A while ago I had a vivid technicolor dream. In this dream I was walking up a steep, narrow cobblestone street. The walk was hard but I kept at it as I was looking for something important. My feelings were pleasant and happy ones. In my dream I stopped at all the shops lining the street on both sides, peering in their windows. Some shops I entered to look around, curious to see what I could find. I seemed to walk up hill forever, but that was not a troublesome thing because I was concentrating on discovering something. Suddenly, at the end of the very long street there was a toy shop, its windows filled with dolls of all sizes and shapes. Intrigued, I eagerly walked into the store. Toward the back of the shop was a tall case with a small rag doll spread out haphazardly on a wooden shelf. Out to the blue a voice said: “Look in the doll’s apron pocket.” I did so. Inside was a small, exquisite, very delicate gold bar with a pretty design engraved on it. I had found something important. A thing of value that I cherished.
It occurs to me that working in science is like the dream. A scientist looks hard and long and suddenly finds a thing of value; a new discovery validated in a rigorous manner. This is something a scientist cherishes. The work involved in discovery is exciting, extremely satisfying and very intense. However, dedicated scientists love what they do. A Nobel Laureate, Robert J. Lefkowitz, MD has written about scientific work. I paraphrase him. Dr. Lefkowitz says that the day to day activities of the scientific life is made up of the moment-to-moment involvement in activities characterized by tense, passionate engagement and a sense of timelessness. Hours just fly by. An important element of this activity Dr. Lefkowitz says is that the scientist believes that what he or she is doing is important. There must be enthusiasm and a sense of optimism for the scientist to continue work. There is wonder and curiosity for the faintest glimpse of new understandings and findings accompanied by a real passion for new knowledge that drives the willingness to tackle difficult and challenging problems. (Lefkowitz, RJ. Inspiring the next generation of physician-scientists. J. Clin Invest 2015: 125: 2905-2907). Others would call this “working in the zone”. Unfortunately, the public does not appear to understand nor to value science at this point in history. This makes it hard for young scientists to consider a career in science.
How does a country support its scientists so that they can do this exacting, intense work? After World War II the US government provided financial support to scientists as it recognized the need to develop scientific talent and to maintain their productivity. A report called Science the Endless Frontier, written by Vannevar Bush, a professor from MIT laid the foundation for this government support of science. (http://www.nsf.gov/about/history/vbush1945.htm). His report stated that he government should provide scholarships and fellowships to develop scientific talent in individuals working in medical schools and universities. Bush went on to say that these institutions provided solidarity, security and personal academic freedom for scientists. In the decades following the Bush report, the majority of scientific grants from federal agencies, such as the NIH and NSF were funded when a scientific review found the science to be sound. A large percentage of the applications submitted were funded and was in the range of 90% or more of all applications. When an investigator did not get a grant award it was because the proposal was scientifically flawed. As a result, American science flourished and was the best in the world. American science was great.
However, starting somewhere in the 1990s the percentage of grants submitted that were subsequently funded diminished. Currently the success rates are low compared to the 1950s and 1960s. The Eunice Kennedy Shriver Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the NIH institute that funds the bulk of biomedical grants relative to reproductive science awarded funding in 2016 to only 13.2% of applicants. This means that out of 100 applicants only 13 are funded. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences which also funds many reproductive scientists had a success rate of 14.2 % and the National Cancer Institute funded 12% of applicants. The US Department of Agriculture also awards scientific grants and for many decades, reproductive scientists relied on funding from this government agency, but now this source of funding in problematic. Private foundations cannot fill the void as few have adequate resources to provide the necessary funds to conduct necessarily expensive state of the art science. While the pharmaceutical industry is a source of funding their interest is in the development of drugs and not necessarily pure discovery. Thus, getting the financial support to conduct experiments and analyze the data generated is highly competitive. Lack of funding is one of the issues responsible for the decline in the number of qualified persons deciding to pursue a career in science in general and reproductive science in particular. As a result America’s scientific greatness is in jeopardy. There are of course, other factors that are responsible for the decline in persons making fundamental science their life’s work. One critical factor is that the public does not appear to respect scientists, or to understand fundamental scientific discoveries or the scientific method. This is odd, given the fact that so much of what we have in our daily lives is the direct result of the immense volume of discoveries of the past fifty years that impact on the food we eat, our mode of transportation, modern medicine, engineering and building of our interstates to name a few. In fact, basic science discovery has been the foundation of American greatness. A discussion of this factor is for another day and another blog.
The Campion Fund is working to acquire sufficient financial resources to provide grants to scientists. But even more than that we are concerned with the lack of public understanding of the scientific method and the down grading of science and scientific endeavors in the minds of many. This is why we continue of have meetings and workshops to educate lay persons about new scientific findings.
One of the goals of the Campion Fund is to support scientists who are dedicated to studying fundamental reproductive science. We are especially interested in encouraging the next generation of scientists and to ensure their professional satisfaction. Part of support for young investigators is to provide the environment for their enthusiasm and passion to flourish. Providing some financial support in an era of dwindling grant funds from federal agencies and from foundations and companies is essential since there is currently incredible competition in securing reliable funding throughout a scientific career.