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Budget Freeze Forces NIH to Slash Electronic Grants Staff

In a sign of grim budget times, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is cutting 20% of the contractors who help run its electronic grants system.

In a message today to extramural staff, NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Sally Rockey explains that "in the strained budget climate," the agency's Electronic Research Administration (eRA) "has been dealt a major reduction in its budget." To make matters worse, the cut is coming in the middle of the fiscal year (which runs from October to September). About 20% of eRA contract staff members are being "released," which will result in "a significant impact" on eRA's services, Rockey's note says. NIH staff and grantees will wait longer for eRA staff to respond to questions and fix system problems, and many eRA projects will be curtailed.

Like other federal agencies, NIH doesn't yet have a 2011 budget, and the agency is operating at last year's level under a temporary spending measure. Rockey says "competing priorities" required a $2 million cut in eRA's $36 million budget. That will mean shedding about 30 of the 160 eRA contractors, including some on the help desk. "We're going to try to find as many efficiencies as we can," she said.

The eRA system handles more than 140,000 new and competing NIH grant applications each year, about 74,000 awards, and thousands of other documents and awards for other agencies, according to a 2009 fact sheet. eRA has over 210,000 users.

Howard Garrison of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland, says he feels for NIH's staff. "It is a shame, because it shifts another burden onto [their] shoulders. ... These are dedicated individuals and highly trained scientists," Garrison says.

And more pain may lie ahead. "It's also a problem of uncertainty. You don't know what the budget in the end is going to be or what it will be next year," Rockey said. She ends her note by urging patience: "Please bear with us during these trying times until we, together, ride out this downturn."

Rockey's message:

Dear Extramural Staff,

In the strained budget climate that we are all experiencing, OER's electronic Research Administration (eRA) has been dealt a major reduction in its budget. This cutback occurred in the middle of the year and is therefore having a disproportionate effect on the remainder of the fiscal year. About 20% of eRA's contractor staff must be released as a result of the cutback, which will lead to a significant impact on the services that eRA provides to the extramural community.

In the next few weeks, the impact will be felt in many ways - it will be experienced in eRA's responses to applicant/grantee and staff enquiries; in diagnosing system problems and finding solutions; and in the operational support for both scheduled system outages and unexpected downtimes. eRA also anticipates delays in its analysis of the impact of proposed policy changes. Additionally, of course, this reduction will also force many eRA projects to be stopped or significantly reduced in scope.

We want to assure the extramural community that despite this situation at eRA, we are committed to doing our very best for you. We will also be up front about the eRA limitations and capabilities as much as possible.

During these times, it is important that the extramural community recognizes the constraints under which eRA is operating and is judicious in contacting them with requests; this cut affords eRA virtually no flexibility in resources.

Please bear with us during these trying times until we, together, ride out this downturn.

Sally J. Rockey, Ph.D.

NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research


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