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Amid Flat Budgets and Shrinking Grants, NIH and NHGRI Staffers Retain Raise in '09

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) — The National Institutes of Health and the National Human Genome Research Institute will cut the number and size of competitive research project grants they award next year, but staffers at the agencies aren’t likely to feel a similar pinch, according to NIH budget data.
 
Facing a flat fiscal 2009 budget of around $29.5 billion, NIH will trim its competitive RPG allowance .4 percent next year, while NHGRI, which will see a .2 percent increase in its fiscal 2009 budget, plans to cut its competitive RPGs by 4.3 percent, according to the data.
 
Despite these cuts, NIH plans to increase its personnel compensation rate by 4.3 percent in 2009, while NHGRI expects to increase its compensation by 3.7 percent, according to the data.
 
These numbers are in line with compensation for the total US government workforce, which is expected to increase 4.1 percent in fiscal 2009, according to government figures.
 
But the modest increase in personnel compensation is the rare exception in the NIH budget for the year beginning Oct. 1. The agency is cutting research program grant funding, as well as non-pay spending, in order to keep its costs in check. 
 
According to NIH, it is required to pay federal employees mandated raises that are enacted by the Congress and approved by the president. An NIH official said that government agencies receive their salaries and funding allowances from two different revenue streams, and NIH does not control either stream.
 
An NHGRI spokesman declined to comment on this article, deferring to NIH.
 
Decline in RPG Funding
 
According to NIH, research program grants, which include bedrock R01 grants, are “the original and historically oldest grant mechanism” used by the agency, and NIH Director Elias Zerhouni told a congressional subcommittee last month that “one of the top budget priorities [at the agency] is to sustain” them.
 
Yet despite the appropriation and Zerhouni’s testimony, NIH next year will cut the total amount of RPG funding by .4 percent, or $13.9 million, to $3.5 billion, and will reduce the number of those grants by .1 percent to 9,757 from 9,771 in fiscal 2008.
 
All NIH-originating RPGs, which include competing, non-competing, and administrative supplements, are budgeted to decline .1 percent, or $19.4 million, to $14.9 billion in fiscal 2009, according to the budget, which can be seen here.
 
The average competitive RPG award originating at NIH is projected to slip in fiscal 2009 to $356,062 from $356,266 one year earlier.
 
As a result, NIH expects researchers’ success in winning an RPG to slide to 18 percent from 19 percent. By comparison, success rates for all NIH RPGs reached a high of 32 percent in 2000 and 2001 and have declined every year since. The average success rate between 2000 and 2008 is 25.8 percent.
 
The proposed funding cuts have sparked an outcry from different corners of the scientific community. The American Association for the Advancement of Science said the NIH budget would “continue the downward slide in federal research funding,” while Robert Palazzo, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, said he is “very worried about what these numbers mean for our next generation of researchers. Constrained budgets, low salaries, fewer grants and ‘no growth scenarios’ are very discouraging for young scientists.”  
 
“People are being hurt, absolutely, by the [budget] shortfall,” according to Howard Garrison, deputy executive director for policy at FASEB. “This is a problem of a flat budget with declining purchasing power, and throughout the system people are getting squeezed.”
 
Steven Salzberg, who directs the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the University of Maryland, called the upcoming NIH budget “very disappointing” and said scientific leaders should continue to fight for increases at the congressional level.
 
NHGRI’s Shifting Sequencing Budget
 
In a statement accompanying its fiscal 2009 budget request, NHGRI said it will “maintain an adequate number of competing RPGs” next year.
According to the institute, its fiscal 2009 budget will grow .2 percent, or $1.1 million, to $487.9 million. Yet the dollar amount it will make available for competitive RPGs will fall 4.3 percent, or $1.9 million, to $41.3 million over last year, and the number of such grants is projected to decline to 82 from 85 in fiscal 2008.
 
Meantime, all NHGRI-originating RPGs, which include competing, non-competing, and administrative supplements, are budgeted to decline .5 percent, or $642,000, to $140.7 million, according to the agency.
 
Accordingly, a researcher’s success rate in winning an RPG originating at NHGRI will slide to 23 percent in fiscal 2009 from 25 percent one year earlier. By comparison, since 2000, NHGRI-related success rates have spanned 43 percent to 15 percent. The average success rate at the institute between 2000 and 2008 is 28.7 percent.
 
Total NHGRI extramural research funding is expected to slide .3 percent, or $1.3 million, to $367.4 million, according to the institute. Also, the average competitive RPG award originating at NHGRI is projected to slip in fiscal 2009 to around $504,000 from around $508,000 one year earlier.
 
Total personnel compensation at NHGRI for fiscal 2009 will increase 3.7 percent, or $1.2 million, to $34.5 million, according to the institute. This number includes “full-time permanent” employees, “other than full-time permanent” employees, “other personnel compensation, military personnel, [and] special personnel services payments.”
 
Other major budgetary changes planned for NHGRI next year include:
 
    A 39.4 percent decrease in large-scale genome sequencing funding, which will fall by $28.5 million to $43.8 million;
    A 60 percent increase in medical sequencing funding, which will rise by $16.4 million to $43.8 million;
    A 31 percent increase in support for the Cancer Genome Atlas, whose budget will grow by $5.9 million to $25 million; and
    A 70 percent rise in translational genomic funding, which will swell by $9.3 million to $22.6 million.
 
Describing its outlook for large-scale sequencing projects, NHGRI said that “emphasis is continuing to shift” from these programs to medical sequencing and the Cancer Genome Atlas.
 
It added that the large-scale sequencing program ”will sequence the genomes of fewer non-human organisms than it has in the past few years in order to accommodate this shift.”
 
On medical sequencing, NHGRI said that large-scale sequencing technology “has improved, and [the] additional funding [for medical sequencing] will support new opportunities to apply genomic tools to the study of human disease,” including the 1000 Genomes Project.
 
NHGRI said funding for the Cancer Genome Atlas program is increasing “for programmatic reasons, [because] large-scale sequencing technology has improved, and [because] this additional funding will support new opportunities to apply genomic tools to the study of human disease.”
 
Summarizing its plans for translational genomic funding, the institute said the increased outlay will support genome-wide association studies for “several additional diseases (to be chosen in a peer-reviewed competition)” and to develop “new computational and experimental methods” to help understand “specific genetic variations responsible for the diseases.”
 
NHGRI also said it plans to hire two new staffers next year: a staff scientist with an annual salary of $110,000 and a director of policy, communication, and education, who will be paid $158,500 per year. The hires would increase NHGRI’s headcount to 301, according to the budget, which can be seen here.
 
To be sure, though NHGRI is the principal US government funding body for genomic research, other NIH institutes also support the discipline. Three in particular — the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, and the National Center for Research Resources — play a significant role in supporting genomic and proteomic research, and all three are expected to see budget increases in fiscal 2009.
 
According to NIH, NCI’s fiscal 2009 allocation stands to grow by $5.7 million, or .1 percent, to $4.8 billion; NIGMS would see an increase of $1.9 million, or .1 percent, to $1.9 billion; and NCRR’s allocation would rise by $11 million, or .9 percent, to $1.2 billion.

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