Researchers vie for grant funds

Scientists at Yale and elsewhere are feeling the strain as grant money for medical research becomes increasingly harder to secure.

University officials said Yale is trying to provide its researchers with the best tools available to cope with the increasingly competitive pool of grant applications. But grants are scarce, and recent national scandals involving fraudulent or tainted science have prompted questions about how to make more money available while ensuring that research is done as objectively as possible.

Funding from the National Institutes of Health has leveled off over the last several years while the cost of research continues to soar. Investigators in academia and other areas have been forced to look elsewhere for funds — from private donors, non-profit organizations and large pharmaceutical corporations — and administrators everywhere seem increasingly intent on avoiding conflicts of interest that could compromise findings.

“I think [funding] is a huge problem for academic researchers,” said Sara Rockwell, director of the medical school’s Office of Scientific Affairs. “When you have a situation like we have now in Washington, where some institutes at the NIH are funding only eight or 10 percent of the grant applications submitted to them, that means that more than 90 percent of those submitting don’t get anything.”

Rockwell said that as recently as three years ago, NIH funded 20 to 25 percent of grant applications.

Money has long been the limiting factor in scientific research. But the growing constraints placed on investigators in need of funds have necessitated new strategies to cope with financial impediments while maintaining the level of integrity and openness needed in science research.

Many grant applications now place more emphasis on programmatic research, which allows flexibility by coordinating different programs among which funds can be divided up. Dr. Paul Cleary, Yale’s dean of epidemiology and public health, said the inconsistency of funding is more damaging than the general fiscal tightness.

But researchers said they are also looking beyond typical grant sources to secure money. Pharmaceutical companies support most clinical research, which involves large trials on a scale beyond the reach of typical grants. In addition, Yale and other universities increasingly look to alumni giving as a consistent, predictable source of support. The University’s recent “Yale Tomorrow” development campaign has placed an emphasis on raising funds for the sciences.

Part of researchers’ fiscal woes can be traced to recent suspicions about their ethics.

Individually, experts have long served as consultants for private companies. Speaking appearances, board spots and drug advice draw considerable fees, and many scientists use these roles as a way to supplement their incomes. Rockwell said these relationships can range from the purely educational and desirable to the potentially unethical. Yale has strict ethical guidelines to encourage full disclosure and preserve the integrity of scientists’ work.

“The big picture is that all people doing research at Yale must submit a conflict of interest form to be reviewed by the COI committee,” she said. “We of course require up-front disclosures. The committee looks at them to assess what should be done to manage, reduce or eliminate potential COIs and to be sure they don’t [compromise work].”

Yale scientists may not spend more than 50 days each year working for outside companies and must reveal all potential conflicts of interest before conducting research. Any monetary support must be given unconditionally, with no limits on publication rights. But researchers can receive supplementary income totaling up to $10,000, Rockwell said.

Despite the strict guidelines, scientists continue to tap into commercial companies as a source of funding. Tightening budgets have coincided with increased interest in private financial ties, Cleary said.

“I don’t know if it’s because of the hardness of getting money, but in parallel … people are working hard to try to develop relationships with industry,” he said.

Recent scandals at several institutions, including NIH and the University of Vermont, revealed potential weaknesses in conflict of interest management.

UVM researcher Eric Poehlman, an expert on aging and obesity, used millions of NIH dollars obtained through fraudulent grant applications. In June, he became the first research scientist jailed for fraudulent grant information.

At NIH, some scientists received hundreds of thousands of dollars from private companies, with unethical results reflected in their work. In response, the organization recently released a new set of ethical guidelines, forbidding its employees from receiving money from any source other than NIH.

Employees both within NIH and outside it remain divided on how necessary these regulations are. Dr. Paul Schnur, Deputy Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said his recognition of the unavoidable dangers of financial attachments likely represents an extreme position.

“I think if you are taking money from drug companies, it is extremely difficult not to be swayed in some very subtle way you don’t realize,” he said. “It’s so easy to see the result you want. You look at the data and you just really want to be able to understand some aspect of nature. I think we are all subject to that sort of self-serving bias.”

Dr. Yung-Chi Cheng, a professor of pharmacology at the medical school, said scientists can be expected to understand how to maintain objectivity without needing overly strict guidelines. He said a communal sense of trust is necessary for science to be as effective and open as possible.

“I don’t believe a word of it,” Cheng said. “The scientists in general stay in the academic community because they love to advance the science. So they know what to do. I think the issue is you have to have a basic trust of individuals’ judgment.”

Some of the recent ethical violations can be traced, in part, to an atmosphere of competition and self-promotion that has been increasingly exacerbated by funding shortages.

In an effort to provide as much support as possible, Yale officials said they are focusing more and more attention on basic infrastructure improvements to limit the stresses placed on scientists. Core facilities continue to expand, providing central resources that can be shared by scientists to reduce costs and improve efficiency. That change frees larger portions of the secured grants than can be applied to other expenses. Rockwell said a large MRI center and the Keck Biotechnology Resource Center are just two of many core facilities meant to help cut costs.

Young scientists feel the strain of competition most. Just as younger universities and institutions are unable to rely on their reputations to secure grants as Yale does, Cleary said, new investigators do not have past work to cite when they search for money. The University tries to help these junior researchers by funding pilot research prior to grant application, he said. Rockwell said new researchers are also given introductory courses in grant writing to improve their chances at getting approval.

Yale and other major research facilities are uniquely prepared to deal with the challenges posed by rising financial pressure. With large endowments, reputable histories and long-established relationships with major funding sources, these institutions are less severely impacted by rough waters.

But officials seem to agree that although Yale has a comparative advantage, the field of medical science as a whole will suffer from the increased competition.

Young, promising scientists and doctors are choosing private practice, industry work or scientific writing over research because of the rising uncertainty within investigative science. Scientists spend hundreds of hours each year writing repeat applications for re-submission, dragging down their other work, Cleary said. And because 90 percent of all grant applications fail, Rockwell said, plenty of good science is not being researched.

The uncertain environment for grants has in some cases favored conservative investigations over more creative ones, Rockwell said.

“There is a certain point in the tightness of funding where you really can’t distinguish the shades of excellence,” she said. “Can you decide which is the seventh-best and what is the eighth-best and make a sharp denotation there? There are some very exciting, innovative grant [applications] that don’t get funded because the grant committee is not willing to take the risk associated with them.”

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