Big ideas require big money

How research is financed—or not—plays an outsized role in scientific discovery

11:35 AM

Author | Kelly Malcom

Doctor floating with dollar signs and clouds orange and green background with buildings

If you asked the average person what a biomedical researcher does, you might get a variety of answers related to studying how living things function — or in the case of disease, malfunction. Yet, your typical scientist also spends a significant portion of their careers in another, less lofty pursuit: finding the money to do their work.

Most of the research carried out by academic medical centers like U-M Medical School is supported by the federal government with taxpayer funds. In fact, according to a National Science Foundation report, in 2017, the federal government funded half of all academic research and development in the U.S.

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And while the pot might sound substantial (the National Institutes of Health had a budget of $41.6 billion in 2020), obtaining this funding is "highly competitive because taxpayers only have so much to give," says Heather Offhaus, director of grant services and analysis for the U-M Medical School Office of Research. "It's billions, but it's still finite."

In federal fiscal year 2020, the NIH funded just 20.6 percent of the competing research project grant applications submitted. Most of these projects are based on established work, work that the NIH are "pretty sure will work out, has specific aims lined out, preliminary data that shows the researchers are headed in the right direction, and is closer to a slam dunk," says Offhaus.

Grants are so fundamental to the work of a scientist that "a huge component of the curriculum in graduate school is dedicated to grant writing," says Ariangela Kozik, Ph.D., a research investigator in the U-M Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. "For me personally, I would say a good 35 to 40 percent of my time has been spent generating data for a grant, putting a grant together or responding to comments from a grant review."

On the whole, U-M's academic medical center does well in securing federal dollars — ranking tenth in the U.S. for NIH funding for federal fiscal year 2020 — but the NIH's stringent qualifications discourage many researchers from even applying, leaving some of the more forward-thinking research ideas behind. That leaves those who may be pursuing questions that haven't amassed significant early data to search for alternative sources of funds.

Researchers like Matthias Truttmann, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular & Integrative Physiology, who studies neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, can often find monetary support via disease-specific, non-profit foundations and societies. But applying for these awards is competitive too — and time-consuming.

 "I kept tabs of all grants my lab submitted, starting in summer 2018, and we've submitted 86 grants," said Truttmann. "There is a lot of work that goes into this process."

He's been fairly successful, he says, with about 35 percent funded, however most of these are for small amounts, less than $50,000. This funding supports personnel costs, lab equipment, IT equipment and more.

"There is a lot of support for Alzheimer's research out there," says Truttmann. "So, if I have a research idea that is new, exciting, promising, I will submit a grant to NIH but in parallel also to one or two foundations because, based on experience, I will possibly get one funded."

The conservative nature of federal funding can put researchers at the beginning of their careers in a disadvantaged position. "If you start a new lab, you don't have three to four years of research behind you already, the preliminary data built up nor have you likely published in all of the things you want to work on," says Truttmann.

U-M Medical School provides support through start-up funding to help investigators establish their labs and generate the preliminary data to hopefully secure the bread-and-butter, multiple-year research project grants from the NIH, National Science Foundation, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency , and major foundations. There are also various set aside funds for early investigators, both within U-M and at NIH. But the nature of what traditionally gets funding can also shape what questions a researcher decides to pursue.

"I would be doing slightly different research if I wasn't so concerned with grants," says Christian Burgess, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular and integrative physiology and research assistant professor with the Michigan Neuroscience Institute, who studies sleep, motivation, and sensory processing.

"There are definitely ideas I would love to tackle but I can't risk throwing away a year of productivity on a project that might not work, or it might even work but the NIH is never going to fund it." 

Increasingly, frustrated researchers have left for companies with extensive research and development budgets, reports Truttmann, without the burden of grant writing. This is a loss for the next generation of scientists, says Burgess, and those who leave lose the intellectual freedom supported by academia. "There are a lot of real unknowns out there. Big important things to be discovered. And I don't feel like our current system is optimal for discovering those things."

Who funds applied science?

Researchers whose scientific interests lead them on a path to a product that can be used for patient care   known as translational or applied research -- face yet another set of hurdles. Academic medical centers can help by investing early in this research and employing development efforts to secure seed funding for such ventures.

U-M funding opportunities like the Frankel Innovation Initiative ($20M fund for research and development of life-saving therapies and technologies), the Max Harry Weil Institute, and MTRAC support translational research projects in life sciences with high commercial potential. The Frankel Innovation Initiative is administered by Fast Forward Medical Innovation (FFMI), which is a unit of the U-M Medical School's Office of Research that offers funding, education, and business development resources to help biomedical researchers navigate the road to successful innovation and commercialization. Depending on the specific project, there may also be collaborations with industry, foundations, and donors to invest in high-risk research with potential high reward for patients everywhere.

For later-stage projects that emerge from the University as startup companies, venture capitalists are a source of funding to advance promising research that has direct commercial potential -- especially in the development of new therapeutics and medical devices.

"Having a strong venture capital ecosystem is critical to our economic future and provides a path for research to translate into treatments and medical technologies that can reach broad patient impact," says John Seamans, manager of the Michigan Biomedical Venture Fund, part of FFMI. The fund's mission is to support and invest in early-stage startup companies based on U-M's biomedical investigators' research.

All too often, says Seamans, promising medical products and therapies that have market potential fall into what is known as the 'valley of death,' the gap between research and translation of that research into products that can help patients. This gap that requires tens-to-hundreds of millions of dollars to proceed through development, testing, trials, regulatory approvals, etc.

"Some people say good ideas will always get funded. But the idea and research are just the starting point to create a product. Capital is needed to build teams and reach development milestones. We need investors who are willing to take riskier early bets on first-time founders and younger researchers with high-potential ideas that show promise … people are often reluctant to take that bet, which means potential clinical impact is left on the table," says Seamans.

Who gets funded?

While merit and potential should ideally dictate which research projects are supported, this is not the case. Many of the inequalities built into virtually all sectors of the U.S. society affect scientific research as well. A 2021 study in the journal Cureus found that "Despite an overall increase in the percentage of female researchers successfully receiving NIH grants and awards, they continue to lag compared to their male counterparts."

And an impactful commentary published in the journal Cell in 2021 entitled "Fund Black Scientists," authored by a network of biomedical engineering faculty, including Lola Eniola-Adefeso, Ph.D. of U-M College of Engineering, highlighted the fact that in 2014–2016, Black applicants were half as likely to be funded as white principal investigators. Some progress has been made; NIH reports an 8 percent gap between Black and white and Asian PIs in the funding rate for R01s -- the large grants researchers strive for -- in 2020.

Part of the funding rate gap's persistence stems from how grant applications are reviewed, says U-M's  Kozik, who is co-founder and vice president of the Black Microbiologists Association. Reviews are carried out by study sections comprised of experts in the related scientific field. Each application is reviewed by a member of this section.

"Everyone comes to this with their own value systems; what they think is important, valuable, innovative or exciting; what they think a good scientist is, and what their definition of success is can come through in their reviews and often does," Kozik said

Among academic researchers there is a joke about Reviewer Number 2, the anonymous member whose comments about a grant application "are slightly annoying to outright problematic," says Kozik. She recalls feedback on her grant applications criticizing the amount of time she spends on diversity, equity and inclusion work. Similar comments about gaps in a researcher's work or publication history due to time taken for child or other caregiving are also not unheard of—a phenomena exacerbated by the pandemic.

Thus, she says, a process that can already be demoralizing due to its competitiveness becomes increasingly so when barriers unrelated to the research topic come into play. "I'm really hoping it becomes clear that we need to make changes to improve the process and system and I think it needs to happen top down," says Kozik.

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