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When the Grant Money Goes Poof

Because of how grants from the US National Institutes of Health are given out, there's a cycle of euphoria followed by hangovers, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Richard Larson tells NPR's Shots blog.

NIH funding is typically awarded for four years, so much of a year's budget is already promised to researchers even before new applications are in. This system only works well, NPR says, when budgets stay the same year after year.

When there's a budget increase, more money is then promised to researchers — Larson's 'euphoria.' But when there's a decrease in funding, there's less money available for new or renewal grants, leading to Larson's 'hangover.'

"Once you see it in black and white you say, 'Oh my God, it's obvious'," Larson tells Shots. "It's very simple mathematics, but the implications for policy are profound." He notes that some of the 'hangover' could have been avoided if NIH didn't spend all the flush-time money at once, but the agency can't hold on to reserves; it has to spend it all.

Sally Rockey, the deputy director for extramural research at NIH, tells NPR that NIH tries to minimize these effects. "Obviously it would be a lot easier if our budget was on some sort of stable trajectory, if we had something that gave us more predictability and a little growth each year," she adds.