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The Great Grant Chase
Flat funding is hampering medical progress, Miller tells Washington legislators.

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Ed Miller is putting it all on the line: Cutting support for research is casting a pall across the land for scientists everywhere, he told a Senate committee in March. The flattened funding is coming at a pivotal moment in medical discovery, he says, and it’s having “a particularly insidious effect on our young scientists.”

The dean/CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine’s appeal to Washington is simple: Please find a way to restore healthy science funding so the best and brightest can get back to their labs. To drive the point home, Miller described how one ambitious cancer researcher here has spent “90 percent of his time chasing grants” instead of pursuing his promising new approach to reversing breast cancer.

Miller and other senior heads of major research institutions made the late-winter pilgrimage to raise the visibility of a report detailing the grander problem. The report—“A Broken Pipeline?  Flat Funding of the NIH Puts a Generation of Science at Risk”—profiles a sampling of variously hindered young scientists. The institution heads all worry that the greatest young researchers will soon exit the career field altogether, squandering big ideas and the medical advances they would have made for patients everywhere.

In the text that supported his panel discussion before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Miller underscored one of the key concerns voiced by veteran scientists around our campus. To wit: In their efforts to secure funding, “all of our scientists, both young and more senior, are becoming risk-averse.”

So why aim for the wild frontiers at a time when cautious science funders are looking for the safest bets?

Because, answers Miller, many of the sharpest minds are drawn to those frontiers, where the greatest discoveries are so often found. Miller cited a number of Hopkins-linked breakthroughs, including that of genetics professor Carol Greider, who more than two decades ago played a key role in mapping the telomerase enzyme that helps maintain the ends of chromosomes. That discovery opened up untold new areas of medicine: Today, scientists know that telomerase is elevated in 85 percent of all human cancers.

Greider was in her early 20s at the time of the original discoveries. Her two senior partners were in their 30s. If Greider’s trailblazing group sought support for similar work today, asked Miller, would the NIH provide them funding?

Miller rounded out his list of powerful examples with cancer researcher Ben Ho Park, whose lab is using powerful molecular genetic techniques to pursue genes involved in clinical drug resistance. The lab is also exploring the mechanisms of growth/hormone receptor signaling that appears to support cancer growth. But, Park told Miller, “I can’t think about science anymore, I have to focus on getting grants.”

Total funding for the NIH has been plateaued near $29 billion for five years, lagging well behind inflation. The net effect is driving promising young scientists to look for work overseas. What discoveries might be leaving with them? “It would be a shame,” says Miller, “to never know.”


—Ramsey Flynn

 

 

Johns Hopkins Medicine

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