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RESEARCH FUNDING: U.S. Biomedicine's Mother Ship Braces for Lab Closings

Jocelyn Kaiser Distress signals are emerging from the intramural program at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, as funding troubles begin to pinch. Most institutes are affected, but the pain is acute at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), where up to 12 intramural labs--run by 16% of 74 tenured staff--could be shuttered. "This is a completely new category of nightmare," says an NICHD investigator who asked not to be named. Compared with a poor review in the extramural world, in which a researcher can try for a new grant, closing an intramural lab means going "from full funding to zero," he says. NICHD's troubles reflect the impact of 5 years of flat budgets on the $2.8 billion NIH intramural program. The campus has seen a net loss of 114 of 1252 principal investigators (PIs), or 9%, since 2004 when a period of rapid growth halted. Half of the decline came in the past year, according to NIH data. "There's no way with conservation of matter to do anything else," says NIH Deputy Director for Intramural Research Michael Gottesman, who nevertheless thinks the program is still "a reasonable size." He adds that the squeeze "is not unique to NIH or any organization," although extramural research seems less constrained. The number of funded extramural PIs has hovered around 26,300 for the past 4 years, according to NIH. Gottesman points out that the intramural program has downsized before, after a 1994 blue-ribbon panel called on NIH to cut less productive programs and create a formal tenure system. The number of PIs dropped from roughly 1584 in 1990 to 1206 in 2000. Growth resumed from 2000 to 2002 (see graph). But when it stopped, many of NIH's 21 intramural programs had a hard landing. Scientific directors saw budgets lag behind inflation while costs increased. As a result, at the National Cancer Institute, the tally of PIs has dropped by 65 to 253, a decline of about 20% since 2003, says Center for Cancer Research Director Robert Wiltrout. The institute has been more aggressive in closing labs after a leader retires or receives low marks on a site visit. And some top scientists have simply left. The diabetes institute closed several labs in 2006 to help trim 7% from its operating budget, says National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases senior scientist Alan Schechter. Last year, a shortfall in lab operating funds at NICHD forced scientists to curtail experiments and travel (Science, 18 May 2007, p. 968). The possible cuts in personnel at NICHD, however, appear to be more drastic than any before. Soon after the final NIH budget passed Congress in mid-December, Owen Rennert, NICHD's scientific director, met with program chiefs and "tentatively outlined … some areas that could be reduced" to free up $15 million, he told Science by e-mail. In January, a few PIs were told their labs were to be closed this year. After staff protested to Gottesman, Rennert relented. In a 30 January e-mail sent to Science and circulated to his staff, he wrote that "no decisions have been reached." Any cuts in programs, he wrote, would be based on reviews by outside scientists over the next 2 years and factors such as publications and relevance to NICHD's mission. Still, anxiety is running high throughout NICHD's labs. Some don't blame Rennert; he has made "Herculean efforts" to avoid lab cuts until now, says one senior scientist. But PIs who are due for their 4-year site visit in April are now bracing for the worst. Those whose labs are closed won't be out of a job, Gottesman says, but will have to join someone else's lab or become an extramural grants administrator. University positions seem out of the question for anyone but superstars. Even if they survive, NICHD scientists worry about the impact: "You'll have to be more focused and not take as many risks," says fruit fly geneticist Judith Kassis. It seems unlikely that NIH's intramural researchers will get much sympathy from outside, where funding is also tight. Yale University cell biologist Barbara Ehrlich, a member of NICHD's board of scientific counselors, says that although some of its investigators are "just spectacular," others "haven't kept up as much." And Gottesman says there's a bright side to this "pruning": It has freed up some money to strengthen other labs, including big teams doing cutting-edge science. (The overall number of intramural scientific staff, about 6000 to 7000 M.D.s and Ph.D.s, is probably stable, he says.) "For the remaining scientists, this is still a terrific place." He admits, however, that "everybody says that I'm a Pollyanna."