News FocusScience and the Stimulus

NIH Hopes Stimulus Isn't a Roller-Coaster Ride

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Science  27 Nov 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5957, pp. 1179-1180
DOI: 10.1126/science.326.5957.1179

A once-in-a-lifetime increase is a lifesaver for thousands of scientists. But will it also give them a false sense of hope?

Stem cell researcher Michael Kyba hit the jackpot this year. Against daunting odds, Kyba won three research grants funded by the $10.4 billion the National Institutes of Health (NIH) received from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The grants will expand his work at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, on how embryonic stem cells become blood cells. He's also leading a new $2 million, multi-institution collaboration on using stem cells to study and treat muscular dystrophy. Taken together, the awards will double the size of his lab.

“I absolutely didn't expect all these grants to be funded,” says Kyba, who is now scrambling to hire three technicians and three postdocs. But there's a caveat, he points out: “It's only for 2 years.”

Spreading the wealth.

Extramural scientists and facilities are benefiting from a combination of new awards, supplements, and second chances.


At universities across the United States, and at the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, officials and scientists are taking stock of a once-in-a-lifetime moment in U.S. biomedical research. The stimulus money has kept afloat the labs of thousands of investigators whose proposals had just missed the regular funding cutoff, as well as supporting novel research ideas, new investigators, summer students, and large technology projects. “It's unprecedented, and it couldn't have come at a better time,” says Steven Fluharty, vice provost for research at the University of Pennsylvania, which has received $143 million from the NIH windfall.

Raynard Kington, who was interim NIH director from last fall through mid-August, lauds the “group psychological benefit” of increasing NIH's regular budget of $30.5 billion in 2009 by roughly one-third—as well as the “intellectual jolt” that the stimulus provided. “I think it turned out incredibly well,” says Kington, once again deputy NIH director since the appointment of Francis Collins as director.

Two aspects of the NIH stimulus funding have attracted particular attention. First, it dwarfs the amount every other federal research agency received. Although some community leaders were concerned initially that it might be too much money to digest—and remain worried that it has set the stage for disaster in 2 years—most have embraced the argument that the increase simply allows the agency to recover from a string of flat budgets. “Steady multiyear budget commitments would be better policy in the long run, but to have not funded NIH during this economic crisis would have been worse public policy,” says Elias Zerhouni, who stepped down as NIH director in fall 2008. “We would have lost a lot of young scientists and good research.”

Second, NIH chose to hold new competitions for some of the funds rather than drawing from a pool of proposals already in-house, as its sister research agencies have done. That decision triggered a tsunami of applications that led to a projected 1% success rate for the most prominent program, called Challenge Grants. (The actual rate was 4% after NIH institutes quadrupled the initial allocation.) By growing its portfolio, however, NIH also increased pressure on subsequent budgets, because most of those additional grantees are expected to apply for renewals in 2011 and 2012.

The combination of a huge bolus of money and the additional mouths to feed has left many scientists wondering about the real impact of the stimulus spending on the health of the U.S. biomedical research enterprise. “I'm sort of back up in buying power to where I was 5 years ago,” says Gerard Evan, a cancer biologist at the University of California, San Francisco, about his $465,000-a-year supplement. “It's great, but the system's still sick.”

“We gulped”

Although the size of the stimulus may have been a shocker, the idea of giving NIH a big spending boost was not new. In July 2008, senators Tom Harkin (D–IA) and Arlen Specter, the Republican-turned-Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, proposed a 1-year, $5.2 billion increase as part of a 2008 supplemental appropriations bill that was never enacted. That figure, developed with input from NIH, was designed to make up for losses to inflation since 2003, the final year of a 5-year budget doubling. It also provided some extra money for the National Cancer Institute. (Specter has been treated twice for Hodgkin's disease.)

Ten-billion-dollar man.

Arlen Specter insisted on a monster increase.


