Nobel Prize winners talk culture of U.S. science

National Public Radio’s show “On Point” hosted by Tom Ashbrook interviewed Nobel Prize winners James Rothman and Arieh Warshel and Cold Spring Harbor President Bruce Stillman about the state of basic science in the U.S. The overarching theme during the radio program was similar to the sentiment of most scientists in the U.S. as demonstrated by the release of the ASBMB Unlimited Potential, Vanishing Opportunity survey. With funding not keeping up with inflation and the percentage of grants being funded dropping, innovative and creative research is suffering.

In the NPR interview, Rothman said that the mission of the National Institutes of Health needs to be revisited and an external, transparent review of the agency must be conducted to determine if the science being funded is helping individual researchers to succeed. Rothman said that while there was a necessary shift to big science with more applied research, the “pendulum goes too far” in that the NIH is not funding individual, important basic research that could lead to the Nobel Prize in 20 or 30 years. In this sentiment, it was emphasized that the U.S. needs to fund ground-breaking research as in the past instead of short-term research that will just get the next step of results.

There was also talk on the topic of young scientists. Several callers representing young researchers mentioned little to no prospects are available. One caller, a postdoc, went so far as to say that not only does the funding situation need to be overhauled but also the Ph.D. and postdoc process is a broken system due to the lack of compensation and mentorship. While the Nobel laureates did not completely agree with this sentiment, they did agree that there is a, in the words of Warshel, “Darwinian process” of selection for researchers, and that talented individuals that make it through to the academic positions will be denied for ten grants and will give up due to the dire situation.

The laureates agreed that Congress needs to resolve the budget issues and start thinking long-term, as individual appropriations bills that cover federal science-funding agencies have not been passed in several years. They also suggested that academic institutions need to assess the economic situation and adjust their levels of support as well, especially for young faculty researchers not receiving grants as quickly as in the past. The U.S. is spending more money in absolute dollars on research and needs to reconsider the structure for success before innovative researchers go off-shore and the country loses on its large investment.

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