Two things crossed my thoughts this week.  One was chancing upon Senator John McCain's Twitter account and finding a series of tweets ranting about earmarks, presumably in the new stimulus bill.  One the tweets amused me:

Picture 1

Now, I'm no expert on catfish or genetics, but I do know that in science and medical research you can never predict where and how discoveries will be made or in what form the research may benefit people. 

Photo of :en:Harold E. Varmus from the :en:NIH...Image via Wikipedia

Harold Varmus, the former head of the NIH, illustrated some great examples of serendipity in his book, The art and politics of Science

For example, the studies of retrovirus-induced breast cancer in mice lead to the discovery of the wnt genes.  Now, while these have no role in breast cancer, abnormalities in the wnt signalling pathway were found to exist in virtually every case of colon cancer.  In another example, Bob Weinstein's laboratory discovered the HER2 gene while researching rat neuroblastoma.  The gene plays no role in brain cancer, but is critically aberrant in about 30% of breast cancers, causing poorer prognosis.  This lead to the development of Herceptin, a monoclonal antibody that targets the HER2 gene and the rest is history.

Of course, Varmus made no mention of earmarks in his book other than repudiating Nancy Pelosi, while head of the NIH, for an increase in the HIV/AIDS budget because the funding would have to come from other projects.  After all, scientists grab what budget they can because not every Administration sees science and research as an important priority, especially if they are military-minded.

Which brings me onto the second thought this week.  What's happening to the $10B windfall being doled out to the NIH from the stimulus bill?  Mostly, it seems that it's being allocated back to projects that were put on hold from previous budget cuts.  There was a heartening story in the The Scientist though (free registration is required to access it):

"The National Institutes of Health is inviting researchers to apply for
newly created grants, funded by the $10 billion that the agency netted
in the recently-signed economic stimulus legislation.

The new initiative, called the NIH Challenge Grants in Health
and Science Research, will make a pot of $200 million of that stimulus
cash available for projects focusing on a broad array of more than one
hundred topics, from behavioral sciences and genomics to stem cells and
translational science. These areas, according to the NIH, reflect a 'focus on specific knowledge gaps, scientific opportunities, new
technologies, data generation, or research methods that would benefit
from an influx of funds to quickly advance the area in significant
ways.'  The agency said on its website that it expects to fund 200 or
more projects over the next two years."

Wow, well that is something – at least it's focused towards areas of need, even if some of the best medical research has come from serendipity.  Submissions for grants from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 are due by April 27 and any scientists interested can find the application information here.  Some of the key topics include stem cell research, genomics, regenerative medicine, translational research, biomarkers and biomaterials etc. 

So, going back to McCain's rant against pork, is the NIH funding necessary?  I don't know, but like all scientists I would rather see more funding in science than less, so up to $200M on new grants for science can't be all a bad thing and it's hardly a huge pot but 200 new research projects in one go is a rare and beautiful thing and I applaud the Obama Administration for including the NIH in the bill.

If you're a scientist or medical researcher, better get going on those grant applications – who knows what great new discoveries will come out of this important legislation?

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