Skip to main content
Premium Trial:

Request an Annual Quote

GenomeWeb Feature: Researchers Weigh in on Grants in the Time of Sequester

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – When Nicholas Navin's R01 grant to use single-cell sequencing to study tumor evolution in breast cancer was first funded in 2012, it was funded at 83 percent of the requested budget.

Because of the sequester, Navin's grant now will be cut a further 6 percent. In addition, he has only been given funding for the next three months.

"After those three months, I assume that it will continue to be funded for the rest of the year," said Navin, an assistant professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, "but they only give you enough funding to support you for three months."

The sequester — the across-the-board cuts to the US budget that were implemented at the beginning of March — has led to budget decreases across the federal government, including at research funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. The cuts exacerbated what was seen by many as an already tight funding situation that was not keeping pace with inflation, making it increasingly difficult for researchers to fund their work.

Steven Salzberg, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, recently had a grant rejected that was ranked in the top 11th percent of applications. In the past, he's had grants funded that were in the 16th percentile or 17th percentile.

"They are funding, one would hope, grants at the 11th percentile, but not this particular one," he said. "So you have to resubmit it or you can give up. Those are your two choices."

As budgets decline and competition for grants increase, researchers are submitting more proposals and are beginning to look elsewhere for funding. At the same time, they are wondering what the effect of sequestration will be on science and scientists, particularly early career investigators. Still, there are steps investigators can take to try to get their proposal to stand out.

Cuts and effect

Because of the sequester, both NIH and NSF have seen their budgets fall about 5 percent. For this fiscal year, NIH's budget is about $29.15 billion, as compared to $30.86 billion for fiscal year 2012. At the same time, NSF has about $6.9 billion for 2013, compared to last year's $7.0 billion.

To cope with these decreases, NIH has cut all noncompeting renewals by 4.5 percent, but other changes were mostly left up to the various institutes that comprise NIH. For example, NHGRI, like other parts of NIH, is cutting noncompeting renewals, but it is not touching small grants, which it defines as ones with commitments of $250,000 or less and that typically are funded through R03 or R21 mechanisms. In addition, NHGRI won't be giving future inflationary increases to competing applications.

"NHGRI deals with such a relatively small number of grants that we can look at each one individually and make decisions on the basis of how that particular application addresses institute aims and what the application needs in order to be successful," Mark Guyer, the deputy director of NHGRI, told GenomeWeb Daily News. "Almost everything we do is really on a case-by-case basis beyond the across-the-board cuts to non-competing."

The sequester, though, comes on the heels of years of small increases to funding agencies' budgets. While the NIH budget went through an unprecedented doubling between about 1998 and 2003, it has since languished, with increases that typically did not keep pace with inflation.

"The field generally was in dire straits [heading into the sequester], given the very low payline by NIH, for example, and even NSF," said Sarah Tishkoff, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Salzberg noted that the two NIH R01 grants that he already has — awarded prior to the sequester — were cut about 15 percent to 20 percent. This, he added, was done "administratively because of budget reasons, not because of the peer review."

"Now [the sequester] comes along and makes it even worse," Tishkoff added.

Overall, NIH has estimated that it will fund nearly 8,300 competing research grants for FY2013, a decrease of about 700 from last year.

NHGRI also said that, in the face of the sequester, it is aiming to keep the average size of the awards it makes for FY2013 similar to the sizes of those it gave out in FY2012 — meaning that it will be giving out fewer total awards. Competition for grants, then, will become increasingly competitive.

"The [scientific] opportunities over the last decade at least and certainly into the foreseeable future are increasing hand over fist … and available funding is not keeping up with that," Guyer said. "So necessarily things have gotten more competitive, and the sequester approach to managing the federal budget has only exacerbated the competitive aspects of things."

As fewer proposals get funded and there's less money to go around, many investigators may find themselves submitting more proposals to a number of funders.

"I am looking at submitting [more] proposals because it looks like funding is tight, and it is going to remain tight," Salzberg told GWDN. "Unfortunately this produces a vicious cycle where many of us feel like our chances of getting funded are lower, therefore we should submit more proposals, but that then in return reduces the percentage that gets funded."

