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NIH head is aware of economic impact of grants

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Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said he's increasingly seeing that the grants his department gives researchers are not only important to scientific discovery, but to economic growth and job creation as well.

"I'll be honest, I hadn't paid that much attention to the (economic and job growth) argument until the last couple of years, but when you look at the data, it's really compelling," he said. "Economists agree that more than half of the growth in the American economy since World War II has been because of investments in science and technology."

Collins, who came on board as the NIH director about six months ago, was in San Diego Friday for a conference by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

He said that according to an economic analysis, every dollar the NIH invests in a grant returns $2.21 of goods and services a year, and every grant creates or retains about seven jobs.

These numbers are likely to be invoked by the Obama administration, which has made investing in science and technology through the NIH and other government agencies a top priority. The NIH's budget for the current fiscal year stands at $31 billion, and President Obama wants to add another billion to that total.

In a tough economy, proving that these investments can be turned into jobs can be crucial politically.

Collins said that from his experience, however, politics are not playing a strong role in where the NIH invests. The NIH predominantly makes grants to research institutions such as universities and organizations like the Burnham Institute for Medical Research here in San Diego. There are some restrictions on giving to research-oriented businesses, though Collins said he would like to see those relaxed.

The Obama administration has asked the NIH to look into funding certain projects that it thinks are crucial to health care reform, such as electronic medical records and more cost effective genomic mapping, but Collins said he isn't forced into funding "pork barrel projects."

"The president has a particular personal interest in cancer, and has also spoken quite passionately about the need to work on autism," he said. "But the administration has been very careful not to sort of put numbers out there or draw lines in the sand and say, 'Look here NIH, this is what you should do.'

"They're very clear: Scientists should make decisions about scientific priorities," he said.

According to Collins, the NIH awards its grants to projects it thinks have the best chance of success -- no matter what they are. This covers everything from research on cancer, to diabetes, to mental illnesses like schizophrenia.

San Diego has been a major recipient of NIH funding over the years. According to Collins, this region received $923 million in NIH grants -- which were bolstered by the federal stimulus package -- in the 2009 fiscal year. This was out of $3.85 billion in grants given to California as a whole.

"This not only is an area that receives a substantial amount of support, but I think San Diego is also famous for being particularly on the high end in innovation," he said. "Both in terms of what's going on in the academic centers and what's going on in the companies."

One political change that has affected the NIH, and will likely affect San Diego, is the new stance on stem cells. The Bush administration had put a moratorium on funding new stem cell lines after 2001, but Obama lifted that last year. San Diego is home to many scientists specializing in stem cell research.

Collins is in something of a unique position when it comes to questions on stem cell research. He is a medical doctor and a geneticist who was in charge of the Human Genome Project, and he also is an Evangelical Christian. Christians, including President George W. Bush, often cite their faith as turning them against stem cell research.

Collins has written books on balancing his faith with his work, and he said that as both a scientist and a Christian, he is satisfied with the guidelines and restrictions the Obama administration has put in place for stem cell research, which include a ban on human cloning.

"I find myself now in the position as the person who is supposed to decide when a stem cell line can go up on the NIH registry and begin to be used for federal research, so it's a good thing I'm comfortable with this arrangement," he said.

Send your comments to Elizabeth.Malloy@sddt.com

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