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Analysis Predicts Less NIH Money, Grants for Researchers as Biomedical Inflation Takes a Toll

By Matt Jones

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The flat budget for the National Institutes of Health the Obama Administration proposed last month will effectively translate into less money for research, fewer grants, and lower success rates for investigators, because biomedical inflation is eroding the value of the funding, according to a new analysis by the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology.

According to FASEB, the $30.7 billion the White House has proposed for 2013 will result in a cut of NIH's capabilities from this year, and it will continue a trend dating back to the middle of the last decade of budgets that effectively represent stagnation and even decline.

By comparing NIH budgets dating back to 1995, when NIH funding began to increase significantly, and factoring in the costs of biomedical inflation, FASEB found that the appropriations for the agency began to level off in 2003 and have slid downward moderately ever since.

That interpretation excludes the funding NIH received under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided a $10 billion boost spread between 2009 and 2010. Two straight years of flat budgets (2011 – 2012) since the stimulus funding was awarded, however, coupled with the proposal for another year with no increase for 2013, will continue a slide in NIH spending power that began in 2003, when the NIH budget was around $27.1 billion and represented the peak of several years of steady increases.

Biomedical inflation is tracked via the Biomedical Research and Development Price Index (BRDPI), which indicates how much the NIH budget must change in order to maintain its purchasing power and is measured by the Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis and NIH.

According to the most recent analysis, BRDPI for 2010 and 2011 was 2.9 percent and 2.8 percent, respectively, and this year and in 2013 it is expected to be 2.2 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively.

The flat budgets over the past three years in particular, which have hovered around $30.7 billion, have begun to take a toll on the agency and its mission to support science, FASEB said in its most recent analysis.

Howard Garrison, FASEB's deputy executive director for policy, told GenomeWeb Daily News that while BRDPI is the most easily quantifiable pressure on NIH, is not the only such pressure, and "there are several sources of pain when the budget flattens out like this."

"There is the inflationary increase, but there is also something beyond inflation, and that is that scientists work at the cutting edge … which is by nature not mass produced and is more expensive," Garrison, who conducted the analysis, added. "You know that scientists are always looking for something new, better, and trying to push the envelope. There is a lot of pressure to do things that aren't being done. That's where the passion and the excitement is. But anything that is new comes at the expense of something already being done."

Garrison also pointed out that the flattened budget comes at a time when other funding streams have been cut back.

"You cobble together a research lab based on an NIH grant, and what you can get from your dean and other funders … and when the state budgets start getting cut back and the universities start looking to the investigators to cover more of their salary on the research grants … that's really hard to quantify," he explained.

While in some areas, in genomics in particular, the costs of some research may have fallen due to the decreasing cost of genome sequencing, research costs have increased in other ways.

"I've heard people say that you have got to have a multidisciplinary approach to get a paper into a major journal," Garrison explained.

"You can't just publish a sequence. At one point if you published a sequence of a gene, people said 'Wow, that's amazing!' Now, you've got to show how it works in living systems and you've got to bring other people in," he said. "The whole package has become much more complex. While one part of it definitely has gotten cheaper, other aspects have become more expensive."

Garrison said that NIH also will be working harder to put "extra scrutiny" on which projects it funds, and it will continue another trend by funding fewer research project grants and supporting projects that are smaller in scale.

He has calculated that the 2012 budget and the 2013 proposal are around $4 billion lower, adjusted for inflation, than the peak year of 2003, the lowest level since 2001.

In addition, 4,000 fewer grants are expected to be awarded next year than in 2004, FASEB said, adding that in 2011 NIH awarded 1,600 fewer grants than it did in 2003. Success rates for investigators have fallen more than 14 percentage points over the past decade, according to the analysis, and are projected to continue to fall this year and next at the current and proposed funding levels.