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.

How Will The FY11 Appropriation Affect NIH Funding?

The NIH has issued a notice stating how the FY11 appropriation will affect funding. The Appropriation Act for FY11 allocates $30.9 billion to NIH, which is nearly 1% less than the amount NIH received in FY10 ($31.2B).  As a result, “Modular and non-modular research grants, from all ICs, with the single exception of NCI, will be reduced to 1 percent below the FY 2010 award level.  Inflationary adjustments for recurring costs on non-competing research grants in FY 2012 and beyond will be set at the 2 percent level, calculated based on the adjusted FY 2011 level.”  The policy does not apply to K awards, SBIR/STTRs, and NRSAs. However, “Awards that have already been made in FY 2011 which are impacted by this policy may be revised.”

As for NCI, research grants will be reduced to 3% below FY10 levels. “Inflationary adjustments for recurring costs on non-competing research grants in FY 2012 and beyond will be set at the 2 percent level, calculated based on the adjusted FY 2011 level.” (Does not apply to Ks, SBIR/STTRs, nor NRSAs.)  Again, awards made in FY11 may be revised based on this policy.

NIH anticipates that its ICs will award 9,050 new and competing Research Project Grants (RPGs). It will be up to each IC to apportion its extramural grant money in accordance with their funding priorities. (Future inflationary adjustments for recurring costs on competing grants will be 2%, and awards made in FY11 may be revised.)

New Investigators submitting R01 equivalent awards will be funded at rates comparable to those for established investigators submitting new R01 equivalent awards. NRSAs will get a 2% increase on stipends.

What Does the NIH FY12 Appropriations Report Actually Say?

Why should we follow the Appropriations process? Aside from the obvious reason—to know how big the pot of extramural money will be next year and to understand the government’s commitment (or lack thereof) to science funding—there is another important reason: If you know the language worked into Appropriations testimony you can strategically design your research and incorporate key language and ideas into your NIH proposal in order to improve your odds of funding. (In these competitive funding times, every little advantage helps.) So without further ado, here are some key concepts from the NIH FY12 Appropriation report:

NIH has requested $31.987B for FY12. In the cover letter for the report from the Office of the Budget, Francis Collins states: “The requested funding will enhance NIH’s ability to support research that prolongs life, reduces disability, and strengthens the economy. NIH-funded research contributes to economic growth, produces well-paying jobs, and helps to keep the United States competitive on the global stage.” He continues: “For the FY 2012 budget request, NIH has identified one major area of extraordinary opportunity and three other themes that are exceptionally ripe for investment and integral to improving the health of the American people.” The one major area of opportunity of course is the proposed highly-controversial National Center For Advancing Translational Science (NCAT), which Collins refers to as “a new paradigm for turning lab discoveries into cures and treatments through targeted investments in translational science and medicine.” The three themes that NIH has deemed “instrumental in paving the way for more rapid scientific advances across all areas of human health and disease, including global applications”:

 1) Technologies to Accelerate DiscoveryThis area focuses on genes and the environment (I guess we will see more of those FOAs), and directly lists advanced technologies such as DNA sequencing, microarray technology, nanotechnology, new imaging modalities, and computational biology.

2) Enhancing the Evidence Base For Health Care Decisions. Language here includes “comparative effectiveness” and “personalized medicine.” He also cites the new HMO Research Network, which “will bring together HMOs caring for more than13 million patients for the purpose of accelerating research in the high priority areas of epidemiological studies, clinical trials, and electronic-health-record-enabled health care delivery.”

3) New Investigators, New Ideas. Here Collins mentions two programs: “the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, which supports new investigators with potentially high-impact projects, and the Early Independence Award, which enables our most talented young scientists to move directly from a doctoral degree to an independent research career.”

If you write NIH grants, I strongly encourage you to spend some time with the full Appropriations report put out by the NIH Office of the Budget. (click here)

The Administration requested $31.829B for NIH FY12. Here are highlights that the Administration pulled from the NIH report (and therefore deem important):

*The FY12 budget proposes to support a total of 9,158 competing Research Project Grants (RPGs), a reduction of 228 from FY10. In total, NIH projects it will support 36,582 RPGs (competing and non-competing) in FY12, an increase of 43 grants from 2010.

*The budget also proposes a 4 percent increase in stipends under the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) program. The goal is to “improve NIH’s ability to attract high-quality research investigators to the field of biomedical research.” This will result in an increase in NRSA funding of $19 million over FY10, for a total of $794 million.

*The Cures Acceleration Network would receive $100 million in FY12; it is included in the budget of the Office of the Director.

*As in previous years, $300 million is transferred out of the budget of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) for the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and TB.

*Although the budget narrative specifically mentions implementation of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) remains a line item in the FY12 budget.

*At a briefing of NIH advocates, NIH Director Francis Collins said that within the next month, the agency expects to file a budget amendment detailing the movement of NCRR programs into NCATS or other NIH institutes and centers.

*The National Children’s Study would receive $194 million, the same level as FY10; the Common Fund would receive $557 million, an increase of $13 million.

*NIH intramural research would increase by $50 million, to a total of $3.382 billion, which is approximately a 1.4 percent increase.

*NIH estimates it will be able to save more than $15 million in administrative costs in FY12. The agency plans to do so through such means as using technology to save study section travel costs by holding virtual peer review sessions.

To illustrate the achievements of NIH, Dr. Collins used two particularly compelling examples at the budget briefing:

*A 21-year-old diagnosed today with HIV/AIDS has a life expectancy of 70 years, thanks to the anti-retroviral         therapy made possible by NIH funding.

*Gains in life expectancy supported by NIH-funded research result in $3.2 trillion in annual savings.

NIH identified in its FY12 budget justification priority areas and initiatives related to the following diseases: autism; cancer; Alzheimer’s disease; type 1 diabetes; and HIV/AIDS.

Some scientific program areas of accomplishment or special emphasis provided by NIH include: bioinformatics and computational biology; National Technology Center for Networks and Pathways programs; epigenomics; genotype-tissue expression; global health; Gulf oil spill long-term follow-up; health economics; high-risk, high-reward investigator initiated research; the HMO research collaboratory; the human microbe project; and nanomedicine.