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March of Dimes, which sponsors the nationwide March for Babies fundraiser, will reduce its funding for research on birth defects and infant mortality.

Parker Knight/Flickr (CC BY-SA)

March of Dimes abruptly scales back research funding

March of Dimes, the 80-year-old nonprofit organization that has funded pioneering studies on premature birth, infant mortality, and birth defects, is abruptly scaling back its investment in research amid financial struggles—catching scientists by surprise.

Last week, the group told 37 of 42 recipients of its individual investigator awards that it is cutting short their grants. On average, the grants total $300,000 over 3 years. It plans to maintain reduced funding for just five such awards; all are focused on understanding and preventing premature birth. The group, based in White Plains, New York, is also trimming grants to its prematurity research centers, which are housed at academic institutions around the United States. And it will not award any new research grants this year, but will still give out its 2-year, $150,000 awards for young scientists in 2019.

The moves are part of an effort to slice about $3 million from the March of Dimes’s annual research budget of roughly $20 million, says Kelle Moley, the group’s chief scientific officer. The belt-tightening is the result of declining donations, particularly from the organization’s signature March for Babies. “The walks were our main funding source … and now there’s a million different kinds of walks,” she says. “They’re just not getting the donations that we used to get 10 or 20 years ago.” The group’s tax filings show that expenses exceeded revenue in each year from 2012 to 2016. It announced last year that it would be selling its national headquarters in White Plains.

The cuts are also part of a strategic move to concentrate the organization’s energy around preterm birth, Moley adds. “It’s vital that we invest all of our resources into research program that have the greatest potential to impact the biggest threat right now facing newborn babies, and that’s preterm birth.”

Researchers are lamenting the loss of a key funding source for early-stage research. “These sort of basic research grants in developmental biology are hard to come by,” says developmental biologist Maria Jasin of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, who had a $250,000 award from March of Dimes to study a protein that influences DNA rearrangement during sperm and egg formation. “It’s really a shame that there will now be this hole.”

Jasin and other grantees, blindsided by the cuts, are scrambling to find ways to keep their projects on track after learning in an email last week that they had lost the organization’s support.

“The way they’ve approached this has been completely inhumane,” says molecular cell biologist Andrew Holland of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, who received an email last week from March of Dimes telling him that he would not be receiving the remaining $160,000 on a 3-year, $250,000 grant from the organization to study a genetic pathway that appears to contribute to microcephaly. “The lack of transparency has been nothing short of appalling,” he says of the notification process.

The message to grantees, obtained by Science, said the organization has, since the start of this year, been “transforming and modernizing its operation to ensure the long-term viability and impact of the organization” and that its research grant program was “being reviewed and modernized to ensure it is aligned with the organization’s broader transformation.”

“I understand that these foundations sometimes have money problems, and they can stop things,” says chromosome biologist Andreas Hochwagen of New York University in New York City, whose March of Dimes–funded project has probed chromosomal mishaps during the creation of sperm and egg cells. But he was startled to learn last week that the organization would only disperse 2018 funding owed through the end of June. “For the whole month of July … they didn’t tell me that I wasn’t being supported anymore,” he says. “That I find a little outrageous.”

Moley acknowledged that cut has created “a little bit of a gap” for some researchers. “I understand this is difficult for them, and I know the March of Dimes has been very generous in the past,” she says. “I’m hoping that as … we are getting more donations from other donors and other sources, we can go back to funding a more broad focus.”

This isn’t the first transformation for March of Dimes. It was founded by then-President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938 as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis with the mission of fighting polio. But after polio vaccines became widely available, the organization shifted its focus to studying and preventing birth defects.