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 (Tuesday, Tuesday2).
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.
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.