University of California San Francisco
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NIH Official Says Spending Cuts Pose Unprecedented Threat to Biomedical Research

By Patricia Yollins | | October 1, 2013

NIH Official Says Spending Cuts Pose Unprecedented Threat to Biomedical Research

Sally Rockey talks with scientist Tejal Desai during a tour at UCSF Mission Bay. Photo by Cindy Chew.

Scientific progress and innovation are speeding along, faster than ever before, but arbitrary spending cuts are posing an unprecedented threat.

That’s the sobering paradox of biomedical research according to Sally Rockey, PhD, a high-ranking official at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), who visited UC San Francisco last week.

Rockey, PhD, deputy director for extramural research at the NIH, oversees about $25 billion in grants, which represent more than 80 percent of the NIH budget.

The title of her address says it all: "NIH: Interesting Times, Challenging Times."

She spoke of the astounding impact of biomedical research on U.S. health: The cancer rate is falling about 1 percent a year. Death rates for cardiovascular disease have dropped 60 percent in the last half-century. And HIV therapies are enabling people in their 20s infected with the virus to live to age 70 and beyond.

Sally Rockey talks with scientist Tejal Desai during a tour at UCSF Mission Bay.

"It demonstrates that when you put money behind an issue or disease, you can move rapidly," Rockey said, adding that it also shows that NIH-supported research on retroviruses provided a knowledge base when the AIDS epidemic surfaced.

Rockey showed a photograph of the enormous campus of the NIH, which has 17,000 federal employees and another 20,000 contractors. It funds about 25,000 institutions and organizations at any given time, and between 300,000 and 400,000 individuals.

About one of every 500 members of the U.S. working population is in some way supported by the NIH, said Rockey, who was acutely mindful of the possibility of the looming government shutdown that has since become a reality.

Between 1998 and 2003, the NIH budget more than doubled, from $13 billion to $27 billion. But now it has flattened, Rockey said, and about 25 percent of its buying power has been lost because of the increased cost of research.

"We’ve been flat for a long time, and this becomes problematic for us," said Rockey, who appeared Sept. 24 at Genentech Hall on the UCSF Mission Bay campus. "What really becomes problematic – and the thing that you all feel – is the reduction in the success rate."

The rate – the number of awards divided by the number of applications – was 17.8 percent in 2012, "really low" compared with a historic high of 30 percent.

"What does this mean?" Rockey asked. "This is a really tough time to think about the future of individuals considering a future in biomedical research, because they know they have only a 15 percent chance of getting funded and there’s a lot of work that goes into putting these proposals together."

A 'Difficult Time for All of Us'
Rockey added: "This is a difficult time for all of us."

She said there’s been an incredible reduction in the portion of government funds in the United States going to science, while other countries are investing heavily.

"This is unprecedented, because we are scientific leaders," Rockey said. "... Who, if not the government, is going to support basic science? This is really, in my mind, one of the roles of the government."

Sequestration meant the NIH lost 5 percent of its budget overnight, with more cuts likely to come, she said.