Research Squeeze

The Baltimore Sun

Forbidden to talk, Rebecca Fuller nervously took notes as other scientists analyzed her failure to win $275,000 in funding for promising Parkinson's disease research.

Laundette Jones, her primary critic on the panel, blamed a lack of clarity in the request Fuller had sent to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

"I was looking for the punch line," Jones said, leafing through the grant proposal for effect. "What impact is [the research] going to make? I think I found it -- but not until page 39."

Embarrassed as she was to expose her missteps, Fuller welcomed the blunt feedback from her colleagues at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Her career, like those of most journeyman scientists, hinges on securing funding -- and that has become more difficult in recent years.

NIH, the leading source of medical research funding, now grants only about one-fifth of requests. The tough odds stem from what the NIH's director, Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, calls a "perfect storm" for biomedical research: a surge in demand for funding that coincides with a tightening federal budget.

The situation originates in part from a decision by Congress intended to bolster the country's research capacity. Between 1998 and 2003, federal funding for NIH nearly doubled, from $13.7 billion to $27.1 billion.

In response, universities around the country built facilities and hired more scientists. "It was a boom atmosphere," said Zerhouni. "But the budget did not keep up."

In 2004 the budget plateaued, after which President Bush and Congress looked for ways to cut spending in the face of the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. Since then they have added minimally to spending on biomedical research.

"The long-term projections," said Kei Koizumi, a budget expert at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "show NIH staying flat in the coming years, which means a loss due to inflation."

Yet demand for funding continues to rise. From 1998 to last year, the number of researchers asking NIH for money grew from 19,000 to 34,000. At the same time, advances in genetics and molecular biology have opened up numerous avenues of exploration.

"The pace of change in science is incredible," Zerhouni said, adding that other countries, particularly in Asia, are also investing in science. The United States' future competitive edge, he said, depends on the current crop of early-career scientists. "A few years from now," he said, "we don't want to find we have no new scientists to do the science of the future."

But launching a career in science takes cash for laboratory equipment, supplies and workers' salaries. While biotech companies fund research that is expected to quickly produce new drugs, tests and equipment, the groundwork for those innovations comes from basic university research -- funded mostly by the federal government.

Wendy Sanders, Maryland's assistant dean for faculty affairs and professional development, said junior scientists feel the funding crunch most. "It's hard for them to compete against better-established researchers," she said.

Concern about the fate of young scientists prompted NIH officials in 2004 to allow post-doctoral researchers -- those still in apprenticeships -- to apply for federal grants. NIH has also shortened the time it takes to review proposals to make it easier on junior scientists like Fuller who have landed faculty positions at a university.

Meanwhile, medical schools are also working to boost their researchers' chances. The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, which receives more NIH funding than any other medical school, hired staff in response to the doubling of NIH's budget. Now, to ensure that its most promising young faculty get funding, Hopkins has taken the difficult step of firing others. "There is definitely more reliance on termination letters," said Dr. Chi V. Dang, vice dean for research.

The University of Maryland School of Medicine has tried to help researchers compete -- with some success. Among medical schools, the university climbed from 32nd in 1998 to 25th in 2005 in the amount of NIH funding it received.

Dr. Bruce E. Jerrell, the school's vice dean for research and academic affairs, attributes this in large part to building new facilities and hiring talented young scientists. The school's faculty has grown by 20 percent since 2000.

The tough-love grant writing workshop that Rebecca Fuller and Laundette Jones participated in was one method the school uses to protect its investment.

Originally from Louisville, Ky., Fuller, 39, earned her bachelor's in psychology from the University of Kentucky in 1989. She moved to England with her British husband, where at first she worked odd jobs -- including a stint selling theater tickets. Fascination with the workings of the mind, however, drew her back to science. In 2000, she received her doctorate from University College London's Institute of Neurology.

After graduating, Fuller took a postdoctoral position with Maryland's medical school, studying how schizophrenia impairs cognitive functioning. Her specialty is using electrical sensors to measure damage the disease inflicts on a person's memory and ability to focus on tasks.

One of her patients, for example, can't make sense of bus schedules. "Certain things are too complicated and confusing for him to lead a normal life," she said.

By measuring electrical activity in areas of the brain involved in attention and memory, Fuller hopes to provide a way to determine which drugs and cognitive therapies improve patients' ability to function. The Food and Drug Administration could use that information to determine whether to approve a treatment.

After five years of working under the auspices of an older, better established researcher, Fuller was hired as a faculty member and tried to strike out on her own last winter. Her idea was to translate the methods she'd used to study schizophrenia to explore cognitive impairment in people with Parkinson's disease.

After months of preparation -- while simultaneously tending to the needs of her husband and two young children -- she filed her grant proposal with NIH in February. "I spent nights, weekends and most of Christmas vacation writing it," she said.

Four months later she received a written rejection from NIH. "It's not clear that the proposed studies will provide important information," one of the reviewers wrote.

Fuller was frustrated. "It's really worrying," she said. "There is a lot of pressure to fund yourself or leave."

That pressure can be summed up in two words: "tenure clock." Tenure provides senior faculty with job security. Until they get tenure, junior scientists remain in an extended probationary period, during which they must prove their ability to get funding and publish their findings.

At Maryland, the clock stops ticking after nine years. Faculty who haven't established themselves by then are no longer eligible for tenure and may be asked to leave. "Once you're here, you have to hit the ground running because the time goes fast," said Jones, the workshop member in charge of whipping Fuller's grant proposal into shape.

At the end of the workshop Jones had an upbeat message for Fuller. She pointed out that the NIH reviewers had described Fuller's idea as "novel" and potentially "valuable." When Fuller resubmits the revised proposal this spring, Jones predicted, the reviewers will like it.

Jones, 36, is also optimistic about her own chances. A native of Prince George's County, she earned her bachelor's degree in chemistry from Morgan State University and her doctorate from the Johns Hopkins University studying the link between environmental toxins and liver cancer.

After working as a postdoc at NIH and then as assistant director for a nonprofit that trains people for jobs as laboratory technicians, she took a faculty position at the medical school in July of 2005.

Last winter she applied for the Outstanding New Environmental Scientist Award, an NIH funding source for junior investigators. She asked for $250,000 to study the relationship between environmental estrogens and development of tumors in women with BRCA1, a gene linked to breast cancer. She also was turned down.

She revised her grant application with the help of the other workshop members, resubmitted it in December and is awaiting word. "I've learned about a lot of mistakes I made in my first attempt to write a grant," she said, adding that she understands federal funds are tight.

"I hear it, but I think my training and my background give me a chance to at least compete," Jones said. "The only alternative is to not try, and that's not an option for me."

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