Category: Research Funding

Budget Breakdown: Federal Funding for the NIH

As my regular readers know, I use Science Decoded for my long form journalism class. As part of that, sometimes my posts have to meet requirements outlined by my professor. This week, the assignment was to write about budget. My recent post on Wisconsin’s budget protests brought up the issue of understanding what your government pays for, so I’ve decided to do a breakdown of the 2012 NIH budget.
As citizens it is important to know what is included in the federal budget. Among academics, intellectuals, people who are informed about their government, and people who pretend to be informed about their government this is a generally accepted statement. But why is budget important, really?

Well, my first answer is that you shouldn’t whine or praise something that you don’t understand. So (even though people do) you can’t say you disagree with or approve of the way things are budgeted, when you don’t even know what is in the budget, or why it is included and thus deemed worthy of public funding. I think it SHOULD be generally accepted that you don’t open your mouth about things you don’t understand (even though people always do…) so for the sheer ability to speak intelligently about your beliefs, I think people should know what is federally funded.

The other reason that I think people should take the time to look at budget appropriations (what money goes to who for what) is because people take federal funding for granted. The beautiful thing about being Americans is that what we want matters, and what we say can effect our government. We trust our government to do with our money what we want them to, but we should still make sure that the government follows through. You can’t just assume that what you believe deserves funding, is actually being funded. Do you want your money to be spent finding a cure for cancer? (I’ll assume you said “yes”) Do you know how much money the government actually spends trying to find a cure for cancer?** (I’ll assume you said “no”) Isn’t that a problem?

To be a part of the American democracy you need to know what your government does. At the very least, you should know who the government is giving your money to, so you can then decide if you support or are opposed to the government’s actions. Have an opinion. Have an informed opinion. The information is out there and readily available for those who seek it.

So now that I hope I’ve convinced you that you should care about budget, I come to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I know I’ll sound like a snot for saying this, but it AMAZES me that many people, whom I consider to be quite intelligent, don’t know what the NIH is, or what it does. The NIH is the federal government’s biomedical research organization. In addition to conducting its own research, the NIH is a huge funding machine that awards grants to thousands of researchers around the country (and even internationally) to pay for the costs associated with doing research. These costs include, but are not limited to, lab equipment (your test tubes and bunsen burners,) technology (from microscopes to genome sequencers,) consumable supplies (your reagents and pipettes,) and researcher or technician salaries.

Biomedical research is a multi-million dollar industry. But only a fraction of the research conducted in the United States is actually funded by industry. By far, the most important funding organization for researchers who are not industry based (ie: most college professors) is the NIH. Without federal support for these researchers, most would not be able to conduct their experiments. The budget that has been requested by President Obama for fiscal year (FY) 2012 to fund the NIH and all of its programs is $32.0 Billion. Yes, Billion.

The request by President Obama must be passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate before it is approved. But, these proposed numbers still demonstrate exactly why the NIH and its budget are so important. The proposed $32.0 billion represents an increase of $745 million from FY 2010 – an increase of 2.4%. However, current estimates place inflation from 2010 at 3%. So, even though the budget is going up, the NIH will be able to fund LESS projects than it did in 2010 because the increase will not be enough to counter the effect of inflation. In spite of this, the budget request still shows that research is a priority for this administration (ie: it could be much worse).

What does that $32 billion actually get you? Well, the NIH office of budget has a great table that outlines how the money is expected to be allocated among its institutes, in addition to a great document (with diagrams) that compares the budget for each institute over the last few years (which is where I pulled the following numbers from).

What falls under the NIH, and thus gets parts of its $32 billion? (listed from most funds to least):
National Institutes of…

  • Cancer (NCI) – $5,196,136,000 (**this is what the government spends finding a cure for cancer)
  • Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) – $4,915,970,000
  • Heart, Lung, and Blood – $3,147,992,000
  • General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) – $2,102,300,000
  • Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases – $1,837,957,000
  • Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) – $1,664,253,000
  • Mental Health – $1,517,006,000
  • Child Health and Human Development  – $1,352,189,000
  • Office of the Director – $1,298,412,000 (Former NHGRI head, Francis Collins is NIH Director)
  • Center for Research Resources – $1,297,900,000
  • Aging – $1,129,987,000
  • Drug Abuse (NIDA) – $1,080,018,000
  • Eye Institute – $719,059,000
  • Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases – $547,891,000
  • Human Genome Research (NHGRI) – $524,807,000
  • Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism – $469,197,000
  • Deafness and Other Communication Disorders – $426,043,000
  • Dental and Craniofacial Research – $420,369,000
  • National Library of Medicine – $387,153,000
  • Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering – $322,106,000
  • Minority Health and Health Disparities – $214,608,000
  • Nursing Research – $148,114,000
  • Complimentary and Alternative Medicine – $131,102,000
  • Buildings and Facilities – $125,581,000
  • Environmental Health Sciences – $81,085,000
  • John E. Fogarty International Center – $71,328,000

The NIH funds a lot of smaller agencies, each with their own specific health focus. Still, even the smallest money allotment represents way more money that I could ever imagine having at my disposal (how my bank account would rejoice at seeing $71 million dollars). I hope that seeing the numbers actually broken down by agency will help people see why budget is important. There are a lot of agencies, handling a lot of money, but they are working on problems that effect the everyday lives of millions of Americans – from malaria to depression and everything in between.

Budget, particularly federal budget is a complex issue, and I haven’t by any means covered everything here. I encourage everyone to take their new understanding of how the NIH is broken down to follow the money trail even more and see what specific research projects are funded by each agency under the NIH’s leadership. The NIH’s RePORT system is one place where you can learn more about how much is spent on specific diseases. The NIH’s Office of Extramural Research can also help you learn more about how researchers go about applying for and receiving money from the NIH.

