The NIH threatened

As most of you know, most of the basic and translational biomedical research in the U.S. is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Unfortunately, the NIH budget has been stagnant for the last five or six years. That’s been bad enough, leading to a decline in funding success rates for applicants for research grants to a low level that we haven’t seen in nearly 20 years. Worse, even though FY2011 started October 1, the federal government still doesn’t have a real budget. It’s operating on a continuing resolution. While this plays havoc with all government agencies, it’s particularly bad at the NIH, where funding levels have dropped to the 7th percentile or lower (7% of grant applications funded), because, not knowing what its final budget is going to be, the NIH gets very conservative, and there’s no guarantee that the funding will get better even once the FY2011 budget is finally passed. I experienced this very thing six years ago, when funding levels dropped precipitously from the 21st percentile to the 16th percentile, which should give you an idea how much the situation has deteriorated since then.

Isis sent me this message from Dr. William Talman, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), about proposed spending cuts to the NIH budget. Please read it:

Dear Colleague,

For months the new House leadership has been promising to cut billions in federal funding in fiscal year (FY) 2011. Later this week the House will try to make the rhetoric a reality by voting on HR 1, a “continuing resolution” (CR) that would cut NIH funding by $1.6 billion (5.2%) BELOW the current level – reducing the budget for medical research to $29.4 billion!

We must rally everyone – researchers, trainees, lab personnel – in the scientific community to protest these draconian cuts. Please go to [this link] for instructions on how to call your Representative’s Washington, DC office today! Urge him/her to oppose the cuts to NIH and vote against HR 1. Once you’ve made the call, let us know how it went by sending a short email to the address provided in the call instructions and forward the alert link to your colleagues. We must explain to our Representatives how cuts to NIH will have a devastating impact on their constituents!


William T. Talman, MD
FASEB President

If you have a blog, blog this. Call your Representatives. As P.Z. Myers and Paul Krugman put it, we’re eating America’s seed corn in science, and there will be a steep price to pay someday. Worse, in the scheme of things, the savings are minimal and symbolic. The real problem is entitlements and defense spending, and with those off the table, all we have left is nonsense like this. The bottom line is that all the changes in peer review, whether to allow two grant application resubmissions instead of one, won’t make one whit of difference when funding levels fall this low.

But it’s worse than that. It’s not just the NIH. It’s nearly every major government science agency, and, because the cut would come in the middle of the year, after half of the budget has already been spent, these proposed cuts are in essence double the numbers. At least, that would be the effect:

But, we’re half way through the fiscal year, so almost half that money is already obligated, so we’re looking at more like 30-40% cut from the remainder.

That means NO NEW MONEY going out, including grants that have been approved but not sent out.

Further, it really means rescission and clawbacks – taking back to the agencies funding already disbursed.

I know Congress can be short-sighted, but what the House of Representatives proposes to do is astonishing for how much damage it would do for so little budget savings.