If your lab has been scrimping and saving lately, you are not alone—federal funding for biomedical research has nearly stagnated in recent years, following a doubling between 1998 and 2003. An analysis in the January 13 Journal of the American Medical Association puts numbers on the state of biomedical research monies. The verdict: After adjusting for inflation, funding increases slowed between 2003 and 2007, before funding actually dipped by 2 percent in 2008.

Shallow research coffers are discouraging to researchers, especially when grant approval rates drop into the single digits, said Bill Thies, chief medical and scientific officer of the Alzheimer’s Association in Chicago, Illinois. “You might as well go and buy a couple of lottery tickets—that’s got the same chance of funding your lab,” Thies said, not entirely tongue-in-cheek.

For the report, E. Ray Dorsey of the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York and colleagues used publicly available data to follow up on their previous paper, which covered the period from 1994 to 2003 (Moses et al., 2005). They found that total biomedical research funding went from $75.5 billion in 2003 to $101.1 billion in 2007. Adjusted for inflation, this represents a funding increase of 14 percent during a time when the United States gross domestic product increased by 12 percent. In 2007, the most recent year for which complete data were available, the National Institutes of Health and other federal sources contributed $33 billion toward biomedical research; state and local governments added $5.2 billion; foundations and charities dispensed $4.3 billion; and industry put in the most with $58.6 billion. Between 2007 and 2008, with the economy sagging, the combined funding from industry and the NIH dropped from $90.2 million to $88.8 million.

Alzheimer disease research has certainly been hurt by declining federal funds, Thies said. “The investment in Alzheimer disease is simply inadequate for the size of the public health issue that it is going to present to the world,” he told ARF. The Association has been able to pick up some of the slack, he said, disbursing its biggest grant outlay ever in 2007, but nonprofit bankrolls, too, are subject to changes in the global economy. The Association received a record number of grant applications in 2009, he said, as researchers looked for alternatives to federal funds.

In contrast, research on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is progressing steadily, despite the funding downturn, suggested Lucie Bruijn, senior vice president for research and development at the ALS Association (ALSA), headquartered in Calabasas Hills, California. “ALS has really benefited from a boom in discovery,” she said. Those discoveries include new genes linked to the disease (see ARF related news story on Kwiatkowski et al., 2009 and Vance et al., 2009; and ARF related news story on Sreedharan et al., 2008 and Gitcho et al., 2008) and research in stem cell models for ALS (see ARF related news story on Dimos et al., 2008). This progress has helped make ALS grants appealing to reviewers, as well as attract new talent to the field. Grant applications to ALSA, too, have gone up, Bruijn said. Nonprofit organizations like ALSA stimulate research by providing seed funds for new investigators and new projects, allowing scientists to collect solid preliminary data that makes their next grant application more competitive at the federal level.

The inconsistency of funding hurts scientists and institutions aiming to develop sustainable research programs, wrote Thomas Boat of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio, in an editorial accompanying the paper by Dorsey et al. Last February, Congress approved a $10.5 billion boost to research funds with the American Recovery Reinvestment Act, but this, Boat suggested, could initiate another boom-and-bust cycle. A stark funding climate means that group leaders make fewer hires, Bruijn noted. It ultimately discourages bright young people from joining the field, Thies added.

How has your lab fared in these turbulent times? Write a comment.—Amber Dance


  1. In addition to the traditional funding models mentioned in this story, we would like to also mention a new funding model available for ALS research. Prize4Life is a nonprofit organization that awards two prizes of $1 million each (the ALS Biomarker Challenge and the ALS Treatment Prize). Instead of recognizing historical accomplishments, Prize4Life designs prizes that we believe are achievable in a two- to three-year timeframe and then recruits teams to compete. Prize competitions have been steadily gaining traction in a variety of domains of innovation because their emphasis on specific outcomes has the capacity to propel a field forward very quickly, and can attract creative thinking from both within a field and “outside the box.” For example, in 2009 Prize4Life awarded two $50,000 Milestone Prizes, one of which went to an established ALS researcher, and one of which went to a trained dermatologist who explored a completely novel approach towards an ALS biomarker. Visit Prize4Life to learn more or to register to compete for a prize.

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News Citations

  1. New Gene for ALS: RNA Regulation May Be Common Culprit
  2. Gene Mutations Place TDP-43 on Front Burner of ALS Research
  3. ALS: Predicting Prognosis, Banking on Pluripotent Stem Cells

Paper Citations

  1. . Financial anatomy of biomedical research. JAMA. 2005 Sep 21;294(11):1333-42. PubMed.
  2. . Mutations in the FUS/TLS gene on chromosome 16 cause familial amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Science. 2009 Feb 27;323(5918):1205-8. PubMed.
  3. . Mutations in FUS, an RNA processing protein, cause familial amyotrophic lateral sclerosis type 6. Science. 2009 Feb 27;323(5918):1208-11. PubMed.
  4. . TDP-43 mutations in familial and sporadic amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Science. 2008 Mar 21;319(5870):1668-72. Epub 2008 Feb 28 PubMed.
  5. . TDP-43 A315T mutation in familial motor neuron disease. Ann Neurol. 2008 Apr;63(4):535-8. PubMed.
  6. . Induced pluripotent stem cells generated from patients with ALS can be differentiated into motor neurons. Science. 2008 Aug 29;321(5893):1218-21. PubMed.

Further Reading


  1. . Funding of Parkinson research from industry and US federal and foundation sources. Mov Disord. 2009 Apr 15;24(5):731-7. PubMed.

Primary Papers

  1. . Funding of US biomedical research, 2003-2008. JAMA. 2010 Jan 13;303(2):137-43. PubMed.
  2. . Insights from trends in biomedical research funding. JAMA. 2010 Jan 13;303(2):170-1. PubMed.