The post-ARRA NIH budget...OMG a Cliff!!!!

May 10 2010 Published by under NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

Odyssey of the Pondering Blather blog wrote a bit on a news bit in Science by Jocelyn Kaiser which breathlessly warned of the upcoming NIH budgetary cliff.

But reality is setting in. The 2-year grants will run out in 2011, and when that happens it could cause a nasty shock. Barring a new windfall--and none is in sight--NIH's budget will drop sharply next year. Much of the work recently begun will be left short of cash. The result could be the lowest grant funding rates in NIH history, and the academic job market will suddenly dry up--especially for young researchers.

Here's the graph they provide which depicts the NIH budget in recent years.

Kaiser10-ARRAcliff-budget.gif
source

The "cliff" seems to fall right in line with regular non-ARRA budget trends of the past decade. Flatline, stagnation and in inflation-adjusted terms a slight decrement. Remember this graph?
Heinig07-NIHbudget-trend.jpeg.jpg

Figure 1. NIH Appropriations (Adjusted for Inflation in Biomedical Research) from 1965 through 2007, the President's Request for 2008, and Projected Historical Trends through 2010.
All values have been adjusted according to the Biomedical Research and Development Price Index on the basis of a standard set of relevant goods and services (with 1998 as the base year).* The trend line indicates average real annual growth between fiscal years 1971 and 1998 (3.34%), with projected growth (dashed line) at the same rate. The red square indicates the president's proposed NIH budget for fiscal year 2008, also adjusted for inflation in biomedical research.

I'm not seeing the "cliff".
Couple of additional interesting tidbits in the Kaiser piece.

The number of applications will also depend on how many investigators with ARRA funding request a 1-year unfunded extension, which would stretch their 2-year grants to 3 years. NIH says it will be "gracious" about granting such requests, to help smooth the poststimulus transition, Collins testified.

Whut? I'll admit I am not steeped in the fine print but I thought Congress made it reasonably clear (in the PR game anyway) that ARRA was short-term stimulus. That it wanted the money spent right away and preferably on jobs and new purchases of stuff. In fact this was part of the initial whine-back from the scientists who insisted that our business doesn't work on such short timescales.
I was under the impression that ARRA would be under the no-carry-forward and no-no-cost-extension rules familiar to a subset of existing grants (such as Centers). And that the NIH would be fairly strict* about this, given the need to satisfy Congress that it was on board with the short-term economic stimulus plan.
Now here's Collins, after getting the ARRA money, saying "Pbbbtttttt!!!" to Congress. Doesn't seem smart to me.
more Kaiser:

Then the stimulus money in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) threw a lifeline to labs that were in jeopardy; many NIH panels reached below the "payline" and funded grants that had just missed the cutoff for funding from NIH's regular budget.

It really is unacceptable for an experienced member of the Science news team to make this kind of error. The term "NIH panels" implies the peer-review panels or study sections. Study sections do not make funding decisions! The Institutes and Centers of the NIH make funding decisions once the applications have been reviewed by the study sections. Period. The reason why this is an unacceptable mistake, rather than a simple typographical error, is that the people who are newer to the system believe that panels make funding decisions. Not so.
This comment raises an interesting assertion however. That the ARRA funds were in part used to actually save laboratories that were on the verge of going under. Of disappearing, of closing up shop due to a lack of success with the regular granting process. Now, of course we could never really get at questions of futures that were avoided. Impossible to know who would really have been denied tenure, or decided to retire the laboratory work at 62 instead of 67.
But I would like to see the stats about how many ARRA grants went to people with existing funding versus no other funding. How many went to n00bs with no prior funding versus the awards to experienced investigators who lost their year 15 competitive renewal after the A2 bombed.
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*Regular R01 and other research grants can carry forward less than 25% of the direct cost budget without mention. Over that and the NIH IC which funded the grant needs to "approve" the carry forward. For certain grant mechanisms any amount to be carried forward from one budget year to the next needs to be approved. This occasionally results in big equipment expenditures late in a funding interval, btw- you can't pay an entire postdoc salary or tech salary forward, or pay animal futures, as far as I am aware. So PIs often opt for big equipment purchases to spend out the cash.

7 responses so far

  • whimple says:

    DM: Study sections do not make funding decisions!
    What a liar you are DM. Don't mislead the kids by promulgating this fiction. Everyone knows the study sections effectively wield about 90% control over NIH funding decisions. Anyone who thinks they can get their grant funded by just making program really happy is someone who doesn't get their grant funded.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    First whimple, please explain the process by which study sections could possibly have "reached below the payline"?
    Second, the fact that study sections set the ranks / order / priorities which are used by the decision makers does not magically make the study section the decision makers. What I have said is totally accurate.
    Anyone who thinks they can get their grant funded by just making program really happy is someone who doesn't get their grant funded.
    I said no such thing. OTOH, it is demonstrably true that many grants get funded out of the order of priority set by study sections because for some reason or other that application and/or applicant captures the fancy of one or more Programmatic interests. Anyone who thinks the only thing they need to do is wait around for a study section to award them a score which falls within the payline is fighting with one hand tied behind their back.

  • whimple says:

    Above the payline, it's mostly just a desperation contest rather than a fit-the-mission contest. Hardly any grants are funded due to "programmatic interests" other than the interest program has in not wanting to see your sorry ass busted out of academic science (including the infamous "early stage investigator" payline boost). The usual pleading goes along the lines of, "I just missed the payline by 2% and if I don't get this, all this stuff we've built will just collapse!" When you start arguing mission to program, you're asking them to judge the science, and they already tasked the study section with doing that.

  • I was under the impression that ARRA would be under the no-carry-forward and no-no-cost-extension rules familiar to a subset of existing grants (such as Centers).

    Dude, we went through this shit already when ARRA NIH funding plans were originally announced. All of the ARRA Notice of Awards included the usual no-permission-needed one-year no-cost extension. This is not going to "piss off Congress".

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Hardly any grants are funded due to "programmatic interests" other than the interest program has in not wanting to see your sorry ass busted out of academic science (including the infamous "early stage investigator" payline boost).
    I cannot assess the relative proportion but I know personally of several [on the order of a dozen to a score] grants of very clear programmatic interest and above-current-payline scores going to PIs who had existing funding.
    This is why I am inclined to believe the official story that Program exceptions are there for valid scientific portfolio-balancing reasons.
    Hell, aren't you the one who coined "bunny hoppers" in the first place? Program interference is there to ameliorate such tendencies.
    Also, how do you count RFAs in this scoring? Isn't there a valid assumption that the RFA winner would not necessarily have been competitive as an unsolicited project?

  • whimple says:

    Sure, you can count the RFAs and I'm thrilled when Program actually stands up for itself to pick up topics it really needs. I'd love for them to do more of that. However, the NIH has kind of painted itself into a corner in this regard because on one hand they really enjoy blathering on about what a fabulous job they're doing with peer review to ensure the very best science is funded (read: we're really spending the taxpayers' money super efficiently so please don't cut our completely discretionary budget), so then on the other hand when they try to pick up applications on the basis of the science it is an implicit admission that somewhere along the way the vaunted peer review process has failed.

  • [...] with the ARRA funds. 1) Create jobs. 2) Buy stuff. Yes, two years and then a cliff (really? a cliff?) is hard when it comes to hiring research techs but, you know what? I see research techs in my [...]

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