Devastating: NIH Releases Guidance on Extramural Activities Following the Government Shutdown

Update: Due to overwhelming negative (and quite angry) feedback received by the NIH from researchers across the country, the NIH released a “Revised Guidance on Resumption of NIH Extramural Activities Following the Recent Lapse in Appropriations” on Oct. 22, 2013. “Responding to input from applicants and reviewers, NIH has reevaluated the plans for rescheduling initial peer review meetings that were cancelled due to the government shutdown. NIH will now reschedule most of the 200+ missed peer review meetings so that most applications are able to be considered at January 2014 Council meetings.” This is wonderful news, and also a great example of how change can occur if enough people make their voices heard! From Dr. Sally Rockey’s blog: “My colleagues and I have heard from many of you since Friday, expressing significant concerns regarding delaying the review of applications to the May council round due to the Government shutdown. Applicants faced with a four month delay in a funding decision described serious consequences to their research programs. Additionally, many reviewers contacted us saying they are ready and willing to do anything to get these reviews done. In light of this feedback, our review staff have risen to the challenge, and will be working with reviewers to go the extra mile in exceptionally creative ways to reschedule as many of the 200+ missed October review meetings as possible.” Dr. Rockey is the NIH’s Deputy Director for Extramural Research.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the nation’s largest public funder of biomedical research has just released a notice titled “Guidance on Resumption of NIH Extramural Activities Following the Recent Lapse in Appropriations,” which explains the NIH’s plans following the government shutdown that ended on October 17th.

In addition to setting new due dates for grant applications due during the shutdown (most moved to November), the NIH has also decided to move all missed peer review sessions schedule for during the shutdown to February/March.  This will have a potentially devastating impact on researchers across the country, and I worry may be the final impetus for many to move overseas to countries who’s budgets are more favorable to science.

The grants being affected are those in “cycle II” of the NIH submission process, meaning they were submitted, for the most part, sometime in June or July and would have had a potential funding start date of April. This delay in the peer review step (also called the “scientific merit review”) will delay the potential start of funds to July at the earliest. While a three month delay does not sound long, this will certainly have a devastating effect on many many research programs. Due to flat funding of the NIH (really a cut in funding due to high inflation in biomedical research) and sequestration, the NIH has seen a 23% decrease in purchasing power since 2003. This translates into grant submission success rates of around 16-18%, the lowest ever. This in turn has already translated into research labs being unable to obtain funding, shuttering of research programs, and scientists fleeing the US for countries who are investing in science. Whereas 5-10 years ago many research labs operated with 2-3 federal grants, these budget cuts have forced many labs to live “grant-to-grant,” with only 1 large federal grant. With 2-3 grants, a principal investigator (PI, ie the head of a lab)  is able to overlap when specific grants are started and completed, ensuring there is never a lapse in funding. Now, with potentially only 1 grant with which to pay lab members, purchase lab supplies, and maintain animal breeding colonies, delay in funding of a grant application could mean the end of a lab, or at the very least, the forced lay off of lab members and/or discontinuation of research projects.

While I realize the NIH is in a very tough situation, with over 11,000 application reviews missed due to the shutdown, this course of action just does not seem justifiable to me. Dr. Sally Rockey, the NIH’s Deputy Director for Extramural Research had this to say on her blog Rock Talk, “The volume of missed review meetings severely complicates catching up with our normal awards cycle. Many reviewers have contacted us expressing their willingness to put in the extra effort now to make the reviews happen this cycle. However, it is impossible to manage the logistics of rescheduling hundreds of review meetings in the next six or so weeks. Thus, many meetings will need to be rescheduled for peer review in February/March, and those applications will be reassigned to the May council. I’m grateful to the reviewers for the work they have already done in preparing for the cancelled review meetings and for their willingness to pitch in during these difficult times.” I am not alone is thinking this decision by the NIH is a horrible one, just read the comments on Dr. Rockey’s blog post to hear the research communities collective outrage!

Cross-posted on FOSEP co-leader Abigail Schindler’s blog SciencePolitics.


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