Sequester hits U.S. researchers hard

With 5 percent of its budget gone, NIH outlines grim state of U.S. biomedical research funding

Amy Swinderman
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WASHINGTON, D.C.—With the sequester, or $85 billion inacross-the-board cuts to government spending, now a stark reality, the U.S.National Institutes of Health (NIH) has issued data on the expected impact thefunding cuts will have on American biomedical research—and the news is grim.
With U.S. lawmakers failing to reach a budget compromise, thesequester went into effect on March 1—and the NIH immediately lost $1.6 billionof its already stretched-thin $30-billion budget for fiscal year 2013.
Although the research community held out hope for passage ofa proposal by President Barack Obama to cancel the sequester and replace itwith a plan that would have given the NIH $31 billion—only a slight increaseover what the agency got prior to the sequester—this alternative plan was notto be. With the sequester still in place, the NIH must cut 5 percent, or $1.55billion, of its budget this year. The cuts apply to all programs, projects andactivities of the NIH's Institutes and Centers (ICs).
All areas of science are expected to be affected, as thesequester does not stipulate the precise reduction to each scientific area.Therefore, it is likely that most scientific areas will be reduced by about 5percent because the sequester is being applied broadly at the NIH IC level. Itwill also impact research funding for projects in every state in the union.
The NIH has now spelled out the exact expected impact ofthese cuts, which include 700 fewer competitive research projects grants beingissued; 750 fewer patients being admitted to the NIH Clinical Center; and noincrease in stipends for National Research Service Award recipients in fiscalyear 2013. 
Ultimately, the sequester will result in a "delay in medicalprogress," the NIH said in a statement outlining the cuts.
"Medical breakthroughs do not happen overnight," the agencystated. "In almost all instances, breakthrough discoveries result from years ofincremental research to understand how disease starts and progresses. Evenafter the cause and potential drug target of a disease is discovered, it takeson average 13 years and $1 billion to develop a treatment for that target."
According to the NIH, the cuts will handicap efforts todevelop better cancer drugs that zero in on tumors with fewer side effects,research on a universal flu vaccine that could fight every flu strain withoutthe necessity of a yearly shot and even the prevention of "debilitating chronicconditions that are costly to society and delay development of more effectivetreatments for common and rare diseases affecting millions of Americans."
And what's more, because NIH research funding directlysupports hundreds of thousands of American jobs and serves as a foundation forthe medical innovation sector—which employs 1 million U.S. citizens—cuts to NIHfunding will have an economic impact in communities throughout the UnitedStates.
"For every six applications submitted to the NIH, only onewill be funded. Sequestration is reducing the overall funding available forgrants," the NIH stated.

FAQs for the NIH
The following are some frequently asked questions the NIHhas responded to regarding the impact that the sequester is expected to have onbiomedical research funding:
How many fewer grantswill be awarded?
NIH: Approximately 700 fewer research project grantscompared to fiscal year 2012.
What percent cut willbe made to existing grants?
NIH: Reductions to noncompeting research project grants(RPG) vary depending on the circumstances of the particular NIH Institute andCenter (IC). The NIH-wide average is -4.7 percent.
Will the duration ofexisting grants be shortened to accommodate the cuts?
NIH: In general, no.
Will all grantsreceive the same percentage cut or will some grants be cut more than others?
NIH: Institutes and centers have flexibility to accommodatethe new budget level in a fashion that allows them to meet their scientific andstrategic goals. As noted above, there are different percentages for differentICs, and in some cases for different mechanisms within an IC (RPGs, Centers,etc.). In addition, there may be reductions to grants for reasons other thansequestration, as is the case every year.
What will be theimpact of these cuts to NIH's intramural research at its Bethesda campus andoff-campus facilities?
NIH: The impact on NIH's intramural research is substantial,especially because it applies retroactively to spending since Oct. 1, 2012.That can double the effect—a full year's cut has to be absorbed in less thanhalf a year.
Will NIH befurloughing or cutting employees at its NIH campus and off-campus facilities?
NIH: There are no current plans to do so. At present, theU.S. Department of Health and Human Services is pursuing non-furloughadministrative cost savings such as delayed/forgone hiring and reducingadministrative services contracts so that furloughs and layoffs can be avoided.Additionally, employee salaries at NIH make up a very small percentage (only 7percent) of the NIH budget.
How will currentpatients at the NIH Clinical Center be affected?
NIH: Services to patients will not be reduced.
Will the NIH ClinicalCenter see fewer patients because of the cuts?
NIH: Approximately 750 fewer new patients will be admittedto the NIH Clinical Center hospital in 2013, or a decrease from 10,695 newpatients in 2012 to approximately 9,945 new patients in 2013. While much ofthis decrease is due to funding, clinical activity is always a dynamicsituation with multiple drivers.
Will the sequestercut need to be applied to the FY 2014 budget?
NIH: The President's FY 2014 Budget would replacesequestration and reduce the deficit in a balanced way. The President is readyto work with Congress to further reduce deficits while continuing to makecritical investments.

Amy Swinderman

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