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Budget pressures now force the National Institutes of Health to reject half of worthwhile research proposals, putting scientific progress at risk and leading many of the USA's brightest minds to consider careers overseas, says NIH director Francis Collins.

"While the scientific opportunities have never been more exciting than right now, the stress on the biomedical community in the United States has never been more severe," says Collins, in an exclusive interview with the USA TODAY Editorial Board Wednesday. "Many young investigators are on the brink of giving up because of the difficulty of getting support."

The NIH once funded one in three research proposals. For the past 10 years, NIH has had enough to fund only one in six, although the quality of the research is as high as ever, Collins says.

"We are throwing away probably half of the innovative, talented research proposal's that the nation's finest biomedical community has produced," Collins says. "Particularly for young scientists, they are now beginning to wonder if they are in the wrong field. We have a serious risk of losing the most important resource that we have, which is this brain trust, the talent and the creative energies of this generation of scientists."

Studies show that 18% of young scientists are considering moving to other countries to continue their research, Collins says, noting that China, India, Singapore and Brazil are all boosting their investment in science. Within five years, China will spend more on scientific research than the USA, he says.

VIDEO: Francis Collins on the future of medicine

The NIH budget peaked in fiscal year 2010 at $31.2 billion, falling to $30.15 billion for fiscal year 2014.

Due to inflation, the NIH budget has lost 25% of its purchasing power over the last decade, Collins says.

Funding research offers short- and long-term benefits, Collins says, both by developing new treatments for deadly diseases such as cancer and diabetes, as well as stimulating the economy. Every dollar invested in the NIH returns two dollars in goods and services to the economy within a year, he says.

"How long can we go on without seeing irreversible damage to this engine of discovery that is so full of potential and yet is being starved for fuel?" Collins asks.

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., questions whether the NIH uses its money wisely.

In a letter to Collins last year, Kingston asked Collins to justify a grant to study voice care for transgendered people, among other studies.

"I support the NIH's core responsibility of basic research, but believe it should stop the frivolous, politically-motivated, and wasteful grants it has been funding," says Kingston, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee in charge of the NIH's budget. "On behalf of the American taxpayer, my committee will continue strict oversight of the NIH budget and encourage Dr. Collins to work with us on spending tax dollars effectively and appropriately."

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