The Agenda

How Demoralized Were Scientists in 2007?

Alex Wayne of the Washington Post has a story on potential cuts to the NIH budget titled “GOP budget cuts would hurt research, NIH says,” which I found via Matt Yglesias:


Republicans taking control of the House next year would roll back funding to agencies, including NIH, to fiscal 2008 levels, according to a proposal by Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who is likely to become the chamber’s majority leader. That would equate to a 4.3 percent, or $1.3 billion, cut to the agency’s $30.8 billion annual budget.

The reduction would be “very devastating” and would demoralize scientists, whose odds of winning a research grant from the agency could drop to about 10 percent, NIH Director Francis Collins said in an interview. Fewer than one in five grant proposals are successful, he said.

One wonders — would we expect the NIH Director to say otherwise? Imagine if the CEO of Zappos were asked if a decline in sales at his fast-growing company would prove “very devastating.” The trouble, of course, is that consumers decide whether or not to purchase footwear, and the threat of job losses at Zappos will not prompt them to buy shoes they do not want and do not need.

To be sure, the kind of research the NIH does is very different. I support the existence of NIH, and I think it should be well-funded. But unfortunately we don’t have a very good sense of how NIH dollars are spent. We’re dealing with serious asymmetries of information. Consider the next paragraph of the story:

NIH-funded research led to the development of drugs that include the cancer therapies Avastin, sold by Roche Holding AG, and Novartis AG’s Gleevec, said Jennifer Zeitzer, lobbyist for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda.

Were all of these drugs developed with the incremental funding added to the NIH budget between 2008 and the present? 

The NIH is a very politically appealing claimant. But let’s not suspend our critical capacities when NIH Director Francis Collins tells us that he would rather not make tough choices regarding spending priorities — because that’s hardly a shock. 


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