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Brace for the Worst

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Even as biomedical research funding around the world has taken a beating, here in the US, we're facing conditions that could turn run-of-the-mill funding woes into a full-on nightmare. The confluence of the recession, the end of a heady stimulus package, and a shake-up in Congress has agencies planning for the worst — and scientists would be wise to pay attention.

Let's take a moment to consider how we got here. After all, many of us recall the victory of the five-year process that doubled NIH's budget between 1998 and 2003. Add to that the $18 billion for basic research from the ARRA stimulus package, and it seems like the community should be sitting pretty. But it turns out the rally to improve NIH's budget left little enthusiasm for the agency afterward. "We've actually been losing ground since 2003," said NIH Director Francis Collins in a keynote address at ASHG in November, "and we're in about the same place as we were eight or nine years ago."

Similarly, the stimulus may have caused as many problems as it solved. With an obligation to distribute $10 billion in two years — the last of that money was committed by Sept. 30, 2010 — NIH essentially laid the groundwork for more scientists than ever to come back for additional funds. Sally Rockey, director of NIH's Office of Extramural Research, says the agency considered this contingency well before the first ARRA dollar was spent. It emphasized projects that could make considerable headway in two years, in the hope that those projects could be accomplished without needing more money.

So take an unprecedented number of potential applicants and receding funding, and mix in a newly elected Congress that says the government spends too much money, and the result is plummeting success rates for grant applications. At ASHG, Collins noted that NIH's historical 30 percent funding rate is down to 20 percent and, he predicted, may fall as low as 10 percent in the coming years.

In the near term, that drop has a couple of implications. Scientists will be tempted to submit more grants to improve their chances of getting funded. "All that does is reduce our success rates," Rockey says. "If everybody has that strategy — we still only have the same pot of money." She recommends prioritizing projects and submitting only those that are most likely to get funded.

The other probable outcome is a shift toward more conservative science. "I hope we don't lose focus of the fact that we need to keep advancing science," Rockey says. "However, all of us recognize that in tight times, people want to get as much return as they can on their research."

Longer term, a shaky funding environment means that agencies like NIH may have to make some painful cuts. Collins has already sent up warning flares for a discussion on whether researchers should be relying on grant funding for most, or all, of their salaries. During his ASHG talk, he said, "One might make the case … that it would be better for those funds to be available for other investigators" to go toward science instead of salaries. "We at NIH are beginning to look at this in a careful way," he added. "In the long term, I think we have to ask hard questions about whether this particular part of the funding plan is in the best interests of the enterprise."

Whether research institutions could even afford to pay for their researchers' salaries is a huge question mark. But that Collins is preparing the community for such a difficult conversation means that he, like the rest of us, sees no relief on the horizon. It's time for some creative alternatives from smart, passionate people. At least there's no shortage of those in this field.

Meredith Salisbury is editor in chief of GenomeWeb. Feel free to disagree with her at [email protected] The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of Genome Technology.

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