Is Virtual Peer Review Coming To NIH?

If you take the time to read Appropriations reports, you can learn all kinds of things about an agency’s funding priorities and their plans for the future.  I will be blogging this week about the highlights of the NIH FY12 Appropriations report, but today I thought I would whet your appetite with a key issue:

NIH proposes to save $15 million in FY12 by holding virtual peer review sessions, thereby saving study section travel costs. I’ll be curious to see how the scientific community greets this news. On the one hand, reviewers are extremely busy people just like the rest of us, and not having to travel may come as welcome news. On the other hand, one can imagine certain qualities of the review process that might be lost by holding the session virtually. How will virtual sessions affect the way grants are reviewed? How will the group dynamic change? Will it cause a greater reliance on the written proposal than on the group dynamic? How should we change the way we write a proposal if it will be reviewed virtually? (I, for one, plan to redouble my efforts to write shorter paragraphs and sections, make liberal use of headings, and judiciously use formatting to quickly drive home the major themes for those skimming at home.) And I shudder to envision the technology SNAFUs likely to occur in the first round of virtual review–I’m happy when I attend a talk and the PowerPoint presentation goes off without a hitch.

Regardless of the response of the scientific community, if it will save $15 million, virtual peer review is very likely headed our way. It is tempting to reason that the $15 million saved could then be made available in the form of increased extramural grant money. While that sort of one-for-one exchange may not occur, at the very least one could argue that an agency that saves $15 million via virtual peer review will appear efficient and cost-conscious to Appropriations subcommittees, making it an attractive prospect for investment of federal dollars.

NIH To Receive $30.7B For FY11, Spared Major Budget Cuts– For Now

The NIH will receive $30.7B for FY11, which is $260M below the FY10 level. The cuts will be spread across all 27 institutes and centers, and the Office of the Director and building account. The threatened language requiring NIH to support a specified number of new grants at a minimum funding level does not appear in the bill. David Moore of the Association of American Medical Colleges is quoted in a Science magazine breaking news article: “”The final outcome for NIH has to be viewed as relatively good news. Certainly people will be disappointed research is being cut, but in the current budget climate it could have been a lot worse.” While NIH has been spared major budget cuts for now, the FY12 budgets are now before Congress, and many legislators are proposing deeper cuts.

NIH FY11 Budget On The Chopping Block?

As the White House and House Republicans continue to negotiate toward a Thursday deadline for an FY11 budget to fund the final six months of the year, it appears that NIH may be on the chopping block. Rumors are all over the place and no definitive information seems to be available. An earlier Senate budget plan would have maintained NIH funding at its FY10 level. But with $38 billion to cut from the budget, any nondefense discretionary spending is at risk.

While I hesitate to link to an article from a partisan journal like The Nation without balancing it with other viewpoints, alas there is little definitive news arising from the murky depths of “budget negotiation hell” this week. So with that caveat, I encourage you to take a look at this article in The Nation.

The author states that NIH’s $31B annual budget accounts for one-third of the Department of Health and Human Services discretionary spending. She argues that cutting the budget would not make a meaningful dent in the budget deficit, as NIH only accounts for 2.9% of total discretionary spending.

Research funded through NIH extramural funds would not be supported by other sources. For-profit companies will develop promising research through R&D, but basic science funding must first get a project to the point where it shows enough promise to be developed.

The author goes on to say that if there were cuts, “The NCI will prioritize funding the same level of new grants (they currently fund 14 percent of new grant applications), but will have to cut funding from cancer centers. Others will have to choose between new and existing grants. When ongoing grants aren’t renewed, work may simply stop.” The fear is that we will lose the best and brightest scientists to industry, other fields, and/or other countries with a less draconian funding climate.

She states further, “Funding ‘basic science’ doesn’t sound appealing in lean-budget times, but cutting research in times of economic woe is counterproductive. Nearly 90 percent of the NIH research budget gets distributed across the country, employing scientists and lab technicians.”

Need I add that we as a nation spend billions of dollars each year treating preventable diseases? I recently blogged about the upcoming Community Transformation Grants, which target such diseases. It is funded through the Affordable Care Act, all aspects of which are at-risk for funding cuts– which seems economically short-sighted to me.

The author of the article concludes with the compelling statistic that each year 300,000 people die of cancer, which is the equivalent of losing 3,000 people in the Twin Towers every other day. She encourages those who support traditional defense spending to consider which enemy poses the greatest threat, and asserts that biomedical research is our best defense.

Many groups are organizing campaigns to oppose possible NIH budget cuts. For example, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network has organized a Facebook page to “Help Oppose NIH Budget Cuts” And many biomedical research groups and foundations are encouraging members to contact their senators and representatives.

I know I posted this quote in support of basic science research recently, but given the circumstances this week I feel it bears repeating:

“None of the most important weapons transforming warfare in the 20th century- the airplane, tank, radar, jet engine, helicopter, electronic computer, not even the atomic bomb- owed its initial development to a Doctrinal Requirement or request of the military.”

John Chambers, ed. The Oxford Companion to American Military History (New York, Oxford University Press, 1999 p. 79.)