Budget Straits Mean Grant-Success Rate Will Hit All-Time Low, NIH Warns

May 11, 2011

Budget cuts forced by Congress will probably mean that university medical researchers seeking federal funds will have their lowest success rate in history, National Institutes of Health officials told lawmakers on Wednesday.

Only about one in six grant applications to the NIH are expected to be approved, the agency's director, Francis S. Collins, told a Senate appropriations subcommittee. The NIH awarded about 9,300 research grants last year, with an application success rate of about 20 percent, Dr. Collins said.

The chairman of the subcommittee, Sen. Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, said the situation could soon grow even worse, given that the House of Representatives has approved a budget measure to cut health spending by 9 percent in the next fiscal year, which begins in October.

"If that plan were approved, severe reductions to NIH research would be unavoidable," Mr. Harkin said at the hearing, which was held to examine the Obama administration's request for a 2.4-percent increase in the NIH's budget for the 2012 fiscal year.

The NIH, the nation's single largest source of money for academic research, has an annual budget of about $31-billion. Congress, when it agreed last month on a federal budget for the current fiscal year, cut NIH support by 1 percent, or $321.7-million. In inflation-adjusted terms, Dr. Collins said, NIH purchasing power is now no better than it was a decade ago.

Two studies released on Tuesday, on the eve of the hearing, offered economic arguments for greater NIH spending even at a time of overall budget constraints.

One, by United for Medical Research, a coalition of universities and companies, said the NIH produced $68-billion in new economic activity in 2010 alone. The other, by the nonprofit Battelle Memorial Institute, said the government's $3.8-billion expenditure on the Human Genome Project over 13 years, ending in 2003, has so far delivered $796-billion in economic gains.

Appeals to Patriotic Pride

Only three Republicans on the subcommittee addressed the hearing, each offering varying degrees of support for the NIH. The senior Republican, Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, urged Dr. Collins to press ahead with a strategy to promote "translational research," which helps companies convert scientific discoveries into new drugs and other medical products. Dr. Collins announced plans in February to move ahead with that effort and told the subcommittee he expected details to be ready within a few weeks.

Sen. Jerry Moran, a newly elected Republican from Kansas, said he planned to "support medical research in a big way." And Sen. Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois said he saw a "much brighter future" from government support of medical research than of medical care.

A lack of support for the NIH budget among other members of Congress, however, could cost lives, said William T. Talman, a professor of neurology at the University of Iowa who is president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, the nation's largest coalition of biomedical-research associations.

One example "could be a delay by two to three years of a universal flu vaccine, which could save upwards of half a million lives in the U.S. per year," said Dr. Talman, who did not attend the hearing.

In addition to presenting lawmakers with arguments that emphasized saving lives and generating dollars, Dr. Collins offered a nationalistic appeal. He departed from his prepared remarks to the subcommittee to describe work by China to build the world's largest facility for mapping the human genome. The Beijing Genomics Institute, in Shenzhen, will have the ability to produce more high-quality DNA-sequence data than do all U.S. academic facilities combined, said Dr. Collins, who led the Human Genome Project a decade ago.

The Chinese effort, involving 4,000 scientists, is a "good thing," Dr. Collins told the senators. "But it worries me that China is doing this and we have not."

At a time when lawmakers feel themselves under dire budget constraints, an appeal to patriotic pride might help, said James D. Savage, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia who helped persuade Congress to support the Human Genome Project in the 1980s by arguing that the nation would otherwise cede a critical avenue of scientific exploration to European competitors.

A similar tactic, warning of a competitive threat from China and India, helped persuade Congress and the Bush administration in 2006 to embark on a strategy of doubling the budget of the National Science Foundation over the next 10 years, Mr. Savage said. "I think this will work again," he said, "but the increases for the science agencies will still grow within the broader political and budgetary context."