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Research projects face ‘scary’ outlook amid NIH cuts

As potential budget cuts to the National Institutes of Health funding loom, Duke is planning how to bolster its resources and minimize potential losses.

In November 2011, the Congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, often referred to as the super committee and charged with administering federal budget cuts, failed to take action. This resulted in a $1.2 trillion spending cut to be divided equally across all government programs. Cuts will go into effect in 2013 unless lawmakers pass legislation to undo cuts to specific areas.

One of the institutes that will face a roughly 5 percent cut is the NIH, which has seen relatively flat growth since Congress doubled its budget in the early 2000s. The NIH funds scientific research across the country and funds hundreds of millions of dollars to research at Duke.

The School of Medicine, the Nicholas School of the Environment and the Pratt School of Engineering would be most affected by cuts to the NIH, said Scott Gibson, executive vice dean for administration at the School of Medicine. The School of Medicine, which receives the largest percentage of NIH research funding at Duke, was awarded $331.3 million during fiscal year 2008-2009, according to the NIH website.

NIH funding accounts for about 25 percent of the externally funded research throughout Duke’s other schools, Vice Provost for Research James Siedow said, adding that cuts to the NIH budget would greatly reduce the University’s research funding and limit current and future projects. The University has prepared a strategic plan with a variety of financial and administrative programs to protect against possible funding cuts.

“The future looks pretty uncertain and very scary right now,” said Siedow, who is also a professor of biology. “Dealing with major cuts in federal support of research will not be an easy thing to do so we need to be prepared to meet these challenges when and if they appear.”

Funding plateaued

In the 1990s, Congress made a bipartisan commitment to double the funding of the NIH over five years, said Paul Vick, associate vice president of government relations at Duke Medicine. Funding was then around $13 to $14 billion and now sits around $30 billion dollars.

“No other agency has seen itself double over five years,” Vick said. “It was really a remarkable commitment on the part of some really forward-thinking members of Congress.”

Since fiscal year 2003-2004, however, funding has been relatively flat. In some years, the NIH budget has barely kept up with inflation, Gibson noted.

For all campus schools during fiscal year 2010-2011, 74 percent of new research awards came from federal funding, Siedow said. Of that amount, 24 percent came from the NIH. The National Science Foundation also contributed 24 percent, and the Department of Defense provided 11 percent.

Vick noted that the negative effects of the federal budget cuts are all relative. Since the NIH funding flattened, it has become more difficult to secure a grant, compared to the period of doubling the budget when the number of grants and success rate of grant applications increased sharply.

Despite the size of the NIH’s roughly $30 billion budget, Vick said he is optimistic that Congress will avoid cutting NIH funding because of the economic, academic and social benefits of the research it supports.

“[NIH funding] is not a primary target for Congress,” Vick said. “Part of what’s required to carry out NIH funded research is the construction of laboratory facilities and the training and hiring of appropriate staff, and that’s not something that you can just shut off. Both Congress and the staff understand the sensitive nature of NIH funding and what substantial cuts in funding would mean.”

Duke strategizes

The University has developed several tactics to bolster funding and prevent loss of research projects in the event of NIH budget cuts.

“With a shrinking pie, our only strategy with the NIH is to try to figure out ways to increase our slice of the pie,” said Sally Kornbluth, vice dean for research and vice provost for academic affairs.

One strategy to increase funding is to locate non-federal sources and establish creative partnerships with industry players—both to secure funds and to provide services. Administrators also hope to make researchers more competitive for available NIH funding by providing greater opportunities for grant writing help and shifting research administration roles, so faculty who previously juggled and administrative responsibilities can spend more time on grants, Gibson said.

Kornbluth, who is also the James B. Duke professor of pharmacology and cancer biology, added that the School of Medicine puts together mutli-researcher interdisciplinary grants, which often have higher budgets.

“If we can put together multi-investigator grants with people from different disciplines, it not only enhances our own mission but also gives us an angle or cutting edge approach to getting more funds,” she said.

Another strategy to bolster finances is investing in core facilities and shared resources for Duke-affiliated researchers, she said. Providing expensive equipment that individuals could not afford to sustain otherwise enables people to perform cutting-edge experiments that could give them an advantage in securing funding.

Bridging the way

As a short-term solution, the School of Medicine has also bridged funding internally, which means the school will enable researchers to continue their work until they are able to secure more funding, Kornbluth said. The bridge funding mechanism, she said, has been able to fund approximately 50 percent of applications. About 80 percent of those projects secure further funding in the next round of grant applications.

“[Bridge funding] actually helps a lot in terms of getting funding down the line, because it enables people to keep their personnel, generate preliminary data, etc. which they need to be more successful when they [apply for funding] the next time,” she said.

The program is largely self-perpetuating, Kornbluth added. The indirect dollars generated when investigators receive grants help feed money into the bridge funding mechanism. She also noted that as long as the two remained balanced, there is room for expansion of the program.

Kornbluth emphasized the importance of such efforts, as funding instability may dissuade prospective researchers.

“That’s what we’re concerned about nationally, because we want to encourage strength in scientific research, but you can’t blame someone for seeing how difficult it is to get funding for thinking that this is not a career that they’re going to be able to advance in that easily,” she said.

Gibson noted that such pressures and concerns are not unique to Duke, but that the University’s strength in research may provide a competitive advantage over peer institutions.

“Since this is common across all medical schools, we believe that Duke will do better than most of our peers,” Gibson said. “But even if we succeed relative to our peer institutions, it doesn’t mean that there won’t be some very difficult times in the next five years.”

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