Baldwin looks to boost NIH-funded research

Doctors and researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin are praising efforts by U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, to improve access to NIH funding – especially for younger researchers.

Baldwin, whose grandfather was a scientist, sought feedback during a roundtable discussion with about two dozen MCW researchers, ranging from graduate students to department chairs, regarding a bipartisan bill, the Next Generation Research Act. Baldwin is co-sponsoring the bill with Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine.

The bill calls for a study – the results of which will be presented to Congress – on the effect that years of flat-lined funding is having on longtime medical research, as well as how funding barriers are affecting young researchers. The bill also seeks to ensure at least slight annual increases in funding, to keep up with inflation.

Tarin Bigley, 29, an aspiring pediatrician who is completing a joint MD and PhD, said uncertainty about future NIH grants might force him and other young doctors to forgo research and simply focus on seeing patients.

That would be a shame, he said.

“There are (currently used) cancer treatments, for example, that I used in the lab six years ago. This is something that NIH-funded science has propelled from being on the bench, in a test tube or in a petri dish, to now actually being used in the clinic. This is something I see in the clinic day to day.”

Baldwin told the group she believes medical research can be an “enormous economic engine” for states and the nation, but expressed concern that the average age of a first-time NIH grant recipient is 42 – up from 36 in 1980. Baldwin said she was surprised when NIH chief Francis Collins (no relation to Sen. Collins) told her his biggest worry wasn’t a national pandemic. “He told me, ‘I fear we’re losing an entire generation of bright young scientists,’” she said.

Michele Battle, an associate professor of cell biology who joined MCW in 2008, said it’s just as challenging for younger researchers who obtain initial funding for a project to keep the grants coming.

“It’s making an investment in a person in a lab and trying to make sure you continue that investment, because this is the point in people’s careers when they often drop out of science,” she said. “It’s really quite a challenge when you’ve built your lab, you finally have your momentum, finally have it up and running and you hit this roadblock of trying to maintain your funding.”

Michael Lawlor, a neuropathologist at Children’s Hospital, said the current grant application process often requires multiple resubmissions, adding the cumbersome process devours hundreds of hours of labor that could be used in the lab.

“By this point, the person is 35, not 25,” he said. “What we’re really trying to do is shorten the pipeline and to extend the support of our brightest and our best as they establish their research.”

Baldwin said a companion bill has been introduced in the U.S. House, and added that if the full measure doesn’t pass, “we’ll see if we can incorporate it into another measure that are already moving its way through. If that doesn’t work, I also sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee.”

“We’re trying to use every trick we can find to advance this legislation,” she said.

— By Kay Nolan