Budget cuts challenge researchers at NIAMS and NIH

                Stephen Katz

 By Stephen Katz, MD, PhD

I am delighted to have this opportunity to share highlights of research activities and plans at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) and National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The mission of the NIAMS, a part of the NIH, is to support research into the causes, treatment, and prevention of arthritis and musculoskeletal and skin diseases; the training of basic and clinical scientists to carry out this research; and the dissemination of information on research progress in these diseases. 

Fiscal Year 2013 was a challenging one for NIAMS, NIH, and the research community at large. These agencies faced mandatory budget cuts required by the Budget Control Act, also referred to as sequestration, as well as the government shutdown that occurred in October.

Sequestration and shutdown

Due primarily to the effects of sequestration, the NIAMS Fiscal Year 2013 budget was $505 million — a 5.6 percent reduction from the previous fiscal year. I worked closely with staff across the NIAMS and NIH to ensure that our grant-application success rates for researchers were as high as possible, despite our reduced funding. 

The federal government shutdown in October caused the NIH to furlough more than 75 percent of our staff, with exceptions granted only to positions that protected life and property, or served absolutely essential administrative functions. Patients seeking to enter clinical trials were turned away from our clinical center, many of our research labs were closed, and calls from investigators throughout the country went unanswered.

Perhaps hardest hit was NIH’s scientific review community, which is responsible for ensuring the rigorous review of all of our grant applications. The shutdown delayed more than 200 review meetings across  the NIH, but many people are now working hard to ensure that these delays are not felt throughout the broader research community.

Funding research

The budget deal reached by Congress and signed by President Obama has the potential to remove a good portion of the 2013 sequester cuts. We continue to search for ways to best leverage our significant resources.  In order to increase transparency and the community’s understanding of how we spend our budget, we have published a series of figures on our website that illustrate the Institute’s funding patterns.

We are doing everything possible to fund as many grants as we can during these tight fiscal times.  In FY 2013, this meant that we needed to reduce the amounts of new grants and some of the grants that we awarded previously.  We realize this presents many challenges, but under this approach, more researchers will be able to continue their work.  This is an exciting time for biomedical research, and we must sustain our momentum.  Therefore, in the coming years, NIAMS will remain proactive and invest in new scientific opportunities while ensuring that most of the research that we fund continues to be community-driven.

We recognize the importance of moving investigators who are early in their careers into the ranks of independent researchers who are exploring arthritis and musculoskeletal and skin diseases. One of the most serious concerns we have currently is that funding trends will lead to the loss of a generation of biomedical researchers. To encourage the next generation of scientists, NIAMS, like many other NIH Institutes and Centers, has a slightly more generous payline for R01 applications from new investigators.

Research landscape in 2014

The NIAMS’ current Long-Range Plan is slated to expire at the end of fiscal year 2014, and we are in the process of updating this important document.  To gather input on aspects of the plan that should be updated, we discussed this activity with our Advisory Council during its September 2013 meeting, solicited public comments via a Request for Information, and held listening sessions to hear from investigators and other stakeholders.

We are now in the process of drafting the updated plan and intend to make the draft available for public comment in 2014.  When complete, our Long-Range Plan for FY 2015-2019 will outline the Institute’s perspective on research needs and opportunities within NIAMS’ mission, and will serve as are source for all who are interested in NIAMS’ activities.  Because we will continue to devote the majority of our extramural budget toward funding the best investigator-initiated research ideas, the new plan will continue to encourage creative approaches for generating the scientific discoveries that will ultimately improve the health of the American public.

The NIAMS has made major investments in skin biology and disease research, and we are fortunate to have outstanding scientists who understand clinical problems, as well as scientific challenges. In the areas of atopic dermatitis (AD) and psoriasis, as well as rare skin diseases, we are learning an enormous amount and making major advances. In 2014, the NIAMS is launching a major study on AD that should teach us a lot about improving life for those who are affected and about biology in general.

Academy support

The Academy has exhibited considerable support for NIAMS and other agencies over the years. In 2013, Academy leadership joined me in meeting with Congressional leaders to discuss the importance of research. We emphasized that medical breakthroughs do not happen overnight.

On Sept. 11, 2013, I joined AAD President Dirk M. Elston, MD, on four Congressional visits to help improve understanding of NIH-supported dermatology research.  We met with Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Representative Andy Harris (R-MD), as well as staff from the offices of Representatives Jack Kingston (R-GA) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT).

In closing, I want to acknowledge the staff in the skin-related areas in the NIAMS Extramural Program.  Dr. Carl C. Baker is the Director of the Keratinocyte Biology and Diseases Program; Dr. Ricardo Cibotti is the Director of the Skin Immunobiology and Immune Mediated Diseases of Skin Program; and Dr. Hung Tsengis Director of the Extracellular Matrix Biology and Diseases Program.  All of these programs are under the leadership of Dr. Susana A. Serrate-Sztein, Director of the Division of Skin and Rheumatic Diseases in the NIAMS Extramural Program. We encourage you to contact me, Susana, Carl, Ricardo, or Hung at any time with concerns or suggestions.  I would also encourage you to visit the NIAMS and NIH websites for more information on all of the areas included in this article, as well as many other programs, including a wealth of reliable information for patients and the public.

Stephen Katz, MD, PhD, is director of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases at the‚Ä® National Institutes of Health. He is a dermatologist and immunologist.

Email the Member to Member editor at members@aad.org.

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