Flat funding hurts medical research

Government is No. 1 financial source

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Flat federal funding for biomedical sciences is changing the way laboratories operate, universities hire and researchers work.

President Bush's proposed $2.77 trillion federal budget for fiscal year 2007 does not include a funding increase for the National Institutes of Health, the federal focal point for medical research. Combined with a nominal increase the year before and the rising cost of medical research, it amounts to the first cut in spending at the NIH in 30 years.

It's not just the NIH's 27 institutes and the more than 2,000 institutions that support some tens of thousands of primary researchers and laboratory workers that are planning for life with less money. National organizations ranging from the American Cancer Society to the National Postdoctoral Association have expressed concern that less money could have repercussions for years to come.

"It will impact Pitt as it will every other entity" that is trying to secure biomedical research funding, said Arthur S. Levine, senior vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the University of Pittsburgh medical school. "It will be harder to get money and there will be less of it."

Billions of dollars are at stake. The NIH's budget nearly doubled between 1999 and 2003. But it only reached that level following years of 14- to 15-percent budget increases. Since 2004, annual increases have been in the 2 percent range.

NIH's fiscal year budget for 2005 was nearly $28.5 billion. Pitt's share was about $388 million, or three-quarters of its $507 million federal funding total that year. For Pitt, that was an increase of about 9 percent over 2004.

Institutions depend on outside funding, and the NIH is the biggest provider of such grants for training, research, fellowships, construction and laboratories. In 2004, for example, a year when the NIH made more than 47,000 grants, Pitt researchers received 938 of them, the sixth most of any institution.

The vast majority of those -- 726 -- were awarded to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

The ones first feeling the impact of NIH's flat funding will likely be postdoctoral scholars, the cornerstone of today's research. According to the National Postdoctoral Association, there are as many as 60,000 postdocs -- those between their Ph.D.s and securing a faculty position -- in the country. Postdocs essentially are trainees who do the preponderance of the day-to-day work in labs under the oversight of a senior scientist. Fewer NIH awards would mean fewer postdocs being hired in labs and it could result in a reduction of salaries for those who hang onto their jobs.

In addition, four- to five-year-long NIH awards known as RO1 tend to be among the first public grants faculty members earn, a critical step in gaining tenure. These Research Project Grants are the NIH's primary mechanism for supporting new ideas and discoveries. Institutions tend to use investigators' ability to earn RO1 funding as a measure of scientific ability and stature, which, along with the money they provide, are critical factors in decisions about tenure and promotions.

"If you don't succeed [in getting an RO1], you're probably not going to get tenure," said Alyson Reed, executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association. "The tenure review is totally based on your ability to bring in research funds. It's definitely a tenure breaker."

While there may be less opportunity for people to continue their research, lower NIH funding may keep others from even choosing such a career.

"Most of the researchers are dependent on outside money for their continued activity," said Howard H. Garrison, a spokesman for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, an organization representing 84,000 researchers in 22 member societies.

"It sends a message to young people that there is really no growth in this area, that there's no opportunity for expansion in what intellectually is a very exciting and challenging field."

Another ripple effect could be a downturn in the number of people pursuing M.D./Ph.D. programs, one of the traditional paths into scientific research. David Moore, the senior associate vice president for governmental relations for the Association of American Medical Colleges, said the pattern of flat NIH funding "has people concerned."

"If I were a young person considering a career in science or research and I was in an institution like the University of Pittsburgh, and I was looking at the prospect of flat funding at the NIH, I might consider a new career," Mr. Moore said.

The more immediate question, he said, was whether institutions would be able to maintain current research programs and keep labs open.

"How do you sustain that in a period when the budget may not match inflation?"

Pitt's Dr. Levine said it will take bridge funding to avoid laying off postdocs and medical researchers here.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., joined Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in sponsoring a Senate amendment that added $7 billion to the federal budget for health and education programs, about $2 billion of which be earmarked for NIH.

The House version, however, is stuck in committee.

A second Senate amendment pushed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein would add another $390 million to the federal budget for cancer funding at NIH, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Health Resources and Services Administration, which helps medically underserved populations.

Even if both amendments pass, numerous research programs still will find their budgets lagging behind previous levels.

The National Cancer Institute, for example, which is part of NIH, will receive $39.4 million less under the 2007 federal budget. That would put it $186 million below what the Congressional Budget Office estimates is needed to maintain current projects, infrastructure and spending adjusted for inflation and other factors.

The decreased funding comes on the heels of the American Cancer Society announcement in February that the number of people who died from cancer in 2002-03 decreased for the first time, the year corresponding to the last of the large NIH budget increases.

"This [research] is giving people great hope," said Wendy K.D. Selig, the cancer society's vice president for legal affairs. "But we have to step up here.

"[The cuts mean] you're seeing a lot of good ideas that are on the cutting room floor here because there's not enough money to go around."

Steve Levin can be reached at slevin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1919.


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