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Funding young scientists

This month, Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels sounded an alarm about the difficulty young science researchers have in obtaining the grant funding that they need to launch their careers. In an article in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, he noted that the age at which biomedical researchers are getting their first major grants from the National Institutes of Health has steadily advanced during the last few decades, rising from 38 in 1980 to 45 in 2013. Today, twice as many researchers over age 65 are getting these grants than those age 36 or younger, the reverse of the situation 15 years ago.

That means thousands of talented scientists are turning away from the kind of basic research that could lead to breakthrough discoveries to cure disease and improve our quality of life. Moreover, we are failing to support scientists when they are young, and that's when they are most likely to do work that upends whole fields of study. That's true in plenty of famous cases like Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, Mr. Daniels said, but it has also been validated by research.

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Mr. Daniels is putting his money where his mouth is: Last week, Hopkins announced $15 million in funding for two new award programs aimed at early-career researchers. But, as he pointed out in an appearance on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi Show on Thursday, that and all the other private and foundation support for such research is chicken feed compared to what the federal government can do. The NIH supports about $30 billion a year in grants, he said, compared to about $1.3 billion for private foundations. Clearly, the problem is going to require a federal government solution.

Fortunately, both parties in Congress are working on the issue in ways that suggest it could prove an exception to the gridlock that has otherwise overtaken Washington. Last week, Rep. Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, released a nearly 400-page draft proposal for reforms to the NIH and the Food and Drug Administration designed to speed the discovery and approval of new treatments and cures. Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican and a physician who has conducted NIH-supported research in the past, contributed several ideas to prod the NIH into supporting younger researchers and more high risk/high reward proposals. Meanwhile, Maryland's Sen. Barbara Mikulski last week introduced legislation to partially exempt the NIH from Congress' self-imposed budget caps in hopes of restoring the agency's purchasing power after more than a decade of flat funding.

In all of that, there could be the makings of a deal.

Dr. Harris argues that more money, in and of itself, won't necessarily solve the problem, and some of Mr. Daniels' findings back him up. For example, the Hopkins president notes that the NIH's system of grant review, while admired the world over for its rigor, may create something of an "incumbency bias" in which established researchers have an advantage not necessarily because of the quality of their scientific ideas but because of their superior understanding of NIH policies, procedures and regulations — what's known as "grantsmanship." He also notes a Catch-22 — you can't get a grant without data, and you can't produce data without a grant. Efforts by the NIH to address those sorts of problems, he says, have been laudable but inadequate, and he suggests some substantial changes to the peer review and grantmaking processes. Dr. Harris' ideas don't go quite as far, but they are a step in the right direction.

Senator Mikulski's view that tight funding has contributed to the problem also gets support from Mr. Daniels. In the years that the NIH has been flat funded, he writes, success rates on the agency's principal grant for investigators has dropped from 30 percent to 17 percent. He writes that the tendency of peer reviewers to favor researchers with a track record of success over the new and risky is exacerbated at times of tight funding.

Republicans have made proposals in recent years to increase NIH funding, but under current budget rules, they are required to propose offsetting cuts, and their ideas for doing so have been political non-starters. Senator Mikulski's legislation, on which Sen. Ben Cardin is a co-sponsor, would obviate that problem. As part of Mr. Upton's massive piece of legislation, Dr. Harris' reform ideas could get caught up in partisan debate over issues like patent protection for pharmaceuticals. But packaged with Senator Mikulski's legislation, they present the opportunity for a real bi-partisan achievement in which the nation's health and scientific prowess are the winners.

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