The NIH reduces proposed budgets to fund more grants

January 31, 2011

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.

*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.

No Responses Yet to “The NIH reduces proposed budgets to fund more grants”

  1. Glfadkt Says:

    NIDDK has imposed across-the-board 18-20% budget reductions for at least 5 years. If your percentile score is not good enough, you lose a year of support on top of that! This double-whammy means that a 5 yr project budgeted at $250K per year ($1.25M total) becomes a 4 yr project at $200K/yr ($800K total). That’s a horrible situation for the investigator!!! Moreover, they lop off a few additional % each year — my $250K annual budget was whittled down to $193K by the 5th yr. Let’s hope this new cut is not imposed on top of the already-existing policy at NIDDK….


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    Ouch. Brutal to have as a generalized policy….means the NIDDK investigators have to churn applications just that much harder.


  3. NCI just slashed our R01’s budget by 11% in year 3 of a 5 yr project. Its not too bad but like you said, we just lost ourselves a new technician that we wanted and desperately needed. Thankfully, NCI was kind enough to not slice away at our portion of the P01 pie.


  4. Namnezia Says:

    I had my new and only R01 cut by 2 years, from 5 down to 3! Fortunately we have other sources of funding and our expenses are low, which means we could probably carry over enough for year four.

    How shaky, though are carry-over funds? Can they just take them away without warning?


  5. I thought the NIH was good about no cost extensions, but maybe DM might say otherwise.


  6. pinus Says:

    anything over 25% requires justification. I hear from a long time grants admin person that while he has never seen a denial of carryover…it is popping up occasionally these days.


  7. DrugMonkey Says:

    For R01s, carry forward of $25% or less of the annual is entirely routine. Over that has to be approved by Program. Was trained with a healthy dose of “spend it or lose it” but every request for carryforward I’ve seen directly has been approved. Uncertain how often requests are denied..


  8. DrugMonkey Says:

    GR, as far as I know there is nothing special about no-cost extension (after final year of award) compared with carry-forward in the middle years..


  9. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Genomic Repairman and Daniel Saban, ScientopiaBlogs. ScientopiaBlogs said: The NIH reduces proposed budgets to fund more grants […]


  10. antipodean Says:

    This is not just a characteristic of NIH.

    The Australian NHMRC and the New Zealand HRC also do the same thing, and the British MRC may be the same?

    My last one was trimmed by less than 5%, which was the best deal anybody got around here. One of the senior professors had their budget trimmed by ca. 30%


  11. anon Says:

    FWIW, I am a New PI…my R01 was trimmed by 5%. no adjustment down in years. I imagine that it will get cut 10% in the next year. I have a pilot through a large NIH funded mechanism, and they just cut that 10%. I also have a R00…that was not cut. They tend to not cut those.


  12. 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.

    You don’t “make the right moves in response”. You write a budget that is large enough so that once it gets cut, you still have a sufficient budget to do what you planned. Obviously, this has to be tempered by what you can get past the study section, which is gonna depend on your career stage, productivity, etc. For new investigators, you are asking for trouble if you write a non-modular budget.


  13. Yep, this happens in Canada too. Hence the need to put some “cannon fodder” items in every budget.


  14. Namnezia Says:

    So over 25% carry-over requires justification. What does the justification entail exactly? Who reads whether it’s justified? For example I had set aside funds for a postdoc who bagged at the last minute. This is more than 25% (based on salary, benefits plus supplies budgeted for his part of the project). I’d rather carry over the surplus than to go on a wild spending spree.

    Plus, if the carry-over is denied, who keeps the funds? Does my university have to send money back?


  15. pinus Says:

    presumably, if you have a post-doc who bailed on you, you would put that in the justification. that is a very straight forward example. I would imagine your PO reads it….but I am not sure.


  16. drugmonkey Says:

    What pinus said. Not entirely sure who has to review it at the program level but one would assume the PO at the very least, possibly the Branch head. Further up seems unlikely but I really don’t know.

    A post-doc who bailed and a plan to support another one seems like a perfectly typical example to me. I think I’ve used that one myself once or twice.

    yeah, if denied the Uni has to give the money back to the Fed.

    What I hate about this process is that it always seems as though by the time we get our permission back, about half of the *next* year has elapsed….


  17. Neuro-conservative Says:

    A pedantic clarification: The Uni does not “give back” the funds — a NoA does not constitute a big check signed by Uncle Sam for deposit in a Uni bank account.

    NIH funds are “drawn down” by the Uni after being spent on supported activities. Thus, a denial of carryover would technically mean a refusal to permit additional draw-downs, rather than a giving back of moneys already in possession of the Uni.

    Not that your Dean will be any less upset about the situation.


  18. drugmonkey Says:

    s’okay N-c. That’s the exact same sort of pedantry that PP would normally supply, only with more insults….


  19. Carlos Merengue Says:

    Ha, Ha. The NIH budget is going to be cut big time, and all you useless scientists are going to be unemployed. Maye instead of blogging here, you guys should start sharpening your waitressing skills!


  20. CD0 Says:

    I hope that you are not really Latino, embarassing moron. Cambie el nombre por el de su padre si algun dia lo encuentra.


  21. Yoshimi Says:

    Namnezia, I’m wondering (panicking) about your earlier comment: “I had my new and only R01 cut by 2 years, from 5 down to 3!”.

    Was that with ESI status? From NINDS? I had been under the impression that they were trying to give ESIs 5 full years of funding.


  22. Namnezia Says:

    @Yoshimi – It was with ESI status but from a different neuro-related institute.


  23. Larz Says:

    Here is a question for you….

    Do you have to get an approval for reduction of effort (more than 25%) if the budget was reduced?

    Let’s say that in Year 1, the budget was cut by 18%. So, the PI reduced her effort by 18% (on paper — the work is still being completed).
    In Year 2, NIH cut the budget by 4%. So the PI cut her effort by 4%.
    It is now Year 3, and the budget was cut by 4%. If the PI reduces her effort by 4%, she has now reduced her effort by more than 25% (total). Does she need to get approval for this?

    How do other PIs handle this scenario?


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