NIH Seeks Advice on Budget Crunch

The grim outlook for biomedical research funding is causing much angst at the $30.7 billion National Institutes of Health (NIH). In an unusually candid move this week, NIH described some of its tough choices in detail and reached out to the scientific community for advice about how to keep afloat the labs of the investigators it funds.

In a post yesterday on her Rock Talk blog, NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Sally Rockey explains that NIH's budget has been essentially flat since 2004 and that the agency faces "a continuation of this pattern or perhaps even declining budgets" in the coming years. "As we consider how to continue to fund outstanding biomedical research during austere times, we are weighing various options, including looking closely at the way we manage NIH resources," she writes.

A linked slide set lays out various options. Until now, NIH has allowed success rates—the proportion of reviewed grant applications that receive funding—to "bottom out," which means "doing nothing but letting the system correct itself," one slide says. (In 2011, the success rate likely slipped well below 20% for the first time.) Slides describe other options that could help NIH stretch the money further and prop up success rates. These include limiting the number of grants or total amount of money an investigator can receive, cutting the size of grants, or capping the size of salaries that can be paid with an NIH grant.

To see how these various actions would help, NIH has included some interactive graphs. For example, if NIH limited the number of research grants to three (a few investigators now have six or more), it would free up $111 million, enough to fund 264 more new grants and boost success rates from 20.6% to 21.1%.

Some, if not all of these options are likely to be controversial. For example, last week the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and other groups took a stand against reducing the top salaries in grants from $199,700 to $165,300, as proposed by a draft House of Representatives spending bill. AAMC argues that reducing the cap "disadvantages" the most productive scientists and discourages physicians from pursuing research. And a recent report from a Senate spending panel warned that "continuing to nick away" at either success rates or the size of awards "will inevitably have a negative impact."

Rockey encourages researchers to comment on her blog or by e-mailing: