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Post by Former NIMH Director Thomas Insel: Funding Science in a Time of Austerity

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C. S. Lewis once said that the “task of a modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” The same might be said of an NIH institute today. But our ability to irrigate deserts may be compromised as we appear to be facing an austere funding future. As the Nation struggles to regain its economic footing, the final budgets for NIH in 2011 and 2012 remain uncertain. But there is little doubt that these will be tough years for NIMH funding.

Here is a quick synopsis. Following the doubling of the NIH budget from 1998-2003, NIMH has received budgets with sub-inflationary increases each year. By 2009, we had lost about 18 percent of our purchasing power relative to 2003, but through strategic cuts in awards, reductions in the out-years of multi-year grants, and elimination of programs, NIMH was able to maintain relatively stable funding throughout this period. By stable funding, I mean that we continued to support roughly 550 new research grants (R01 and R21-type grants) each year, representing at least 15 percent of proposals.

In 2009 and 2010, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) brought a surge in funding to create jobs. With over $370M, NIMH was able to support several innovative projects, create or retain jobs, and fund some additional R01-type grants (for 2 years) on top of our regular appropriated budget. But this one-time surge from ARRA obscured the longer-term pattern of flat budgets that continued in 2009 and 2010 beneath the ARRA bubble. In 2010, the NIMH budget was 2.6 percent higher than 2009, still losing ground to inflation.

What about 2011? Although our budget year began October 1, 2010, we are still awaiting a final appropriation. Last week, Congress passed a continuing resolution until March 18, which means we will continue to operate under our 2010 budget rather than the President’s 2011 budget proposed last February. Prior to March 18th, Congress must vote either to extend the continuing resolution or to appropriate a budget for the remainder of the year. Both houses of Congress are concerned about the growing deficit and are committed to reining in spending, especially within the 12 percent of the budget labeled as “discretionary.” This will almost certainly mean a reduction in the NIH and NIMH budgets, but we do not know the extent of this reduction. The House voted for a $1.6B reduction below the 2010 NIH budget for 2011, including a 4.1 percent reduction (-$60M from 2010) for NIMH, but this budget still needs to be considered by the Senate.

In the absence of a final budget for this year and with expectations that we will likely see reductions in 2012, NIMH has been cautious about funding grants. We have a few principles that have guided us: prioritize research relevant to our strategic plan, support innovation, maximize the number of R01 grants, and protect early stage scientists. In support of these principles, we have reduced our intramural program, funded fewer centers, and reduced support of some large programs.

But even with these changes, the 2010 budget leaves us short in 2011. Partly because of the number of continuing grants and partly because of the increasing average cost of new awards, if we receive the full 2010 budget for 2011, we are projecting 481 new grants, representing roughly 10 percent of proposals. This would be the first time since 1999 that we would fund fewer than 500 new grants and would mark the lowest success rate in over 15 years. If the 2011 appropriation is 4.1 percent less than the 2010 budget, the actual number of new grants funded will likely be below 400.

Not surprisingly, this situation is creating anxiety in the scientific community. Basic scientists believe that the money has been shifted to translation. Clinical researchers say that funds are only going to basic science. But in fact, the Division of Neuroscience and Basic Behavioral Science, which was 27 percent of the total NIMH budget in 2005, was 29 percent in 2010 and will likely be close to this portion again in 2011.

Some have suggested that the funds are going to Centers or the intramural program instead of investigator-initiated R01 grants. But the percentage of R01s has only increased over the past decade.

A few scientists have suggested that the problem is a recent change in the review policy, allowing only a single re-submission. While this policy must seem catastrophic for someone who just missed the payline with a re-submitted grant, re-instating the “A2” would only delay funding for those within the payline. It may not increase the number of grants funded or the success rate.

For scientists, this may feel like a funding desert. During this relative drought, there may be many reasons for complaints. But the bottom line is that funds for new grants are the lowest we have seen in several years and the average costs of new grants is higher than ever ($419K in 2010 vs $313K in 2005). NIMH is committed to funding the highest impact science with the available funds. But as much as we would like to “irrigate the desert,” some outstanding science will, unfortunately, not get funded. And those projects selected for funding may receive less than optimal support.

What makes this desert especially difficult is that the scientific opportunities have never been better. We have unprecedented traction in the science necessary to make progress for helping people with mental illness. However, in this period of austerity, we will not at this time be able to fund some of the science that will make a difference for those in greatest need.