U.S. Biomedical Research Needs Overhaul to Avoid Long-Term Decline

Report: “Rescuing U.S. Biomedical Research From Its Systemic Flaws”

Authors: Bruce Alberts, emeritus professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California at San Francisco; Marc W. Kirschner, professor of systems biology at Harvard University; Shirley M. Tilghman, professor of molecular biology at Princeton University; and Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute.

Publication: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Summary: The period of a rapid budgetary build-up of the National Institutes of Health followed by a decade-long flattening has created a crisis in U.S. biomedical research requiring a series of corrective actions.


  • Emphasize the need for Congress to write and adhere to a five-year budget plan for the NIH.
  • Hold down the growth in biomedical graduate students by funding them with training grants and fellowships rather than research grants, make foreigners eligible for training grants, and encourage nonresearch careers for such students by giving them a broader educational base.
  • Limit the number of postdoctoral fellows by raising their average pay to the level of staff scientists and limiting their length of eligibility under federal grants, while also creating better career incentives for staff scientists.
  • In awarding federal grants, put greater emphasis on the quality of the scientists than the details of a particular project (the Howard Hughes Medical Institute model), emphasize originality and risk-taking (as with the NIH’s New Innovator Award), and more carefully review past work for quality and impact while decreasing reliance on journal-publication statistics, with criteria adjusted to benefit younger researchers.
  • Continue the NIH’s recent effort to limit new awards to labs that already have large levels of grant support, and build sunset provisions into large-scale research projects.
  • Improve grant-review systems by requiring service on review panels as a condition of grant awards, and encourage participation from outside the direct field as much as possible.
  • Revise policies on indirect costs that have encouraged universities to overbuild, including rules that allow full reimbursement to amortize loans for new buildings, the payment of indirect costs on faculty salaries, and the hiring of faculty fully supported by research grants.
  • Encourage and enable outside reviews of the effectiveness of programs.

Bottom line: With Dr. Varmus among the authors, the NIH is making clear that despite the considerable inertia associated with changing course at such a large organization, the agency is sufficiently worried about the future health of biomedical research that it’s prepared to expand some efforts that universities may find uncomfortable and is considering making even more extensive overhauls.

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