In her laboratory, Anne Giersch has a freezer filled with the inner ears of 782 mice. And locked inside that freezer could be important info about the genetics behind hearing loss. But locked is the key word. Giersch, an assistant professor at Harvard University, has twice been denied the funding to probe further,The Boston Globe writes.
Giersch is one of many scientists from top universities featured in a report, to be released tomorrow, which argues flat federal funding at the NIH has clogged the research pipeline and put a generation of scientists at risk. Giersch, 44, who wants to study gene expression in inner ears to find what goes wrong with hearing loss, says her story is not unique.
"You can't throw a rock around Harvard without hitting a scientist who is having trouble getting funding," she tells the Globe. "In the old days - the old days being five years ago - (my proposal) would have been good enough to get funding. But not anymore."
Tomorrow's report, from a consortium of top universities including Harvard, Brown, and Duke, expands on a similar one released last year and articulates a broad concern that five years of flat funding at the NIH - which, with rising inflation, can be viewed as a funding decrease - is forcing scientists to downsize their labs and abandon innovation in favor of safer bets, the paper writes.
And there is a real concern that young scientists, who have witnessed their senior colleagues' struggles to get funding, will abandon research in favor of teach ing, clinical work, or the private sector, the Globe writes.
The paper offers another example: Rachelle Gaudet, a structural biologist at Harvard, is one of the scientists who say the current NIH funding system forced her to drastically scale back on an ambitious idea. Gaudet is interested in how our bodies sense pain and temperature though the proteins on the surface of our cells. There has been much research on how chemicals affect the structure of proteins, but, when she made her first proposal to the NIH five years ago, she was hoping to do pioneering work on how something physical - like heat - can alter that structure.
Her initial proposal was to study the entire ion channel of a specific protein, the cell door that opens to allow the pain sensation in, with the hope that understanding that channel could allow for better treatments of the pain caused by inflammation, the paper writes. She was rejected. Four years and five iterations of the proposal later, she was finally approved for what she calls a "seriously watered down" study. "What's ironic," she tells the paper, "is that the [most recent NIH] reviewers said that what will ultimately be most interesting is to study the structure of the entire ion channel."
Gaudet, 33, tells the Globe that the current NIH system forced her to compromise because ambitious and potentially risky projects that shoot for a big payoff are often overlooked in favor of safer projects that promise safer results. For the scientists who want to pursue new areas of research, it's a Catch-22. "When you're applying for a faculty position, people want to hear big ideas," she tells the Globe. "Then when you get the position, you need to switch gears and present it to the NIH in a way that is fundable. It forces people who may be naturally innovative to be conservative, and that's bad because the time that people are often most willing and able to take risks is when they're just starting their careers."
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