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Published in CenterView on October 22, 2012
Dr. Francis Collins, NIH director
Dr. Francis Collins, NIH director

NIH director discusses nation’s scientific challenges, funding difficulties

By Jack Mazurak

A visit from Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, gave researchers at the University of Mississippi Medical Center a chance to show how they use tens of millions in yearly grant funding from his agency to help understand diseases, train students and improve human health.

Collins, center, looks at a display of Dr. Arthur C. Guyton’s memorabilia with the NIH’s Dr. Susan Shurin, left, and Dr. John Hall.
Collins, center, looks at a display of Dr. Arthur C. Guyton’s memorabilia with the NIH’s Dr. Susan Shurin, left, and Dr. John Hall.

It gave Collins a chance to promote biomedical research as an economic backbone and explain funding shortages in recent years.

NIH grants support hundreds of jobs at the Medical Center including lab techs, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, junior scientists and seasoned, senior investigators.

Last fiscal year, UMMC received $37.4 million in NIH funding, well over half of the $60.2 million total sponsored-project funding UMMC received. That’s up from FY 2011, when the Medical Center received $28 million from the NIH of a total $85 million in sponsored projects.

Despite the Medical Center’s increased NIH support, ask most any grant-dependent scientist and he or she will say it’s been more difficult to get NIH funding the past several years. Collins said the NIH on average funded about one-third of the research grant proposals it received over the past 50 years.

“But over the last few years that’s gotten much tighter. We’re down now to about one out of six,” he said during a news conference at the Medical Center.

“That makes it very stressful, as you can imagine, if you’re the investigator who’s written a very innovative grant and sent it off to the NIH and you get back the note saying ‘Sorry, you didn’t quite make it.’”

Though 85 percent of the NIH budget goes out the door in grants, Collins said he recognized scientists and institutions need more. He blamed the economy for the thin wallet.

“We are at a difficult point now because of all the economic struggles of our nation,” he said. “And I do worry (because) our biomedical research work force, the scientists working here in Jackson and lots of other places around the country, are a most important resource.”

His visit coincided with requests for new or renewed funding by some of UMMC’s signature research programs.

Collins, second from right, and Dr. Herman Taylor, right, listen to a presentation by Dr. Ervin Fox, second from left, during a tour of the Jackson Heart Study.
Collins, second from right, and Dr. Herman Taylor, right, listen to a presentation by Dr. Ervin Fox, second from left, during a tour of the Jackson Heart Study.

A major part of the Jackson Heart Study’s funding expires in May, said Dr. Herman Taylor, principal investigator and professor of cardiology. JHS is the nation’s largest comprehensive population study of African-Americans and is a collaboration between UMMC, Jackson State University and Tougaloo College.

Last month, Taylor and his team submitted grant applications requesting tens of millions of dollars to two NIH institutes for another five-year round of funding.

“We’ve compiled one of the most important data sets on the planet, to steal a quote from a colleague,” Taylor said. “Our publications are rolling in, we’ve got ancillary studies under way and we are constantly finding new and exciting leads to pursue.

“We have got to keep this momentum going.”

The Mississippi Center for Obesity Research, known as MCOR, also is seeking NIH funding through part of a grant application by the physiology department. Dr. John Hall, associate vice chancellor for research and physiology department chair, founded MCOR a couple of years ago to build scientific strength into the fight against the nationwide obesity epidemic that’s so pronounced in Mississippi.

In his presentation to Collins, Hall outlined current research into hormones and other factors that control appetite and metabolism.

Dr. Craig Stockmeier, director of the decade-old Center for Psychiatric Neuroscience, recently applied for another five-year NIH grant. The center’s research focuses on the cellular, molecular and behavioral aspects of depression and alcoholism.

Collins, who visited at the request of U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, noted grant funding helps train the next generation of biomedical researchers.

“It is also one of the best ways of nurturing our economy at a time where we are all rightly concerned about it,” Collins said.

NIH grants to Mississippi colleges and universities directly support 1,191 jobs – five times that, including spinoffs. It’s about 480,000 direct jobs nationwide, and one dollar spent returns $2.21 in one year in economic services and investments made.

“There are very few investments that get made by the U.S. government that have that kind of economic turnaround,” Collins said, “let alone that this is our best hope for finding answers to medical problems.”

Cochran acknowledged the many demands on federal revenue, from defense to national parks.

“In all likelihood, competition will increase for federal dollars,” Cochran said. “We’re going to have to invest public dollars along with encouraging – through the tax code or otherwise – investments by the private sector to the fullest extent of our capabilities.”

Collins credited biomedical research spending with increasing life expectancy in the U.S.

“Longevity for someone born today is about 79 years, a figure that’s been increasing through the past 50,” he said. “Now we have to be careful that we don’t see that level off, or we’ll begin to lose ground because of the terrible toll that obesity and diabetes may take on our society if we don’t figure out that problem.

“What do we need for that? We need a lot of things, but one of the things we need most is rigorous medical research to try to understand what kind of interventions will actually work. And they’re going to be multi-component and complicated, but we need to get those answers.”