Parsing NIH's 2011 Budget: Is Big Science Up, Small Science Down?

Is National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins planning to steer his ocean liner of an institute toward "big biology" at the expense of single-investigator grants? That was the fear of some in the biomedical science community on Monday when Collins discussed President Obama's budget request for a 3.2% raise, to $32 billion, for NIH in 2011. But other NIH watchers say that a close look at the budget proposal suggests that Collins's words are just spin.

Since his first day on the job last August, Collins has repeatedly emphasized his five "themes" for NIH: high-throughput technologies, translational science, health care reform, global health, and reinvigorating biomedical research. This week, Collins put his money where his mouth is. The portfolio of each NIH institute has been "mapped against the five themes," he said, with bigger increases for the priority areas.

Collins also said that because the research he's emphasizing tends to be funded with contracts and centers, NIH came up short of money to maintain its investigator-initiated grants—bread-and-butter R01s and other types of grants—known collectively as research project grants (RPGs). In 2011, NIH expects to fund 199 fewer of these grants, which are the mainstay of basic research labs. The same reasoning appears in the Department of Health and Human Service's summary budget document (see p. 40):

Many of the opportunities that will advance the NIH Director's scientific themes may best be accomplished through other research mechanisms, such as research and development contracts for comparative effectiveness studies, or research centers for genomic and other high-throughput technologies. Consequently, NIH estimates that it will support 9,052 new and competing RPGs in FY 2011, a decrease of 199 below the estimated level for FY 2010, excluding Recovery Act funds. The total number of RPGs to be funded in FY 2011 is expected to be 37,001, an increase of 195 above FY 2010 non-Recovery Act levels.

That seems to confirm worries among some scientists that Collins, who led the Human Genome Project, would favor big projects over bench science. Scientists "live and die by R01s," says a biomedical policy analyst who didn't want to be quoted by name. "We originally thought the five themes were a stump speech. Now it looks like it's policy."

But is NIH really cutting back on RPGs? According to Howard Garrison, budget guru at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, the slight drop in new grants has little to do with a shift in priorities. Most of it can be blamed on a 2% hike in grant size—good news for grantees squeezed by inflation in the past few years. The remainder likely results from the vagaries of the turnover of grants: Awards can be from 3 to 5 years in length, so the number that expire and free up money for new grants fluctuates each year. Overall, the number of RPGs is rising, and the amount of money for them—$17.1 billion in 2011—is going up 3.2%, in step with NIH's overall budget.

So why the rhetoric from Collins? "A lot of this is packaging," says Garrison. Collins probably wants to send a message to Congress that he's shaking things up at NIH. And in any case, the president's budget proposal doesn't mean much because Congress usually ends up giving NIH more than the president requests.