The Inequality of Science

In 2004, close to one in five extramural NIH dollars went to only 10 of the 3,000 institutions that received grants. Five US states get almost half of all funding. What about everyone else?


The ceiling in the medical school at the University of South Dakota (USD) in Vermillion is visibly water-stained and falling down in spots. Walking through the facility, researcher Robin Miskimins admits that she can't plug in two hoods and three incubators in the tissue culture room without blowing a circuit. Everyone shares key equipment, such as a confocal microscope, a cell culture facility, and an aging scanning electron microscope.

Four hundred miles due north through largely farm country, Diane Darland waited for months after moving from Boston to the University of North Dakota (UND) in Grand Forks to get equipment - a small set of cages for transgenic mice, and a $10,000 hood (which the Dean of Arts and Science eventually bought for her). All these resources, now tucked into a sparse, roughly 18 square meter room in the basement of the biology building, are "standard at most universities," she says with a shrug. Her husband, also a biologist, accepted a position at the university around the same time, and is now "scrubbing tanks" to create the school's only zebrafish facility. The school has no operational transgenic animal core, nor a BSL-3 lab, so Matthew Nilles, a plague researcher, can work with only an attenuated strain, limiting the applicability of his results.

In 2004, USD and UND received $10 million and $8 million from the National Institutes of Health, respectively, amounting to barely one percent of that given to the top-funded school that year, Johns Hopkins University. UND and USD don't get less money just because they're smaller than Johns Hopkins: Per capita, the research staff and full-time faculty at USD received about $24,000, and UND got almost $13,000. Johns Hopkins' per capita figure: $137,000.1 "It was pretty obvious when I got [to South Dakota] that I was going to have to limit my ambitions," says bacterial genetics professor Keith Weaver.

North and South Dakota aren't the only states feeling the inequity. A group of 23 traditionally disadvantaged states, along with Puerto Rico, collectively receive less than seven percent of the total NIH budget each year. In 2005, the principal investigator on the biggest NIH grant, Eric Lander at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, received more than $50 million, nearly seven times the total amount given to all institutions in the state of Wyoming the year before.


Not surprisingly, universities at the top would apparently like to keep things that way. Within a few months after accepting the role as director of the National Science Foundation, Neal Lane was approached by a group of approximately five provosts from the nation's top universities. They informed him that their schools should receive the lion's share of federal funding for research. "The message definitely was: 'We're where it's at,'" Lane recalls.

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