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Diversified Portfolios: With funding tight at NIH, what are the alternatives?

April 2007--Kathy Wilson has always landed on her feet, but the professor in Cell Biology who works in Hopkins’ Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences admits she worries about funding.

  “You have to think creatively about new grants,” she says. “It’s either that or get depressed and quit.”

The problems are so pervasive at NIH, where only about 10 percent of grant applications get approved, that nine leading scientific and medical institutions, including Johns Hopkins, went to Capitol Hill to present a report that flat funding, outpaced by inflation, is thwarting the nation’s research.

“Federal funding of biomedical science is in crisis,” Dean/CEO Edward Miller said at a press conference following the unveiling of the report, “and the consequences will be felt now and for generations to come.”

In the meantime, researchers are scrambling elsewhere for funding. Stephen Wegener, a rehabilitation psychologist in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation whose pain research has been funded by the Arthritis Foundation and the Ford Motor Company, says young investigators in particular need to be helped to “look beyond the NIH to other sources of funding.” He likens it to “diversifying your portfolio, partnering with foundations and industry to do work that’s important.”

Although he cautions that faculty should keep in mind conflict-of-interest issues when dealing with these sources, there are other advantages. Foundations, for instance, are invested in the diseases they represent and are interested in disseminating information to their members. They also offer opportunities to translate research findings into practice, a process that is not traditionally built into NIH projects.  Also, Wegener notes, there’s often the possibility that a foundation will continue a project after a grant is finished.

Steven Leach was able to generate a zebra fish model of pancreatic cancer with funding from the Lustgarten Foundation, named for the late chairman of Madison Square Garden who died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 52. “It has provided us with a way to do genetic studies and drug discovery that you can’t do in a mouse because of cost and space issues,” says the professor of surgery and oncology.

Also, foundation grants can lay the groundwork for future undertakings. The Lustgarten Foundation funds many pilot projects, for instance, and that investment has made it possible for new investigators to go on to achieve federal funding.

Leach also benefits from philanthropy, particularly the multidisciplinary Pancreatic Cancer Research Center endowed by the Sol Goldman Charitable Trust. Hopkins’ reputation “gives us access to philanthropic support that’s unimaginable at other places,” he says, adding, “I think the collegiality here makes it very easy here to develop multi-investigator teams and build programs.”

Leach also searches out potential postdoctoral research fellowships for applicants in his lab. “If I was more confident about the long-term NIH support, I probably would be spending less time doing that and more time actually doing the research,” he says. “It’s something I think about all the time, every single day. Not a day goes by I don’t think about funding at some level.”

He likens the process to “a big puzzle that involves a lot of energy and initiative to get multiple applications out, boundless optimism, even when you know it’s probably not justified, and a leap of faith that you’re going to be able to sustain this moving forward.”

Meanwhile, Kathy Wilson, working on a tip from her department’s administrators, submitted two grant applications to the Department of Defense, which has a pool of money for cancer research. One grant targets ovarian cancer; the other, breast cancer. She’d only recently considered that there might be a link between the two main proteins she works on and these diseases. “I never would have even thought of that if I hadn’t been in this funding crisis,” says Wilson.

Her advice to others? “Keep thinking creatively and keep juggling as many balls as you have time for without neglecting your lab, because your students and postdocs are still going to be sparking the new ideas. It’s like a family,” says the mother of a 2-year-old and 6-month-old twins. “You have to juggle everything at all times and hope you don’t let anything go splat.”

--Mary Ellen Miller

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