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Sequestration Cuts 'Devastating' to NIH, Collins Tells Senate

By Matt Jones

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – As members of the US Senate subcommittee that sets funding for the National Institutes of Health yesterday lamented the White House's plan for a flat budget at NIH, they also acknowledged that a more serious budget threat looms — a large cut that would be caused by a potential forced sequestration next year.

The budget-slashing sequestration plan that is set to take effect in January 2013 was triggered automatically when the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction — also known as the 'super committee' — failed to reach a long-term compromise.

At the Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health, and Human Services hearing on NIH funding yesterday, Sen. Tom Harkin (D - Iowa) and NIH Director Francis Collins discussed the potential sequestration as something far more damaging to the agency than the flat 2013 proposal.

Called the Budget Control Act, the plan would lead to across-the-board cuts to all non-defense discretionary federal spending, including an estimated cut by around 7.8 percent at NIH, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

"The threat of sequestration looms large" Harkin said, if Congress fails to enact a plan to avert it. "So, we could approve our appropriations bill later this year, and then find that virtually every program will be cut in January."

Harkin pointed out that a separate analysis from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has estimated that the across-the-board sequestration cuts could reach as high as 9.1 percent.

Collins told the Subcommittee that a sequester of 7.8 percent would slash about $2.4 billion from NIH's budget, and it would kick in three months into the fiscal year, leaving little time for the agency to adjust. Such a cut would mean NIH would fund 2,300 fewer grants in FY 2013, Collins said.

"That represents almost a quarter of our new and competing grants," he told the subcommittee. "That would result in success rates of our applicants who come in with new applications or competing ones falling to historically low levels. It would be devastating to investigators seeking to continue programs that they have had funded in the past and are back for their competing renewal, or who are starting things that are entirely new."

He also said that the burden would fall the hardest on early-stage investigators who are seeking to get their labs and projects funded for the first time.

"This would have across-the-board implications in both basic and clinical science. We would, of course, attempt to prioritize those things that are most critical. But there's no question that such things as an influenza vaccine would be slowed down, that cancer research would be slowed down," Collins said.

Carrie Wolinetz, president of United for Medical Research, a group that advocates for support of biomedical science, told GenomeWeb Daily News yesterday that "the ripple effects on the scientific community" of the sequester at NIH would be enormous. She said that NIH's estimate that the cut could mean 2,300 fewer grants may be "on the conservative side."

"How universities and other research institutes are going to be able to manage that is really a huge question mark. It is going to be incredibly disruptive," she said.

The sequestration could be avoided, however, if Congress reaches an agreement to pass a bill to nullify, postpone, or bypass the automatic cuts.

Wolinetz said that whether or not Congress can agree to write a bill to turn off the sequestration will be a large question hanging around at the end of this fiscal year.

Because of the construction of the Budget Control Act, a move to avert the sequestration will require that lawmakers do what the full Congress and the super committee failed to do last year, which was agree to stop it. The sequestration was designed to be so distasteful to both Republicans and Democrats that it would force the super committee to reach a compromise.

The act would require a total of $54.7 billion to be cut each year from non-defense and defense spending through 2021. The construction of the plan, however, would require the across-the-board cuts in FY 2013, but in the ensuing years appropriators in Congress would have some leeway to work out which agencies take the cuts. That could mean that NIH may not necessarily take the same sized cut for the remaining years as it would in 2013.

"Congress can always undo it," Wolinetz said. "It is just a question of whether or not they can reach an agreement to do that. They are just going to have to work together to turn it off, and there is going to have to be some amount of bipartisan cooperation."