February 22, 2013
By Paul Basken
The National Institutes of Health has been trying for years to direct money toward younger scientists and more innovative research projects. It's still trying, the NIH's director, Francis S. Collins, said on Wednesday, but there's only so much it can do if Congress keeps cutting its budget.
"The problem is not that we don't favor innovation," Dr. Collins said at a briefing at NIH headquarters. "The problem is the resources."
The NIH held the briefing to put pressure on Congress to cancel the governmentwide budget-cutting process known as sequestration, which would mean an across-the-board spending reduction of 5.1 percent at the NIH if it takes effect, as scheduled, on March 1.
The cuts would come at the same time the NIH is already under pressure to revamp its system for awarding grant money to outside researchers—the bulk of its $31-billion annual budget. The revamping is intended to avoid giving so much money to more senior and established researchers who pursue studies that are often criticized as offering incremental advances in medical knowledge.
That concern was a dominant topic this past weekend at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where researchers gave a series of presentations on problems at the NIH and other agencies that distribute federal money for scientific discovery. . .
Another former NSF official, David C. Croson, (former) director of the Science of Science and Innovation Policy Program at the NSF, said the peer-review system remained the best method for allocating federal dollars among scientists.
Mr. Croson, now a clinical professor of strategy, entrepreneurship, and business economics at Southern Methodist University, suggested that leaving such decisions solely to federal bureaucrats would be like putting a "DMV employee" in charge of scientific discovery.
He also cautioned against nostalgia, saying that, even now, independent amateur scientists have better financing than they did in centuries past. "I would say there are more amateur scientists now than ever there were in the heyday of Royal Society Victorian times," Mr. Croson told the AAAS conference.
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