While practicing rheumatologists face budgetary cuts in Medicare reimbursement, new investigators are facing a challenge of their own. Federal budget cuts and other vanishing funding sources are making it extremely difficult to support their research activities. “Over the past several years, sources of funding for these individuals have become increasingly restricted, with the Arthritis Foundation’s Arthritis Investigator award no longer available and the mentored Career Development Awards (K08 and K23) from the NIH affected by the federal budgetary constraints,” remarks ACR Research and Education Foundation (REF) President Leslie Crofford, MD.
Even with the NIH’s commitment to create programs to help new investigators obtain independent research funding, the average age of investigators who obtain R01 funding has increased by five to six years, and “the proportion of R01 grants going to new investigators has remained at approximately 6% of the total R01s awarded throughout the doubling of the NIH budget,” according to the NIH Office of Extramural Research.1
In the midst of this crisis, the REF is launching a new program designed to close the funding gap and provide a complete portfolio of awards to help even the newest scientist make the transition from postdoc to independent researcher.
The new Rheumatology Investigator Award will provide funds for salary support, overhead expenses, and research costs, thus securing the physicians academic research career for the duration of the award. “The early period of a promising academic career is an incredibly vulnerable time,” says Dr. Crofford. “Young faculty typically struggle to balance clinical and research activities. It is imperative that these physician- scientists obtain funding to protect time for research. The REF’s new Rheumatology Investigator Award seeks to redress these problems by funding the most promising young scientists in our field. We believe that this award will stimulate our young physician-scientists to remain in academic settings. There, they will become the next generation of teachers and scientists who will sustain our profession.”
The Rheumatology Investigator Award is a vital addition to the REF’s award portfolio. The REF has long been funding early career physicians with other awards such as the Physician Scientist Development Award (launched in 2003) and the Clinical Investigator Fellowship Award. “These awards put individuals on the career path of rheumatology-related research,” says Steven Echard, CAE, executive director of the REF. “And now the Rheumatology Investigator Award will close the loop—putting these researchers ever closer to becoming independent researchers.”
Ensuring the Future of Rheumatology
The launch of this new award coincides with an enormous increase in the amount of funds the REF will be providing throughout its entire portfolio. In 2008, the REF will fund $10.5 million to rheumatology research, training, and education programs—a budgeted increase of $3.5 million over 2007. This money comes from two very important REF grant programs—Within Our Reach: Finding a Cure for Rheumatoid Arthritis research grants and the REF core portfolio of research and training awards that amounts to $4.5 million of the $10.5 million.
One of the REF’s primary objectives is to annually increase the amount of money allocated to its core award portfolio so that grants for rheumatology training and early career development will be funded in perpetuity. Of the $4.5 million, over $2 million will fund research awards that cultivate new investigators.
The REF’s increase in funding should be a significant boon to the specialty by both replacing disappearing funds and also increaseing the amount of money available to new investigators so they can begin—or continue—down the path to becoming independent researchers.