Today in the United States 14.8 million adults suffer from major depressive disorders. The number of peopleages 65 and older with Alzheimer’s is expected to nearly triple from 5.1 million to 13.8 million by 2050. And Parkinson’s disease affects more than one million Americans, with 50,000 to 60,000 new cases diagnosed each year.

Stanford University neuroscientist and psychiatrist Dr. Karl Deisseroth is among the brilliant young medical researchers who defy these troubling projections for neurological diseases. At his laboratory in Palo Alto, Deisseroth leads a team that has pioneered the field of optogenetics, which uses light to map the neural circuits in our brains, along with a technology called CLARITY that allows scientists to make organs transparent and thus easier to study under a microscope. These new methodologies make it possible for neuroscientists to develop deeper understandings of Alzheimer’s and a multitude of other brain disorders. Now, the efforts of research teams tackling these devastating conditions could produce profound discoveries. At long last, this is an exciting “on-the-verge-of-a-breakthrough” moment that holds great promise for finding cures to intractable disorders. 

ADVERTISEMENT

But at age 43, Deisseroth is an anomaly, as is his laboratory.  He has already received multiple accolades and awards, including, on May 20, the prestigious Lurie Prize from the Foundation for the NIH. The Lurie Prize recognizes early-career achievements and, in this instance, recognizes discoveries in the paired use of optogenetics and CLARITY as potential game-changers.

Still, Deisseroth is among a relatively small number of younger researchers who have found sustained funding for their research, in part because of the recognition of his work conferred by his peers and professional organizations including our own. Most of his contemporaries – post-doctoral fellows and primary investigators alike -- toil without recognition and face shrinking job prospects and constant insecurity over research funding. Many decide to leave the field altogether.

Consider this:  Despite the fact that the U.S. once was the undisputed leader in biomedical science, support for promising basic research that could yield new treatments for diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer is no longer a top economic priority. Recently, Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, told Bloomberg News, “We’ve actually lost about 23 percent of our purchasing power for research over the last twelve years, and that’s having a really significant negative effect, particularly on young investigators who are trying to get their labs going.” In fact, many of the 103,100 medical scientists currently working in the U.S will struggle to hold onto their jobs or advance their careers.

The odds against them are staggering:  For every 10 postdoctoral candidates aspiring to a tenure-track professorship within a university, fewer than two will actually succeed. Those who do find jobs face the worst funding environment in 50 years, where 85 percent of research grant proposals submitted are rejected.  As a result, the average age a biomedical researcher receives his or her first major grant has risen over the last 20 years to age 45 in 2013.  As that age rises, the time apportioned for a scientist to make significant, career-defining discoveries shrinks.

I applaud members of Congress who are supporting significant funding increases to the NIH.  As Dr. Collins noted, “If words were votes, things would be looking pretty good right now. There’s strong bi-partisan support for the idea that it’s really been not a good thing to lose momentum, and we ought to try to turn it around.” But I wonder, will the aspirational language of the 21st Century Cures Act now in discussion before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee be translated into action when it comes time to pass the budget?

Over the last decade, U.S. government support for medical research has been dropping. More recently, we have witnessed the same trend in parts of the private sector. I agree with Dr. Collins when he says, “it’s so ironic because scientific opportunities have never been better than they are. The ability to take a vast array of new understandings about the molecular basis of disease and really push forward with new drugs and devices has never been more promising than they are now, but we’re cutting back the fuel for the engine.”

In the budget negotiations for the new fiscal year, which begins October 1, Congress needs to translate politically popular pledges of support into actual (lifesaving) support by approving increased funding levels for the NIH and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to ensure that basic research findings are translated into practical uses like medicines, diagnostic and preventive tools and devices for the benefit of all. It is time to reverse the troubling trend of the last 12 years, support our workforce and make good on commitments to promising new research initiatives. Unless Congress adds the fuel, outstanding research scientists in this country will be driving on empty.

A respected immunologist, virologist and biophysicist, Freire is an expert in global health, heads the Foundation for the NIH and sits on the science board of the FDA.