For many neuroscientists, this may seem like the best of times and the worst of times. Best of times because of the unprecedented opportunities to make progress — new tools and new approaches are giving us traction and opening up new frontiers for understanding the nervous system and how it is affected by disease. But countering this enthusiasm are the bleak financial predictions that raise concerns for investigators seeking NIH support for research.
New investigators applying for their first grant and seasoned investigators renewing long-standing grants are facing the same distressing news: NIH institutes are paying fewer grants and reducing support of currently funded grants.
As directors of three of the NIH institutes, we thought it would be useful to summarize the financial situation, describe what we are doing to adapt to this period of relative austerity, and suggest some approaches for the future.
Funding: Recent Past and Present
What exactly is the funding situation? After the doubling of the NIH budget (1998-2003), in most years we saw modest increases, less than the rate of biomedical inflation (3 to 4 percent). Thus, by 2010, the cumulative effect was approximately a 20 percent loss of purchasing power. During this same period, the average direct cost of a Research Project Grant (R01) increased, from $347,000 to $419,000.
With relatively flat budgets, the increased costs meant we could fund fewer grants each year. This scenario changed dramatically, albeit temporarily, in 2009 with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which included $10 billion for NIH spread across two fiscal years (2009-2010). ARRA was like a good rain in the middle of a drought. It allowed us to fund hundreds of new grants and support much needed infrastructure projects. It also obscured, for a short time, the continuing drought in our base funding.
We are now in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2011 (the government fiscal year begins October 1), in the post-ARRA era. While we are beginning to harvest many of the ARRA investments made in 2009-2010, this year has been notable in two respects. Due to a delay in the appropriations process, we did not receive a budget until mid-April, more than six months into the fiscal year. In addition, the final NIH budget was not only less than inflation and less than the President's proposed budget, it was roughly 1 percent less than the 2010 budget.
Stretching Dollars, Preserving Priorities
NIH institutes adjusted to this decrease with several policies meant to stretch the dollars over more grants. While previously funded (non-competing) grants usually receive an inflationary annual increase, this year we reduced non-competing budgets by 1 percent, the same reduction as in the NIH budget. The budgets of new grants were often reduced, sometimes substantially; and many larger mechanisms, such as centers and program projects, were cut even more drastically. Some institutes cut intramural budgets. Some reduced the number of new extramural grants, or trimmed out-year commitments.
While we do not have a budget for fiscal year 2012, every indication is that next year will again be less than the proposed President's budget (2.7 percent increase). Indeed, we are concerned that it will fall below the 2011 funding mark.
In tough times, there is an unavoidable tendency to blame whatever may have been changed. We have heard the problem with falling paylines can be attributed to changes in the peer review process, a new policy to limit re-submissions to one attempt, and greater investment in clinical trials. While all of these are changes, the simple fact is that the payline problem is caused by the budget, not these innovations. Collectively, we have adopted policies to address some major concerns.
First, we worry about losing the next generation during this challenging period. Each of our institutes has implemented a more generous payline for new investigators, ensuring the success rate for early-stage scientists will be no worse than for those who have been previously funded and thus are more seasoned in the grant writing process. In addition, NIH has created new mechanisms, such as the Director's Early Independence Award, to provide independent funding to select very early-stage scientists. This new program complements the Career Transition Award (K99/R00) that facilitates the transition from fellow to faculty.
Second, we are concerned about the loss of innovation during a period when competition for support becomes more intense. Each of us has supported the High-Risk Research programs of the NIH Common Fund, such as the Director's Pioneer Awards and New Innovator Awards, as well as the EUREKA program. While these programs support innovative science across NIH, neuroscience has fared especially well. Roughly 36 percent of the Pioneer Awards have been for neuroscience.
Third, we are committed to using the budgets we have as efficiently as possible. By standardizing approaches, integrating data, and sharing data and resources across funded projects, we can leverage our investments to support more science. Ultimately, the integration of data sets in an open access format will enable the creation of large databases that will profoundly accelerate the rate of discovery, as it has for the human genome project.
Indeed, the 1000 Functional Connectomes Project provides a grassroots example of the feasibility and value of integrating data on brain imaging across independent laboratories. The NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research has pooled funds from 16 NIH Institutes, Centers, and Offices to support shared needs for tools, technologies, and training.
Adapting for Austerity, Demonstrating Value
These are uncertain times. NIH is funded one year at a time and increasingly these budgets are not finalized until well into the fiscal year, complicating planning. We recognize the next year and potentially subsequent years also may be periods of diminishing support, but we remain hopeful the neuroscience community will thrive. To thrive in periods of relative austerity, we will all need to adapt. NIH will strive to be more efficient by assessing ongoing investments while continuing to support early stage investigators, innovation, and partnerships. Research resources (e.g., antibodies, transgenic mice, software) will need to be shared broadly. Sharing of genomic data is now a widely accepted practice, but this culture change still needs to be adopted in other communities. And all of us will need to be increasingly accountable for how we use public funds, demonstrating that NIH continues to be a good investment for taxpayers. Ultimately, we must ensure the extraordinary opportunities now available in neuroscience are realized to benefit public health.