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The Black Hole

What happens when you insufficiently fund basic research


It is not news that the National Institutes of Health in the United States have faced extraordinary budgetary uncertainties this year as a result of an incredibly fluid fiscal situation. As the sequestration here continues to detrimentally impact American science, I thought I would take this opportunity to hold up the developing funding situation in the U.S. as an example of where Canada will find itself if we continue to follow our current pattern of insufficiently funding basic research. While every research institute in the U.S. has been similarly affected, in order to discuss specific numbers this article will focus on the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), with which I am most familiar.

At the beginning of this fiscal year the NHLBI established a conservative approach to an interim payline with the hope that their final appropriations would allow them to reach paylines comparable to their historical baselines. The fallout caused considerable anxiety and hardships in the scientific community, and applicants who had submitted grants through the NHLBI for the 2012/2013 funding cycle were not privy to whether their applications had been successfully funded until several months after they were scheduled to start (me included). As you can imagine, this put a tremendous toll on trainees whose career progression in academia is dependent entirely on being able to secure funding over two or more grant competitions to remain employed. Having to gamble career decisions on a shaky payline to be set on some unknown future date several months after funding has been scheduled to start is no way to run a national research program that requires, above all else, stability.

Not surprisingly, these actions have forced many laboratories to shut down (“Sequester’s 5% cuts rolls through biomedical labs” and “‘A generation of untrained scientists’ after $1.6 billion in cuts to biomedical research”), all but halting scientific advancement in the very industries this country is still able to compete globally (“A difficult pill to swallow: the harsh realities of a 15% funding rate” and “Come on NSERC, really – you’ve completely missed the point…“).

After seeking greater clarity from the present administration and Congress on their budget for fiscal year 2013, the NHLBI was finally able to update the scientific community on their funding allocations and operating plans on May 16, 2013. In their report the NHLBI’s budget for FY 2013 was approximated at $2.9 billion, which is nearly $175 million (or about 5.7%) less than the FY 2012 funding level. The magnitude of the budget reductions mandated by the sequester necessitated a broad-based approach that affected all NHLBI budget lines, and the NHLBI chose to implement their budget cuts in such a way that, in their own words “prioritized investments in investigator-initiated R01 awards, new/early-stage investigators, and trainees.”

The difficult choice they faced was to either (1) fully fund awards with a consequential decrease in the number of awards, which would have resulted in single-digit paylines, or (2) institute across-the-board cost reductions of ~5-7% in all awards, retaining double-digit paylines. Mind you, “double-digit” paylines in this context refer to an 11th percentile funding rate for this year’s R01 operating grants versus an otherwise 6th percentile cut-off. In accordance with their stated principles and guidance from the NHLBI advisory council, the NHLBI elected to pursue the latter allocation approach, with which I am in agreement. While this means that funding rates for the NHLBI will remain unchanged this year, a 5-7% cost reduction in an R01 is equivalent to ~$17,500 or a graduate student salary.

While the NHLBI has pledged to restore paylines to other mechanisms related to trainees and new/early-stage investigators to those of FY 2012 (which are coincidentally the lowest they’ve ever been to-date), funding levels for basic research in this country is nothing they have any control over. There is no question that the NHLBI, like most other research institutes in this country, are fulfilling their commitment of being responsible stewards of public resources while pursuing their mission of investing in outstanding discovery science and nurturing the next generation of scientific leaders. What is unclear is whether their best efforts will allow them to meet these lofty goals, and I can’t help but shake the feeling that we are merely organizing the deck chairs on a sinking ship.

Jonathan Thon
Jonathan Thon is a serial entrepreneur and founding CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon founded Stellular Bio where he served as CEO and chief scientific officer. Before Stellular Bio, Dr. Thon was an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
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