As some agencies announce plans for furloughs and others doubt any big impact from automatic cuts from sequestration, its impact on research funding could be more difficult to see in the short term but could have far-reaching effects, researchers at Georgia Regents University said.
The National Institutes of Health, a major funding source of biomedical research, will see 5.5 percent in spending cuts in fiscal year 2013, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office .
The NIH’s hit is $2.5 billion, and the research agency has previously estimated it would result in 2,300 fewer grants being awarded or continued, or about a quarter of the grants that would have been funded, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
David Hefner, GRU’s executive vice president for clinical affairs, has estimated would mean about $1 million less a year in NIH funding to the university, with total sequester cuts amounting to about $20 million a year.
How exactly that will affect research grants is unclear because each NIH institute can respond to the cut in different ways, said Dr. Mark Hamrick, the senior vice president for research at GRU. An institute could decide to reduce current grants, deny new or continuing applications, or fund only those that score very high on its evaluation, he said. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, which funds a lot of cardiovascular research at GRU, is funding just the top 6 percent of applications, Hamrick said.
“So 94 percent of what is being submitted is not getting funded,” he said. “It certainly does make it very competitive.”
The move to limit government investment in research runs counter to the trend in competing countries, said Dr. Carlos Isales, the clinical director of the Institute for Regenerative and Reparative Medicine at GRU.
“It certainly is concerning that the U.S., as the world’s leader in biomedical research, is cutting expenditures when the rest of the world is increasing their expenditures,” he said.
Worse, cutting off continuing grants could halt research that takes years to refine before reaching crucial breakthroughs, said Dr. David Hill, a research physiologist at GRU and Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center.
“This is not something where you can turn the spigot on and off,” he said. “It takes years to get something to work and then, if all of a sudden that money disappears, you can lose tremendous investments.”
For instance, the Georgia Prevention Center at GRU is seeking the renewal of a five-year, $10 million Program Project grant that has been scored very highly in preliminary reviews, said Sarah White, the associate vice president for research administration.
“That particular grant is based on an ongoing study that is 20 years old,” she said, and it has followed some subjects from childhood to young adulthood and provided key insights into the early development of cardiovascular disease and diabetes that was not thought possible early in life before that.
“We don’t know how (the NIH cut) is going to affect it,” White said, though the university is hopeful. Already this fiscal year, grants were funded at only 90 percent and it is unclear whether the other funding will ever be restored, she said.
The impact includes investments in people, too. Samuel Herberg, a doctoral student at GRU who is about to graduate, said the research cuts are the top issue among his classmates.
“As a young investigator going forward from here, this is my biggest concern: how competitive can I be if the bar gets constantly raised?” he said. “What do I have to do as a new investigator competing with more established investigators?”
That is also a concern for established labs that rely on younger investigators, Hill said.
“We’re really concerned about the loss of the next generation of researchers and being able to maintain labs,” he said.
Still, Herberg said he is willing to stick it out.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said.