Federal Sequester's Impact on NIH Funding Has Serious Consequences for Lymphoma Research

The NIH is being dramatically affected by the budget cuts mandated by the federal sequester. For people and organizations invested in advancing cancer research, these cuts have particularly serious consequences.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the primary source of funding for medical research in the United States. The NIH is being dramatically affected by the budget cuts mandated by the federal sequester. For people and organizations invested in advancing cancer research, these cuts have particularly serious consequences.

Although the NIH budget does support its own research staff and internal projects, the majority of its budget – over 80% -- funds research at more than 2,500 campuses and institutions across the country. Even before the current sequester, NIH funding remained flat for the last several years; accounting for inflation, the pre-sequester budget was $5 billion less in real dollars today than in 2002. Meanwhile, the number of applicants applying for NIH research grants has increased by 50% over those same 10 years. With the additional 5% across the board cut mandated by the sequester, the NIH estimates around 700 fewer grants will be funded this year, prompting NIH Chief Francis Collins to note that the probability of getting an NIH grant funded at this time is the "lowest in history."[1]

In this already highly competitive environment, the impact is not as simple as more competition for new project funding. Projects currently operating on NIH grants are having their funding level reduced, or not receiving expected renewals, prompting layoffs of junior research staff, and slowing or completely stopping important research. "Riskier" projects, also seen by many as likely to be the most innovative projects, will be less likely to receive funding as institutions seek to maximize their investments; for patients with rare or incurable diseases, advances that may help them may be delayed for years. An NBC News story noted many younger researchers are either taking positions in Europe and Asia – where government funding for medical research is increasing – or leaving research entirely for more stable career tracks. A U.S. withdrawal from strong research support could have a negative impact for years to come by losing young researchers whose most productive years are ahead of them and undermining the positive financial impact of research investments in the larger economy. [2] It's this drain on the next generation of investigators that has senior scientists most worried; in April more than 50 Nobel laureates signed an open letter to Congress urging them to "support science at a level that will keep the [talent] pipelines full."[3]

For organizations like LRF, which not only fund research but provide development and support to younger investigators, the sequester's impact on the NIH is particularly concerning. Non-profit funders for medical research will likely see a number of applications from researchers trying to cover the financial gap caused by loss or reduction of NIH funding, making their own grant processes more competitive. At the same time, many private foundation grants for young researchers – including LRF's own programs – are designed to provide supplemental salary or developmental support for projects that have other sources of funding. As institutions prioritize more established researchers and projects, many junior researchers will lose that funding; since a government grant is often the key that opens the door to a successful career, this has a strong likelihood of ending their research careers entirely.

Although the sequester is intended to end with the approval of the 2014 federal budget, the NIH, and those affected by its funding levels, cannot simply wait until next year. There is currently no guarantee funding levels will be restored in next year's budget; moreover, simply reverting to the previous level of funding still amounts to a cut once adjusted for inflation. Advocates for medical research are currently pushing not only for a repeal of the sequester, but increased funding for the NIH and other federal science organizations in 2014. (To join the LRF's advocacy network and participate in these efforts, please click here.) Recently, a bipartisan group of Congressional members toured the NIH Clinical Center, to see firsthand the work being threatened by the cuts to research funding.[4] For the researchers who depend on that funding – and the patients who depend on research advances for improved survival – this visit hopefully marks the first step in correcting medical research spending levels in the United States.

Sources and Further Information:

  1. NIH Sequestration Impact Fact Sheet
  2. NBC News – "Sequestration Hurts Key Medical Research"
  3. The Federation of American Scientists Blog – "58 Nobel Laureates Urge Congress to Halt Budget Cuts to Science Research"
  4. Faster Cures – "Medical Research Investment: An Opportunity for Bipartisanship?"

June 2013