Perspectives on the NPR NIH Stories

Sep 26 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

Recently, NPR (through the work of Richard Harris and colleagues) aired a series of 7 stories about biomedical research and NIH funding with 5 stories on Morning Edition (Tuesday, Wednesday, Monday, Tuesday2, Wednesday2) and 2 on All Things Considered (TuesdayTuesday2).

The first set of stories on Tuesday, September 9th, focused on the "boom and bust" funding environment beginning with the budget "doubling" followed by the past decade with its associated loss of buying power and on profiles of a couple of scientists who had moved on to non-scientific careers. These were followed by stories about over-building of research space, non-reducibility of animal studies ascribed to hyper-competitiveness, the mismatch between the number of trainees and the number of academic jobs, alternative models for setting research agendas with the National Breast Cancer Coalition as an example, and concluded with a discussion with former NIH Director and current NCI Director Harold Varmus about some potential adjustments to the system.

There has been an active set of discussions about these stories and related topics over at Drugmonkey (here, here, here, and here).

I learned that at least one story about the NIH was in the work when Richard Harris emailed me to initiate a discussion about these issues back in April. This was just prior to the panel discussion at the Experimental Biology meeting that I had been planning with the ASBMB Public Affairs Advisory Committee on related topics. I sent Richard our white paper on Building a More Sustainable Biomedical Enterprise as well as my recent ASBMB Today column about the impact of the sequester on the number of R funded investigators. Over the course of our discussions, I helped Richard and his colleagues about the use of NIH Reporter, both to confirm statistics but, more importantly, to compile a list of investigators who has recently lost funding to identify potential subjects for stories about the impact of the sequester and the disequilibrium of the biomedical research enterprise.

Two points.  First, this highlights a key challenge of journalism. Stories that focus on statistics (e.g. 1000 investigators lost R funding due to the sequester) tend to be rather sterile and not compelling in the public (as opposed to the scientific) sphere. Thus, he was seeking specific people to approach to find some who would go on the record about their experiences and the impact of the funding situation on their career situations. Of course, each specific example has its own idiosyncrasies and it is very difficult to find a few "typical" cases that approximately capture the full reality of what is going on. For example, the scientists who had left academic positions to start a business to produce liquor or to run a grocery struck some (including me) as odd examples given that they were more familiar with those leaving academia (and research) to move into communications or other "more traditional" science career alternatives.

In any event, I feel it is important to recognize the journalistic challenge of finding real human examples to make a story three-dimensional and compelling to the public. We should be appreciative of reporters who make the effort and of individuals who are willing to share their own stories so publicly.

Second, I was struck by the differences between reporting and advocacy. The story about how animal model studies relevant to ALS research turned out to be not very robust does not paint a flattering picture of some aspects of the biomedical research enterprise. In a short piece, it is difficult to explore all of the factors contributed (or might have contributed) to such outcomes so that the piece might come across as unfair. Nonetheless, in my opinion, it is very important to understand how the public perceives these issues (again, as discussed at Drugmonkey here and here) and having them aired in public, while uncomfortable, certainly has an upside.

My bottom line is that the scientific community needs to capitalize on the public awareness that comes from such press coverage. We need to learn from the stories and the public reactions to them, work to address the issues that we can tackle, and focus energy into productive channels for improving the scientific enterprise and the public understanding of it, to the best of our ability.

8 responses so far

  • Dave says:

    I just don't think the messaging is working, personally. These were not the first articles to talk about NIH funding from the PIs perspective, and they will not be the last. But for me there is little change in....well.....anything. The public has other things to worry about and they can't focus on the long-game that is NIH funding. And I don't think the public sympathizes on a personal level, either, and some of the PIs are very close to coming across as a bunch of privileged whiners if you ask me.

  • datahound says:

    Dave: As I tried to point out, this is not really messaging (advocacy) but rather is the work of a journalist covering a set of issues that he thought this readership (listenership) would find interesting.

    I think the point of PIs "coming across as a bench of privileged whiners" is an important one. We do need to be careful not to come across as entitled or too shrill but rather to focus of what we can offer society and the taxpayers (in the long run in addition to "faster cures"). As Congressman Natcher used to say to Ruth Kirschstein when she was going to testify before Congress about NIGMS "Doctor, you have a good story to tell...Tell it well." (Those were very different times in Congress.)

  • Joe says:

    I think the take-home points people got from these stories were:
    1) The NIH budget was doubled. Wow the NIH has a lot of money.
    2) NIH grant review panels are choosing to fund low-risk projects and not funding the truly brilliant people. The NIH funding system needs to be fixed.
    3) NIH-funded investigators get grants for millions of dollars and are getting rich.
    4) Universities took a lot of NIH money and used it to build palatial buildings for their administrators and other ivory-tower faculty. They're living the high life and ripping off the taxpayer.

    I have heard each of those ideas expressed from people in my town, and a couple were mentioned to me by someone who had just heard one of the NIH stories on NPR. I agree that this could be a good teachable moment. I just hope too much damage hasn't been done already.

    • datahound says:

      Joe: Some of these are true.
      1) is true. $30B is a lot of money.
      2) is partially true. The system does become more conservative under these circumstances although one of the strengths of the grant system is that investigators can use to money for other creative purposes.
      3) is partially true in that some investigators do get large grants although few scientists are getting that rich.
      4) Universities did build research space, some of it quite nice, although I do not think they are living the high life or ripping off the taxpayers.

      We do need to make these teachable moments. The Ebola crisis is a tragedy, but the fact that there are vaccines and treatments in the works could (and should in my opinion) be explained in terms of the basic knowledge framework that makes this possible. Ebola can't be studies without appropriate lab space, trained personnel, knowledge of immunology and virology, etc.

  • "$30B is a lot of money."

    As a percent of GDP, US spending on R&D is much smaller than the vast majority of industrialized nations. So no, $30B is not "a lot of money".

    • datahound says:

      First off, I did not say that $30B was an inappropriately large amount of money, but it is a large amount of money (roughly $100 per capita). Second, the statement that "R&D spending is much smaller than the vast majority of industrialized nations" is not correct unless you have sources different than mine. I would say, US R&D is somewhat smaller than some other industrialized nations.

  • Joe says:

    I think it is unfortunate that there was not more nuance in the stories that I heard. If you are going to mention the doubling of the NIH budget, you need to also mention the un-doubling.
    Stories that go "I had to leave science because study sections didn't recognize my brilliance and wouldn't fund a study with some innovative and risky aspects" need to include information about the high-risk/high-reward mechanisms that are used as well as the ways study sections evaluate proposals. That is, it is not enough to have a brilliant idea, you need to convince a group of scientists that your planned experiments might work before they are going to prioritize your proposal as deserving of $1.25M of the tax-payers money.
    The public needs to understand that the vast majority of grant funds go to pay the workers and trainees that do the experiments, and that the tax-payers are getting this work done at a bargain price. Now I probably sound like one of Dave's "privileged whiners."

  • Skeptic says:

    It is sad that so many scientists are willing and love to go on the media to talk about their "cure" of diseases in mice/animals. I am wondering how many cures that are spotlighted on the general media are actually being materialized in humans. Scientists should communicate the progresses that are being made, but should not hype the "cure".

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