Biology Department Head Chris A. Kaiser PhD ’88 has been selected to run the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) beginning next year, the MIT News Office reported on Tuesday. Kaiser will oversee NIGMS’s $2 billion budget for funding basic life sciences research.
NIGMS, the fourth largest institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), supports over 4,500 research grants in areas like cell biology, biophysics, genetics, physiology, and computational biology. The NIGMS funds research that provides foundations for understanding and curing disease, says Kaiser. Unlike other parts of the NIH, the NIGMS supports researchers at other institutions — like MIT — but does not hire its own.
“Dr. Kaiser has tremendous energy and enthusiasm for research and training — two key components of the NIGMS mission — that make him ideal for this position,” said Francis S. Collins, director of the NIH, in a statement on the NIGMS website.
Kaiser, who has been a faculty member since 1991, studies protein folding and intracellular transport using yeast as a model organism. In 1999 , Kaiser was named a MacVicar Fellow in recognition of the 7.03 (Genetics) course he taught from 1992 to 2011.
As head of the NIGMS, Kaiser will take the reins of a large federal research budget amidst economic uncertainty and congressional pressure to cut back on government spending. Basic life sciences research, which is usually not immediately applicable to disease-related research, has come under fire from some conservative groups. Forty-one percent of Tea Party Republicans in the House of Representatives support cutting federal spending for scientific research, according to Pew Research.
“A lot of politicians are trying to take advantage of misconceptions that the public has,” said Kaiser about the importance of basic research. “NIGMS has a particularly difficult subproblem: how do you justify basic research that does not have an immediate disease connection?”
Federal research budgets no longer see the same kind of support from Congress that they enjoyed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but Kaiser is optimistic.
“NIH is the R&D component that is developing technological know-how for making disease treatment more efficient,” he said. Disease research is a “relatively easy” sell to Congress, he added, because the applicability of that research to a robust healthcare system is clear.
And though the connection between disease treatment and the NIGMS’s basic research is less clear-cut, said Kaiser, he thinks the public will still support it, noting that scientific advancement is viewed positively in the United States.
Even in movies and TV shows, “whenever MIT is mentioned, it’s in a positive context. The technological know-how of America is something that people can connect with even if they don’t understand the details,” he said.
Kaiser acknowledged that grant money will be “harder and harder” to get — and that federal research budgets probably won’t see increases soon — but funding will not dry up.
“It’s not as if these endeavors are going to go away,” he said.
Kaiser, who start at the NIGMS spring of next year, says he will miss teaching at MIT the most.
“I’ve taught 7.03 for 20 years. It’s a really big part of my life — I love teaching genetics,” he said. “I got such a kick out of teaching MIT undergraduates.”