Updated: NIH Director, Senator Mikulski Warn of Sequester's Impact on Biomedical Research

Sequester squeeze. Senator Mikulski and NIH Director Collins are worried about the impact of a possible 5.1% cut to NIH's budget.


The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a key supporter in Congress yesterday warned about the damage to biomedical research if $85 billion in automatic cuts to all federal agencies go into effect on 1 March. NIH Director Francis Collins and Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) said the so-called sequestration would slow scientific progress, delay clinical trials, and put a generation of young researchers at risk if NIH's $31 billion budget for this year is trimmed by $1.5 billion.

Speaking at a press conference at NIH's clinical center on its Bethesda, Maryland, campus, Mikulski noted that she was chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee as well as a senator for Maryland, where 15,000 of her constituents who work at NIH or universities could be affected. "I fear that the $1.5 billion cut at NIH will delay scientific projects, will make hundreds fewer research awards therefore jeopardizing thousands of jobs. It will delay progress in research in debilitating conditions" such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, she said.

Collins said that each of NIH's 27 institutes and centers will be cut by 5.1%, so research in areas such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes will be hit equally hard. "We don't even have the flexibility to make those difficult choices amongst those," he said. Institute directors will have flexibility within their budgets to decide how to distribute the cut among programs such as single-investigator grants, centers, and intramural research. "But everything will take a hit," Collins said.

He added, however, that at the moment NIH doesn't expect to furlough intramural researchers and other staff members. "We will do everything we can to try not to furlough or to lay off employees."

Also appearing at the press conference was Carol Greider, a 2009 Nobel Prize winner in physiology or medicine who chairs the department of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. She said a decade of flat NIH budgets and low success rates (the fraction of reviewed NIH grant proposals that receive funding) have already taken a bite in her department of 15 faculty members. Many are waiting to hear back about submitted proposals, so to pay their salaries and those of postdocs and students, the department has dipped into reserves to give these faculty members bridge funding. As a result, the department expects to run a deficit for the first time in years. Her own lab is suffering, too: Because her number of NIH grants dropped from four to two in the past couple years, she is down to four trainees compared with eight to 10 in the past.

If the sequester kicks in, NIH's success rate could drop from the current rate of about 17% to 18%—half what it was in the 1980s—to as low as 15%, squeezing biomedical labs further and forcing them to hire even fewer young scientists, Greider noted. "This group is in jeopardy today," she said. Collins echoed her concern: "If we lose the talents of this up-and-coming generation … they're not coming back," he said.

The looming sequester comes on top of other budget problems because Congress had not yet approved the federal government's fiscal year 2013 budget. Instead, NIH and other agencies have been operating since 1 October under a continuing resolution, a temporary spending measure that runs out 27 March. As usual in this situation, NIH has been awarding investigators with ongoing multiyear grants only 90% of their approved budget to conserve funds.

This also means that many new grants that have been reviewed and received a high score are not receiving funding yet, Collins said. "Some of that science is being held up as we try to figure out what resources we actually have in fiscal year '13," Collins said.

Mikulski has proposed a package of tax cuts and new revenue that she says could solve the sequester problem. She hopes it will be part of an omnibus appropriations bill being drafted by Representative Harold Rogers (R-KY), chair of the House Appropriations Committee, that would also fund the government through fiscal year 2013 after 27 March.

*Update, 11:43 a.m., 22 February: Yesterday in a notice NIH spelled out its operating plan under a sequester. If sequestration happens, NIH expects to make "fewer" competing awards. Continuing awards that have received 90% or less of the approved level because of the continuing resolution "likely will not reach" the full commitment level in fiscal year 2013. Individual institutes and centers will announce how they will handle the budget cuts.