Stimulus funds head to science labs

    After dealing with years of stagnant budgets, scientists in the region are welcoming a giant bonus in federal research dollars.

    Millions of dollars in stimulus funds from the federal government are beginning to flow into research laboratories around the country. Ultimately, the stimulus package could provide a $10 billion shot in the arm for science. From WHYY’s health and science desk, Kerry Grens reports on where the money will go, and how long it might last.



    Like many people who run an academic science laboratory, Arthur Buchberg doesn’t actually get to do a lot of science himself.

    Buchberg: I’ve been spending most of my time writing grants. For the past few years I’ve been hitting most every NIH deadline as well as trying to identify other agencies which provide funding.

    The lion’s share of biomedical research dollars in the US comes from the National Institutes of Health. The agency’s budget doubled in the early part of this century, but has since leveled off. Buchberg, who is on the faculty at Thomas Jefferson University, says competition for funding has become fierce, and labs’ incomes have suffered.

    Buchberg: I’ve had research technicians and post-docs that I’ve had to let go.

    But now, Buchberg is hiring. He recently received word from the NIH that his lab is getting $250,000 from the stimulus package to launch a pilot study on the genes involved in prostate cancer.

    Buchberg: Getting this huge increase in money was very exciting.

    Barsevick: There’s such an infusion of enthusiasm and hopefulness.

    That’s Andrea Barsevick, a researcher at Fox Chase Cancer Center. She too received more than $200,000 in stimulus funds to research how best to treat the symptoms associated with cancer treatment.

    Andrea Barsevick
    Andrea Barsevick
    Barsevick: That amount of money is enough to do a pilot study so we’ll enroll about 80 breast cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy as their treatment.

    Pilot studies like Barsevick’s and Buchberg’s are perhaps the hardest to get funded, because researchers don’t yet have the preliminary data to show that the experiment will be fruitful. Barsevick says her most recent grant will get her project over the hump.

    Barsevick: Believe me, the stimulus money is a real stimulus to people because it is an infusion that will enable more people to get funding in a more timely way.

    Fox Chase has received more than $1,000,000 from the stimulus package so far. Princeton got nearly $400,000; the Wistar Institute, around $1,000,000. This is only the beginning, says Bob Beck, the chief academic officer at Fox Chase. He says his institute has applied for about eighty million dollars in all. The most prized awards are half-million dollar “challenge” grants that have sparked a sort of feeding frenzy among scientists.

    Beck: Before I get all excited about these challenge grants, there’s 20,000 applications. 200 of them are going to get funded. That’s a 1 percent hit rate.

    Research funds from the stimulus package have to be spent within two years. After that, scientists fear labs might have go back to their former, grim struggle for dollars.

    Beck: The Congress understands that this one time stimulus will only have a limited effect unless it’s backed up by increase in a base budget for biomedical research.

    And so the NIH is slated to get a one and a half percent raise in the 2010 budget – up to about $31 billion dollars. Whether that’s enough to sate science’s voracious appetite seems unlikely. But Pennsylvania can expect to get a large slice of the stimulus pie. Historically, this area has dominated in biomedical research. It also might not hurt that it was Senator Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania who was instrumental in getting stimulus funds allocated to the NIH.


    See how stimulus dollars are going to health and science projects:

    -Health and Human Services Department (NIH)

    -National Science Foundation

    -Department of Energy

    -Pennsylvania’s share of the stimulus package

    Health centers

    Health information technology

    Health insurance

    Preventive medicine

    Medicaid health insurance


    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal