At OHSU, we have the flame of knowledge as our symbol. For graduate school, I attended Yale University, whose motto is lux et veritas (light and truth). I like to think that each day in my lab we are working to bring light and truth to bear on the challenges facing human health: specifically, understanding childhood developmental disorders, such as autism, epilepsy and intellectual disabilities.
Most people assume that the government, through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), funds most health science research. While this is definitely true, what many people don’t realize is that often the biggest breakthroughs come from ideas that seemed, at first blush, too risky or that challenged the status quo. As of today, at the 11th hour we look to have a U.S. budget deal that will keep the government running. Even though the NIH’s budget for this fiscal year will have a raise, health science research funding for research labs is still suffering (read more here).
It is not uncommon for grants scoring in the top 10-20th percentile to go unfunded. For example, we have a grant in review to look at the risk factors for neuronal tube defects (spina bifida). The grant scored in the 8th percentile and the feedback from NIH was “cautiously optimistic,” but it still might not be funded. A natural result of these pressures is that many researchers are hesitant to propose research that might be deemed too “high risk.”
A counter to this risk adverse climate that has benefited my own work has been the generous support of individuals, families and private foundations. My first scientific publication as a graduate student (Abelson et al., Science, 2005) benefited greatly from funds given to my mentor from a family and foundation to take calculated risks and explore new approaches for understanding childhood psychiatric disorders. This led directly to our discovery of one of the first risk genes for Tourette’s syndrome, a discovery that Science magazine called one of the top breakthroughs of 2005. We went on to leverage similar approaches for autism. Our recent significant advances illuminating the genetics of autism risk would not have been possible without the foresight and significant investment of resources provided by the Simons Foundation and the efforts of many families.
With your support, we can strengthen the light of our flame together as we move onward on our quest for new knowledge that will lead to treatments for these major challenges affecting our kids!
Dr. Brian O’Roak
Assistant Professor of Molecular and Medical Genetics
Oregon Health & Science University