WASHINGTON – Three American winners of the Nobel Prize in medicine Monday said scientific progress in the United States is in peril due to unprecedented funding cuts and ideological challenges.
The scientists were honored for their work on how cells organize their cargo and move molecules — a process that contributes to normal body and brain function but is also at the root of neurological diseases, diabetes and immune disorders.
Co-winner James Rothman, 63, of Yale University, who studies how cells transport energy outside of themselves, said he was struck by how hard it is to get research funding these days. “It is much, much more difficult . . . for a young scientist to get started today,” he said, describing a shrinking budget for the National Institutes of Health, the largest funder of U.S. research.
The NIH pays out about $31 billion per year, more than any other government gives to researchers, but budget constraints have kept funding flat for the past several years, meaning even less money when adjusted for inflation. NIH says competition has also increased for grants, leaving about 16-17 percent of applications funded, far short of the target of 30 percent.
Co-winner Thomas Suedhof, 57, whose lab is at Stanford University, focuses on how synapses form in the brain and how messages get sent, with a view to unlocking the mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease and autism.
“It seems to me there is a significant increasingly vocal percentage of the population that thinks we shouldn’t go after truth and truth is not important. And so that worries the hell out of me,” the German-born neuroscientist said.
Funding is “in danger,” leaving enormous hurdles to overcome in solving the main mysteries of the brain, he said.
The third co-winner, Randy Schekman of the University of California, Berkeley, recalled his humble beginnings, including getting turned down for research funding early on, and how U.S. government support later became “an enormous benefit.”
He also said he was able to work his way through university despite coming from a middle-class family. “I could work a summer job and pay for the entire school year,” Schekman said, recalling that his tuition in 1966 was $40 a term, with rent costing $400. “Unfortunately as you know this is no longer true.”