Collins on NIH Budget, Investigator-Initiated Research, Basic Science, etc.

In the published version of his interview with Science, Francis Collins had some rather grim news for NIH-supported investigators, particularly those in the basic sciences:

Q: Regarding the budget and grant funding, you’ve said that you expect very low success rates in 2011, 15%. What’s this going to mean?

F.C.: We don’t know what the budget will end up being. Obviously, the signs are not particularly good that the Congress will do better than the president’s budget [a 3.2% increase]. Some noises might even indicate that they’ll do worse.

We will undoubtedly have to look at draconian things like downward negotiations, which means cutting the budgets of approved grants in order to try to free up dollars to fund more grants. We are trying to protect certain parts of the enterprise. Postdoc training slots, for instance. But I’m sorry, I can’t come up with a magic solution here that is going to reduce all of the pain.

Q: Some researchers are worried that your emphasis on translational research and big goals will mean cutting back on investigator-initiated grants.

F.C.: I don’t think they should be very worried. Everybody’s going to be stressed, so it will be tempting if your grant didn’t get funded to look around for some reason other than the fact that it was a tough year budgetarily. The amount of additional funds that might go into focusing on translation are going to be maybe 1% or thereabouts of the overall NIH effort. That shouldn’t have a very big effect.

Q: Does that mean 1% less for investigator-initiated research?

F.C.: I would argue that if NIH simply said we’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing all along, we’re not in a very good position then to ask the Administration or the Congress to give us more resources.

The translational goals get a lot of traction with the Congress, with the public. They should. I mean, we’re the National Institutes of Health. We are supposed to be coming up with ways to prevent and treat disease.

I was a bit taken aback by that last answer, but in the complete transcript of his almost hour-long interview with Science staffers Jocelyn Kaiser, Eliot Marshall, and Laura Zahn, Collins’ full sentiments become more clear. The full question was:

so we wanted to talk about the budget and the stimulus cliff which you’ve been talking about on the Hill lately. You’ve said that you expect very low success rates, 15%. What’s this going to mean? Is it going to shut labs down? We’ve heard plenty of people talking about posdocs being out of work. What’s it going to mean if that’s what you get?

Collins first notes that success rates depend on a lot of things, including “the budget you actually have to spend.” And then …

Yesterday’s primary result was a big disappointment, I think to many people. {clearly the interview was held on May 19th, the day after our primary election here in BICO- writedit} We were hoping to see Senator [Arlen] Spector [(D-PA)] reelected because he’s been such a strong champion for medical research, as you all know. And I am personally grieving at that outcome because of what it may mean for medical research in the congressional appropriation process. And because Senator Specter as a human being has been remarkably devoted to making the case for the importance of this kind of work. And he’s a courageous cancer survivor himself.

And the real pisser is what has happened in the aftermath of Sestak’s win … but don’t get me started.

Collins adds

So we don’t know what the budget will end up being. Obviously the signs are not particularly good that Congress will do better than the president’s budget. Some noises even indicate they’ll do worse with all the other pressures upon them from education needs and so on.

The other question we don’t know the answer to is what will be the number of grant submissions in FY’11. I will tell you, there were some concerns that we would see a huge deluge already in the January submissions because even though they would be submitted in January 2010 because of the cycle time, they wouldn’t be funded until early ’11. And many people were wondering if all those Challenge Grant applications, those 20,000 that came in during the stimulus and only 800 of those got funded, are the other 19,200 going to come back? … {but} We didn’t see a particularly big bump.

Well, a 13% increase in applications received since Oct 2009 (even with some ARRA applications still coming in) isn’t nothing …

We will undoubtedly have to look at draconian things like downward negotiations, which means cutting the budgets of approved grants in order to free up dollars to approve more grants.


When asked whether the NIH would be “facing more flat funding”, Collin states the obvious:

Our system is every year is a brand new year and you’re very much at the mercy of what’s happening with the economy and the political system. And we have to roll with that and do the best we can. … It will obligate all of us who are science managers … to look really hard at whether there are less productive areas of sicence that we can’t continue to push forward just because we always have.

And then we get to the full answer to the “Does that mean 1% less for investigator initiated research?”, which is quite a bit longer and a bit more encouraging – for those in basic research – than the printed excerpt:

… When you no doubt listened to the hearings in the House and the Senate, a lot of interest about translation, about the Cures Acceleration Network and whether it’s going to get appropriated and not just authorized. And I think that puts us in a pretty good position to say, we really are at a critical juncture as far as moving basic science forward discoveries into the clinic in ways that we couldn’t have 5 or 6 years ago.

