Significant Budget Cuts Imminent For the National Institutes of Health

Guest Blog by Luke Bouvier, PhD

In a notice issued a few days ago on February 21, the NIH released some additional details about its contingency plans if sequestration goes into effect this Friday, March 1, as scheduled.  In order to hit the mandated 5.1% budget cut, the NIH “likely will reduce the final FY 2013 funding levels of non-competing continuation grants and expects to make fewer competing awards.”  Non-competing continuation awards, which have generally been funded this year at 90% of the previous commitment level because of the ongoing budget uncertainty, may see some restoration above the current level “but likely will not reach the full FY 2013 commitment level described in the Notice of Award.”  The NIH also confirmed that in the event of the budget sequester, each of the 27 NIH Institutes and Centers will detail its own approach to meeting the reduced budget level.

Science likewise reported that a press conference held at the NIH last week confirmed the bleak budget outlook.  NIH Director Francis Collins and Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) warned that the coming sequester cut of $1.57 billion to the NIH’s $31 billion budget would “slow scientific progress, delay clinical trials, and put a generation of young researchers at risk.”  Collins reported that “everything will take a hit,” though Institute directors will be able to use their discretion in allocating cuts among programs such as single-investigator grants, centers, and intramural research.  Referring to NIH staff and intramural researchers, Collins added that “we will do everything we can to try not to furlough or to lay off employees.”  Nobel Prize winner Carol Greider, chair of the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Johns Hopkins University, also appeared at the press conference and lamented that the looming cuts could reduce NIH’s grant success rate from an already-low 17-18% down to 15%, which would translate to a reduction of grants in the hundreds, forcing cutbacks in biomedical labs throughout the country.  Collins confirmed that many high-scoring grant proposals have not received any funding yet at all because of the lack of budgetary clarity, adding that “some of that science is being held up as we try to figure out what resources we actually have in fiscal year ’13.”  Though few observers now believe that the sequester cuts can still be averted by March 1, Senator Mikulski, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, hopes that the NIH cuts will eventually be remedied in a budgetary deal to fund the federal government through the remainder of the current fiscal year.  That deal would have to be reached before the current Continuing Resolution expires on March 27, or else a government shutdown could result.

Sequester Cuts to the NIH Budget Look Increasingly Likely

Guest Blog by Luke Bouvier, PhD

The day of reckoning is fast approaching as concerns the sweeping federal budget cuts known as “sequestration,” scheduled to go into effect on March 1.  Originally slated for January 1, 2013, the cuts were mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, which was enacted as part of that year’s fight over the increase in the federal debt ceiling.  In the hope that a long-term budget deal would make the automatic cuts unnecessary, their implementation was postponed by the New Year’s Day deal that averted the so-called “fiscal cliff,” but most observers now agree that there is little appetite for a political compromise that could avoid them once again.  On January 24, incoming chair of the Senate Budget Committee Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) released a memo outlining the history of the budget deals reached over the past two years as well as the current state of affairs.  The details are messy, but the consequences for the NIH are clear:  a cut of approximately 5.1% to the current year’s budget, or $1.57 billion, which would be all the more severe in that it would have to be squeezed into the remaining seven months of the fiscal year.

In an interview with Politico last month, NIH Director Francis Collins called the impending cuts “a profound and devastating blow” to medical research, adding that “there’s no sort of lever you can pull and all of a sudden everything will be fine” in the face of a cut of that magnitude.  Collins noted that over the past ten years, the NIH budget has been essentially flat, which means that inflation has whittled away about 20% of its value.  The looming cuts would greatly exacerbate that trend, at a time when cancer research is “just exploding with potential,” Collins said.  “We could go faster and faster; … it’s an incredibly exciting science, but it will go slower.”

Nature reported last week that scientists are already cutting back expenditures in anticipation of the cuts.  Senior officials at the science agencies are under White House orders not to discuss specific plans for implementing the cuts, but the Office of Management and Budget has directed them to minimize the impact of the cuts on their core missions and to give priority to concerns over life, safety, or health.  Nature reports that the cuts to the NIH budget would be spread over all of its 27 institutes and centers, with only its Clinical Center spared in order to avoid putting patients’ lives in danger.  Directors would have some discretion in apportioning the cuts, as long as the total adds up to 5.1%.  Given the uncertainty, the NIH has been paying only 90% of the promised amounts for previously awarded grants; if the sequester goes into effect, the final 10% of these grants would almost certainly suffer a significant cut, leaving principal investigators with difficult spending decisions to make.

As if sequestration weren’t enough, looming right behind it is another impending budget crisis, as the current fiscal year’s Continuing Resolution expires on March 27.  If no budget deal is reached by then, a government shut-down is a real possibility.  And following along close behind that deadline is the expiration of the debt ceiling suspension on May 19, which could lead to a US government default on its payment obligations in the absence of congressional action.

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.)