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President's Proposed NIH Budget Draws Fire from Scientists, Politicians

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) - The spending cuts for biomedical research proposed by US President George W. Bush in his budget request for 2009 have stirred up worries and sparked anger in the scientific community, causing researchers and interest groups to start speaking out, with some calling it an outrage and saying the future of US medical research is being sold short. 
 
The chatter coming out of America’s labs is that NIH grants are increasingly harder to get, funding is falling for grants already awarded, and teaching hospitals where research is conducted are feeling the pinch.
 
Established leading researchers are spending far more time writing grants to fight over less money, and younger researchers are finding it harder to land those first coveted awards, according to a variety of researchers, politicians, and officials from biomedical organizations that GenomeWeb Daily News spoke with this week. The bleak outlook for federal funding of biomedical research may be deterring the next generation of young scientists from pursuing cutting-edge research at a time when US science is facing growing competition for a leading place in the future from surging research communities around the world, they said.
 
Under the 2009 request, which the White House released last week, the NIH would receive $29.5 billion, exactly the same sum it received in 2008, even though biomedical inflation this year has been estimated to be 3.5 percent. Also, roughly $300 million of that money is set aside specifically for the Global AIDS program, leaving the figure for actual research funding at around $28.6 billion.
 
According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, this budget would “continue the downward slide in federal research funding” overall and would leave the NIH down 13 percent from its 2004 funding level, adjusting for biomedical inflation.
 
The biomedical research budget was not met with applause from members of the Democratic majority in Congress, who may engage in another fiscal donnybrook with President Bush similar to the one that left the 2008 budget for most federal programs stalled for three months.
 
Representative David Obey (D – Wisc.), who chairs the House Committee on Appropriations, which will present its version of the 2009 spending plan to the Senate this summer, called the president’s budget “a dreary and irresponsible re-run of those we have seen for the past eight years – missed opportunities, misplaced priorities, and fiscal fairy tales.”
 
Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) responded to the White House’s budget in a statement that said that a “continued freeze on the National Institutes of Health funding will have grave consequences for Americans suffering from illnesses from cancer to diabetes. It will also mean that our best and brightest young minds will be discouraged from getting into our premier research field,” Harkin added.
 
AAAS estimates that if this budget passes there would be fewer new research grants in 2009 than in 2008, and the success rate for grant competitions would fall to 18 percent.
 
“We’re finding overall that it’s a much more competitive environment, researchers are spending a lot of time applying,” and have less time to spend in the lab, said Carrie Wolinetz, director of communications for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
 
Wolinetz told GenomeWeb Daily News that younger researchers are feeling the bite of flat funding first, an assertion that is supported by comments form others in the biomedical community.
 
Steven Salzberg, who directs the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the University of Maryland, called the latest budget “very disappointing,” and said his office is beginning to feel the effects.
 
Salzberg said his center just hired two new bioinformatics scientists who are both struggling to get their first NIH and National Science Foundation grants, and like other young researchers are finding it difficult. He said he talks with young researchers “all the time” about their futures as academic researchers, and when it comes to flagging federal funds for cutting-edge studies, he grows concerned about the message being sent to the next generation of researchers.
 
As they survey the opportunities for biomedical careers, some researchers “might not feel inclined to go into academic research,” Salzburg told GenomeWeb Daily News.
 
The same problems are hitting home in the teaching hospitals of America, where many of the technologies of the future are given their first trials in clinical settings.
 
Funding cuts at NIH can cause “a serious problem for any academic research institute,” Keith Yehle, who is director of federal relations for the University of Kansas, told GWDN. “Flatline funding means we have less of an opportunity for our established NIH researchers to secure new competitive grants, and even established researchers don’t get full funding,” he said.
 
“But the biggest problem is not the established researcher; it’s the junior faculty who are just starting and who just go their PhD’s,” Yehle said. “They’re at risk of not being able to get their first or second research grant until they’re 41 years old.”
 
The Association of American Medical Colleges, meanwhile, said that the White House’s “unprecedented” budget cuts will “erode medical progress” and that there “must be a stable and sustained federal investment in the NIH that at least keeps pace with biomedical inflation.” It added in a statement, that the impact of the proposed budget cuts “will have a damaging long-term impact on the health of all Americans and the future economic vitality of our nation. We call on Congress to immediately reject these short-sighted recommendations."
 
If this year turns out to be like the last, then Congress could propose an increased appropriation for the NIH and plan to fight over it with the Bush Administration.
 
“Ultimately, there will be a fight, and the election year certainly complicates matters,” Wolinetz said. However, she thinks it is unlikely that Congress will push Bush beyond the budget deadline in October again, as it did last year.