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Ned Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland

Daniel Sone/National Cancer Institute

Despite growing budget, U.S. cancer institute slashes operating budget by 5%

A good year for biomedical research funding has turned sour at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland, where the director is cutting operating budgets by 5% across the agency. Despite a rising overall budget, NCI’s funds are being stretched thin by various priorities and a ballooning number of funding applications, explains NCI Director Norman “Ned” Sharpless.

Just 2 months ago, biomedical researchers celebrated a 5% budget boost in 2019 for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the fourth large annual increase after more than a decade of stagnant growth. NCI’s share was a $179 million increase (or 3%) for a total of $5.74 billion. But only $79 million went to NCI’s base operating budget and $100 million is tagged for the cancer moonshot funded through the 21st Century Cures Act. And NCI’s funds are being whittled away by rising federal salaries, transfers to other parts of NIH and its parent department, larger grants, and a mandate to raise training stipends, Sharpless says.

Another pressure is a soaring number of grant applications at NCI, Sharpless told his two top advisory boards on 4 December (at about 13:00 minutes in this videocast). Proposals have gone up 46% in 6 years, from 4175 in 2013 to 6113 in the 2018 fiscal year (see graph, below). At NIH overall, proposal numbers rose only 11% to 30,874. Sharpless attributes the rising interest in NCI funding in part to “a very exciting time” in cancer research and growth in NCI-funded cancer centers, which support junior investigators seeking grants. But the downside is sagging success rates, or the odds that a submitted application will be funded. At 12% in 2017, NCI’s success rates were already much lower than the NIH-wide rate of 19%.

20132014201520162017-1001020304050%% change compared with 2013NCI applicationsTotal NIH applications-10010203040​A surge in cancer grant requests ​The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has seen a 46% increase in applications since 2013.​Requests to the entire National Institutes of Health (NIH) rose 10.5% over the same period.Data: abcdefg hijkl mnop qrstu vwxyz 1234 56789
Graphic: D. Malakoff/Science; Data: National Institutes of Health

To meet its obligations and prop up success rates, NCI is imposing a 5% cut to 2018 spending levels across all divisions, offices, and centers, Sharpless told his board and the NCI community in a 6 December email. That includes both NCI’s in-house or intramural labs as well as extramural grant programs. The cuts, which should free up $56 million, will not include staff salaries, however. Peer review–approved budgets for new grants and renewals, which were already subject to a 17% cut, will take another 2% nick (details here). Continuing grants will be trimmed 3%, except for the cancer centers, moonshot grants, and training awards. NCI will also continue a policy of funding early-stage investigators at a higher rate than established researchers.

NCI hasn’t experienced cuts this large since 2011, a year when a 1% cut in NIH’s budget from Congress forced then–NCI Director Harold Varmus to slash grants and intramural lab budgets.