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Obama's New Math on Medical Research

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

Yesterday, in a speech that the media are calling the de facto start of his reelection campaign, President Barack Obama offered up a bit of research arcana, the R03 award given by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It popped up (without its name attached) in his attack on a Republican proposal to lower tax rates for the wealthiest Americans.

The tax break, he said, would mean $150,000 apiece to every "millionaire and billionaire." Then Obama proceeded to explain what $150,000 might buy if it didn't go into the bank accounts of the rich. His list of seven items—including a year's worth of prescription drug coverage for a senior citizen, the annual salary of a firefighter or police officer, and a year of financial aid for a low-income college student—had one that might surprise biomedical researchers: "a medical research grant for a chronic disease."

The examples represented what Obama called "investments in education and research that are essential to the economic growth that benefits all of us." To be sure, it was classic political rhetoric, intended to highlight the difference between his priorities and those of Mitt Romney, his presumptive Republican opponent this fall. But researchers might wonder what he meant by low-budget studies of chronic disease.

ScienceInsider was intrigued because the average annual size of an NIH grant last year was $448,914. That's three times the total amount generated by the tax cut, according to the president's calculation.

To find out why the numbers don't seem to add up, we contacted the White House. The answer, according to a press official who requested anonymity, is that the president was talking not about the typical NIH grant, but specifically the bite-sized R03 mechanism, capped at $50,000 a year for a maximum of 2 years, that's supposed to help researchers collect enough preliminary data to submit a bread-and-butter R01 proposal.

Never mind that R03s constitute less than 0.5% of NIH's overall spending on research project grants last year. Apparently, it's their minuscule size that matters to the White House. The average size of the 1132 R03 awards funded in 2011, according to NIH, was $83,796, or roughly $42,000 a year. That number leaves more than $100,000 available for the other six items on the president's wish list.

Insider is still puzzled, however, by why Obama included the phrase "chronic disease." NIH's description of the R03 grant says it is typically used to support pilot or feasibility studies; secondary analyses of existing data; small, self-contained research projects; and development of research methodologies. There's no mention of chronic diseases. Of course, the commander in chief simply may have been using the phrase as a synonym for improving the nation's health, which is certainly central to NIH's mission.

Correction: The original version of the story misstated the annual size of a typical NIH grant.

Posted in Health, Policy