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Was fiscal year 2013 our unlucky number?

Was fiscal year 2013 our unlucky number?

Posted on October 30, 2013 by Robin Barr, Director of the Division of Extramural Activities. See Robin Barr's full profile.

We just wrapped up the fiscal year.

The quick summary? We scraped through.

For research project grants like R01s, we held our payline (or funding line) to the same level as the prior two years. This is what we promised in the funding policy back in May, and I’m really happy to report that we kept that commitment.

For career development awards we increased the payline to an impact score of 20. We reached into the 20s for fellowships, and even managed into the 30s for small business applications. (We write about NIA paylines on this blog pretty regularly, so if you need more background about how they work, please check out those posts.)

Then there’s the story of the proposed additional funds for Alzheimer’s disease research that were to come our way in fiscal year 2013, but never made it. Yet applications responding to recommendations from our Alzheimer’s Summit arrived anyway. The NIH Director, Francis Collins, found an additional $40 million for specific Alzheimer’s projects, and the NIA squeezed $5 million for them from an already tight budget. So we made awards to those and other projects during the year. But none of it was easy—for us, or for you.

Fiscal year 2013 meant “taxes” on grantees, bookkeeping changes.

How could we maintain the same payline for research project grants in this budget environment? The payline held because we taxed noncompeting awards by 5.5%. And, a bookkeeping change helped our career development awards. We paid one round of awards—the one that’s paid in the fall—in the new fiscal year instead of the previous fiscal year. That freed money for fiscal year 2013. It is a dodge that works only once though.

Still, with all that, too many deserving applications are unpaid. Too many junior investigators have been left out of funding and have made career changes. Too many opportunities to make a difference have quietly faded.

What’s in store for fiscal year 2014?

So as we look to 2014 what do we see in our crystal ball?

Shutdown effects.

The 16-day suspension of operations significantly affected our grant submission and review process. Read more about how we’re restarting research funding.

No firm budget.

The President’s budget for fiscal year 2014 proposed an increase in funds for the NIH and for Alzheimer’s research. However, the final budget could be quite different than what he has proposed. We are operating on a temporary funding measure, and it is likely months before a budget will be settled for us. Optimistic pessimism or pessimistic optimism… I once thought such pairing impossible.

Some applications still protected.

We will continue to give advantage to applications requesting under $500,000 in direct costs in all years over more expensive applications. We will continue to prioritize new and early-stage-investigator R01 applications. One policy protects our current success rate and the other protects our future. We hope that we will not have to squeeze current awards further. We can only go to that well so many times. With an initial 18% cut and an end to inflationary increases, our awards had suffered substantial erosion even before sequestration.

We watch activity on the Hill as you do and have no inside information on outcomes. Still I remain reasonably confident that if you apply, you will have some chance of funding, and if you do not apply, you will have none. That doesn’t change—even though the odds of funding slip from time to time.

Creative solutions and big ideas are under discussion.

Some people at the NIH talk about changing our funding strategy in a big way. These voices argue that the NIH has built an enterprise that is unsustainable in the current environment of pinched budgets and diminishing expectations. The argument is that investigator salaries are the major cost driver in NIH grants. Only by changing the expectation of compensated salary can we manage a reasonable success rate as budgets fall. That argument has not yet gathered a broad following. Shards of hope remain that times will change, and we can continue the current model.  I hope for that too.

Yet current circumstances call for creativity in management as well as in research. At the NIA we remain focused on our goals of funding research that will benefit the health and well-being of older people. We want to get the most benefit from every dollar invested, and that means identifying and implementing even more efficient spending and cost cutting. We absolutely want a shared dialogue with you as we continue to work through these difficult challenges.

Questions or thoughts about how budget uncertainties have been affecting you? Please let us know by submitting a comment below.

 

Read next:

Ripple effects: restarting research funding after shutdown

1 Comments
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Posted by Silvia on Oct 31, 2013 - 11:07 am
"The argument is that investigator salaries are the major cost driver in NIH grants. Only by changing the expectation of compensated salary can we manage a reasonable success rate as budgets fall. " If this comes to pass, the research careers of individuals who are dependent soft-money for salary support will be over. Surely this is not a viable option!

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