IN THE LOOP: Stimulus funding for science: what happens down the road?

Is there a downside to the infusion of federal dollars for scientific research? In Massachusetts, Robert Coughlin, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council doesn’t think so. In fact, he sees the potential for a new era in scientific research. “The stimulus money will be a shot in the arm,” he says. More important, he thinks President Obama’s commitment to science is becoming more and more evident. “Funding basic research is of critical importance to the biotechnology industry, and we are thrilled that President Obama and the members of Congress recognize the impact this funding can have.”

But others aren’t so sure. At a recent hearing of the House Subcommittee on Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations, acting NIH Director Raynard Kington was asked about eventual outcomes once the ARRA funds are allocated. Kington acknowledged that an increase in grant applications in 2011 may drop the success rate if NIH fails to receive a substantial increase to its budget. “It’s inevitable if dollars are used successfully, they will generate new scientific advances which will create more demand,” he said.

Committee member Todd Tiahrt (R-KS) warned that the $10 billion allocated to NIH could be like pushing “a pig through a python,” and that the agency should be on guard to fund projects that could be carried out in a two-year timeframe. “Otherwise you might have to shut down research or limit it to the detriment of the American people,” Tiarht said.

Optics and photonics view

Over at the National Science Foundation (NSF) Leon Esterowitz, program officer for BioPhotonics, Advanced Imaging and Sensing for Human Health, doesn’t see the stimulus money as doing much to change what NSF funds in biophotonics. “If anything, the impact will be very short term,” he says. “We may see some [proposals] that are more far out.” He, too, notes that the success rate for proposals may be lower since the percent increase in proposals is larger than the percent increase in funding.

The National Institutes of Health received by far the largest allotment of supplemental recovery funding compared with other science agencies.
Click here to enlarge image

Duncan Moore, Rudolf and Hilda Kingslake Professor of Optical Engineering and Professor of Biomedical Engineering, at the University of Rochester, thinks the biggest boon will be not in jobs creation but equipment upgrades. Congress appropriated $300 million for shared instrumentation and other research capital equipment. Contracts for new equipment mean more business for manufacturers and will allow laboratories to bring in cutting edge apparatus. “The government has been very weak in supporting equipment,” he says. On the downside of the ARRA funding, he notes, “You’re moving a lot of money really quickly and I would worry that the expectations will be too high.”

Life doesn’t come with a guarantee and neither do federal funds. Even those who worked to push the ARRA funding through Congress like Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) a big supporter of science, particularly optics, notes that making the case for R&D funding is continual. The ARRA is “a historic investment in science that will be the foundation of our nation’s future economic vitality” but funding for science and R&D must be sustained. He’s looking toward the next budget cycle to keep the money coming. – Susan Reiss

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