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Vol. LXV, No. 14
July 7, 2013
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Cutback Undercuts Global Edge
ACD Hears About Sequester’s Consequences on Biomedical Research

On the front page...

NIH director Dr. Francis Collins (c) presides over the June 13 session of the advisory committee to the NIH director

NIH director Dr. Francis Collins (c) presides over the June 13 session of the advisory committee to the NIH director

When the Heads of International Research Organizations get together for their bi-annual meetings, they go around the table, as usual, reporting on their country’s biomedical research budget trajectory: China’s going up about 22 percent. India’s increase will be in the teens. Germany’s hiking its investment up 6 or 7 percent. The European Union—even with all of its financial health concerns—also plans an uptick in its funding for science. HIRO includes close to 20 organizations, representing about 95 percent of the world’s public support of biomedical research.

“Then they come to me,” recalls NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, new HIRO chair, “and I say, ‘Well, we just went down 5 percent and we might go down more.’ People are just stunned by this. Their motivation for building biomedical research in their country was because they read our playbook. They looked at the success of this enterprise since World War II…They’re trying to become us. We seem to have forgotten how to be us. It is very disheartening to see the contrast. I think the world is really shaking its head and wondering, ‘What has happened to our leader in science and technology, the United States, that these kinds of decisions could be happening?’”

Continued...

A somber Collins told that anecdote on June 13 during his twice-yearly state-of-NIH report to the advisory committee to the director (ACD). For the fourth ACD meeting in a row, dismal funding news dominated the discussion.

New ACD member Dr. Peter MacLeish of Morehouse School of Medicine emphasizes the importance of exposing young scientists to R01-level research early in their careers. Collins and NIH deputy director for science, outreach and policy Dr. Kathy Hudson (c) listen as ACD member Dr. Renee Jenkins (r) of Howard University wonders aloud about the effects of the sequester on private industry funding of research. ACD member Dr. Clyde Yancy of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine says the NIH director’s report regarding effects of sequestration is a “compelling call for action.”

New ACD member Dr. Peter MacLeish of Morehouse School of Medicine emphasizes the importance of exposing young scientists to R01-level research early in their careers.


Collins and NIH deputy director for science, outreach and policy Dr. Kathy Hudson (c) listen as ACD member Dr. Renee Jenkins (r) of Howard University wonders aloud about the effects of the sequester on private industry funding of research.




ACD member Dr. Clyde Yancy of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine says the NIH director’s report regarding effects of sequestration is a “compelling call for action.”

Photos: Bill Branson

Sequester Effects Sink In

“The sequester—which was intended to be a poison pill so poisonous that no one would ever contemplate swallowing it—was put into legislation to inspire Congress to make some decisions about our nation’s fiscal situation,” Collins said in the first ACD gathering since the draconian budget cuts took place. “Congress was unable to do so, so that poison pill was swallowed. On Mar. 27, we all got poisoned. In one fell swoop, NIH lost $1.55 billion that would have gone to medical research in this fiscal year. The result of that is an estimated 700 grants [will not be funded]. It’s impossible to say what we have lost…but I would not be surprised if there were some major advances that those grants were going to catalyze that now won’t happen. I would not be surprised if there were early stage investigators waiting for support of that first opportunity to be NIH grantees who are now going away disappointed [and] who might ultimately give up…The seriousness of this probably is not apparent to the average American on a daily basis.”

Collins received more than 2,000 responses to his tweet asking about research hardships due to the sequester. “Many of them [were] quite heartbreaking,” he said, “from graduate students to postdocs or junior faculty who were contemplating closing down a project or who find themselves unable to do a project. Maybe more troubling [were] quite a few notes from young scientists saying, ‘That does it. I’m done here. I’ve gone through the stress over the last few years when things have been tight and success rates have been falling…and now to have it reach this level…is the last straw.’ If we start to lose young people of this generation, they’re not just going to come back when things get better.”

Story Warrants Wider Audience

Reaction among ACD members to Collins’s report was swift.

“The gravity of what you’ve said requires some feedback,” said ACD member Dr. Clyde Yancy of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “I don’t view this as just an information update. I see this as a very compelling call for action...I can’t imagine that there are those in the community [who] are that nihilistic that we wouldn’t want to recalibrate the way our resources are being deployed. It’s amazing that in this country it takes a crisis for change to be effected, and sometimes the crisis is begun with just one story.”

Adding detail to the picture Collins painted, Neil Shapiro, NIH associate director for budget, reported that the sequester cut NIH’s fiscal year appropriation by 5.5 percent, dropping the agency to its lowest funding level since 2008. Adjusted for inflation, then, in actual dollars, NIH’s $29.15 billion final FY13 budget is its lowest since 2001.

Pat White, NIH associate director for legislative policy and analysis, said the NIH director has, in the last 6 months alone, given briefings, led tours and in myriad other ways attested to the benefits—both moral and economic—of a greater investment in NIH for at least 50 members of Congress.

Unfortunately, the financial forecast for next fiscal year looks even bleaker, with NIH taking another 18.5 percent cut in a proposal put forth by the House of Representatives.

Responding to the outlook, ACD member Dr. Cato Laurencin of the University of Connecticut voiced his concern for America’s global competitiveness and the possibility of a “brain drain” in which U.S. scientists might pursue relocation to other nations where investment in research is growing rather than declining.

Long-time ACD veteran Dr. Shirley Tilghman (r) of Princeton University discusses an update from the subcommittee work group on biomedical workforce.

Long-time ACD veteran Dr. Shirley Tilghman (r) of Princeton University discusses an update from the subcommittee work group on biomedical workforce.

ACD member Dr. Helen Haskell Hobbs of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center said, “I heard two words that resonate with everyone. The first is ‘competition.’ Americans are competitive and I think getting this message out about what other countries are doing versus what we’re doing will rally a lot of people. The second word is ‘opportunity.’ That our young people—our best and brightest—are now in this environment where they feel they do not have a future. That’s a very powerful message that will speak across party lines.”

In Other News

Financial matters aside, the ACD meeting experienced several bright notes:

  • Collins announced that a new NIGMS director, Dr. Jon Rorsch, would arrive soon and that the search for a new permanent NIAAA director is down to a short list of candidates.

  • NIH’s position on the patenting of human DNA was upheld by the Supreme Court. Announcement of the court’s decision—which was released to the public June 13 during the meeting—prompted a spontaneous burst of applause around the room.

  • In the afternoon, new ACD member Dr. Cori Bargmann of the Rockefeller University discussed the new BRAIN initiative announced by President Obama this past spring. NIH, with two other government agencies—DARPA and NSF—and 4 private research organizations, is leading the initiative.

“Working independently but in communication with each other,” Bargmann, who cochairs the initiative, said the project will “take technological advances and harness them to construct a dynamic picture of brain function.”

The initiative’s 15 members (plus 3 ex officio members from NIH, NSF and DARPA) meet monthly to develop timelines, milestones and cost projections.

Public portions of the 1½-day meeting are archived online at http://videocast.nih.gov/PastEvents.asp?c=102.


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