NIH PROTECTION OF INVESTIGATOR-INITIATED GRANTS IS DEPLETING LONG-TERM RESEARCH "CAPITAL" FOR TRAINING AND FACILITIES -- IoM PRESIDENT THIER
NIH's emphasis on investigator initiated grants is exhausting the basic resources for research, such as training and facilities, Samuel Thier, president of the Institute of Medicine, told the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association annual meeting in Boca Raton, Fla. April 3. Thier criticized NIH's continuing support for more, larger and longer grants during the 1980's as the pursuit of "an irresponsible budgetary structure and strategy." Noting that the "very striking drop" in NIH funding for investigator-initiated grants to 4,600 RO1 grants this year (down from 5,500) has caused "screams and cries of pain" from the research community, Thier contended that the decline is the payback of poor budgetary choices. He tried to put the cutback in project numbers in context, however, noting that the decline is only a temporary setback for the U.S. research community. The average size of the RO1 grant continued to increase during the 1980's, Thier observed, while that "did not happen at the National Science Foundation [where] the average size of the grant went down." By the end of the decade, Thier said, "NIH was funding more grants at a higher level than they had ever funded before." The IoM president added that "if you look at the average length of grants in 1988, you will find that over half the grants are funded for up to five years." Thier pointed out that NIH "increased the number of grants, the dollars per grant, and the duration of grants." The effect of those decisions was to make necessary an "increase [of] the NIH budget in an exponential fashion." When those increases stop, "the payback has to come, in which the dollars available for new grants [are] eaten up by the old grants," Thier contended. "That's where we are this year. It is not nearly as dramatic as people are making it sound." The complaints of underfunding for biomedical research are based on an "enormous mythology," he alleged. Thier's comments are noteworthy as a preview to a report IoM will release later this year addressing NIH's fiscal responsibility. Thier's presentation to PMA indicated that IoM will come out strongly for a redistribution of NIH resources. His comments come at a time of review for NIH's mission. HHS has established a blue ribbon panel to make recommendations on the future direction for the agency. NIH's spending on training has dried up to a neglible amount of the overall budget, Thier said. "Our investment in the next generation has progressively fallen off during this period of time," he said, adding "What I want you to notice then is that we have taken away from training and put [resources] into RO1s for investigator initiated research." Similarly, Thier was critical of the amount of the NIH budget alloted to improvement of facilities and equipment. There has been "virtually no investment at all" in facilities, he said, according to the IoM review of NIH's budget. "The message that I am trying to deliver is that we have pursued a strategy in biological research which has said that our product is research and what we are going to do is that we are going to keep producing that product and we are going to spend down all of our long-term capital if we have to," Thier asserted. The research community hopes "that someone will bail us out when [the spending] finally comes down around our ears." He pointed out that the new demands for NIH's budget come "at exactly the time when it is most difficult to get the federal government to consider increasing investment."
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