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Senate Takes up NIH Funding

A US Senate hearing on the budget for the National Institutes of Health this week became a cheering session for NIH and biomedical research and a group lament over the agency's funding woes, particularly the sequester.

The Labor, Health, and Human Services Appropriations Committee hosted NIH Director Francis Collins as well as the directors of three NIH institutes, who laid out President Barack Obama's $31.3 billion proposal for NIH and delved into a number of the initiatives that NIH is fueling, but who also warned of the many risks of cutting research funding.

In Collins' estimation, any or all of the good that could come from the White House's 1.5 percent increase for next year's NIH budget will be swept aside by the sequestration, which would cut 5 percent off of the agency's appropriation, leaving it with an effective cut of $1.6 billion.

And if the sequestration should stay in place over the next decade, as it was designed to do, NIH funding would decline by $19 billion, Collins estimated.

"The consequences will be harmful to scientific progress and to American leadership in science," Collins said.

Last fiscal year, NIH funded 8,986 research project grants. This year, that number is projected to be smaller by about 700.

The impact of the sequestration is already being felt, Collins said, and he added a human face to make his point by mentioning a former student he heard from recently, MIT investigator Dina Faddah.

Faddah, he said, is "doing spectacular research into developmental biology," but she sees what is happening in biomedical research in the US and worried enough to begin considering other careers.

Faddah wrote to Collins: "Many of my role models — top scientists with amazing ideas and the potential to change the world are unable to get funding. I can't erase the fear that this is my future. This is a defining moment. My fear is that we are putting an entire generation of US scientists at risk."

Collins was not alone in bemoaning the state of NIH funding. Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) pointed out that even without the sequester, NIH funding has plunged by 22 during the past decade simply by failing to keep pace with inflation.

"In other words, the purchasing power of all NIH appropriations has fallen by over one-fifth over the past decade," Harkin said. "Perhaps even more alarming, a researcher's chance of getting a grant approved by NIH will drop to just 16 percent. That is the lowest success rate in the history of NIH."

But Harkin said that he and many other senators, including some Republicans, want to see NIH's budget boosted back up this year.

Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) both said they plan to work with members on the other side of the aisle to find ways to maintain NIH funding in the face of the sequester — although no specific ideas on how that might happen were mentioned.