Funding Unpredictability Around Stem-Cell Research Inflicts Heavy Cost on Scientific Progress

Funding unpredictability in human embryonic stem-cell research inflicts a heavy cost on all scientific progress, says professor William Sahlman.
by William Sahlman

In light of the latest developments of the on-again, off-again, on-again government funding of human embryonic stem-cell research, it is time to consider the devastating implications of this chaotic funding environment. And to do that, one needs to understand how a modern research lab operates.

A typical lab has 20 to 40 people, led by a senior researcher (the "principal investigator''). Most people in a lab are doctoral or postdoctoral students who are pursuing careers in science.

Labs have many different projects under investigation simultaneously. Most labs have annual budgets of $1 million to $5 million, with most of that money coming from grants from institutions like the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“Funding can be canceled with the stroke of a pen.”

The NIH allocates money to researchers whose proposals are reviewed by a panel of scientists knowledgeable in the field. A typical grant proposal is 25 single-spaced pages and takes months to prepare. The NIH responds in approximately nine months.

Because the demand for money exceeds the supply, only 20 percent of the proposals get NIH funding. A researcher receiving his or her first major NIH grant is over 40 years old, on average.

Lab leaders spend a great deal of their energy recruiting the right people for their lab, nurturing a portfolio of interesting projects, and raising money. Most principal investigators, even the most successful ones in the world, spend at least 25 percent of their time trying to get money. If they can't get money, they lay off people and cancel projects.

Now imagine you are a postdoc in a lab and are working on a project to use human embryonic stem cells to cure diabetes by creating new beta cells in the pancreas.

This is difficult work that is high risk but high reward. You have come to grips with the many ethical considerations in working with stem cells derived from embryos that were created during IVF procedures and were destined to be destroyed before the donors agreed they could be used for research. You have begun to get traction in your career, and have been a prominent coauthor on several articles in well-respected journals.

When you read the news that your research is now illegal, you are horrified. You are back at square one. Years of research are potentially wasted.

You have no viable research projects under way. It will take well over a year to begin a new research stream, and there is a low probability you will get funded in a new area. You may be fired. In short, your career is in danger of total meltdown.

That is the real cost of our randomized model of research support in the United States, in which a change in administration or a court ruling can outlaw work that was previously supported by the government. Funding can be canceled with the stroke of a pen.

Great People Abandon Promising Projects

The projects are less important than the people, particularly people who have invested years in developing their careers and selecting an area on which to focus their research. People need predictability--not in the research ideas they pursue, but in basic human issues such as pay and employment.

“You are back at square one. Years of research are potentially wasted.”

It may be possible to restart projects with private funds, but that is by no means certain. Raising philanthropic dollars can be as hard and time-consuming as raising money from the NIH. And these projects will have to be set up with duplicate equipment in geographically separate areas to avoid using government-funded facilities.

Sadly, great people will abandon promising projects. Great people will leave basic research and move to more predictable pastures. And some great young people will decide not to go into research careers at all. The precipitous shift in the legal and regulatory environment for human embryonic stem-cell work will have adverse implications for years to come.

Unpredictability inflicts a heavy cost on scientific progress, whether in domains like stem-cell research or in searching for safe alternative fuels. It damages the United States' competitive position because great projects won't be completed here, and more importantly, great people won't do the kind of work that is necessary to make progress on our most intractable challenges.

Society pays a high price for randomization of research support--a fact that, sadly, is not recognized by the public, the media, or politicians.

This article appeared in the Boston Globe on September 19, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

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    • Liz de Laperouse
    • Treasurer, Act to Cure
    This issue does not exist in other countries and with scientists able to move with ease and train where they wish the US will loose researchers and in time our leadership position in research and access to the best medical care. We should support sound science and fine scientists and pass federal legislation supporting all stem cell research.
    • Asenso
    We have a 22 year old daughter with celebral Palsy who is awaiting this Stem Cell breakthrough. All what she talks about is STEM CELL. She totally depends on us for everything, feeding, toileting ect. So when can we get there? We have been receiving number of mails from other countries but we are not certain. We are looking for recommendations
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    It is most unfortunate that for none of one's faults one has to abandon a project because of later regulationary changes. Obviously,career is shattered and the individual is bound to suffer.
    There needs to be some system to give a go-ahead when a project is started so that the work, considering its recognised importance, continues to its conclusion. Even if the results may not be of practical value at that point of time, the academic gains would be imense. And who knows the rules may be revised at any stage.
    I couldn't come across such a scenario in India. And some say it is only in US that this can happen. Let the authoroties give appropriate thought to what great damage they are causing to the growth of intellectuals !
    • David Cawlfield
    • Principal Engineer, Olin Corporation
    This is a well written summary on one aspect of a difficult issue, funding of research. Fewer and fewer dollars are spent by private industry on research, so our country is ever more dependent on government research sponsorship. However, politicizing science has led to polarization of opinions regarding science-issues including not just stem-cell research, but global-warming, and chemical safety among many others.

    In my opinion, the pursuit of science cannot thrive unless we return to rely more on the skeptical scientific method itself rather than contentious political debate to resolve scientific issues. What can scientists themselves do to promote such a trend? Has pursuit of glory in headlines of the popular press has done much to damage science? What about the call for public action and political support from those whose research in climate or environmental science suggests seemingly-simple legislative solutions?

    The highest role of the scientist is to remain the anonymous and unsung hero, whose humble work will be underpaid. His/her best contributions will most likely go without honor until after death. In today's U-Tube world, that is a hard truth to accept.
    • Henry Maigurira
    • Executive Secretary, Pachi Development Foundation
    My first experience knowledge gaining about with Stem Cell Research was an article debate in Time Magazine that featured Dr Richard Seed about stem cell research. The premise i regard as recurring is that of government funding, the purpose of research and the moral campus of research in its benefits to the people. In many regards the NHI does on quality assurance procedural basis provide funding to only highly specialised researchers who embark on the stem cell research projects because they have the technical capacity and ability to deliver accurate and correct results that will wok in the interest of the society as when required proven on experience and qualification. I think Stem Cell research will bring amazing results to humanity 's quest for insightful ideas about genes, our origins, and potential cures for medical conditions.
    • Atul Guglani
    • Director, Mantex Technologies
    Research Projects also have to have a Time Bound Result Oriented Deliverables. The Stem Cell Research projects have been going on since last 30 years and only incremental progress has been seen. Unless Research Reorients itself with clear packages of Deliverables within a certain time and certain budget and are more business like, it will always remain a funding disaster. No one is keen in putting money on Words like " May" , , " Shall" , "Hopefully" " Right Direction " etc etc.

    It is also de motivating for any team to simply keep making reports and not leading to a fundamental application which is commercially benign and medically a stunning breakthrough.