U.S. biomedical research in crisis: UW-Madison takes charge
About a century ago, researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison helped introduce vitamins to the world, signaling a profound shift in our understanding of human and animal health and changing the lives of tens of millions of people around the globe.
Since that time, UW–Madison has become “a biomedical research powerhouse,” Chancellor Rebecca Blank said Feb. 16 before an audience of about 150 faculty, students and staff. Yet, a looming national biomedical research crisis threatens to fundamentally impact that research and the people who conduct it.
The university is poised to help lead the national conversation to address the systemic flaws within the American biomedical research enterprise and will host a workshop April 11 to share ideas on how to fix it. Blank spoke as part of the launch of a campuswide effort aimed at cultivating solutions.
“I think this is a process, and together we will define its course,” said Marsha Mailick, interim vice chancellor for research and graduate education and co-organizer of the workshop with Judith Kimble, Vilas Professor of Biochemistry and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.
The workshop — Rescuing U.S. Biomedical Research from its Systemic Flaws: Strategies and Pathways Ahead — will take place in collaboration with the authors of a study published last April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that ignited the endeavor, including former National Academy of Sciences President and former Science Magazine Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts and former president of Princeton University, Shirley Tilghman.
That article called the current era a “golden age” in the biological and medical sciences but laid out the severe imbalance between a growing scientific community and dwindling research dollars, which has created a “hypercompetitive atmosphere” that has impacted careers, education and has reduced scientific productivity. The article also offered recommendations, some of which proved to be contentious.
“Everybody agrees there is a problem,” Kimble said. “Nobody knows how to fix it. This Madison workshop is going to give us a voice in the national debate.”
Mailick and Kimble have organized a series of weekly pre-workshop discussions in March to help collect the best ideas and present them at the April event. More information about these workshops, which are open to all in the basic, clinical, biomedical, social science and engineering research fields, can be found at research.wisc.edu.
The goals of the workshop will be to make recommendations for national policy to address the imbalance and to recommend university policy changes to remain competitive.
“The reputation of this university depends on the reputation of our faculty and staff,” Blank said.
UW-Madison consistently ranks among the top universities in the nation for research expenditures and over the years has enjoyed an increasing share of the federal funding pie. The university’s status as a “biomedical powerhouse” has helped UW–Madison attract some of the world’s leading scholars, and the success of the university has in part fueled the perception here that the biomedical research enterprise would continuously expand, Blank added.
That could soon be on the line.
“We cannot assume that trend will continue in the current hypercompetitive environment,” Blank said. “It’s not clear exactly what changes are coming, but it is clear there is going to be change.”
Facts and figures:
- Since the early 2000s, the success rate for National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant applications and funding has been cut in half, dropping from 20 percent to 10.
- Congressional fund appropriations to the NIH have remained stagnant or decreased over the last 10-15 years.
- In 1993, 34 percent of Ph.D.s held tenure or tenure-track positions, compared to 26 percent in recent years, and the interval between earning a Ph.D. and taking a tenure track job has increased, to about six years.
- In 1992, the U.S. was ranked 2nd among 34 OECD nations (Organisation for Co-operation and Development, including France, Greece, Sweden and Japan) for research and development investment as a percentage of GDP. In 2012, it was 10th.
- The percentage of principal investigators under age 36 has declined, from 18 percent in 1980 to just 3 percent in 2010.
- The age at which researchers received their first R01 grant increased steadily between 1980 and 2010.