Funding for the National Institutes of Health was thrust into the spotlight last week as canceled clinical trials for cancer patients became another flashpoint in the ongoing government shutdown standoff in Washington, D.C. The agency may serve as a high-profile pawn in a partisan budget battle, but for local researchers who depend on NIH grants, the stakes are clear.
Biomedical research at UVA relies heavily on funding from the NIH, which poured more than $120 million into labs in multiple departments last year. For those on the receiving end, the timing of the shutdown couldn’t be worse. The first week in October marked a cluster of major deadlines for NIH research projects. Applications for a round of three- to five-year grants were due, and peer review sessions—meetings of scientists and government staff to examine candidate projects and ultimately deem them worthy or unworthy of funding—were scheduled to take place all over the country.
There are only three such deadline cycles each year, and research and livelihoods hang in the balance with every one. But last week, the mother ship in Bethesda was silent.
Anindya Dutta, who chairs UVA’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, studies the genetic origins of cancer. His latest grant application was given a marginal score by reviewers in late September, meaning he may or may not qualify. Normally, NIH would now be giving him guidelines on how to follow up.
“Should I be preparing to resubmit? Or finding out how much money I got?” he asked. “I’m in a gray zone.”
That means the half-dozen researchers in his lab are, too. Their salaries are completely funded by the NIH, and until Dutta knows otherwise, he has to assume the worst—that he’ll have to let them all go well before his current grant expires in February. He’s not the only one. The bulk of UVA’s research staff across multiple departments receives no money from the University.
“If the NIH grants go away, the researchers go away,” Dutta said.
Because funding schedules are complicated chain reactions, each day the shutdown continues means the likelihood for disruption is greater, and researchers are worrying about the long-term effects of missing the window.
“I have a sort of lingering soreness that nobody understands the damage a gap in funding does,” said Dutta.
That soreness is becoming chronic for a lot of scientists dependent on federal funding. They watched grant support decline steadily and then nosedive after the economy tanked, then get slashed again when the sequester went into effect.
“I’ve been doing this for 35 years, and I’ve never seen it this bad,” said Robert Nakomoto, a molecular physiology and biological physics professor in the University’s School of Medicine. In a field that’s truly publish or perish, with faculty expected to support their salaries as well as their labs with grants, Nakomoto said the rapidly evaporating pool of NIH funds poses a serious problem.
“The University as a whole is having to make reconsiderations of what the faculty’s roles are,” Nakomoto said.
The impacts go beyond Grounds. As Dutta pointed out, the job loss associated with the dropoff in funding for UVA labs has a ripple effect on the local economy. “I would think any congressperson who has a major research university in their district would be paying close attention to making sure NIH funding is sustained,” he said.
“You don’t have to convince me,” said Fifth District Republican Congressman Robert Hurt. “I understand very well the importance of that research funding.” He said that’s why he got behind a House proposal to restore funding to the NIH, even as wrangling over the budget continued. The measure was shot down by the Senate, and as the standoff has rolled into a brewing battle over the debt ceiling, the promise of a swift resolution has seemed less and less likely.
Hurt showed no sign of wavering last week. While some Virginia Republicans have called for a vote on a “clean” budget, stripped of the policy demands that Democrats have rejected, he said he feels he has a responsibility to seize the chance to push spending reform.
“We can’t look at these deadlines and just say we need to go along and keep up the status quo,” he said.
UVA President Teresa Sullivan acknowledged the potential effect of the shuttered NIH on research funding at the University in an e-mail released the day the shutdown took effect, saying her administration was “working to identify options, available sources of temporary funding and other contingencies” should the impasse continue.
For now, Nakomoto said, University researchers just have to wait. “Scientists tend to be a fairly optimistic group,” he said. “But that only lasts so long.”