Basic science departments serve three key missions: to conduct research, to teach graduate students in basic science fields, and to teach medical students. But basic science departments at academic institutions are hurting. They face challenges such as insufficient funding, dwindling faculty numbers, shrinking curriculum, and limited research space. Ultimately, these challenges negatively impact the medical field in a variety of ways.
Explore This IssueJuly 2019
Basic science departments are predominantly funded by grants to support research. Typically, these departments don’t have a means to create revenue on their own, as clinical departments do through compensation for clinical work. “While there may be some state funding for specific investigators, these salary lines are few and far between and certainly aren’t enough to support a complete and modern department,” said Andrew Murr, MD, professor and chair of the department of otolaryngology–head and neck surgery at the University of California, San Francisco. “Endowed positions sometimes exist to help with support, but basic science departments have little interaction with the public, so raising money through philanthropy is less likely,” he added.
Although there have been significant improvements in the federal government’s budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in recent years, when adjusted for inflation, the budget is still smaller than it was in 2003. “Basic scientists have experienced 15 years with no growth in available resources, with terrible pay lines from NIH and National Science Foundation grants,” said Ross McKinney, MD, chief scientific officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).
Wendell G. Yarbrough, MD, MMHC, a professor and chair of otolaryngology/head and neck surgery at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, had similar sentiments. “Many NIH institutes are funding applications in the single-digit percentiles, and when grants are funded they oftentimes aren’t large enough for the proposed research to be completed,” he said. In addition, salary caps on NIH grants create another funding gap. Funding from clinical sources or schools of medicine are also under pressure due to decreased reimbursement for clinical activity, so making up for lost funding is particularly challenging.
Dr. Murr added that with funding becoming increasingly tight for NIH awards, the funding line is becoming more exclusive, so fewer young scientists can get comfortably and firmly established. Furthermore, “if a researcher has an extremely compelling grant but their institution’s environment isn’t devoted to their topic of interest, they may be left out of funding,” he said.