Guest Column: Nobel prizes show importance of federal research funding for science

San Jose Mercury News

The following editorial appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on Friday, Oct. 11:

The addition of three Nobel laureates — Stanford’s Michael Levitt and Thomas Sudhof and University of California at Berkeley’s Randy Schekman — to the Bay Area’s long list of winners only enhances the region’s well-deserved reputation for innovation. And these close-to-home academic superstars can also help shed light on the role a steady, predictable flow of federal research funding plays in their success.

Unfortunately, President Barack Obama reduced the budget for National Institutes of Health research by 5 percent last year, even though it represents fewer than 1 percent of federal spending. The government shutdown is only making matters worse, resulting in the furlough of 13,000 researchers and blocking hundreds of projects.

The NIH is the largest source of funding for medical research in the world, financing more than 300,000 researchers at more than 2,500 universities. Silicon Valley has a huge interest in restoring those funds and should push the president and Congress to reopen the government and expand investment in the nation’s future.

“I have no specific complaints. … I have been well-funded by the NIH,” Levitt said Wednesday after hearing the news that he would share the Nobel Prize for chemistry with Martin Karplus of Harvard and Arieh Warshel of the University of Southern California. “But things are becoming difficult at the NIH, and funding is becoming harder and harder to get. Our system is the envy of the world, but it needs to be protected.”

Another Nobel winner, James Rothman of Yale, who shared the award for medicine with Sudhof and Randy Schekman, wasn’t so lucky. Because of budget cuts, Rothman lost his NIH funding for the very research the Nobel committee awarded, and he told reporters Tuesday that he hopes the prize will mean his grants will be funded if he reapplies.

NIH research is largely responsible for extending the life expectancy of babies born today by 30 years since the early 1900s. It’s also responsible for nearly every significant advancement in cancer research and for the discovery of the structure of DNA. Every $1 of NIH funding generates about $2.21 in economic growth — a huge return on investment.

But federal cutbacks have led to a precipitous drop in the percentage of grants approved by the NIH. As recently as 2000, nearly 30 percent of all NIH grant applications were funded. Today, that success rate is under 20 percent. Meanwhile, countries such as China, Germany, Japan and South Korea have all been substantially increasing their research budgets.

Without an increase in NIH funding, it’s only a matter of time before other nations begin surpassing the innovative efforts that have helped make Silicon Valley and the nation the envy of the world.