Area labs see uptick in NIH grant awards
State’s haul dips, but UF, UM, FAU, Scripps, Planck set records.
Florida scientists landed less federal research money in 2018 than in 2017, but several of the state’s most prominent universities and labs achieved record levels of funding from the National Institutes of Health.
The $603 million won by Florida scientists during the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 dipped from 2017’s record haul of $650 million. Still, 2018 marked the state’s second-best showing ever, according to NIH data.
Florida’s three biggest grant-getters set new records. The University of Florida brought in $176.7 million, the University of Miami School of Medicine landed $133.3 million and Scripps Florida won nearly $50 million in NIH grants.
For Scripps Florida, the 2018 haul eclipsed the record of $42.5 million set in 2017. Researchers at the Jupiter nonprofit landed a total of 100 grants to study a variety of diseases, including autism, cancer and HIV. They’re also exploring new uses for stem cells, alternatives to opioids and ways to make drug research faster and cheaper.
“It’s a very creative and amazing group of scientists we have here,” said Susana Valente, an HIV researcher at Scripps Florida who received $2.7 million in NIH grants in 2018. “It’s people who are really on the top of their careers right now.”
NIH awards are considered the
gold standard for scientific inquiry, and they’re difficult to win.
“Only top the 8 percent to 10 percent will be funded,” Valente said. “It’s very competitive. There’s a lot of people struggling to keep their labs afloat.”
Scripps Florida’s top recipient of grants for the year was Derek Duckett. He won $4.1 million in NIH grants.
UF, for its part, has made winning more NIH grants one of its goals. The university three years ago hired 41 new researchers, said Dr. David Nelson, a gastroenterologist and NIH-funded researcher who’s president of UF Health.
“The university has really made an enormous commitment to improve our research capabilities,” Nelson said.
The state’s biggest loser was the University of South Florida, which saw its haul of NIH grants fall to $40 million in 2018, down from $113 million last year.
It wasn’t just UF, UM and Scripps Florida setting records. Max Planck Florida and Florida Atlantic Uni- versity also reached new high-water marks.
FAU landed grants totaling $7.3 million in 2018, a 36 percent jump from its 2017 haul of $5.4 million.
And Max Planck Florida of Jupiter brought in $5.3 million in 2018, up 16 percent from its 2017 total of $4.5 million. Max Planck Florida’s biggest grant winner was neuroscientist Hyungbae Kwon. He had two grants, including an award for developing a light technique that lets scientists visualize and map how emotions affect neurons.
That grant, worth $6.8 million over five years, is the largest in Max Planck Florida’s eight-year history.
The state and Palm Beach County recruited Max Planck, the renowned German institute, to Jupiter with $188 million in subsidies.
Bringing more NIH money into the state was one of the goals cited by then-Gov. Jeb Bush when he wooed Scripps with a $310 million state grant. Palm Beach County chipped in an additional $269 million in subsidies.
That deal, announced in 2003, kicked off a billion-dollar bet on biotech that Bush said would transform Florida’s notoriously low-wage economy.
Results have been mixed. The Burnham Institute, which received $311 million in state and local money to expand to Orlando, pulled out. VGTI Florida, a lab lured to Port St. Lucie with $120 million from the state and city, failed in 2015. And the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, recruited to St. Petersburg with $30 million in taxpayer money, has left the state.
Meanwhile, the nonprofit labs attracted by Bush’s subsidies landed just a fraction of the overall NIH grants coming into the state. Scripps Florida, Max Planck Florida and the Torrey Pines Institute in Port St. Lucie combined to bring in 9 percent of the state’s total haul.
Nearly half of Florida’s NIH grants landed at state schools. The University of Florida won $176.7 million, the University of South Florida landed $40.4 million, Florida State University brought in $34.2 million and Florida International University received $23.1 million.
Private institutes established long before Bush lured The Scripps Research Institute to Palm Beach County also were major recipients of NIH money. They include the University of Miami School of Medicine ($133.3 million), the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center ($30.6 million) and Mayo Clinic Jacksonville ($28.4 million).
Florida again ranked 12th among U.S. states in the amount of grants awarded, trailing biotech hubs California ($4.2 billion), Massachusetts ($2.9 billion), New York ($2.6 billion) and Pennsylvania ($1.8 billion) by a large margin.
Adjust for population, however, and Florida falls to the back of the pack. While Massachusetts brought in a nation-leading $416 per resident in NIH grants in 2018, Florida’s $29 per person ranked 40th.
For medical researchers, NIH funding is more important than ever. Florida’s nascent biotech sector has been hampered by the downsizing of Big Pharma’s research spending. What’s more, wealthy Palm Beach philanthropists — a key part of Bush’s plan — have proven reluctant to open their checkbooks to institutes working on experiments that could be years or decades away from treating diseases.