Dr. Harold L. Paz - Q&A on Stimulus

Harold L. Paz, M.D., M.S.

In February, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, an economic stimulus package that included $10.4 billion to the National Institutes of Health for biomedical research and infrastructure. Much has been written about this infusion of money for medical research and its potential economic effect. You may wonder what it means for Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and Penn State College of Medicine and for the communities we serve.

Harold L. Paz, chief executive officer, Penn State Hershey Medical Center, senior vice president for health affairs, Penn State, and dean, Penn State College of Medicine, addresses some common questions about the NIH stimulus funding.

Why include money for the NIH in an economic stimulus package?

The NIH, the nation’s primary source of funding for biomedical research, has been underfunded for the past several years. Steady growth in the NIH budget was followed by a period of stagnation that has threatened the national biomedical research enterprise. Through the hard work of our researchers, we’ve more than held our own. Now, the inclusion of money for NIH in the economic stimulus bill indicates appreciation of the importance of health sciences research to improving the health and well being of our nation’s people and to boosting local and national economies. We must acknowledge those members of the Pennsylvania legislative delegation who supported this measure, and in particular, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter for his leadership.

What effect could research dollars have on our local economy?

Money invested in biomedical research has the direct economic effect of creating good, high paying jobs for researchers and technicians. Research dollars also tend to generate other local employment opportunities, particularly in Pennsylvania where suppliers and related industries have a major presence. Part of the NIH stimulus funding has been dedicated to upgrading or renovating out-of-date research facilities. These capital projects will provide jobs for people in the many trades involved in construction of sophisticated research facilities. In other words, when one of our faculty members earns a federal grant, that’s money from Washington that stays in the region and the commonwealth.

Why is the additional NIH funding important to Penn State Hershey?

As an academic medical center whose mission is to provide high quality and innovative care through research and to train tomorrow’s researchers and physicians, we rely heavily on NIH support in several ways. Half of the nearly $100 million our faculty secure annually comes from the NIH, so when that agency is underfunded, we, like all, other research organizations, feel the pinch. NIH dollars help cover equipment and supplies necessary to do research, but they also provide salary support and living stipends for researchers and scientists in training. One wise use of stimulus funds is for support for scientists in training. Scientists need to keep working to stay current in their fields. Turning students out into today’s job market means a risk of losing them as scientists. We’re counting on these bright young people for tomorrow’s discoveries.

In addition, some structures on our campus turned 40 last year with the anniversary of our first entering class. This means our list of facilities due for renewal is growing. Last week, the NIH announced availability of stimulus funds for major renovation of critical resources of this kind.

What is Penn State Hershey doing to make sure the Medical Center and College of Medicine benefit from the stimulus money?

The NIH is using the greatest share of new funds to support projects that have been on hold due to the recent stagnation in its budget, to accelerate progress on current projects, and to modernize equipment and facilities. New details are coming every day. We’re working hard to get information out to our researchers and to give them the support they need to respond effectively. We’re working to match our highest-priority facilities needs with just-announced programs for funding renovations. We’re coordinating applications for new equipment to maximize the overall benefit. Through a brand new program, the NIH is asking the scientific community to rapidly and aggressively address specific scientific and health challenges. Within a day or two of the announcement, teams of faculty members were already assembling to respond to these challenges. Many are in areas of strength for us, including many that invite us to tap into our established collaborations with colleagues around Penn State. Our administrative offices are working overtime to be sure that complex application procedures go smoothly.

Will this infusion of money for the NIH help “speed up” the progress of specific research studies?

In addition to job creation and retention, the NIH is targeting research projects likely to show significant progress within two years. We’ve already begun to get notices of funding for projects that have been on hold due to the NIH’s lean budget, and we’re expecting supplementary funding to accelerate projects that are already productive. We’re pursuing funding for equipment and facilities renewal that will accelerate large numbers of projects. The NIH is placing major emphasis on projects of the kind we’ve been developing through the Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute: projects that accelerate the use of laboratory science to advance clinical care and target the most important health problems of the communities we serve.