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Call to action. NIH Director Francis Collins (fourth from left) urged the audience at a Research!America forum to push for more biomedical research funding.


Sequester Cuts May Have Driven NIH Grant Success Rates Down to 14% in 2013

The automatic spending cuts and other reductions to the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) budget this year have caused slightly less damage than expected, NIH Director Francis Collins said yesterday. Preliminary data show that about 50 more grants were funded than projected, he said at a forum sponsored by Research!America. But success rates may have plunged even further than the agency predicted.

NIH’s budget shrunk by 5.5% this year, to $29.15 billion. As a result, NIH expects to fund about 650 fewer grants than it did the previous year. About 150, or nearly a quarter, of those grants were from investigators hoping to renew their award, Collins said. “We’re losing what we’ve already invested in,” he lamented during a panel discussion. In May, NIH had estimated that it would make 703 fewer new and competing awards for a total of 8283, but the new figure bumps that up to 8336.

The success rate—the number of proposals receiving funding divided by the number of proposals reviewed—could drop as low as 14% or 15%, Collins told ScienceInsider. That is lower than the 17% rate that NIH had anticipated. A larger than expected rise in applications this year could be the cause of the stiffer competition.

And “it ain’t over,” Collins told his audience. Congress has not yet approved any spending bills for the 2014 fiscal year, which begins on 1 October. Instead, legislators are likely to pass a temporary stop-gap funding measure known as a continuing resolution, which would freeze agency budgets at the 2013 level until further notice. If that happens, Collins said, “we will lose another $600 million” along with several hundred more grants. (A Senate panel approved a bill that would erase this year’s sequester cut and give the agency $30.95 billion in 2014, but the House of Representatives, which has not released its version of the bill, has proposed cuts to the overall federal spending that could translate into another $5 billion cut for NIH, according to an analysis by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.)

Collins’s message to NIH’s supporters: “I still don’t think we’ve activated our case sufficiently. … We should be making a lot of noise.”