Florida scientists pull in another record haul of NIH grants


Despite a few high-profile hits to Florida’s biotech ambitions, the state’s scientists secured a record haul of grants from the National Institutes of Health this year.

Florida researchers won $528 million from the NIH for the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, topping the previous high of $521 million, set in 2015.

Considered the gold standard for scientific research, NIH grants are a crucial source of cash for medical inquiry. Bringing more NIH money into the state was one of the goals of Florida’s billion-dollar bet on biotech.

Scripps Florida in Jupiter also posted another record year, bringing in $40 million in 2016, up from $35.9 million in 2015. Max Planck Florida in Jupiter landed a record $4.5 million, and Florida Atlantic University received $4.9 million, up from last year’s $4.6 million.

Florida again ranked 12th among U.S. states in the amount of grants awarded, trailing biotech hubs California ($3.6 billion), Massachusetts ($2.5 billion), New York ($2.1 billion) and Pennsylvania ($1.5 billion) by a widening margin.

Adjust for population, however, and Florida falls to the back of the pack. While Massachusetts brought in a nation-leading $371 per resident in NIH grants in 2016, Florida’s $26 per person ranked 41st.

“We need to work harder, both scientifically and politically, to make that better,” said Scripps Florida researcher Michael Farzan. “Florida is a great place to work, but we don’t have yet the kind of critical mass that Massachusetts, California and Texas have.”

Farzan won grants for HIV research totaling $3.3 million, the most among Scripps Florida scientists.

As FAU, which has aimed to ramp up scientific research, the university has focused on recruiting scientists with NIH grants. In one coup, FAU hired neuroscientist Randy Blakely from Vanderbilt University. He had two NIH awards totaling $747,203 in 2016, and FAU is using Blakely to recruit other researchers.

“He will naturally attract very talented scientists,” said Dan Flynn, FAU’s vice president for research. “I think the NIH funding is going to rise steadily each year.”

The majority of Florida’s NIH grants landed at the University of Florida (which won $148 million), the University of Miami ($111 million) and the University of South Florida ($63 million), all established long before former Gov. Jeb Bush lured The Scripps Research Institute to Palm Beach County in 2003.

Just 9 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.

The Burnham Institute, which received $311 million in state and local money to expand to Orlando, is pulling out. VGTI Florida failed despite $120 million from the state and the city of Port St. Lucie. The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in St. Petersburg also closed last year; it received $30 million from taxpayers.

Farzan faulted an approach that created “science islands” scattered throughout Florida. Clustering the nonprofit labs together would have been a wiser strategy, he said.

“Those kind of failures were cooked into the way the research institutes were distributed across the state,” Farzan said. “As a consequence, some of the weaker institutes failed.”

Nationally, the NIH awarded research grants totaling $23.8 billion, up from $23.1 billion in 2015. Just a fifth of researchers who apply for NIH grants are successful, FAU’s Flynn said.

“It is still a very competitive environment,” he said.



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