A comment over at writedit’s thread on NIH Paylines notes that one means by which the NIAID could respond to the Republican Congressional plan to return to 2008 budget levels is to slash all existing grants by 10%. In a seemingly disconnected prior post, Prof-like Substance was recently complaining abut the budgeting process when constructing a grant application. Yet a third source for my musings comes from Jeremy Berg’s overview of the final selection process for funding grants at NIGMS.

The other key factor for final funding decisions is, of course, the availability of funds…Paylists are then developed using the prioritized lists, with budget adjustments for each application based on NIH and NIGMS-wide policies as well as considerations specific to the application provided by the responsible program director. Applications are paid until the available funds are exhausted.

Emphasis added. These three sets of comments bring me around to a point that is not always made obvious to new NIH grant seekers.

Reductions to your proposed budget, should you be fortunate to be selected for funding, are routine.

Reductions are made for all kinds of reasons*, with essentially a single goal. That goal is for the IC in question, or the NIH as a whole, to fund more grant proposals for the same amount of money. Duh.

Not to insult your intelligence, but let us take up the R01 proposal that is at the modular limit, i.e., $250,000 in direct costs per year. Ten modules. If you trim 9 such proposals that you intend to fund by 10% then you end up with 10 projects funded instead of 9. Easy call, from the Program perspective.

There is a lot of upside for an IC, right? More science, slightly better looking success rate (because perhaps 100 applications were submitted to arrive at those 10 that were funded), more investigators funded (potentially adding one more Congressional District to the IC’s tally), etc.

This budget reduction, $25,000, is not chump change. Think about it. Even a relatively inexperienced technician might be making, what, about $30K so $36K with benefits. So that 10% reduction pretty much closes the door on hiring a new tech for the project. It’s a good chunk of grad student or postdoc costs as well. If this is a young investigator’s first award, this reduction may be the difference between being able to hire the tech they really need and not being able to do so because they have no other grants over which to spread the effort. Or what about major equipment? In the generic rodent substance abuse setting, this might be nearing the cost of 8 operant boxes for self-administration studies. So maybe you can afford to hire the technician….but her work efficiency in the first year has just been cut approximately in half because you don’t have that extra throughput capacity. Or perhaps that really tasty collaboration with another lab has to be dropped…compromising a longer term collaborative strategy, local politics, immediate throughput, etc. Suppose you do human studies- perhaps you have to cut the number of subjects you can reasonably get run…risking marginal power, losing that extra sub-analysis (for sex, age, ethnicity or whatever), compromising the number of assessments.

So the point is that reductions are almost inevitable…and they can really hurt your science**.

The only obvious answer, is to plan for this. Recognize that it is very likely that you will suffer a budgetary reduction on funding and make sure you can make the right moves in response. The right moves*** being the ones that cause the least damage to your plan of attack on the research and/or the development of your laboratory.

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*NIH-wide responses to general appropriations reductions, broad policies adopted under continuing resolutions, individual IC’s adopting a general strategy of award reduction, hits aimed specifically at untried or more-junior investigators, hits aimed at senior investigators who are judged to have a healthy amount of funding, etc, etc..

**I’ve been there. I’ve had situations in which some project I was working under was severely compromised in eventual output by funding reductions****. Sometimes there is very little you can do if the proposal was already constrained by mechanism and/or your research plan only broke down in very large chunks. Or little you can do if Program decides to whack your budget an unusually large amount. Or lops an entire year of funding off of the proposal (yes, this can happen too).

***There is a second, and I believe absolutely critical, head’s up play that you need to take when you have suffered a reduction upon award. And that is to lay down the record in your progress reports that you have suffered a reduction and have consequently deleted or ignored a part of your original plan. It is going to have an effect on your work, so you might as well not take the double-hit of being judged as if you had the originally proposed level of funding. Program Officers need to be reminded of this with your annual progress reports, although this doesn’t have to be a big deal assuming you got something accomplished each year. But when it comes time for your competing continuation application to be reviewed, I suggest that a specific story works a lot better than a lot of nonspecific whinging about budget reductions. In short it plays a lot better to say “We cut X, Y and Z experiments out of the plan because of the reductions imposed upon funding”.

****Yeah, you’d think Program would be better able to see that some projects are more amenable to cuts without complete disaster than others. Some are more of an all-or-none thing. But of course everyone would try to make that claim, wouldn’t they? sigh.