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U.S. Science Suffering From Booms And Busts In Funding

Leif Parsons for NPR

Leif Parsons for NPR

Ten years ago, Robert Waterland got an associate professorship at Baylor College of Medicine and set off to study one of the nation’s most pressing health problems: obesity. In particular, he’s been trying to figure out the biology behind why children born to obese women are more likely to develop the condition themselves.

Waterland got sustaining funding from the National Institutes of Health and used it to get the project going.

But after years of success in this line of research, he’s suddenly in limbo. His NIH grant ran out in 2012 and he hasn’t been able to get it renewed.

“We’re in survival mode right now,” he says.

His research can’t move forward without funding. And he has plenty of company. Nationwide, about 16 percent of scientists with sustaining (known as “R01”) grants in 2012 lost them the following year, according to an NPR analysis. That left about 3,500 scientists nationwide scrambling to find money to keep their labs alive — including 35 at the Baylor College of Medicine.

The root cause is plain, and it’s not just about a current shortage in funding: The NIH budget shot steadily upward from 1998 to 2003. That spawned great jubilation in biomedicine and a gold-rush mentality. But it didn’t last. Since 2004, the NIH budget has decreased by more than 20 percent. (That’s not counting the hefty two-year bump the budget got from stimulus funds via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.)

Click here to read more from this September 9, 2014 NPR story by Richard Harris and Benincasa.

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