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Lost Year Looms for Medical Research Under Stopgap Spending Bill

Young scientists could drop out of medical research and biomedical progress could derail for years thanks to spending restrictions imposed on NIH as part of stopgap funding measures.

The Senate is expected to take up soon a spending bill (H.R. 8337) to keep the government operating through Dec. 11. While the continuing resolution will keep the government open, the National Institutes of Health can’t initiate any new projects and may reduce existing grants until Congress passes a final labor-health and human services spending bill.

“They don’t know how much money they have to work with, so they are going to be very conservative and reduce the size of grants to provide contingency funds in case their budget is cut,” Ellie Dehoney, Research!America’s vice president of public policy and programs, said.

The NIH said in a statement it doesn’t comment on pending legislation.

While continuing resolutions have become increasingly common, this year’s stopgap bill comes as the pandemic cost the NIH about $10 billion in lost research dollars. That means there are early career scientists who couldn’t complete their research and don’t have the data to finish their manuscripts, said Tannaz Rasouli, executive director of the Ad Hoc Group for Medical Research and senior director for public policy & strategic outreach Association of American Medical Colleges.

“And there’s no indication of whether we can expect to see the type of investment that’s needed to help get them back on track,” Rasouli said. “I think for a lot of folks, it’s causing them to reassess their career paths.”

New Projects Suffer

Stopgap bills are particularly challenging for the NIH because it needs new money to get new research project grants out the door, Sudip Parikh, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said. That means new scientists trying to secure their first grants will be competing for a smaller pool of dollars against veteran researchers trying to keep their existing projects going.

“It’s hard to compete against grants that have already been funded. And so you’re really hurting this next generation of scientists,” said Parikh, who negotiated NIH budgets as a former scientific adviser to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The NIH has long recognized and worked to strengthen the biomedical research workforce by removing hurdles that make it difficult for young scientists. But those existing challenges add to the uncertainty of state budget cuts, lost productivity on research, and questions about Covid relief for scientists.

“These things are starting to add up, and we’re not going to see it today. We’re not going to see it in terms of scientific output in publications or in patents,” Parikh said. But there’s a whole generation of scientists in their 20s and 30s and 40s with kids at home, and how are they writing grants or putting forth new ideas, he asked. “There’s a disruption that goes beyond the numbers of the CR and the appropriation cycle. And what we shouldn’t be doing is adding to that disruption and uncertainty by having a CR now. We can control that.”

A Lost Year

The NIH has generally enjoyed bipartisan support from appropriators in both chambers with spending levels that have increased about 40% over the last five years to more than $41 billion in FY 2020. But shuttered labs have fallen behind on research as scientists have to restart labs and potentially find new staff, Dehoney said.

Medical progress has “easily been set back a year,” she said. “Those existing grants still can’t be completed unless there’s additional dollars.”

The NIH has received $3.59 billion in supplemental Covid-19 response funding that it has more flexibility to use in FY 2021 and future years, the NIH confirmed. But both Dehoney and Rasouli said other heath crises continue to persist.

“Cancer hasn’t the gone away. Alzheimer’s hasn’t gone away. Diabetes hasn’t gone away. The notion that we could potentially risk setting ourselves backwards on all of those fronts is really struggling,” Rasouli said. “While we need to continue to really double down on Covid and try to move forward in making as many advances as we can against the pandemic, unfortunately all of the other health crises that our country was facing also continue to be major challenges.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeannie Baumann in Washington at jbaumann@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at fjohnson@bloomberglaw.comAndrew Childers at achilders@bloomberglaw.com