Federal grants to Florida scientists break record

By Jeff Ostrowski, The Palm Beach Post
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Lindsay Thompson, associate director of clinical research for the Institute for Child Health Policy and a UF Health pediatrician, administers an oral health screening. 

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) - First, the good news for Florida's biotech ambitions: The state's researchers brought in a record $521 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health this year, topping the previous high of $502 million in 2012.

Now, the not-so-good news: Only a small fraction of those grants went to institutes recruited here as part of former Gov. Jeb Bush's $1.5 billion bet on biotech.

The lion's share of Florida's NIH grants landed at the University of Florida (which won $133 million), the University of Miami ($107 million) and the University of South Florida ($96 million), all established long before Bush lured the Scripps Research Institute to Palm Beach County in 2003. Only 8 percent of Florida's NIH grants went to the seven nonprofits that received state subsidies through Bush's program to reinvent Florida's economy.

Florida's effort to buy its way onto the national science scene has proceeded in fits and starts.

On the bright side, Florida's 10 percent increase in NIH grants from last year bucked a national decline. Overall, the federal government awarded 1 percent fewer research grants in the year that ended Sept. 30, 2015, than in 2014.

NIH grants are a crucial source of support for scientific research, but the pie has shrunk every year since 2009. Florida researchers grabbed 2.4 percent of all NIH grants this year, the state's biggest-ever share and a welcome trend for taxpayers who have invested heavily in hopes of creating a thriving biotech industry.

After dips in funding last year, Palm Beach County's state-subsidized research labs posted strong gains in NIH grants this year. Scripps Florida brought in $35.9 million in 2015, up 24 percent from 2014.

"The formula for success has been to recruit top-notch faculty that are doing impactful and meaningful research," said Pat Griffin, a professor at Scripps Florida in Jupiter. "It's not the institute that brings in money; it's the people."

Griffin sits on an NIH review committee known as a study section, a role that gives him a firsthand view of an approval system many scientists call brutally competitive.

"There's 30 people sitting around discussing each application, and 30 people have to like it," Griffin said. "It's a very difficult process."

Palm Beach County's other state-funded nonprofit lab, Max Planck Florida in Jupiter, received $3.6 million in 2015, a 107 percent jump from last year. Scientists need months or years to gather the preliminary evidence required for NIH grants, and Max Planck's researchers hit their stride this year, said Chief Executive David Fitzpatrick.

Intense competition for NIH grants raises the bar for every application, Fitzpatrick said.

"Since the overall amount of federal funding available for scientific research has been less over the past few years, the grant process has of course become much more competitive - which also adds to the amount of time it takes to prepare a successful submission," Fitzpatrick said.

Port St. Lucie's state-funded labs lost grants this year. The Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies landed $2.7 million in NIH grants, a 36 percent decline. VGTI Florida, the lab that failed this summer, brought in only $395,385, an 87 percent plunge.

VGTI, which couldn't survive despite $120 million in state and city subsidies, isn't the only nonprofit to flop in Florida. The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in St. Petersburg also closed this year; it received $30 million from taxpayers.

Florida Atlantic University also saw NIH grants decrease in 2015. FAU researchers were awarded $4.6 million, down 10 percent from 2014.

Daniel Flynn, FAU's vice president for research, said the decline came in part because the NIH was so stingy with grants during the Great Recession. While one in 10 proposals to the NIH are approved in normal times, that success rate fell to 5 percent in recent years, Flynn said.

"That's really demoralizing," he said.

Flynn joined FAU in January and encouraged the school's scientists to apply for more NIH grants. He said submissions will jump by 20 percent.

"We're expecting next year and the year after to be good years," Flynn said.

The state's big winner was the University of South Florida, where NIH grants soared 63 percent from 2014. USF nearly tripled its NIH funding since 2013.

"We have a new and concerted effort to recruit NIH-funded investigators," said Dr. Stephen Liggett, vice dean for research at USF's College of Medicine. "It takes a lot of strategic planning and very aggressive recruiting."

USF owes its high profile largely to diabetes researcher Jeffrey Krischer, who collected eight NIH grants totaling $64 million in 2015.

Florida ranked 12th among U.S. states in the amount of grants awarded, trailing biotech hubs California ($3.4 billion), Massachusetts ($2.3 billion) and New York ($2 billion) by a large margin.

Adjust for population, and Florida falls to the back of the pack. While Massachusetts brought in $348 per resident in NIH grants last year, Florida's $26 per person ranked 38th.

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