US science is in peril, say Nobel Medicine Prize winners
By Kerry Sheridan, AFPWashington - Three American winners of the Nobel Prize for Medicine on Monday said scientific progress in the United States is in peril due to unprecedented funding cuts and ideological challenges.
October 8, 2013, 2:24 pm TWN
The scientists were honored for their work on how cells organize their cargo and move molecules -- a process that contributes to normal body and brain function but is also at the root of neurological diseases, diabetes, and immune disorders.
But after they recounted their anecdotes of shock and amazement -- including the German-born neuroscientist Thomas Suedhof who admitted he was "a bit lost" driving around in Spain when he got the call with the news -- their speeches turned to a future that may hold fewer opportunities.
Co-winner James Rothman, 63, of Yale University, who studies how cells transport energy outside of themselves, said he was struck by how hard it is to get research funding these days.
"It is much, much more difficult... for a young scientist to get started today," he told reporters, describing a shrinking budget for the National Institutes of Health, the largest funder of US research.
The NIH pays out about US$31 billion per year, more than any other government gives to researchers, but budget constraints have kept funding flat for the past several years, meaning even less money when adjusted for inflation.
NIH officials say that competition has also increased for grants, leaving about 16-17 percent of applications funded, far short of the target of 30 percent.
Rothman said he was concerned about funding long before the budget cuts brought on by the recent sequester, or the current shutdown of the federal government by Republicans opposed to President Barack Obama's health care reform.
Reflecting on his own beginnings as a scientist, Rothman wondered aloud if he would have been able to make the same strides under the present circumstances.
"I really am very concerned that I would not have been," he said.
"I see today the kind of enormous opportunities and yet the discouragement that young scientists in this country feel and it is something we need to pay attention to if we want to maintain this country as the great competitive world leader that it has been."
Rothman praised his co-laureates as men whose work had at times been "complementary, and sometimes competitive."