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NIH Director 'Deeply Troubled' by Flat Budget; Says It Is 'Eroding' Agency

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) — In an unusual public message, US National Institutes of Health Director Elias Zerhouni has voiced concerns about the funding “challenges” the agency is facing, saying that federal budget constraints are “eroding the growth of NIH at a time when opportunities for scientific progress and advances in human health have never been greater.”
 
In a Policy Forum article published in the Nov. 17 issue of Science, Zerhouni said the agency’s cash crunch has slowed programs in certain research programs, including those that rely on genomic technologies, and made it more difficult for researchers to extend ongoing programs.
 
“As I talk to scientists and researchers around the country, the anxiety is palpable,” he said in the article. He said he was “most deeply troubled” about the trend, and added that he “share[s] these concerns.”
 
With an undertone of criticism aimed at federal policy makers who have flat-lined NIH funding after several years of doubling growth, Zerhouni checked off a list of ailments, sketched some belt-tightening options, and called on the research community to “do a better job in demonstrating our value to society.”
 
Scale and Causes of the Budget Troubles
 
In his article, Zerhouni pointed to several factors causing the difficulty in obtaining funding, including an increasing number of applicants, US inflation, and unexpected stagnancy in the overall American economy after several years of growth. 
 
Zerhouni noted that the annual number of applicants for new and competing grants has nearly doubled to around 46,000 in 2006 from 24,000 in 1998. There are also more scientists applying for grants, he said. In 1998, about 19,000 scientists applied for competing awards, and the NIH forecasts that number to rise to 36,000 in 2007.
 
Zerhouni described the outcome as a supply-and-demand “paradox” that makes it more difficult to get NIH funding now than it was before the budget-doubling initiative kicked off in 1997.
 
Roadmap Not to Blame
 
Disputing what he characterized as suggestions that the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research is “a major cause of reduced success rates,” Zerhouni said the Roadmap, which funds emerging research initiatives in systems biology and other areas, represents only 1.2 percent of the NIH budget for FY 2006.
 
Zerhouni described the Roadmap as a necessary response to “an era of rapid convergence” and “emerging opportunities” in the sciences, and said it allows NIH to “incubate new ideas." 
 
That does not mean that the Roadmap program will continue with as much trail-blazing zeal, however. “Given the current environment,” Zerhouni explained, “Roadmap budgets are also reduced, and no new initiative within the Roadmap can be undertaken unless it fits within the budget agreed to by all the institute and center directors.”  
 
For the time being, Zerhouni said, spots at the Roadmap trough will be shoulder-to-shoulder and admittance will be sequential, meaning new initiatives may begin only when another concludes.
 
Measures in Effect
 
Zerhouni said NIH has implemented several strategies to “encourage” scientists during this period of flat budgets, including “various mechanisms" to ensure that success rates do not continue to drop disproportionately for new investigators.
 
Admitting the political nature of government-funded research initiatives, Zerhouni also suggested that promoting the positive results of NIH-funded programs could have a beneficial impact on future budgets.
 
“Congress continually asks me to demonstrate the benefits of the NIH doubling to the American people,” he said. “We all need to do a better job in demonstrating our value to society.”

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