NIH Institute Directors Prepare for a Bumpy Budget Ride

California News Correspondent

This week more than 30,000 neuroscientists are in Washington, D.C., for the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. Yesterday the directors of several components of the National Institutes of Health appeared at a press conference to tout research that their institutes had funded.

Much of that work makes important contributions to understanding the brain and the disorders that affect it. But as Science reported in a series of articles last week, NIH directors will face tough choices in the years ahead. Reporter Greg Miller asked how the directors are preparing for the prospect of flat or declining budgets. The following exchange has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Story Landis (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke):

One of the strategies that I think each institute has undertaken is to take a very careful look at what we're currently funding. Each one of us has over the past decade created programs to address particular needs. [We are] very rigorously examining those programs. Have they perhaps reached their goal and no longer need to continue? Maybe the goal isn't critical anymore because we've learned about alternatives, or we now recognize we don't need that piece of information. Or the particular program may not be getting us towards that goal.

At NINDS we are very systematically looking through our legacy programs and closing the ones that simply aren't important to us anymore and using those funds to maintain our investment in basic science and come up with some new initiatives which we hope will move the field forward.

Richard Hodes (National Institute on Aging):

Another dimension that's very much on our minds, especially when you walk around among the 31,000 [scientists] here and look at the number of undoubtedly bright, dynamic young people, is how we weather this challenge in funding and avoid the loss of a generation -- and that's not hyperbole -- of investigators. We're all very cognizant about providing what advantage we can in support of young investigators.

Alan Guttmacher (Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development):

What we're more and more aware of is that we need to be thinking about opportunity costs. We may be doing things that are still productive, but could those resources -- not just dollars but scientific focus -- shift to some area to be more productive? I think there are many opportunities, as there always are, for rethinking the way we do science.

For instance, since more and more of the scientific enterprise is about not just accumulating data but analyzing the data once you have it, coming up with some innovative shared platforms for analysis so that the analysis tools don't have to be invented in each lab [would be useful]. A crisis should not be wasted. I think it's opened a dialogue about rethinking not just how to be more efficient but how to do better science.

Nora Volkow (National Institute on Drug Abuse):

Since I'm surrounded by journalists here, I'm going into a tangent. [One] aspect that to me is very important is the recognition that science is the solution to the economic problems we have, and that life sciences in particular, either through the development of technologies, or medications, or industries, is a very good investment. Science pays [off] economically.

Hodes:

Another strategy is the cross-cutting programs of the neuroscience blueprint, where the institutes are able to pull money together to fund large science projects that wouldn't be possible from a single institute.

Landis:

For example, one of them is the neuroinformatics framework, which has become this ever larger database we hope will allow access to neuroscience tools and help investigators work smarter, and also something [we] set up to house neuroimaging data analysis programs and make them easily accessible and available to lots of investigators. Our institute is coming up with something called common data elements so any trial for Parkinson's disease or ALS [Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis] or stroke looks at common factors, so you can look across those trials. Lots of efforts to data share, mouse share, and do better analysis.

Thomas Insel (National Institute of Mental Health):

All of us, whether we talk about this or not, think about the risks. There's always a threat to innovation when money gets tight. People want to get more conservative. And I think every one of us is intensely aware of that and we're making various kinds of adjustments to make sure that doesn't happen, through the [NIH] Common Fund, and the [NIH Director's] Pioneer Award and New Innovator Award. There are a whole series of mechanisms that have been put out there to make sure that early stage investigators and really innovative ideas still get supported even when the money is tight. We are entirely committed to that.

Posted in Funding