Rock and a Hard Place
Yesterday Vanderbilt played host to NIH Director Francis Collins who spoke about “Exceptional Opportunities in Biomedical Research”. Collins told a full house and an overflow room that big initiatives like sequencing the human genome and making brain ‘connectomes’ are essential to sparking innovation and fundamentally changing both large and small science. Trickle down effects enable technological leaps even for smaller teams. Collins spoke for 50 minutes about data sharing, genotyping, personalized medicine and even how much he liked Twitter.
One of the big science programs he spoke about was something I work on with John Wikswo, a Vanderbilt physicist and engineer. John is the kind of guy who makes you feel smarter after you talk to him. And together with 12 or so colleagues, we are building a brain on a chip. Which is actually far more plausible than you’d imagine. Collins gave John a well-deserved shout out and showed some of our slides. In spite of the glow of this moment, I knew this version was far more optimistic one than my reality as part of this team. Even as folks lucky enough to have found each other, put together a program that Francis Collins loves, and gotten funded, we were struggling. We took a 30% budget cut up front that wasn’t about ‘pruning back’. We cut staff and faculty – people we knew and wanted to include. We eliminated some diseases we were going to study.
This project will take years, maybe a decade, to get a place where I’d consider it ready to see if it would be viable replacement for any of the models we use in my lab. Our funding is far from assured during that time. There is no clear next step funding mechanism for us as we move to the end of our third year. I wanted to raise my hand and explain in the most magnanimous way I could that I’d seen too many good people stagnate and others leave science altogether, and that I was scared. What looked like a small recent down slope was the whole of my independent life as a scientist. Every day I think about the diseases we opted not to study.
In the end, Collins finished his talk almost exactly on the hour, and there was no time to answer my question or anyone else’s. He told us he was more optimistic than he has ever been about changing the downward slide of funding. He said political parties have now aligned and there is a “light at the end of the tunnel“. Not being one to be ruled by fear, I’m signing up for updates from the House Energy Committee, writing my congressman and encouraging all my friends to make this the year the curve turns back up. Because, in the words of 7 year pancreatic cancer survivor Laurie McCaskell, “Luck shouldn’t play a role in why I’m alive.”