If Science Hill seems too far to walk to aid in Yale research, try Zambia.
While most Yale scientists work for the University at sites within the United States, more and more researchers, especially those studying infectious diseases and public health, are taking their projects overseas. But this move comes at a cost. Yale scientists say that even though the benefits of international research are numerous, it is challenging to navigate the additional levels of bureaucracy that such projects often entail.
All research has some cost associated with it, and despite Yale’s substantial endowment, the many research projects students and faculty participate in each year would be untenable without grants from external sources. Scientists most commonly seek funding from the National Institutes of Health, but the arduous application process often takes months. For international biomedical research grants, the story begins the same way: The proposal is considered among the approximately 70,000 applications NIH receives each year for an ever-slimmer slice of the funding budget.
NIH does not choose among the grant proposals alone — it relies on a peer-review process to separate the wheat from the chaff. But applications for international research are not handled separately or differently, said John Makulowich, a spokesman for the Fogarty International Center at NIH. Epidemiology and public health professor Kaveh Khoshnood said administrators generally try to match scientists with similar resumes on peer-review committees, but the pool of researchers who have an international bent to their work is limited.
This limited supply of scientists with global research on their resumes can make the reviewing process more difficult, said Tongzhang Zheng, a professor of epidemiology and environmental health.
“Usually one of the reviewers’ questions is, ‘Why can’t this research be done here?’ ” he said. “Of course you have reasons, but sometimes you don’t have the best argument.”
Still, things seem to be changing as Yale continues to work toward greater cooperative research. Dr. Michael Merson, a professor of public health and the director of the Yale Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS, which supports research projects across the world, said he thinks the past NIH bias in favor of research in the United States is giving way to a more global perspective.
“I think NIH is quite open to faculty doing research overseas,” Merson said. “There were problems years ago, but more and more of NIH’s portfolio is international. We know that most diseases don’t know anything about borders.”
But while NIH is expanding its outlook, some researchers said they do not think the field as a whole is moving as quickly as it should.
“I think the problem is a tendency in the U.S. not to think globally when it comes to health,” said Dr. Richard Bucala ’79, a professor of internal medicine. “There needs to be a focus on things other than diseases of the developed world, like cancer or heart disease.”
While the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases grants more funding to outside researchers than most other NIH organs, having spent more than $2 billion last year, the National Cancer Institute gave out even more, totaling more than $3 billion.
As difficult as the reviewing process is for any grant, the international one must face another hurdle. The U.S. Department of State reviews grants that will be used internationally, and most pass easily. But Khoshnood said some countries, including Iran and Cuba, pose problems for the State Department. While it is still possible to conduct research in such countries, which are subject to U.S. economic sanctions, the process takes far longer and costs more, he said.
But politics is not the only factor limiting where research can be undertaken. Leonard Munstermann, a research scientist in epidemiology and public health, said his grant to do research in Colombia was held up by U.S. State Department regulations, even though it passed through the NIH peer review with flying colors. Due to the potential for kidnapping and robbery, Munstermann said, the U.S. government does not permit federal employees, including those who inspect research sites, to travel to the country. Munstermann said he and his Colombian colleagues are looking for alternative sources of funding for the parts of the study that violate this prohibition on government employee travel.
Academic researchers are particularly at risk when conducting international research, Merson said. He added that overseas research takes longer to set up and to complete, problematic for faculty members who are on a “tenure clock” and need to have substantial research completed within a certain number of years. Faculty who choose to conduct their research away from home do not receive extra time to complete that work before being reviewed for tenure, he said.
Despite all these disadvantages, professors said there is a dire need for international research in the biomedical arena.
“Avian flu is a great example,” Bucala said. “It’s only a matter of time before avian flu is here, and there isn’t much willingness by granting agencies to consider that most diseases of importance originate overseas.”