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NIH Cuts Grants To Guard Budget

WASHINGTON—NIH is cutting research grants to scientists by as much as 20 percent to keep in step with a Reagan budget proposal that is given little chance of being adopted this year by Congress. Lobbying organizations for the biomedical community are preparing to sue the government to halt what they claim is a violation of the wishes of Congress and of the appropriate procedure to achieve such spending reductions. The administration, believing Congress was overly generous to NIH, wants to

By | February 23, 1987

WASHINGTON—NIH is cutting research grants to scientists by as much as 20 percent to keep in step with a Reagan budget proposal that is given little chance of being adopted this year by Congress.

Lobbying organizations for the biomedical community are preparing to sue the government to halt what they claim is a violation of the wishes of Congress and of the appropriate procedure to achieve such spending reductions.

The administration, believing Congress was overly generous to NIH, wants to transfer to next year's budget $334 million of the $6.2 billion appropriated for the current fiscal year (see The Scientist, January 26, 1987). The shift in funds would be achieved by awarding 700 fewer new and competing grants and by trimming $218 million from the grants that are awarded or renewed.

Deputy Director William Raub said that NIH had to begin reducing grants awards in January "to ensure the $334 million would be available to be extended" should Congress approve the plan. Waiting until the summer for Congressional approval might force the NIH to make more drastic cuts—up to "30 to 40 percent," Raub said—in the relatively few grants remaining to be awarded during the tail end of the fiscal year. "This seems a more logical way to do it."

According to Raub, new and competing grants have been reduced by between 4 percent and 10 percent and noncompeting grants cut by 6 percent to 14 percent. The cuts range up to 20 percent at some institutes, Raub said. They do not apply to grants for research on AIDS.

Universities around the country have already felt the cuts. Lawrence Sharp, of The University of Washington dental school, said four grants just renewed by the National Institute of Dental Research were cut by 10 to 15 percent. Sharp estimated the dental school may lose $60,000 to $100,000 in expected grant money if other grants up for renewal in 1987 are similarly cut. Officials at Harvard Medical School, the John Hopkins University medical school, the University of California at San Francisco and the Forsyth Dental Center, a private research institution in Boston, also reported having had grants trimmed by NIH.

On January 21 NIH Director James Wyngaarden ordered that each award notice going out should contain the following explanation: "The President has submitted a legislative proposal to revive the FY 1987 budget with the objective of ensuring a stable source of funds for biomedical research. We have awarded the grant for this budget period in an amount consistent with the proposal that was submitted to the Congress for its consideration. The amount awarded may be increased prior to the end of the fiscal year."

Carol Scheman, director of federal relations for health and biomedical research at the Association of American Universities, said she had collected "about two dozen" grant awards indicating budget-related reductions in a two-week period since the January 21 memo. Investigators on some 5,911 grants—about 31 percent of the total—are scheduled to receive $986 million from January 1 to March 31 of this year.

Voluntary Halt Sought

Joseph Keys, legal counsel for the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), said the suit under consideration would ask for a temporary restraining order to stop the reductions. David Baime, AAMC executive secretary, said the association was waiting for a response from Health and Human Services Secretary Otis Bowen to a January 28 appeal from Sens. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.) and Lowell Weicker (R-Conn.), to halt voluntarily the reduction in grant awards.

Opponents claim NIH cannot impose the cuts without the approval of Congress. They add that NIH's actions also contradict the wording of proposed supplemental legislation drafted by the Office of Management and Budget that "there will be no Executive branch action to defer or otherwise restrict the funds currently available until after Congressional enactment of this proposal."

Raub and other NIH officials say they were surprised by the wording. "We expected explicit apportionment of the $334 million [in the supplement] but the 0MB did not do that," Raub said. He said NIH began to plan for the cuts in December, before the supplemental bill was drafted. For a time in January, he added, some institutes chose not to make any awards until NIH's position was clear.

Sens. Chiles and Weicker, the chairman and ranking minority member, respectively, of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees NIH, have also asked the General Accounting Office to determine if the administration's proposals should have been accompanied by a request for a deferral or recession of funds.

In the meantime, the cuts have angered the biomedical community. Restoring funds later in the year if Congress does not approve the cuts is no solution, said Len Koch, coordinator of government relations for the American Diabetes Association. "If you go to the supermarket without much money, you can wait for another time to buy a piece of chocolate cake. But if you're doing research, and you get only two-thirds of your funding now, you can't have a research program."

Cowen is a freelance science writer in Washington.
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