NIH Budget Cuts May Slow Pace of Research

New York, NY, March 2, 2006 – The National Institutes of Health experienced a doubling of its budget between 1998 and 2003, resulting in a record number of research grants being awarded. But in December 2005, two pieces of legislation were passed that effectively cut the NIH budget for the first time in 36 years (since 1970). For fiscal year 2006, the NIH budget totals $28.6 billion, a 0.1 percent funding decrease. (An initial, approximately half-percent funding increase for NIH, totaling $150 million, was offset by a one percent, across-the-board discretionary spending cut included in a defense appropriations bill.) According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, when compared to its FY2005 budget, the NIH’s FY2006 budget is 3.5 percent below inflation in constant dollars.

What does this all mean for biomedical research, in general, and lupus research, in particular? For in-depth perspective, the Lupus Research Institute went beyond the headlines and interviewed four leading lupus scientists. Here’s what they had to say.

Less Money Means Less Progress

“The cuts to the NIH budget undermine a core mission of the federal government, which is to fund cutting-edge research,” according to Marcus R. Clark, M.D., Associate Professor of Medicine and Chief, Section of Rheumatology, at the University of Chicago. “Less funding for research means that incremental advances will be made—while groundbreaking ideas won't get a chance to be funded.”

David Wofsy, M.D., Professor of Medicine and Microbiology/Immunology, at the University of California, San Francisco, put the specific, dollar loss in perspective. “The $200 million reduction in the FY2006 NIH budget comes at the worst, possible time—a time when we know the cost of research is higher than the pace of inflation. The higher costs are due to state-of-the-art technologies that enable us to look at individual cells and genes to assess biology. It’s all part of the rapid pace of progress. But the budget cut really puts the brakes on that progress.”

Basic Research, Lupus Research Threatened

According to Dr. Clark, “Basic research—largely, the NIH’s responsibility—is crucial to increasing our understanding, treatment and, ultimately, cure of human disease. Lupus and other autoimmune diseases are cases in point. We can treat or suppress them to an extent, but we can't cure them. Why? Because we don't know enough about them. But gaining this knowledge doesn’t happen overnight. Rather, it requires a long-term investment that we must make. The cancer model is instructive here. There are a few cancers we can cure, but it took a lot of time and research dollars to discover those cures. The current NIH budget simply cannot support basic research to the level needed to move forward in the fight against lupus and other diseases.”

Robert Eisenberg, M.D. noted, “The reductions in NIH funding are particularly unfortunate for lupus, since they occur during the most exciting time in lupus research.” Dr. Eisenberg is Professor in the Division of Rheumatology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “Novel compounds are being tested in the private sector, which is great news for lupus patients. But it is the NIH that has been the largest source of funding for lupus research. Now, that funding will decrease.”

Fewer Grants, Tougher Choices

Science magazine writer, Jeffrey Mervis, noted the FY2006 NIH budget “will result in fewer new grants and a continued decline in success rates. A few years ago, NIH funded more than 30 percent of proposals submitted; this year it will fund 20 percent or less.”

“When the funding level goes to 20 percent—when you have to pick one in five grant applications—it gets hard to determine which are the best,” said Dr. Clark, of the University of Chicago. “You tend to award grants to the proposals that are less risky, under the assumption there must be payoff for every dollar spent. In the process, novel research is jeopardized.”

Displacing Current and Future Scientific Talent

In a December 5, 2005 editorial—written prior to the budget passage—the Boston Globe cautioned: “If NIH has less purchasing power, it could be forced to give grants to a smaller percentage of applicants, capping the growth of new knowledge that can change and save lives. With less chance of getting a federal grant, young scientists have a tougher time leaving the labs of older colleagues and striking out on their own—or sticking with research at all.”

Dr. Eisenberg, of the University of Pennsylvania, agreed and went a step further. “Of course, the NIH budget cuts will discourage young people from going into the field. But, if the trend continues, it also will drive current researchers from the field. Already, the number of young researchers working in lupus is falling, and I believe that if this cutback portends tight budgets over the next five years, you will have very few academic researchers doing lupus research at all.”

Science magazine’s Jeffrey Mervis reported that NIH officials have already been told to expect little or no increases in the NIH budget for FY2007.

LRI Needed, Now More Than Ever

The Lupus Research Institute (LRI) is the nation's preeminent sponsor of innovative, novel research into lupus. The LRI champions new thinking and approaches to unlock the mysteries of lupus by the best and the brightest in the field. According to the scientists surveyed, the role of the LRI was more crucial than ever, and must expand. “The LRI primes the pump, spurring important research and raising the level of proof that ultimately leads to NIH funding,” said Dr. Clark of the University of Chicago. “That's a good investment of research dollars that must continue, especially now.”

According to Hugh O. McDevitt, M.D., “NIH study sections mostly give high ranking to proposals that are likely to succeed, and that's where the Lupus Research Institute comes in, by allowing researchers to pursue new ideas, and, in turn, to present their preliminary findings to the NIH.” Dr. McDevitt is Professor of Immunology at Stanford University School of Medicine. “The NIH shies away from innovative, novel, outside the box ideas—that's the Lupus Research Institute's job, which is precisely why we need the LRI, now more than ever.”

About the Lupus Research Institute

Pioneering Discovery to prevent, treat and cure lupus. The Lupus Research Institute (LRI), the country’s only nonprofit organization singularly devoted to novel research in lupus, champions innovation, encourages scientific creativity and risks exploring uncharted territory to bring new scientific solutions to the complex and dangerous autoimmune disease of lupus. Founded by families and shaped by scientists, the Institute mandates sound science and rigorous peer review to uncover and support only the highest ranked novel research. Its bold and proven research strategy places the LRI at the forefront of lupus science as the Institute consistently achieves the breakthrough discoveries, novel insights and solid results that are changing the course of lupus research and bringing new hope to people with lupus nationwide.

To learn more about lupus and the Lupus Research Institute, visit www.lupusresearchinstitute.org.