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Medical research grants drop with threat of sequestration

Feb. 8, 2013 - 04:40PM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments

Sequestration fears have driven the National Institutes of Health’s grant approval rate down to historic lows, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins said Friday.

Because NIH has had to hold back grant money to prepare for possible sequestration, it is now approving 17 percent of grant applications. NIH usually approves grants for 25 percent to 35 percent of the applications it receives, Collins said.

If the steep budget cuts take effect on March 1, the approval rate will likely drop even further. With the bulk of NIH’s budget funding medical research throughout the country, most of the $1.6 billion in the agency’s sequestration cuts will likely fall on grants, Collins said at a town hall meeting with Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., at NIH’s Bethesda, Md., headquarters.

“We’re going to lose a lot of potential researchers,” Cardin said.

The threat of cuts “puts us in a very painful position,” Collins said. “If you’re out there as an investigator, writing a grant with your best ideas, to know that you only have one chance in six that it’s actually going to get funded, that’s pretty demoralizing.”

Collins would not say how much further approvals could drop if sequestration goes into effect. He said his staff is still preparing models on how the agency could absorb the sequestration cuts, such as how it would handle contracts.

Collins said NIH is considering saving money by cutting future payments for multiyear grants that were already awarded.

“That is the way we would keep [approval rates] from really plummeting,” Collins said.

He could not say whether NIH will have to furlough employees if sequestration goes into effect.

Collins said NIH has not yet taken steps such as freezing hiring or laying off temporary or term employees, which the Defense Department has already started doing. He said NIH has provided general guidance on sequestration — based on the Office of Management and Budget’s Feb. 4 memo — to its more than 19,000 employees. He said NIH may not issue more detailed plans until it becomes apparent sequestration cannot be avoided.

Cardin said sequestration has already had one negative effect throughout the government: Wasting hours of top leaders’ time preparing for possible cuts — time that could be better spent performing their missions.

“It’s the time they spend planning, it’s the energy we lose by uncertainty,” Cardin said. “It’s way past time for Congress to give you a definitive answer” on budget cuts.

Collins agreed.

“It’s taking an awful lot of time that people could, more productively, be doing things to move the research agenda forward,” Collins said.

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