All that being said, I totally want to protect the basic science foundation of everything we do because that is our future. And I would certainly say to any R01 investigator who’s worried about this that the vast majority of the discoveries that are going to matter are going to come from those hypothesis-driven investigator-initiated efforts.

… But I also want to inspire those individuals who may have thought of themselves as lifelong basic scientists to think translationally if the opportunity arises and not to feel that’s off limits. And that’s not for everybody but I can certainly point to a few basic scientists who found that pretty exhilarating. Why do people go into biomedical research? Curiosity, sure, it’s fascinating, it’s intellectually stimulating, it’s not very profitable if you’re in the academic sector. But also because you have a dream that you’re going to do something, that you’re going to discover something that wasn’t known before and you’re going to help somebody. And if we in this effort to emphasize translation are going to give a few more basic scientists a chance to see that part of their dream become a little more real, I don’t think that’s bad as long as we’re not seen as putting down the basic science part of their careers and many others like them. We can’t do that.

However, the funding emphasis will remain on translational and applied research – accelerating cures … on cue, it seems. And the more pure basic science, seeking to serendipitously discover mechanism … the way things work? I worry that these sorts of projects will be lost as “less productive” … harder to explain to Congress.

But then, in moving on to talk about drug discovery, a question comes up about the new regulatory science initiative between NIH and FDA, which will be paid for out of the NIH Common Fund. Eliot Marshall asks, “They [FDA] do have a research program, right?” To which Collins replies:

Very, very limited and they certainly have not had anything like this. And so we – most of this is actually funded by the NIH since their budget is so tight, so we volunteered because it seems like a great idea that will cover most of our costs. We put out an RFA and we got 59 letters of intent. I’ve read all of those and they’re really interesting. In fact, we’re going to be challenged when the review goes through, we may not have enough money to fund the best stuff and have to go scrabbling around to fund more.

Having read the RFA, I’m impressed they got 59 letters of intent (all read by the NIH Director – not something you think about when jotting off these formalities). I wonder how many applications came in and how much more than the budgeted $6M will go toward this rather unusual RFA … and those to follow as part of the larger “regulatory science” initiative.



  1. qaz said

    We’re all going to be very sorry in 30 years when the lack of investment in basic science comes back to haunt us. Throughout all scientific fields, the transition from basic science to actual on the shelf results is very close to 30 years. The problem is that you can’t look up in 2040 and say “oops, we have no basic science stuff to translate from” and try to catch up on 30 years missed; we have to invest in the basic science now.

    Companies are going to do the short-term translation (on the order of <5 years) because that's patentable and highly profitable. But companies aren't generally going to do research that has effects 30 years out. (Think what happened to Xerox Parc, who saw no profit from the breakthroughs that define the modern computer era.) Why does NIH want to compete with corporations?

    When are we going to get an NIH director that actually understands this?

    • writedit said

      I agree that the more important lesson to teach Congress is that it takes decades for basic science discoveries to translate into the clinic, and if we only fund projects that promise results in 5 years, we’ll be … let’s just say in a bad way in about a decade. Consider, for example, the policy forum article on the life cycle of translational research that showed a overall median translation lag of 24 years (interquartile range, 14 to 44 years). Sure, we can do things to shorten this lag, but not a lot … and nothing if there is not better understanding of basic mechanisms or new technologies and agents in the pipeline to translate.

  2. Fed guy said

    It sounds like Collins is preaching some Realpolitik. A lot of strong NIH supporters will be leaving Congress soon (David Obey is another one). I think he realizes that he has to cultivate some new NIH friends in Congress and give them something to “own”. Without Specter it will be hard for CAN to get any real funding.

  3. whimple said

    I agree that the more important lesson to teach Congress is that it takes decades for basic science discoveries to translate into the clinic, and if we only fund projects that promise results in 5 years, we’ll be … let’s just say in a bad way in about a decade.

    I think you could extend this statement to all science, not just translational science. The current low paylines are forcing all R01s to promise straightforwardly predictable results in 5 years, which means a lot of truly novel discovery is going to be lost.

  4. I know from personally helping out with two recruiting cycles that our basic science department and others are losing a ton of potential grad students to departments in the institution that are more translational in nature too. So its not just a money problem but also a body problem as well.

  5. VRWC said

    Not enough money? For starters, cap the F&A overheads at 25%.

    • Dexter said

      Amen to that!

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