Pitt cuts medical research incentive

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The life of a medical researcher can be both rewarding and solitary, with the rewards often coming in breakthrough scientific discoveries made after long hours alone in a laboratory.

Beginning July 1, medical research will be slightly less rewarding -- at least financially -- for faculty at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Medicine.

In a memo sent to department chairs, directors and faculty at the school this spring, the dean, Arthur S. Levine, cited economic conditions as the reason the school will reduce an incentive payment based on researchers' outside grants from 10 percent to 8 percent, while also instituting a $50,000 minimum in outside grant money for researchers to qualify for the incentives.

"As you know, we find ourselves in difficult financial times and need to take such actions as these to maintain operational viability," stated the memo, a copy of which was provided to the Post-Gazette.

The amounts that the researchers will lose will vary widely, since it is a percentage of whatever grants they receive, although Dr. Levine downplayed its significance in a phone interview.

"We're talking about tiny amounts. This isn't going to be a threat to anybody," he said.

The real story, he said, is the larger funding picture and specifically the sluggish national economy that is drying up funding for basic research.

At one time, at least 35 percent of grant applications to the National Institutes of Health were funded, said Dr. Levine, who worked at NIH before coming to Pitt. Currently the grant success rate is 17 percent, and he expects it may fall to 12 percent or 13 percent next year. "We're all victims of the same bad economy."

Michael R. Pinsky, a critical care physician and president of Pitt's faculty senate, said the incentive program -- typically offered only at the top medical schools -- is meant to encourage researchers to bring outside money to the university, which can be used for equipment and salaries.

"This is quite analogous to clinical faculty who get bonuses if they increase their billing for clinical care beyond some minimal amount," he said. In most cases, researchers have two or three grants, as opposed to one large one.

According to a survey of its members by the Washington, D.C.-based Association of American Medical Colleges, an M.D. working in basic sciences typically makes about $150,000 annually, while physician clinicians on average make more than $260,000. As research funding dries up, and as med schools look for cost savings such as reducing incentive plans, physicians who split their time between doing research and seeing patients may shift more of their work to the clinical side.

Researchers with Ph.D.'s, who would not have that option, on average had annual salaries of just under $125,000, according to the association's survey.

While those salaries are well above any poverty level, the funding and incentive prospects can have an effect, Dr. Pinsky said.

"Obviously the concerns are that this is going to have a negative impact on the salary of many researchers, which -- in this time of decreased federal funding of research -- markedly decreases the incentive for people to either stay in research or go into research in the first place."

Typical salaries for medical researchers, he noted, "are significantly less than doing similar work in private industry."

At the same time, Dr. Pinsky said, "I understand what Dr. Levine is doing, and I sympathize with the difficult decision he has to make. I also feel sorry that it's going to negatively affect the research faculty."

Dr. Levine is among those who are leading lobbying efforts to fight a part of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's budget proposal that would divert some tobacco settlement money now paying for basic research at 39 institutions statewide to long-term care programs.

At Pitt alone, he said, the funds have supported research that helped improve the ability to diagnose Alzheimer's disease, develop cancer vaccines to help fight tumors and the discovery of a type of DNA damage that leads to aging.

The Pitt Med School portion from the settlement fund has amounted to $148 million over 11 years, but the real payoff was the 3:1 in federal funding it generated, with what Dr. Levine called a "cascade effect" of 5,000 jobs created in a decade.

The cascade may become a trickle, though, and some worry about the trickle-down effect on researchers.

"Generally, most researchers live and die off of extramural funding," said Tony Mazzaschi, the medical colleges association's senior director of scientific affairs. While some cuts in that funding and in incentive plans won't necessarily mean financial hardship for researchers, it "could be a disincentive to participate in research."

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Steve Twedt: stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963. First Published May 27, 2012 12:00 AM


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