic; basic/disease-focused; applied/translational; and applied/clinical. Here, the decline in basic/basic research was “striking”: It fell from 52% to 27% of new and competing grants, while basic/disease-focused has been rising (see graph). The same trend emerged when the analysts looked only at investigator-initiated grants, which are proposals based on a researcher’s own ideas, not a solicitation by NINDS for proposals in a specific area.
The shift could reflect changes in science and “a natural progression of the field,” Landis writes. Or it could mean researchers “falsely believe” that NINDS is not interested in basic studies and they have a better shot at being funded if they propose disease-focused or applied studies. The tight NIH budget and new programs focused on translational research could be fostering this belief, she writes. When her staff compared applications submitted in 2008 and 2011, they found support for a shift to disease-focused proposals: There was a “striking” 21% decrease in the amount of funding requested for basic studies, even though those grants had a better chance of being funded.
“My concern is that the decrease in the number of basic/basic applications reflects the perception that NINDS is only interested in disease-oriented research,” Landis writes. In response, she adds, since 2012 NINDS has been funding more basic proposals that fall below the score cutoff for funding. But her staff is continuing to explore the reasons behind the decline, she writes: “Fundamental basic research is the engine of discovery” and supporting these studies “is a critical piece of the NIH and NINDS mission.”