Yesterday afternoon, nine American Nobel laureates all gathered at the House of Sweden to share their work in an informal symposium.
While much of the discussion was limited to the topic areas of certain laureates, one thing that almost all of them could agree on was that the federal government’s reduction in research funding was a terrible development.
James Rothman, who won the prize in medicine, believes that the cuts make the U.S. unable to retain the world’s top young scientists. In fact, he said he now tells his students to go abroad.
“I actually advise my students not to stay in the United States,” he said. “Frankly, if I were 10 years younger, that’s exactly what I would do.”
Michael Levitt, winner of the prize in chemistry, lamented the fact that NIH money was readily available for those over the age of 65, but had dried up for everyone under the age of 40. He noted that most of the laureates had made their discoveries before they turned 40 and that reduced funding for younger generations could endanger future discoveries.
Two other laureates who won their prize in medicine spoke against the sequester. Randy Schekman called it an “unmitigated disaster” while Thomas Südof said it “imposes an enormous danger to science, progress and research.”
Rothman added that it was not just the sequester that worried him. He thinks it will go away. What concerns him more is that reduced funding for the NIH is not a new problem and is being exacerbated by how the federal government doles out that money.
“There’s an underlying problem that is much more profound which is that the budget of the NIH has actually declined in purchasing power by 28% over the last 7-8 years,” he said. “In addition, there’s much more spending within the NIH. We actually have a lot of money in the NIH budget, but more and more of it is going to projects that are predetermined by the government by one group or another – top down science, bureaucrat science.”
There was one laureate who offered his disagreement. Economist Eugene Fama noted that government spending on research cannot be infinite and that there is a correct level of funding that also must be balanced between the public and private sector.
Rothman wasn’t amused.
“I’ve never heard of a more ill conceived remark than that,” he shot back. As the audience laughed, the moderator pushed sarcastically for Rothman to “tell us how you really feel.”
“No, it’s not a feeling,” Rothman responded.
Federal funding for scientific research is not a laughing matter.
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