It also increases the amount of time researchers spend reviewing proposals.

Others are looking to supplement their funds by turning to alternative funding sources. Navin, for example, is looking at private foundations and other organizations that fund cancer research, such as the Susan G. Komen Foundation or the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.

There, he said, he may have a few options given that he studies breast cancer. Other researchers, he noted, may not have such options. "I know some of my colleagues that work on colon cancer or some of the more rare cancers like testicular cancer or bladder cancer, they really have a hard time finding funding now," he said.

In addition, cuts and uncertainty about future reductions in funding could make a lab a precarious place. After such budget cuts or in anticipation of cuts, some labs have slowed down their growth or have even begun to let people go.

Salzberg said that, as a computational biologist, his main expenses are the salaries of the students, postdocs, and staff who power his lab.

"[The funding situation] also makes me much more reluctant to hire postdocs or any new staff because I don't have any more money coming in. You need more money to hire new people," he said. He added that he still gets a number of requests from people looking for positions, but "I don't have the funding for a new postdoc. Until I get some new funding that's what I'll keep saying."

"I've seen [colleagues'] grants just get slashed by huge amounts," Tishkoff added, noting that she's seen technicians beginning to lose their jobs."[Investigators] either have to cut some of the staff or they have to cut one of the aims."

And as grant budgets are cut, researchers have to accomplish their research aims with less, and this often means cutting back on some of the science they would like to have done.

"Because they cut the budget, you have to cut the scope," Salzberg said. "You still do the work, but you don't do all the things that you want to do."

Navin, for example, is looking to use a smaller study size, even though that'll affect the statistical power of his work.

And that's for the grants that get funded.

"Some projects just aren't getting done," Salzberg added. "[My grant] that wasn't funded was a different project and we're not going to do it."

This, he said, may lead to delays in improvements to healthcare. New treatments and drugs will come, he said, but it may be in 20 years rather than in 10 years or 15 years.

Concern for new investigators

One common fear is that the sequester will disproportionately affect new investigators as they try to start labs and fund them or even dissuade them from pursuing a career in academia.

"It looks like it is disturbing a lot of young people and influencing the way that they are thinking about a potential career," Guyer said.

Tishkoff added that she is worried that junior scientists will see how the more senior people are struggling to find funding, and opt out. "[New investigators] have to get grants if they want to get tenure. They have to get grants to be successful and to continue to be a scientist in the future," she said.

"That's the question that I get over and over again" from students and postdocs, Navin added. "What's it going to be like in … five to 10 years?"

"I try to stay optimistic and tell them that there will be funding, but it is hard to predict the future," he said.

Still, junior scientists may look for careers in industry or outside of the research realm.

"I think that when they hear all of this gloom and doom talk going on, it is really discouraging them. And that makes me really worried that we are losing talented scientists," Tishkoff said. She added that she's noticed that people with computational biology or bioinformatic backgrounds seem to be heading to industry.

Salzberg added that the field may never even know what it is losing. "People will leave the field — they won't announce it — they just go get a job doing something else," he said. "Generally, you lose that [talent] forever because that person doesn't come back."

Funding agencies like NIH do have mechanisms in place to try to help new investigators get grants. For example, proposals from new investigators are reviewed separately from ones submitted by established PIs. That way, early-career researchers compete against each other, rather than against those with more experience.

Further, in its policy statement for this fiscal year, NIH said that it would continue to support new investigators applying for R01 grants with success rates similar to those of established PIs.

"I really think they are doing as much as they can, but there is a bottom line," Tishkoff noted. "If you do not have the money to give out, then it is going to be more and more and more competitive. That's just how it is."

NHGRI, in its own policy statement, said that it is "very flexible" in supporting early-stage investigators by not reducing recommended budgets if possible, by giving special consideration when applying for renewals to avoid gaps in funding, and by its Pathway to Independence Awards, which are targeted to postdocs who are moving toward running their own lab.

