October 29, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Part II of former NIGMS Director Jeremy Berg interview: what surprised him most about NIH, what he would change, and looking to the funding future

Yesterday I had part I of my interview with NIGMS former Director, Dr. Jeremy Berg.

Today we have part II of the interview, which I found very interesting and helpful in providing a glimpse into NIH. I appreciate Dr. Berg doing the interview and his frankness.

Given the budgetary issues facing NIH in terms of funding from the federal budget, where do you see funding levels in the coming year? In the next 5 years? 

Answer: The next year is particularly hard to predict.  If sequestration (across the board cuts to all discretionary programs) goes into effect, the funding situation will be horrible.  It is projected that sequestration would result in an 8.2% cut to the NIH budget.  Given that approximately 80% of the NIH budget is already committed to ongoing grants and fixed costs, this would represent a 8.2% of the overall NIH budget taken out of 20% of the budget available for new and competing grants.  This corresponds to a 41% cut in funds for new and competing grants.  NIH would very likely cut committed grant budgets to some extent to reduce the damage, but the result would certainly unprecedentedly low success rates for grants.  If sequestration foes not take effect, this is still going to be a tough year.  The appropriations bill passed by the Senate Appropriations subcommittee has a 0.3% increase for NIH whereas the House Appropriations subcommittee has no increase.  Furthermore, each of these bills has some additional problematic features in terms of how the funds are distributed and other policy riders.  Usually, one would expect the finally appropriation (likely through a continuing resolution) to be between these figures.  This is well below inflation and the number of applications is up.  This would lead to lower success rates than the last year (which showed record lows) or the current year.  In the longer term, a lot depends on the overall economic situation.  If the economic situation improves substantially, then leaders in Congress and the scientific community may be successful in advocating for increases in the NIH budget, ideally increases greater than biomedical inflation.  At the same time, it is likely that the number of applications will decline somewhat over the five-year period if NIH appropriations do not increase as investigators dependent on extramural funding for their position are laid off or seek other positions.  It is crucial that the scientific community work hard and effectively to communicate the impact of continued sub-inflationary increases in the NIH budget will have on scientific medical program and American scientific leadership and competitiveness.

If you could wave a magic wand and make one change about the NIH funding system overall to make it, in your opinion, work better overall, what would it be? 

Answer: One change that would be on the list would be to develop a system for providing feedback to reviewers.  Some reviewers are outstanding, writing critiques that lay out the important issues in a manner that guides Council members and program staff in making funding recommendations and helps applicants and program staff formulate strategies when considering submission of amended applications.  Furthermore, some reviewers read and understand the programmatic goals associated with different funding opportunities, using different considerations, for example, when reviewing R21s compared with R01s.  However, other reviewers do not do nearly as good a job in these areas.  However, reviewers do not get constructive feedback to help them improve their reviewing skills.  NIH has discussed developing such a system over the years but, for a variety of reasons, has never elected to tackle this.  Properly implemented, such a reviewer evaluation/feedback system could lead to an improvement in the system, perhaps a substantial one.

What would you say was the most surprising thing you learned from your experience as a Director? 

Answer: I learned a tremendous amount during my time as NIGMS Director on many fronts.  Many of these surprises were positive.  For example, the competence and commitment of the staff members at NIH and, particularly, at NIGMS exceeded my expectations.  These people, in all roles…program officers, scientific review officers, grants management staff, administrative staff and so on, are highly committed to the NIH mission and helping scientists succeed.  On the negative side, I was sometimes surprised that relatively individuals at NIH realized how much power they had with the large amounts of data that NIH has at its disposal to analyze the outcomes of NIH programs and the potential impact of potential policies.  Over my time at NIH, I worked with others inclined toward such data analysis to try to provide a stronger factual and scientific basis for NIH policies.  I have been delighted to see such efforts continuing to grow to other institutes and the Office of the Director as revealed, for example, by the Rock Talk blog.

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