I have spent my entire academic career as a clinical investigator and have grown to recognize the importance of a strong and vibrant rheumatology workforce. However, I am deeply concerned about our ability as a subspecialty to sustain our research enterprise and take advantage of the modern breakthroughs in science. The reduction in federal funding is among the many uncertainties scientists must face throughout their research careers.
The shrinkage of the NIH budget is real and threatening. In constant dollars, the FY2015 NIH budget remains more than 22% behind the FY2003 level, leading to a hypercompetitive environment for grant funding. Although the proposed FY2016 budget of $31.311 billion represents a 3.3% increase over the current FY2015 funding level, it will not be enough to correct the imbalance between the available research dollars and the demands of the growing scientific community. As investigators must devote more time to writing grant applications, less time is available for reading and thinking. The competition for too few NIH dollars has increased the career pressures on young investigators and pushed back the average age of research independence into the mid-40s.
The biggest slice of my academic career has been spent as a clinical investigator. Few things can match the excitement of a new discovery, the thrill of sharing your results with your peers or the lasting friendships built through scientific collaborations. The opportunities in science are truly extraordinary. Although we cannot escape the realities of the funding environment, young investigators must be encouraged to follow their dreams and be perpetually nurtured along the way to ensure their success. We must also cherish established scientists because it is they who provide the scientific leadership and mentor our young people.
The ACR and the Rheumatology Research Foundation take this challenge seriously. As part of its mission to Advance Rheumatology! the ACR seeks to increase research into rheumatic diseases while fostering the careers of young investigators. Last year, the Foundation awarded more than $13 million in grants for the support of research and training—a sterling and noteworthy achievement. The ACR also works to increase federal funding for research into rheumatic diseases and serves as an advocate in the formulation of public policy relating to the care of people with arthritis and other rheumatic diseases.
Keeping a Finger on the Pulse
To address the current crisis in funding for rheumatic disease research and training in the U.S., the ACR Committee on Research (COR) collaborated with the Foundation to gather and analyze comprehensive data about the state of public and private rheumatology research funding for the past five years. This information was used to identify members of the rheumatology community receiving research funding from the NIH and other foundations. These funding data will be updated and analyzed annually to track trends and develop solutions to improve funding for rheumatology research and training.