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Medical Research Funding: Where’s the Money?

While U.S. scientists scramble for funding, Singapore’s may race ahead. But their carte isn’t entirely blanche.

By Meera Lee Sethi // Winter 2010
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Science is hard, but securing funding can be harder, which is one reason researchers at U.S. institutions get to know the ins and outs of National Institutes of Health grant applications all too well. It can take six months to prepare a proposal, which may run upwards of 100 pages and must be supplemented by half a dozen letters of support from consultants and mentors. What’s more, NIH reviewers may not even look at the application for several months, and the average response time is a year and a half. Required revisions and resubmissions may extend the process, and if the go-ahead comes early in the fiscal year, an unresolved budget could further delay the arrival of money.

What might a Biopolis scientist—with no need to apply for funding—accomplish during the two years or so that it takes U.S. research projects to get up and running? Quite a lot, especially because the “plug and play” environment Singapore touts to prospective researchers includes not just equipment but also the support of existing scientific staff. It’s common, for instance, for postdocs to move freely among projects or to be asked to plunge their hands in wherever additional help is required. Immunologist Laurent Renia joined A*STAR in mid-2007, and by July 2009 he’d completed a study of a novel immunization method for malaria. During the same period, developmental biologist Bruno Reversade pinpointed a genetic abnormality responsible for premature aging of skin and bone, and immunologist Paola Castagnoli discovered a pathway for cell death that could lead to the creation of immunosuppressive drugs.

But the NIH is working hard to streamline its grant process. And while it may take longer for U.S. scientists to get their money, they may be able to carry out visionary research that Singapore’s government would consider too unpredictable. In 2007 the U.S. agency allocated funding for high-risk research projects, including Yale chemist David Spiegel’s work to treat diseases by harnessing antibodies in the bloodstream, and MIT bioengineer Alan Jasanoff’s new medical imaging techniques for monitoring brain activity. In 2009, 114 bold investigations were awarded a total $348 million under two unique conditions: no budget caps for individual proposals, and no need to show proof of positive results before embarking on the projects. The first seems an echo of A*STAR’s signature generosity, but the second represents a leap of faith that Singapore’s outcome-obsessed administrators might find hard to emulate.

Yet both types of research have their place, argues physician John Parrish, executive director of the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology, which has developed a collaboration with A*STAR. “Diversity is essential,” he says. “And research benefits greatly from sharing results in a ‘one world’ attitude.”

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Biopolis: The Science Factory

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At Singapore’s gleaming Biopolis complex, researchers get all the money and lab support they need. What they don’t get is time.

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