January 14, 2014. The closing of the U.S. federal government during the first half of October 2013 halted nearly all of the biomedical research that is conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The shutdown also froze NIH’s grant review process during a notoriously busy time—yet another setback for the nation’s research community already hard hit by a poor funding climate.
“I think there are many ways in which the shrinking NIH budget, … accelerated by the sequester and then the government shutdown, has had a negative impact on science,” Cameron Carter, University of California, Davis, told SRF. “Perhaps the worst consequence of these events is that young investigators are having a very, very difficult time transitioning to independence,” he said.
From the inside: disruptive and demoralizing
On November 11, the second day of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) meeting in San Diego, California, the directors of five brain-related NIH institutes participated in a panel session for members of the press. Journalists were eager to know just how bad the effects of the shutdown were for the intramural and extramural programs.
The general sentiment from the directors was that the productivity of the NIH’s intramural program came to a grinding halt. “It was quite bad,” admitted Story Landis, panel moderator and director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. A whopping 73 percent of the almost 19,000 NIH employees were furloughed, while the remaining “excepted” employees were responsible for carrying out critical duties such as patient care for those enrolled in clinical trials and animal husbandry of the 1.4 million mice, 63,000 rats, and 3,900 non-human primates housed on NIH campuses.
However, just because the research animals were kept alive does not mean that all was well when intramural researchers returned to their labs on October 17, said Andres Buonanno, an investigator at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. For some experiments, complicated crossings of different genotypes over several generations are required. In addition, for several types of animal studies, including those relying on complex breeding programs, data can only be collected during a very short time window. In the cases where these time windows lapsed during the shutdown, the effects will be felt for months.
The NIH is a mecca of clinical trials, admitting some 10,000 new patients per year at the Clinical Center on the main Bethesda campus. Although many of the clinical trials being conducted at the NIH will recover without too much trouble, said National Institute of Mental Health director Tom Insel at the SfN panel session, one evaluating the use of ketamine as a rapid treatment for depression (see SRF related news story) was especially affected. Although the trial was only halted for 16 days, in reality the impact was much larger, he explained, because the lack of treatment negated the validity of the entire eight weeks of the study. “We lost a whole cycle,” Insel said.
Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, remarked that the shutdown had one silver lining—the recognition of the value of NIH's work by both politicians and the public. It served to bring attention to the work of research and the fundamental importance of it, she added. For NIH employees, on the other hand, it’s been very difficult for them not to feel that they are dispensable, said Insel.
“The effect on morale is something that is non-quantifiable, but it’s huge,” said Buonanno.
The intramural program comprises only 10 percent of the NIH budget; much of the remainder goes to 2,500 institutions across the country that are home to over 300,000 researchers supported by NIH grants. October is traditionally one of the busiest times for NIH’s Office of Extramural Research, which is charged with receiving and reviewing grant applications. With the cancellation of more than 200 scheduled study section meetings affecting over 11,000 applications, the NIH has been scrambling to make up for lost time.
The initial plan was to delay these applications by one cycle, but substantial pushback from the research community—already under duress due to the poor funding crisis—indicated that a four-month delay in funding would be catastrophic to many research programs. As a result, and thanks to the willingness of NIH employees and reviewers to rise to the challenge, many of the missed meetings were rescheduled in time for the applications to be considered at the January 2014 NIH Council meetings. Due to scheduling conflicts, many study sections slated to meet during the shutdown simply could not be reconvened in person, and met via teleconference or virtual meetings instead. The consequences of this change in the way grants are being reviewed for this cycle are still unclear, said Carter, and have created additional uncertainty for applicants already unsure about their funding situation.
Those who tried to submit a grant application during the shutdown also faced roadblocks. Major deadlines for applications such as Research Project R01 grants passed while the NIH was largely shuttered. Although the submission site was open, there were practical concerns such as the lack of updating to the search engine PubMed that made researchers hesitant to submit a grant (or even a new research article) for fear of excluding recently published results, said Bita Moghaddam of the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Yet another blow
For many researchers, the shutdown was only adding insult to the real injury: the current funding crisis due to shrinkage of the NIH budget. Between 1998 and 2003, Congress doubled the organization’s budget to $27.1 billion, but the combination of new cuts and inflation, along with the 5 percent cut resulting from the 2013 sequestration (see SRF related news story), resulted in an effective 22 percent reduction between 2003 and 2013 (see report by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology). In fact, the 2013 budget was the lowest since 2000.
The result is that fewer grants are being funded—the number of R01 grants funded declined by 27 percent from 2003 to 2012—and existing ones have been trimmed to try to accommodate the budget cuts, said Carter. In addition to an overall loss of productivity, the funding crisis is also making investigators more risk averse, willing only to submit grants that are “safe” to maximize their chance of being funded, said Moghaddam. “That’s always bad for the progress of science,” she added.
Buonanno, Carter, and Moghaddam all agreed that those hardest hit by the funding crisis, and who will feel the most long-term effects, are trainees and researchers early in their careers. While nearly 20 percent of NIH R01 principal investigators were younger than 37 years old in 1980, that number dropped to just 3 percent in 2010 (see NIH article). The lack of funding has made it much tougher to get a grant funded, and as a result, many young investigators are coming to believe that a career in research may not be possible and are considering looking elsewhere for jobs, said Carter. Moghaddam has observed a trend of qualified researchers leaving the U.S. for postdocs or jobs abroad.
Although funding often comes in cycles, the current situation seems to be an all-time low, Carter told SRF. Moghaddam agreed, recalling a time early in her career when research funding was very poor. There was a sense then that it would get better, she said. “Now that sense of optimism is not there.”—Allison A. Curley.