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America to fall behind in scientific research

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Posted at 9:36 AM, Feb 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-20 10:53:48-05

Despite all the medical advances, all the gadgets released year after year — now is not a great time to be a scientist in the United States.

And as America wavers, Asia is catching up.

“The United States will relinquish its historical innovation lead in the next decade,” based on current trends, according to a study published in JAMA.

It wasn’t always this way. U.S. investment medical research was increasing 6 percent per year from 1994 to 2004, the study said. Funding for the National Institutes of Health, which provides most public research grants, nearly doubled in that decade.

Then — it all ground to a halt.

After 2004, science investment fell behind inflation and continued to slide. The NIH budget was 20 percent lower in 2014 from 10 years earlier, according to the Congressional Research Service.

“Our budget is a reflection of our public. If the Congress is elected to slash and burn, then they’re going to slash and burn. If they elect to double the NIH budget, then they will,” said Victor Dzau, president of the Institute of Medicine.

China, meanwhile, has tripled its investment since 2004. Nearly 60 percent of global research dollars came from the U.S. government or private sources a decade ago. Now it’s less than 50 percent of the pie.

Young scientists are hurting the most. As funding gets more scarce, its funneled to the older, established scientists. In 1980, an American scientist could expect to get his first major NIH grant by age 38. Today, it’s at 45.

“Other countries are marshaling the will and resources to invest in the next generation of young scientists,” wrote Johns Hopkins University president Ronald Daniels in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

But not here — young American scientists are giving up, Daniels said in a press release.

Today, a slight majority of scientists said now is a good time for science, according to a survey by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Most cited a lack of funding as their major issue.

In 2009, three-fourths had a positive outlook.

“It’s important to understand and point out that so many of the things they enjoy is because of research,” Dzau said. “The time is now to reverse the trend.”

Gavin Stern is a national digital producer for the Scripps National Desk.