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Federal grants to Florida scientists top $600 million, breaking record

Florida scientists secured a record haul of grants from the National Institutes of Health this year — an impressive performance driven not by the nonprofit labs lured with more than $1 billion in public subsidies but by long-established universities.

Florida researchers won $644 million from the NIH for the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, shattering the previous high of $528 million, set in 2016. The state’s 22 percent annual jump in grants far outstripped the national pace of 6.5 percent.

Data dive: Three charts and one map illustrating Florida’s record-shattering year for NIH grants

Scripps Florida set a record for NIH dollars won, but the statewide growth was driven by universities that predate the state’s billion-dollar bet on biotech. Indeed, the labs lured with state subsidies accounted for just 7.6 percent of Florida’s NIH grants, down from 9 percent in 2016.

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 cited by then-Gov. Jeb Bush when he wooed Scripps with a $310 million state grant.

Related: Scripps Florida shares $9 million grant to study genes of 100-year-olds

Scripps Florida in Jupiter also posted a record year, bringing in $42.4 million in 2017, up from $40 million in 2016. Matthew Disney, a chemist at Scripps Florida, generated the most money from the NIH, bringing in $3.2 million over the past year.

“At the end of the day, good science gets funded,” Disney said. “Even though we’re a small institute, we do good science that the NIH wants to support.”

Max Planck Florida in Jupiter — another lab that received state and local subsidies — landed $4.51 million, down slightly from its 2016 take. Florida Atlantic University received $5.4 million, up from last year’s $4.9 million.

FAU raised its grant game in large part by recruiting out-of-state scientists with NIH funding. FAU’s top grant getter this year was Randy Blakely, who left Vanderbilt University in Tennessee to run the FAU Brain Institute. FAU also wooed Janet Robishaw, a genomics researcher who left a Pennsylvania hospital to join FAU.

“There’s been a significant institutional investment in building a research culture,” Blakely said.

Other state schools are pursuing a similar strategy, said Daniel Flynn, FAU’s vice president of research.

“The Board of Governors are working very hard to provide the universities with the resources to recruit world-class faculty,” Flynn said.

Indeed, the majority of Florida’s NIH grants landed at state schools. The University of Florida won $160.9 million, the University of South Florida landed $112.9 million, Florida State University brought in $35.8 million and Florida International University received $25.4 million.

Private institutes established long before Bush lured The Scripps Research Institute to Palm Beach County in 2003 also were major recipients of NIH money. They include the University of Miami School of Medicine ($120.7 million), Mayo Clinic Jacksonville ($35.7 million) and the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center ($31.1 million).

Florida again ranked 12th among U.S. states in the amount of grants awarded, trailing biotech hubs California ($3.8 billion), Massachusetts ($2.7 billion), New York ($2.3 billion) and Pennsylvania ($1.6 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 $391 per resident in NIH grants in 2017, Florida’s $31 per person ranked 38th.

While the NIH budget loosened a bit in 2017, grants remain difficult to win. Only about 10 percent of applications are approved, leaving scientists to scramble for money from other sources, such as foundations.

“We had some really bad years not too long ago,” Blakely said. “That has eased, but it’s still tough.”

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, pulled 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; it received $30 million from taxpayers.

Meanwhile, 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. But they are open to supporting the nonprofit hospitals that treated them or their loved ones.

“It’s always tough in the basic research arena, when you don’t have grateful patients,” Blakely said.

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