The Northwest’s biggest research center is going to get a lot bigger in a hurry. The University of Washington expects it will rake in a $300 million windfall of research money in the next six months as part of President Obama’s economic stimulus plan, according to Linden Rhoads, the UW’s vice provost of technology transfer.
This cash infusion would represent about a 30 percent boost in support for research at the UW, which is already the largest public research university in the country, with about a $1 billion budget for sponsored research. The new money is already putting the heat on scientists, Rhoads said during comments last week at Invest Northwest, the life sciences investment conference in Seattle. Instead of the usual five-year grant cycle, biomedical researchers receiving stimulus money will have to show results from their work in two years, she said. This is going to create a new kind of urgency around the lab, she said.
“There is going to be competition for any loose postdocs and scientists out there,” Rhoads said.
Rhoads made these comments during a panel discussion with her fellow Northwest technology transfer leaders at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Oregon Health & Science University, Washington State University, and the University of British Columbia. All of those institutions are working on getting their applications turned in fast to Uncle Sam too, although the other centers were a little more circumspect about making predictions of how much stimulus money they will actually get.
This is all welcome news for the biomedical research world, which relished the boom years from 1998 to 2003, when federal policymakers doubled the budget for the National Institutes of Health to about $27 billion a year. Congress essentially froze the NIH budget for the past five years, and that put a squeeze on many labs that had grown large, because suddenly there was greater competition for a fixed amount of resources.
Back in 1999, when the NIH budget was smaller, about 29 percent of initial grant applications through the standard R01 process were winners. The success rate for first-time applications now has dipped to just 12 percent, according to Harvard University President Drew Faust, in testimony before the Senate Health, Labor, Education, and Pensions committee on March 11. That situation has created a lot of frustrated biomedical researchers, who are eager to scoop up some of the new NIH budget, which will total about $40 billion with the added stimulus.
At the “Hutch,” the Northwest’s second-biggest research center with a $330 million annual research budget, scientists are sharpening up their applications for sophisticated equipment that can be kept in a “core facility” that can be shared by multiple researchers, said Ulrich Mueller, the Hutchinson Center’s vice president for technology transfer.
“We’ll get some very expensive new equipment which will increase our ability to do excellent research,” Mueller said during the panel discussion. When I approached him after the panel was over, he said this equipment could include mass spectrometers that can perform precise measurements of the molecular weight of proteins, or sophisticated genetic analysis machines that perform full genome sequencing, or can tell which genes are turned on or off in tissue samples, that might compare cancer cells to healthy cells.
He agreed with Rhoads that the pressure is on scientists there to get their applications in, and to think about how to meet that tighter-than-usual two-year deadline to show results. “We’re not calling them shovel ready programs, they’re beaker ready programs,” Mueller said, meaning these are experiments that can get moving quickly. Almost all of the scientists there are working on an additional one or two grant applications as part of the stimulus, he said.
The same thing is happening at Oregon Health & Science University, says Arundeep Pradhan, the center’s director of technology and research collaborations. OHSU’s research budget is about $300 million, although he told me after the panel that “we haven’t been so bold” as to predict how much of the stimulus it expects to capture for Oregon researchers. New equipment and new proposals are part of the push, although some grants that just missed the cut might get another chance for federal support, Pradhan says.
“It’s still excellent science we’re talking about,” Pradhan says.
It’s hard to measure, but since the life sciences industry depends heavily on strong research institutions, this could create a ripple effect for years to come. As Rhoads pointed out during the panel, the Seattle area doesn’t have an anchor biotech company, and that leaves UW as the main producer of bright ideas, and the main educator of scientists and entrepreneurs to keep the local life sciences industry moving. “In the absence of a large company, we are the anchor tenant,” Rhoads said.