Sequester's 5% Cut Rolls Through Biomedical Labs


National Institutes of Health

Given that sequestration lopped off a staggering $1.55 billion from the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) budget this year, it shouldn't be hard to find examples of how the cut is harming research labs. Although sequestration "has already dealt a devastating blow," said NIH Director Francis Collins at a Senate hearing last week, it turns out it's not that easy to spell out the damage.

One reason is that many grantees won't receive good or bad news about their proposals until later in the fiscal year that ends 30 September. Even then, the effects will be part of a larger pattern of declining funding over the past decade, NIH watchers say. "People are feeling a lot of pain, but to actually put it on sequestration versus other pressures on the budget, we're only guessing," says Howard Garrison, deputy executive director for policy at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. At the individual level, "it's hard to say what the actual source is."

NIH is losing $1.7 billion this year from sequestration and other cuts, lowering its budget to $29.15 billion. New and competing grants are going down by 703, from 8986. As a result, the NIH grant success rate (the portion of reviewed grants that received funding) may drop from an already record-low 18% in 2012 to 16%, according to Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chair of the Senate spending subcommittee that discussed NIH's 2014 budget request last week.

Based on the 5% drop in NIH funding, many universities and medical centers—which rely on overhead cost reimbursements from grants—have predicted layoffs. The University of Pittsburgh, for example, estimates that losing $26 million will force the university to lay off 350 staff members and shut down 50 of about 1000 labs.

But tying a specific lab's closure to the sequester isn't simple. Even if a grant just misses this year's funding cutoff, or "payline," the investigator's lab won't necessarily close down. If a proposal was a first submission, the investigator can revise and resubmit it. In addition, Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, says that his institute may decide to "help out" threatened labs by giving them temporary "bridge" funding or approving the full grant if it fits institute priorities.

Labs that do lose a grant to the sequester may be able to fall back on other grants from NIH or foundations. Bridge funding from non-NIH sources may also keep some going. This spring, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City launched its first bridge program and has gotten "a good number of applications," says Eric Cottington, vice president for Research and Technology Management. The American Society of Hematology set aside $9 million for its first bridge awards this year and gave out 18 awards of $100,000 after reviewing 42 applications.

Although some labs will undoubtedly close because of the sequester, they may not be identified for a while. "If we have this conversation a year from now, we'll know the damage, but it won't be news," says Stephen Desiderio, director of the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Researchers who have an ongoing multiyear grant will also feel the effects of the sequester because the size of their annual installment will be cut. Most NIH institutes are trimming these multiyear awards from 3.5% to 6% to free up funds for new grants.

These trims won't catch researchers unprepared, however. Early in this fiscal year, NIH gave many investigators only 90% of their full approved grant amount because the agency didn't yet have a final budget; some of the reserved funds will be released later in the year. Many investigators also set aside money last year because they were aware of the possible sequester cuts, says Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Moreover, grants at NINDS and other institutes have been trimmed for several years due to flat budgets, so labs have already been tightening their belts.

This year's cuts may mean ordering fewer transgenic mice, or not replacing broken equipment, or working with fewer reagents, researchers say. When National Cancer Institute (NCI) Director Harold Varmus met with graduate students at Hopkins recently, many said they were "taking shortcuts," he says. "They're doing 50 genes rather than a whole exome" for a gene sequencing study.

Shifts in training positions are another possible consequence. Some universities or departments have said that they expect to take fewer graduate students this year. On the other hand, some lab chiefs may hire more graduate students and fewer postdocs because new grad students usually bring a training grant with them and so are cheaper, says Yale University neuroscientist Daniel Colon-Ramos.

NIH leaders say that the sequester's most severe effect is the chilling message it sends to young scientists. In testimony last week, Collins quoted a former student who is finishing a Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She's seen her role models struggle with funding. "I can't erase the fear that this is my future," Collins quoted her writing.

"We're putting an entire generation of U.S. scientists at risk," Collins warned. "If they go away, they won't come back."

The president's 2014 budget proposal would bring NIH some relief, raising its budget to 1.5% above the 2012 level. But if Congress and the Obama administration don't find a way to avert more planned sequester cuts, NIH could lose $19 billion over 10 years, Collins said. "We may make it through this year, but if it continues it is Armageddon," Landis says.

Science Insider checked on possible impacts at some of the largest NIH programs:

  • Although a cancer center with a $10 million NCI institutional grant will take a $650,000 hit, Varmus says larger institutions such as Sloan-Kettering, his previous institution, can dig into other resources to make up the gap. Smaller ones will suffer more, Varmus says. Barbara Stewart, executive director of the Association of American Cancer Institutes, also expects cutbacks in shared resources such as cell sorting machines and tissue banks.
  • The three large, NIH-funded genome sequencing centers have been downsizing since 2011 as part of a shift to clinical genomics at the National Human Genome Research Institute. They will not be cut further because of the sequester, says NHGRI spokesperson Larry Thompson.
  • The Clinical and Translational Science Awards, large grants that support research at 60 medical centers, are still in limbo. Those with ongoing multiyear grants are waiting to find out how much of a 10% cut they received earlier this year will be restored, says Bradley Evanoff, director of the CTSA at Washington University in St. Louis. Although the CTSA-supported training grants were not cut, Evanoff says that due to institutional impacts of the sequester, his university may have to cut two of 20 related training positions.
  • One victim of the sequester cuts is a large, university-based clinical trial called DIAN that aims to test whether drugs can prevent Alzheimer's disease in people with a strong genetic risk for the disease. After working with drug companies to forge an unusual partnership, DIAN's roughly $15 million grant proposal was rejected by the National Institute on Aging because of the sequester cut, Evanoff says. "Our fingers were scraping the brass ring and it was yanked way." NIA has told the university that it may still be able to award about one-third of the funding.

*Correction, 11 a.m., 23 May: The article incorrectly suggested that some portion of a 10% cut to the Clinical and Translational Science Awards might not be restored. Also, the possible cut in training positions at Washington University in St. Louis would result from institutional budget cuts. CTSA-supported training grants were not affected by the 10% cut. The article has been corrected.