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August 31, 2006

Bridge funding to NIH freeze

Pitt will help counteract an expected freeze in the key federal biomedical research funding stream with short-term “bridge funding.” The funding seeks to keep afloat research projects that likely will not be renewed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is facing a static budget.

Under President Bush’s proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2007, which begins Oct. 1, NIH funding will be frozen at FY06 levels. The funding freeze at $28.6 billion follows last fiscal year’s cut of $35 million, which was the first actual dollar reduction in NIH funding since 1970, according to Michelle Broido, associate vice chancellor for basic biomedical research and director, Office of Research, Health Sciences.

“Really, for the last three to four years the NIH budget has been essentially flat,” Broido said. “It has not kept up with the biomedical research inflation rate, which has been running about 3.8 to 4 percent.”

Broido said a committee of Pitt Health Sciences faculty with both basic research and clinical research backgrounds has been formed to evaluate internal applications for the bridge funding. Beginning Sept. 1, the committee will prioritize projects based on specific needs, investigator track record, scientific merit, likelihood that the research will garner external funding within one year and funds available.

The committee also will consider the consequences to a researcher’s career, Broido said. “They will ask, ‘What happens to an investigator if a research project goes on hiatus?’ If you’re a grad student who has worked on a project for four to five years and has only a half-year to go to get a PhD, it isn’t fair to just say, ‘You have to start all over with another project.’ It can really affect people’s careers.”

Funding for approved projects will come from school and department budgets and, as a last resort, from senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences discretionary funds, Broido said.

“We just don’t know yet how many applications we will receive. It could be hundreds; it could be dozens,” she said.

With 1,022 grants totaling $395.9 million from NIH in FY04 (the last year for which definitive numbers are available), Pitt ranked 7th nationally among all educational institutions with affiliates (i.e., Children’s and Magee-Womens hospitals).

Preliminary figures released by NIH this spring indicate Pitt received almost $428 million in FY05, continuing its rank as 7th most-funded institution nationwide, Broido said.

But even the most promising and already successful research projects are being turned down for renewal by the cash-squeezed NIH, she said.

“For example, we have an investigator who has received multiple grant renewals for some 18-20 years,” Broido said. “He submitted a renewal application that was rated outstanding — the highest rating possible — by the NIH, in the top 15 percentile. That would be a slam dunk in most years, but the NIH did not renew the grant.”

Following a rejection, the NIH evaluation procedure calls for researchers to re-apply while answering the criticisms of evaluators. “Of course, in this case there were no criticisms,” she said. “And, in fact, the re-submitted application was given an even higher percentile rating — the 11th percentile — but was still not funded.”

In some cases, a funding hiatus spells disaster for researchers, Broido maintained. Clinical research, particularly, could be rendered worthless if funding is cut off, because many clinical trials require specified patient follow-up intervals, she pointed out.

Because the requests for bridge funding likely will exceed available funding, the Pitt committee will look only at renewal applications that received favorable reviews but were not funded, Broido said.

The exceptions are if an established researcher is seeking a significant change in scientific direction and had submitted a new application that received favorable reviews but was not funded; or if a junior investigator supported by start-up funding has sought external support and his/her application was reviewed favorably but not funded.

Broido holds out little hope that the U.S. Congress will increase NIH funding above the president’s proposed amount. “What frequently happens is that the Senate will say, ‘No, that’s not enough funding,’ and will pass more funding, and then the House recommends less of an increase and they split the difference. But this year the signs we see so far are not encouraging,” she said.

For bridge funding application procedures, guidelines and deadlines, visit the Office of Research, Health Sciences web site: (Click on the link Health Sciences Bridge Funding Program.)

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 1

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