What's the secret for scoring breakthrough scientific discoveries that offer new ways of diagnosing, treating, and preventing disease?
Forget brains, creativity, luck, and perseverance for now, and get practical. Our scientific and technological enterprise runs on money.
The time scientists spend searching for money to pay for their research may rival time spent in the lab actually doing it. No cash, no eureka. It's that simple.
And there's never enough research grant money to go around.
America's primary source of biomedical research money, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), funds only a fraction of the grant applications it receives. Even projects that NIH regards as promising may go unfunded, leaving scientists unable to do science.
That's one reason why it seems odd for NIH to be using its budget - straight out of taxpayers' pockets, of course - to fund scientists at institutions overseas.
The practice came to light recently when NIH announced new research grants for diseases of connective tissue, the stuff that gives joints and other tissues form and strength. Buried in the list was a grant of $728,000 to a scientist at Victoria University of Manchester in England.
Nothing new, says NIH. The agency “occasionally” funds overseas projects.
Modern scientific research certainly is international in scope. Science knows no national borders. Discoveries at labs in England and other countries can benefit patients everywhere.
But NIH should restrict the overseas flow of research money to truly extraordinary circumstances, after exhausting all alternatives for domestic use of those research dollars.
If no lab in the United States is equipped to do certain research, for instance, NIH should equip one before spending overseas. If no one in the United States is doing certain research, NIH should provide “seed” money to foster it.
The money earmarked for Victoria University of Manchester could have been a boon to scientists at the Medical College of Ohio, the University of Toledo, Bowling Green State University, or hundreds of institutions elsewhere in the United States. And it could have helped the local economy.
NIH's pockets are bulging, thanks to huge budget increases in recent years. Its fiscal 2003 budget request of $27.3 billion represents a 15.7 percent increase over 2002.
Decisions on using that money, made behind closed doors at NIH, often rankle. Scientists at big, rich, prestigious institutions get the biggest slices. Those elsewhere get the crumbs, or nothing.
Don't tell us that scientists at MCO, BGSU, UT, and similar schools elsewhere lack the brains, creativity, luck, or perseverance for those eurekas.
All too often, they simply don't have the money. And they should get it before scientists at places like Victoria University of Manchester.