NIH funding squeeze largely spares Yale

Mary Tinetti and colleagues perform research on aging-related health conditions at the Claude Pepper Older Americans Independence Center, a foundation funded by the National Institutes of Health since 1992, Tinetti said, who is director of the Pepper Center and the Yale Program on Aging.

But a few days ago, Tinetti said, they were informed that their annual grant had been cut by 30 percent from last year’s grant package — a move that takes the total reduction over the last five years to almost 50 percent.

Although federal medical-research funding has decreased for many schools, NIH grants to the Yale School of Medicine have increased in the past year.
Victor Alquicira
Although federal medical-research funding has decreased for many schools, NIH grants to the Yale School of Medicine have increased in the past year.

“The amount of money Congress is giving NIH has drastically declined,” she said. “The Congress has passed its money shortage onto NIH, and NIH is passing it onto individual investigators.”

Tinetti said the Pepper Center has now begun figuring out how to revise its annual budget. She said that, in light of the grant reduction, the center will have to scale back its research activities across the board — from the core support it provides to research investigators to the number and size of its pilot start-up-fund projects.

Indeed, the NIH — the primary source of funding for research at the Yale School of Medicine — is facing some rough times.

Taking into account inflation in biomedical research materials, which severely exacerbates the funding crunch, NIH funding has dropped 13 percent since 2004, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Research!America, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, estimates that scientists applying for grants from the NIH now face a 20-percent chance of success, down from 32 percent in 2001.

Although Tinetti may not be the only one at the medical school feeling its effects, Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern said the school is doing “incredibly well” relative to peers in the face of the federal research crunch.

“The percent NIH funding we received has gone up 7 percent over the last year,” he said. “Among the list of the schools that receive the most NIH funding annually, we were eighth last year. Now, we’re fifth.”

Alpern said every school ahead of the medical school on the list has received less NIH funding over the last few years than in years before, while Yale has received more. He attributed this success to the medical school’s “very talented” faculty and its luck in having been able to secure some large and long-term grants.

Not immune

Still, Alpern said Yale is not entirely exempt from the problem of federal cuts to research. Many research labs have shrank, and some are churning out research at slower rates, he said.

“The situation is not as predictable as it was 10 years ago,” he said. “We have 1,600 faculty. Not all 1,600 are successful.”

Though Yale has done better than average in securing grants in these difficult times, there are still many labs struggling, said Daniel DiMaio, vice chair of genetics, professor of therapeutic radiology and scientific director of the Yale Cancer Center.

“There’s no question that some labs have had to downsize because of this,” he said, adding that he has seen these results in his own departments.

While labs have scaled back the scope of their operations, some discouraged scientists themselves have left the field altogether.

DiMaio said he knows of senior colleagues who decided to retire early or switch into administrative positions to evade the crunch, and a “promising young scientist” who eventually decided to leave Yale because he never received a grant.

DiMaio, who serves on an NIH Study Section — one of hundreds of groups across the country comprising scientists from research institutions who read and score incoming NIH grant proposals — said NIH funds approximately 15 percent of the proposals it receives. He said proposals must often be revised two or three times, sometimes even when they are already of high quality before the revisions.

Another piece of the problem, Tinetti said, is simply that the NIH has begun to spread itself out more thinly — a fact that explains her recent experience at the Pepper Center. To accommodate more research grants, she said, the National Institute of Aging — one of 27 institutes under the NIH umbrella — has increased the numbers of centers it funds, but it now typically offers less money to each program.

The trend spans the entire NIH. In 2008, the average research grant the NIH issued amounted to $408,000, down from $434,970 in 2003, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In addition, while grants previously provided money over a five-year period, many now only cover four.

Trends within the NIH, the funding and research priorities of which are set by Congress, can be traced to political shifts. Despite a promise to follow up on President Bill Clinton’s LAW ’73 pledge to double federal spending on science when he took helm at the White House, President George W. Bush ’68 failed to provide more funds. Since the Nixon administration, federal increases to the NIH budget have hovered around 8 percent — below the high inflation rates associated with biomedical-research technologies and materials.

Bush’s 2009 proposed fiscal budget lists overall spending on the NIH at only 1 percent of national spending, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an advocacy group based in Washington.

At greater risk

The crunch is even more keenly felt by younger scientists, who are just getting started on their academic research careers.

Currently, the average age of grant recipients for applicants with a doctorate or an MD is 44, which DiMaio said puts burgeoning scientists in their early and mid-30s at a considerable disadvantage.

At a time when fewer proposals are being accepted, grants go towards senior, or more experienced, doctors and scientists, leaving younger researchers with little means of supporting their nascent careers, he said.

More problematic, DiMaio added, is that the situation is discouraging potential students from pursuing the field of academic medicine.

“The theory is that we’re going to lose a whole generation of scientists because of this,” he said.

One strategy Yale researchers have begun to employ to up their chances of striking lucky is simply to apply for more grants from a broader variety of sources, Tinetti said.

But this strategy is stiffening the already tight competition for the few grants available.

“It’s a catch-22,” she said. “There’s less funding, so people are applying for more grants, which makes the competition even greater.”

Some departments face particularly steep uphill climbs.

Charles Lockwood, chair of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences, said the NIH funding for Ob/Gyn and pediatrics research activities has stagnated nationally in recent years, and these areas currently receive only about 5 percent of the research grant money the NIH gives out. But with the overall lower NIH budget, this amount has dropped even further since 2004, both in absolute numbers and relative to the total NIH budget, he said.

The Ob/Gyn and pediatrics departments are the most vulnerable departments in the face of the federal spending crunch because they remain low on the list of the NIH’s funding priorities and are often overlooked when competing with proposals on issues like heart disease and cancer, Lockwood said.

In addition, he said, women and children have relatively less political influence and thus are ill-positioned to influence federal spending priorities.

“We’re already starving to death,” he said. “Women and children comprise 70 percent of the population but receive only 5 percent of the NIH’s research attention.”

Of the 124 Ob/Gyn academic departments across the country, only 28 have more than $2 million in research funding annually, he said.

The payline rate for Ob/Gyn research proposals — the percentage which receives funding nationally — has crept up slightly in the last few years, Lockwood added. This phenomenon may be partially explained by the overall decline in the number of new Ob/Gyn grants submitted and the reduction in the sizes of individual grants, he said.

Still afloat

But, like many other departments at Yale, the medical school’s Ob/Gyn department has been an exception to the national rule of reduced funding.

Lockwood said the department’s share of NIH funding has doubled since 2002 and tripled overall over the past decade. He said he attributes this growth to the faculty members’ passion and creativity in “asking the right questions.”

“We’ve done extraordinarily well in a very terrible time,” he said. “This is not at all reflective of what’s happening in the field as a whole.”

Still, Lockwood said, while the downturn may be “scary,” Yale is strong enough to withstand the reductions, judging from recent successes.

DiMaio attributed Yale’s strong performance relative to its peers in recent years to history.

In 1998, Clinton pledged to double the NIH budget from its then-overall value of $13.6 billion. At that time, DiMaio said, many peer institutions rapidly expanded in size while Yale grew much more modestly. Hence, it was easier for the medical school to maintain its grants.

The recent rise in NIH funding at the medical school represents “the tail end” of the grants secured during that period, Tinetti said.

But the results also speak to the high quality of researchers at the medical school, Alpern said.

“We’ve been very lucky,” he said.

“Or very good,” he added with a chuckle.

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