Cancelled NIH study sections: a subtle, yet disastrous, effect of the government shutdown10 Oct 2013
Editor’s note: This post is contributed by Debashis Ghosh. Debashis is the chair of __the Biostatistical Methods and Research Design (BMRD) study sections at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). BMRD’s focus is statistical methodology.
I write today to discuss effects of the government shutdown that will likely have disastrous long-term effects on the state of biomedical and scientific research. A list of the sections can be found at http://public.csr.nih.gov/StudySections/Standing/Pages/default.aspx. These are panels of distinguished scientists in their fields that meet three times a year to review grant submissions to the NIH by investigators. For most professors and scientists that work in academia, these grants provide the means of conducting research and funding for staff such as research associates, postdocs and graduate students. At most universities and medical schools in the U.S., having an independent research grant is necessary for assistant professors to be promoted and get tenure (of course, there is some variation in this across all universities).
Yesterday, I was notified by NIH that the BMRD October meeting was cancelled and postponed until further notice. I could not communicate with NIH staff about this because they are on furlough, meaning that they are not able to send or receive email or other communications. This means that our study section will not be reviewing grants in October. People who receive funding from NIH grants are familiar with the usual routine of submitting grants three times a year and getting reviewed approximately 6 months after submission. This process has now stopped because of the government shutdown, and it is unclear when it will restart. The session I chair is but one of 160 regular study sections and many of them would be meeting in October. In fact, I was involved with a grant submitted to another study section that would have met on October 8, but this meeting did not happen.
The stoppage has many detrimental consequences. Because BMRD will not be reviewing the submitted grants at the scheduled time, they will lack a proper scientific evaluation. The NIH review process separates the scientific evaluation of grants from the actual awarding of funding. While there have been many criticisms of the process, it has also been acknowledged that that the U.S. scientific research community has been the leader in the world, and NIH grant review has played a role in this status. With the suspension of activities, the status that the U.S. currently enjoys is in peril. It is interesting to note that now many countries are attempting to install a review process similar to the one at NIH (R. Nakamura, personal communication).
The effects of the shutdown are perilous for the investigators that are submitting grants. Without the review, their grants cannot be evaluated and funded. This lag in the funding timeline stalls research, and in scientific research a slow stall now is more disastrous in the long term. The type of delay described here will mean layoffs for lab technicians and research associates that are funded by grants needing renewal as well as a hiring freeze for new lab personnel using newly funded grants. This delay and loss of labor will diminish the existing scientific knowledge base in the U.S., which leads to a loss of the competitive advantage we have enjoyed as a nation for decades in science.
Economically, the delay has a huge impact as well. Suppose there is a delay of three months in funding decisions. In the case of NIH grants, this is tens of millions of dollars that is not being given out for scientific research for a period of three months. The rate of return of these grants has been estimated to be 25 – 40 percent a year (http://www.faseb.org/portals/0/pdfs/opa/2008/nih_research_benefits.pdf), and the findings from these grants have the potential to benefit 1,000s of patients a year by increasing their survival or improving the quality of their lives. In the starkest possible terms, more medical patients will die and suffer because the government shutdown is forcing the research that provides new methods of diagnosis and treatment to grind to a halt.
Note: The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer, Penn State University, nor those of the National Institutes of Health nor the Center for Scientific Review.