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NHGRI's Green Sees 'Tragic' Sequestration Impact on NHGRI Programs

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The funding squeeze from the sequestration of the US federal budget, now more than half-a-year old, has already had a sizable impact at the National Human Genome Research Institute, leading to cuts to ongoing programs, scaling back of new ones, and the deferring of efforts that have not yet launched.

The five percent cut in funding this year at NHGRI has led not only to trimmed-down renewal grants and fewer, smaller awards broadly, but also has chopped the budget for some of the institute's important programs, according to NHGRI Director Eric Green.

The programs that have either had their funding reduced, and in one case delayed, include the ENCODE (Encyclopedia of DNA Elements) program, projects focused on using genome sequencing in newborns and in clinical medicine, and other initiatives, Green said in his Director's Report to the National Advisory Council on Human Genomics Research this week.

In addition, many renewal grants have been trimmed, and there are "numerous examples of detrimental cuts" to the institute's intramural research program, said Green. These cuts to large and small NHGRI programs come at a pivotal time for genomics, he noted, as the products of such research are beginning to translate into clinical possibilities.

"It is tragic. [That] is the word I would use," Green told GenomeWeb Daily News this week.

"[The field of genomics] is just so exciting. There are so many opportunities," he said. "This is precisely the time that we should be pushing the accelerator hard, and we just cannot do it because we don't have enough fuel in our fuel tank.

"It's frustrating. I think the opportunities now are just spectacular," said Green. "It's tragic because it is just so obvious that we could do some remarkable things in genomics and we are not being able to do it."

ENCODE, a decade-old flagship project at NIH that aims to identify all of the functional elements in the human genome, had its budget reduced by 16 percent.

The Genomic Sequencing and Newborn Screening Disorders program was cut by half, which left the program to fund fewer research projects than planned and its research consortium to go forward without the benefit of a data coordinating center. This new initiative, an effort to support pioneering studies on how sequencing might be used in the care of newborns and in neonatal care that was created jointly with the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, had its budget cut from $10 million to $5 million.

The Genomic Medicine Pilot Demonstration Projects program had its budget cut by 20 percent, and NHGRI's Bioinformatics Resources and Analysis Research Portfolio had $5 million sliced out of its budget. The new Genomics of Gene Regulation (GGR) request for applications was bumped out of this funding year entirely, and has been delayed until 2014, according to Green.

Because the sequestration plan was concocted and agreed to well in advance of its arrival earlier this year, Green told GWDN that the institute did have some time to try to react to the sequestration and mitigate the pain from the cuts, spreading them around fairly and evenly while maintaining priorities. He said leadership at the institute tried to prepare for the possibility of sequestration by being conservative in its planning.

Programs that were already ongoing, like ENCODE, were likely to take priority over those that were not yet launched, like GGR, in part because the infrastructure is already in place for ongoing projects and because it is easier to plan for how they operate and generate outputs, like data.

"With ENCODE you know for every million dollars you invest you get so much back," said Green. "With a program like newborn sequencing ... we don't totally know what it's going to look like or play out like. We won't know what we are missing because we won't be able to launch it to the scale that we wanted to launch it originally."

Green said some of the projects being cut or delayed were created under NHGRI's strategic plan, a program it laid out in 2011 that involves restructuring of the institute's divisions and some shifting in its research portfolio to include more efforts in applying genomics to medicine and healthcare.

"Some of these RFAs that we delayed really represent key elements that we started to anticipate two years ago," said Green. "We knew we wanted to do more in sequencing, we knew we wanted to do some pilot projects in genomic medicine. We knew we wanted to continue to accelerate efforts in understanding how the genome works ... ENCODE, GGR, and so forth. It just had to be slowed down," he said.

Anastasia Wise, program director for the Genomic Sequencing and Newborn Screening Disorders program, told GWDN that the program was supposed to be much larger than the $5 million in awards unveiled last week, which funded a consortium of four research projects.

Wise said NHGRI and NICHD were each initially planning to provide double the amount of funding they were actually awarded, which is now expected to be a total of $25 million over five years, although that total could be subject to the availability of funding.

"There were definitely more scientifically meritorious applications than we were able to fund," she said. "Even the four awards that we made ended up being cut an additional five percent because of the sequestration."

She said the program "wanted to be able to make more awards, and we wanted to be able to fund a coordinating center to be able to bring the network together and help provide some harmonization of data and coordination of logistics between the different members of the consortium," but it was unable to fund that part of the effort.

Although the fractured fiscal culture in Washington engenders caution at NHGRI as the agency looks forward, Green sees many scientific opportunities right now, as genomics begins to hit the clinic.

"Some people are saying we are not even going fast enough," he said. "Lots of people have been discussing what the world is going to look like when somebody gets their genome sequenced in the newborn period, and [they] think about what the implications of that are for the patient for the rest of their lives. We want to start studying this," he said.

"And we are starting to … but we're not starting as aggressively as we wanted to," Green said. "I mean, we took a big hit this year."

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