Sunday, February 22, 2009

Past Director of Health Institutes Lauds Stimulus Funding for Science

A week or so ago I posted some of the new funding for science added to the stimulus package passed by Congress. Well, now the immediate past director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Elias A. Zerhouni, says that "the timing and amount of this stimulus could not have been more opportune." He notes that not only have science budgets fallen steadily since 2003, philanthropic foundations and private gifts that helped lessen the shortfall have been severely cut back as well due to the current economic downturn.

While some complain that funding for science isn't "stimulus," Zerhouni says that he has "testified in Congress that for every $1 billion shortfall in the NIH base budget, an estimated 6000 to 9000 scientific jobs are lost, with an equal number of jobs lost in indirect support activities." Add to that all the other jobs lost as industry lays off scientific staff.

So while the economic stimulus funds will help in the short term, Zerhouni cautions that this is only a partial answer. To be successful in staving "off the loss of talented scientists" it must be "coupled with a longer-term increase in the base budgets of the research agencies." This will be hard to do in tough economic times, but "it may well be attainable given the clear and welcome commitment to science just shown by the new U.S. administration and Congress."

Finally, Zerhouni notes that "A nation's most strategic resource is the strength of its scientific workforce. It is imperative that the entire scientific community coalesce around a quantifiable and shared rationale for rebalancing the base domestic federal research budget beyond the one-time stimulus package." I think most scientists would agree that funding has been severely limiting the ability to make new discoveries and understand the critical issues that face our future. This is a priority that must be kept in mind even as we deal collectively with economic uncertainties.

[Mr. Zerhouni made these comments as an editorial in the current issue of Science magazine (February 20, 2009), which is accessible by subscription ( Photo credit, National Institutes of Health.]

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