Casting out the life preserver: UW-Madison presents ideas to rescue national biomedical research 1


Kris (Krishanu) Saha, UW-Madison professor of biomedical engineering, speaks before an audienceaabout problems in biomedical research on April 11, 2015.

Kris (Krishanu) Saha, UW-Madison professor of biomedical engineering, speaks before an audience of more 100 attendees – including university and national leaders – at a workshop geared toward solving systematic problems in biomedical research on April 11, 2015.//Photo by Kelly Tyrrell, UW-Madison

On a sunny, warm Madison Saturday, more than 100 scientists, students, postdoctoral researchers and national leaders gathered at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery to address a growing storm: the systemic flaws threatening the future of the national biomedical research enterprise. After weeks of campus-wide brainstorming – which brought together junior and senior faculty, academic staff, graduate students, and postdocs – UW-Madison presented its recommendations for solutions, which will be published nationally in the coming months.

The workshop is a model for how universities across the country should be working to help solve the problem, said Bruce Alberts, former National Academy of Sciences president and one of the authors of a 2014 PNAS paper that started the conversation. Alberts attended the April 11 workshop, along with co-authors Marc Kirschner, Systems Biology Chair at Harvard University, and Shirley Tilghman, former president of Princeton University. Jo Handelsman, a UW-Madison grad, former faculty member and current associate director for science at the White House Office of Science, Technology and Policy (OSTP), was also at the event.

“The model here should be spread to every campus in the U.S.,” Alberts said. “The ‘normal’ way is to appoint a bunch of deans to organize sessions but it’s inspiring the way sessions here were led by experienced people and by dynamic young people … This needs to happen over and over again.”

Tilghman called UW-Madison’s approach “a model for the conversation that could be happening.”

graph shows that the number of applications far outweighs the small number of successful grants that receive funding

The workshop, and the intensive sessions that preceded it, focused on the primary problem: Too many scientists asking for a piece of the a shrinking federal funding pie. This has created a hypercompetitive environment that is harmful to biomedical research and the scientists who conduct it – including those currently pursuing degrees in science – the national biomedical research policy leaders argue.

“The models of training and funding that we have come to depend on in recent decades may require substantial reform,” UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said Saturday. “Things have changed, and that demands we change the way we do business.”

UW-Madison has long been a leader in biomedical research, from revolutionizing nutrition science to introducing human stem cells to the world. With its current efforts – spear-headed by Judith Kimble, Vilas Professor of Biochemistry at UW-Madison and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and Marsha Mailick, Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education – UW-Madison is well-positioned to be a leader in guiding its future, as well.

Over the last decade, NIH funding for biomedical research has decreased by 25 percent when inflation is taken into account, Kimble said. Meanwhile, fewer NIH grant proposals are met with success. Since 2000, the success rate has been cut in half.

“The fact that funds are going down while costs are going up is untenable, it’s unsustainable,” said Kimble.

Photo by Kelly Tyrrell, UW-Madison

Photo by Kelly Tyrrell, UW-Madison


At the workshop, faculty leaders presented the results and recommendations that stemmed from the weekly campus sessions, which focused on four thematic flaws impacting biomedical research in the U.S.: numbers in the biomedical research workforce, shape of the biomedical research workforce, NIH grant mechanisms, and NIH evaluation mechanisms. National leaders and the diverse audience spent time throughout the day reflecting on these, providing feedback in the hopes of making them stronger.

While finalized specific recommendations are to come, the following principles and priorities emerged from the pre-workshop discussions and were presented at the April 11 event:

  • Training the next generation of scientists is a crucial investment in the future.
  • Ground-breaking discoveries cannot be planned.
  • Basic research drives translational advances.
  • World class research requires stable support.
  • Competition strengthens research; hypercompetition weakens it.

The workshop team also developed the following overarching recommendations:

  • Increase federal research funds (while addressing the systemic flaws)
  • Increase sustainability of federal funds (by ensuring the funds are used in forward-thinking ways and not just to advance short-term priorities)
  • More data and modeling
  • Start to act now on recommendations that clearly will do more good than harm

Next month, the University of Michigan will host a 3-day workshop focused on the future of graduate and postdoctoral training, but UW-Madison has already shown itself to be a national leader by being first to provide:

  • A voice from a large public university
  • A voice from a spectrum of career stages and careers
  • A voice from a spectrum of biomedical fields – basic to translational, social science to biophysics
  • A voice from a spectrum of research formats – individual labs to collaborative teams

“We really have a very engaged voice, that’s clear from today,” Kimble said. “We don’t have a consensus, but still, we are trying to get things on the table to move forward.”


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