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Medical research grants harder to come by

Margaret McCarthy’s laboratory is like a small business.

Researchers work to better understand neurological differences between males and females in the laboratory of Dr. Margaret McCarthy (left), professor and chair of the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Six graduate students, four post-doctoral fellows, three research technicians and — during the summer — three undergraduates and two high school students crowd around the equipment, studying neurological differences between males and females.

McCarthy, as the lead researcher, pays their salaries — and her own — with four grants from the National Institutes of Health that total about $1.5 million a year.

The University of Maryland School of Medicine professor, who holds a Ph.D. in behavioral and neural sciences, sees firsthand what she describes as “the echo effect” throughout the scientific community of just one federal research grant. That’s why McCarthy, chairwoman of the Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics Department, is so distraught by the rapidly stiffening competition for grants, which she and others say has been exacerbated by a 5.1 percent sequestration cut to NIH’s budget.

“We’re at grave risk of losing a generation of scientists,” she said. “It takes 10, 12 years to be trained as an independent scientist — it’s not something where we can just turn the tap off and turn it back on when we’re ready. So when the funds dry up, that can have devastating consequences. If we don’t have people coming up the pipeline, well, there are plenty of people going out the other direction, but there won’t be anyone to replace them.”

That is exactly the scenario many researchers fear is on the horizon.

NIH will award about 700 fewer new competitive research grants this year than last year (an 8.6 percent drop) to eliminate the $1.55 billion it lost from sequestration, bringing its fiscal 2013 budget to $29.15 billion, according to the federal medical research agency, which has its headquarters in Bethesda.

For every six new grant applications that are submitted, only one will be funded, according to the agency. That’s a success rate of 16.6 percent, compared to 18 percent over the past two years.

Yet, long before the public ever heard of sequestration, success rates began their steady decline from about 30 percent a decade ago, highlighting a deeper challenge in the world of competitive research funding — one that many say threatens to dislodge the nation from its position as a global leader in medical research, disrupt the training of future generations of scientists and jeopardize patients’ lives that hinge on those discoveries.

“If we don’t do the research, we won’t be holding the patents,” said Dr. Sanjay Jain, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University and director of the Center for Infection and Inflammation Imaging Research. “And then we won’t be the ones making the new drugs — and that’s what holds the big money.”

A paradox

For each grant given to a researcher, a portion goes to his or her institution for “indirect costs” such as electricity and equipment. But for at least the past several years, NIH’s budget has not kept pace with inflation, which has been between 2 and 3 percent.

“So your overall revenue side has been significantly compromised while your expense side continues to rise,” said Dr. E. Albert Reece, dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “At least in the short term, that has to be supplemented by medical school resources.”

With less funding available, researchers submit more and more grants every year to boost their chances. Jain said he wrote 10 grants in the past year — an “obscene amount,” he said.

But he and his peers can’t stop. Many faculty members’ salaries are directly tied to the grants they receive, so they have little choice but to act out of self-interest and apply aggressively, McCarthy explained. That means that even as the pool of money shrinks, the pool of applications will continue to rise.

Reece said while he recognizes the problem created by those incentives, there’s no obvious solution from an administrator’s perspective.

“The investigator has to do all they can to secure their own funds,” he said. “And we, the institution, will be supportive of that because if they don’t, it becomes our responsibility to find the funds from someplace. And that becomes a huge financial burden.”

With funding prospects so low, talented researchers get discouraged, or leave the field altogether, Jain said.

“It’s just disastrous,” he said. “I don’t know how many labs will close down in the next couple of years. We’re all stressed. At some point you think about saying, ‘Oh, maybe we should go to greener pastures.’ You think about needing a stable life, needing to earn a living and raise a family.”

Sequestration’s impact

To put sequestration in context, the amount of the cut is about the same as the amount NIH funneled into Maryland last year: 133 organizations received $1.6 billion in grants, contracts, training programs and other funding mechanisms. Put another way, sequestration was akin to eliminating an entire year of economic impact on the agency’s home state.

In Maryland, Johns Hopkins University receives more NIH dollars than other any institution in Maryland. In research project grants alone, the university brought in $441 million via 857 awards. Including contracts, training grants for students and other funding mechanisms, Hopkins received $636 million from the agency.

Reductions to existing research grants will vary, but NIH officials said all researchers should expect to receive less than they were promised. On average, there will be a 4.7 percent cut, officials said. The Bethesda campus is home to about 6,000 researchers who work in the agency’s Intramural Research labs; they too will experience cutbacks.

There are no current plans to furlough or lay off employees at the agency, which has 27 institutes and centers under its umbrella, but state Del. C. William Frick, whose district includes Montgomery County, said Maryland’s workforce will still feel the pinch.

“It’s a major employer in Bethesda, and while it provides research dollars all around the nation, we have a lot of people who have administrative roles and managerial roles who are going to feel the effects,” he said, adding he’s also concerned that staffing will suffer at Maryland universities and at companies that do business with them.

“If there’s no clinical trial, you’re not going to hire the clinical assistants or the nurses to manage the trial because it won’t exist,” Frick said. “And if you’re not colleting the specimens, the labs aren’t going to be paid to analyze them. So there will definitely be some secondary effects.”

Next year, NIH will be dealt an 8.2 percent cut. Regardless of how long the cuts last, Reece said, significant damage will already have been done to a cohort of scientists-in-training.

“Even if [sequestration] has just a short-term impact on the nation, for them it’s a lifetime,” he said.

For all the talk about the long-term effects of the loss of research dollars, there are more immediate concerns, such as for terminal cancer patients participating in NIH-sponsored clinical trials.

“When NIH funds are cut back, those trials have to be scaled back. Period,” Reece said. “And these are potentially life-saving experimental treatments. I don’t want to get too dramatic with the consequences, but you can certainly use your imagination.”