Potentially large cuts in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding are driving a search for alternative sources of research and training dollars, intensifying the need for near perfection in grant applications, and may be driving some young physician scientists away from careers in research.
“We have already seen severe cutbacks in NIH funding in the last few years, and it is probably at the worst I have seen since I’ve been in research,” says Keith Elkon, MD, head of the division of rheumatology at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. “The idea that this funding will go down even more is devastating. We are already witnessing around 90% of grants being rejected, so our ability to do cutting-edge research with reduced budgets falls precipitously.”
Cuts were made in the NIH budget earlier this year, but a much more drastic cut is possible. The “supercommittee” in Congress must trim about $1.5 trillion from the federal budget by the end of the year or automatic cuts will occur, meaning a 7.9% decrease in the NIH budget. That would be the largest cut in NIH history—about $2.5 billion.
In August, the Ad Hoc Group for Medical Research, a coalition of 214 patient and voluntary health groups, medical and scientific societies (including the ACR), and academic and research organizations, urged Congress to uphold the longstanding tradition of bipartisan support of the NIH.
Given the current uncertainty about future funding, as well as the $260-million decrease in the NIH budget earlier in the year, rheumatology departments at academic medical centers are thinking creatively to save their research programs and support training programs that are essential to their mission.
Finding Funds Elsewhere
S. Louis Bridges, MD, PhD, director of the division of clinical immunology and rheumatology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Medicine, says it is an unprecedented time in academic medicine. He describes his division as being “crunched on all levels” due to cutbacks in state support, the drop in philanthropic dollars, tight NIH paylines, and rollbacks in reimbursements for clinical services. Finding sources for bridge funding has become essential for investigators who may have to go through several grant resubmissions to continue with funding for their ongoing research. Investigators at academic institutions throughout the country, including UAB, are seeking research support from traditional sources such as NIH and the Veterans Administration (VA), but are also trying to identify new means of support through philanthropic organizations and industry.