Shortly after the November election, lobbyists and some legislators began talking up a $1.9 billion increase for NIH. President Barack Obama's transition team, which included Collins and former NIH Director Harold Varmus, pushed for more. Specter's staff came up with two numbers—$3.4 billion and $10 billion. The latter number, spread over 2 years, was, like the earlier summer proposal, intended to give NIH the buying power that it had in 2003. In return, Specter wanted NIH to do something novel with the money. Kington says NIH agreed not to just fund more highly rated awards—“We wouldn't simply march down the pay line”—but also to solicit new proposals with short-term research goals that would “get us over some hurdle.”

Specter eventually embraced the larger number, and it stuck. The final bill divided the money into $1.8 billion for construction and equipment and $8.2 billion for extramural research. NIH also received $400 million from another agency for research on the comparative effectiveness of medical treatments and procedures (see p. 1183). “We were very pleased. I never for a moment doubted that we would be able to thoughtfully spend the money,” says Kington. Another high-level NIH official, however, has a different recollection: “We gulped.”

A frenzy to apply for the money followed. It was driven by the Challenge Grants—up to $1 million over 2 years—which were developed to address Specter's concern that the money be used for new ideas as well as existing projects. Lured by a 220-page solicitation that covered 15 broad topics, tens of thousands of scientists dropped everything to apply for the $200 million pot. “The strain on our campuses was acute,” says Patrick White, vice president for federal relations for the 62-member Association of American Universities.

The total number of Recovery Act applications eventually topped 26,000, far exceeding what NIH receives for its usual thrice-yearly cycle of grant applications in which billions of dollars are at stake. Searching for ways to cope with the onslaught, NIH officials reportedly cracked down on any application that deviated even slightly from the guidelines. Molecular pathologist Anirban Maitra of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, for example, was part of a Challenge Grant application that NIH rejected because one of the seven investigators exceeded by four the 10 allowable references to publications in his biographical sketch. “We spent so much time putting the grant together. We were sick to our stomachs,” Maitra says.

A buzz of activity.

Michael Kyba's lab is growing thanks to stimulus funding.


What's next

After working overtime all summer, NIH officials managed to disburse $4.35 billion in grants and $379 million in contracts before the 2009 fiscal year ended on 30 September. Because most recipients will receive a comparable amount in 2010, that means NIH has committed 90% of its Recovery money. What remains are some instrumentation and construction awards, plus a small amount for new programs.

Not surprisingly, the money has had a huge impact at universities, say research deans. At Penn, for example, Fluharty says 11 of 23 faculty members on a bridge program funded by the university received NIH stimulus awards. The 1885 grants going to first-time investigators have also meant a big boost for younger faculty members.

Besides these grants to individuals, NIH funded many big-ticket, one-off projects, such as $27 million to create a social network for scientists to find collaborators and share resources. The White House has calculated that more than $1 billion of the $8.2 billion spent on extramural research involves genomics studies, including $175 million for the Cancer Genome Atlas and $64 million to sequence the genes of 8000 participants in long-term heart and lung studies.

The next challenge for investigators with recovery money is to meet NIH's goal of creating or preserving 50,000 jobs. Most universities have a readily available pool of qualified technicians. But the uncertainties of completing their graduate work and defending their doctoral dissertations make it harder to find potential postdocs quickly. Kyba says he will warn candidates that the job might end in 2 years.

University administrators are also very worried about 2011. “We will have built [more] capacity; we will have hired people,” says Fluharty. “How will those jobs be maintained?”

NIH is already worrying about the short-term impact of the stimulus on community expectations. Officials anticipate a possible bulge in grant applications in February, fueled in part by the fact that the 12-page limit imposed on Challenge applications will now also apply to standard R01 grants. That equivalency will make recycling rejected proposals a breeze.

Unfortunately for those applicants, however, NIH has already spent its stimulus money. That means Collins must convince Congress that NIH's budget needs to keep growing at least at the rate of inflation. “My sense is that we can make the case by talking about the science, what's being done and what has already been done” on things such as improving survival rates for diseases, he said last week. And although Collins is concerned about the need to boost success rates, he's not planning to use it as his trump card. “I'm not sure it gets the attention of Congress … in the way the science does,” he says.

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