The challenges and opportunities that confront academic rheumatology are multidimensional and complex. One such challenge is the current crisis in funding for rheumatic disease research and training in the U.S. The crisis is a matter of great concern to both the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) and the Rheumatology Research Foundation because support for research and training is crucial to Advancing Rheumatology! in the most fundamental sense of these words.
This crisis also ultimately threatens our ability to further improve outcomes for the millions of patients with rheumatic diseases. However, it is difficult to fully understand the enormity of this problem or to develop solutions without understanding extensive data on trends in funding for rheumatology research and training.
To address this challenge, the ACR and the Foundation have taken on the task of collecting data about funding, analyzing it and sharing it with those who have a vested interest. It’s clear that we all have existential interest in these data and their implications.
Researching Funding Sources
In an effort to gather meaningful and reliable information about the observation that the rheumatology research enterprise was at grave risk, the ACR’s Committee on Research and the Foundation collaborated this spring to gather comprehensive data on rheumatology research funding. Your professional organization and its 501(c)(3) charitable arm for research and training collected and analyzed information on funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and 12 private foundations spanning 2009 through 2013. Funding information was then cross-referenced with the ACR’s customer database, which includes the ACR/ARHP members and nonmembers who have accessed ACR programs and services in order to identify members of the rheumatology community who were receiving funding for research from the NIH and other foundations.
The analysis produced many insights into the current state of funding for rheumatology research. One notable discovery in the report is that over the past five years, the rheumatology community received 6,570 awards, representing 1.79% of total funds distributed by the NIH. Because of the ACR’s and Foundation’s mutual interest in advancing the rheumatology profession, special attention was paid during analysis to awards that serve as the stepping stones for researchers and physicians along their paths to becoming independent investigators, such as fellowship training (T), mentored (K) and independent research (R) awards. As shown in Table 1 (below left), the number of these awards given to ACR contacts has dropped, particularly for Rawards, which fell 30%. The decrease in R awards is especially concerning because receiving and maintaining R-level awards is an essential part of an investigator’s ability to continue a career in academic medicine.