Outside of federal support, there are also a number of grants that specifically fund new investigators, such as the David and Lucile Packard Foundation Fellowships for Science and Engineering, Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Awards, or the Sloan Research Fellowship, among others.

Tips for getting a grant

With increased competition for a smaller pot of money, submitting a well-crafted grant proposal might help it stick out from the rest in the pile. While some researchers may be quickly churning out as many proposals as they can, Tishkoff said that approach may not be the best one.

"The fact is it's now even more competitive, it is even more important that people are taking time to really work on the grants carefully and not try to rush through them," she told GWDN.

Still, submit a proposal quickly. "Don't wait to apply for your first grant," Salzberg said. "Very few people get funded on their first time around. You learn a lot from the reviews you get back."

For his first grant, Salzberg partnered with a senior colleague to be a co-PI on the grant. "You can learn a lot about grantsmanship that way," he said. "And then if the senior colleague gets funded, then you get some money out of that." In addition, "you also learn some of the administrative hoops."

Once on a grant, investigators begin to be invited to review panels that evaluate such grant proposals. "That's a very valuable experience," Salzberg said. "The first couple of times you are on a review panel, you learn a tremendous amount because you see a lot of other people's grant applications and you see what the reviewers are saying about them."

Tishkoff said one common problem she's seen, particularly among new investigators, is that the proposals can feel hurried and too full of jargon. "You've got to take your time, write clearly in a manner that a general scientist can understand," she said, adding that investigators have to sell their idea to a "broad scientific audience [and] make the point of why it is cutting edge and important and advances the field."

Having other, more senior people look over a proposal is often a key step, she added, saying that she's seen applications in which there were simple errors like numbers not adding up that could have easily been avoided by having someone else take a look at it.

An oft-overlooked step, by new and established PIs alike, is getting in touch with their program officers. "Start out talking to NIH program people as soon as possible," Guyer said.

Program officers can provide information on funding mechanisms, initiatives, and budgets, and offer feedback on how project ideas fit within institutes' priorities. "And we think, at least we tell ourselves, that it can help save people a lot of wasted time," he added.

Tishkoff said that she typically calls up her program officer when she's thinking about and applying for a grant to see how her idea fits with what the institute is interested in funding and to discuss a potentially reasonable budget.

"You could say, 'I am thinking about applying for this, this, and this. Is that something that you or this institute would be interested in funding?'" she said. "And so you can try to aim to make your proposal fit with what their goals are at the moment."

"Secondly, I always tell them, 'OK, here's the budget I have in mind. Is that going to be realistic or not?'" she added.

And once, she said, she was told her budget for what she called an "all-in-one, big giant grant" was too high to be funded. Instead, Tishkoff broke that large, all-inclusive grant into smaller, more focused projects, and she stripped the budgets to the bare bones.

However, not all proposals will be funded, even well-written ones. "There's no magic bullet here, though, it's just times are tough," Salzberg added. "If they are only funding 10 percent of proposals, then whatever happens, 90 percent of them are going to be rejected, so try to be in the top 10 percent, but we can't all be in the top 10 percent all the time."

Navin added that those who get rejected should not give up and should keep submitting. "I just think you have to be very optimistic, be an eternal optimist and just keep submitting your grants to as many different funding agencies as possible," he said. "And eventually, if it is a good idea, it'll get funded."

The next fiscal cycle

While fiscal year 2013 is more than half over, the US federal budget for fiscal year 2014 isn't yet set, so what is in store for research funding — and whether the sequester will continue —isn't clear.

The Obama administration released its budget proposal for FY 2014 in April, which would replace the sequester. It called for $31.3 billion for the National Institutes of Health — an increase of 1.5 percent over the FY 2012 budget — and $7.6 billion for the National Science Foundation — an 8.4 percent increase over its FY 2012 appropriation.

The budget, though, needs to pass Congress.

"We're making plans for FY '14 on the basis of what the administration presented as a budget," Guyer said. "We're hoping the Congress can do better than that. On the other hand, we are realistic."