There is a lot of good information out there about budget. If you aren’t one for reading budget documents online, here is a video of the FY 2012 Health and Human Services (HHS) Department budget presentation. You’ll see Francis Collins (head of the NIH) third from the right, because the NIH falls under the jurisdiction of the HHS (that $32 billion for the NIH comes out of the even bigger HHS budget of $79.9 billion). Head of the HHS Kathleen Sebelius gives a pretty easy to follow breakdown of the important points in the FY 2012 budget.

Budget matters. It’s your money, don’t you want to know where it goes?
Update 2/21/11 – It is important to remember that the $32 billion number is just a request. It could very well change if Republicans pull their support from the NIH. Current predictions say the Republicans aim to cut $1 billion from the proposed budget. Check out the New York Times coverage for more information

Humans Contaminate DNA Databases

Interesting research has been published in the online journal PLoS One, describing a problem with contamination in non-human DNA databases. DNA databases are libraries of genetic information about specific species. When a species has its genome sequenced, its genetic data goes into a database so that other research can be conducted based on that known genetic information.

When a DNA database becomes contaminated it means that there is other information that has corrupted the data stored in the database. In the new PLoS One paper the researchers (from the University of Connecticut) evaluated human contamination of databases that were supposed to contain other species – like the zebrafish. So contamination occurs when human DNA gets incorporated into the database for another species. When researchers go to work with the data about the zebrafish for example, they are actually working with human data without knowing it.

The University of Connecticut researchers looked for human contamination in NCBI genome databases, the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) databases, and the Joint Genome Institute databases. They found human DNA where it shouldn’t have been in a total of 492 of 2,749 evaluated databases.

This contamination issue is extremely problematic because research conducted based on contaminated information can not be trusted to be accurate. It can also be very difficult to track down which databases are contaminated unless the resources (time, money, etc) are spent to evaluate databases for clarity – as was done in this new research.

Database contamination is a relatively new issue brought to light be the massive influx of new genetic information made possible by improved genome sequencing technology. A similar issue that has existed for decades is cell line contamination which occurs when cells that are suspended in culture (alive outside of the body) are contaminated with cells that aren’t supposed to be there.

No regulatory body has stepped up and put a stop to cell line contamination in the last thirty years. I just hope that database contamination doesn’t follow suit.

To learn more, read the paper about Database contamination, or read an article I wrote for BioTechniques about cell line contamination. As taxpayers we spend a lot of money to fund scientific research, so it is important to know what problems (like contamination) exist in the research community.

NIDA pledges $10 million to develop addiction treatments

Here is another article that I wrote for J800 last semester (in September 2010) that wasn’t timely once I had edited it, and I couldn’t get it picked up anywhere. But for those of you interested in research funding, this is an interesting look at basic vs. preclinical and clinical research. 

NIDA has announced the four winners of the first funding award specifically designed to support research to create a viable human treatment for cocaine or nicotine addiction.

There is the patch, the pills, the gum, and even going cold turkey, but for some nicotine addicts, nothing seems to stop the urge to reach for a cigarette. Instead of feeling dejected, people suffering from addictions can now pin their hopes for quitting on the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA.)

NIDA, a member of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), recently announced the four winners of a funding initiative for research that develops addiction treatments for human application. The initiative seeks to produce new addiction treatments by providing more government-based funding for the development of pharmaceutical treatments.

“Usually pharmaceutical companies support potential drugs,” said Jia Bei Wang, a pharmacology researcher at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and winner of the new award. “But I don’t think these companies are interested in addiction because it’s not profitable, so drugs for addiction are very much in need of government support.”

The new NIDA award will provide a combined total of $10 million to develop ways to counteract cocaine and nicotine dependency. The initiative hopes to create viable human treatments at the end of five years.

“I think that this is something very new,” said Wang. “As a researcher I have gone through a lot of grant applications, and this is the first of its kind that I have tried, that is not a mechanism for basic research but that is a drug development grant.”

According to Wang, the majority of federal funding for research is for basic research, projects that evaluate scientific questions without a definite sense of the outcome. The NIDA Avant-Garde Award for Innovative Medication Development is different because it is focused on pre-clinical and clinical research, projects that are outcome driven and based on extensive basic research.

“I think NIDA realizes there is a gap between basic research and clinical outcomes, and the research that bridges that gap is very important,” said Wang. “A lot of progress is made in the basic sciences, but on the clinical side we still don’t have any useful drugs [for cocaine addiction].”

Why is a clinical-only grant needed?

Every year the government spends billions on scientific research. According to the NIH Office of Budget, in fiscal year 2010 NIDA dedicated just $118,546 million to their pharmaceutical development department out of a total budget of $1.06 billion. According to Wang, by pledging an additional $10 million specifically for pharmaceutical development NIDA is finally stepping up to the plate to help find new addiction treatments.

“There isn’t a lot of interest from industry, but NIDA is the public health institute and they have a responsibility to develop treatments for these diseases for the people, and I think this grant came out of recognizing that need,” said Wang. 

Ivan Montoya, deputy director of NIDA’s division of pharmacotherapies and medical consequences of drug abuse will oversee the Innovative Medication Development award. According to Montoya, this funding is part of a NIH push to support innovative research, while addressing the risk involved in providing government support for drug development projects. 

“If [a research proposal] is very innovative it carries more risk, but it has to guarantee that results will be obtained after the five-year period,” said Montoya. “It is critical that the background science is successful, otherwise NIDA won’t give funds to someone that the committee doesn’t think has a good idea. It has to be supported by a good future for results.”

Creating the Innovative Medication Development award addresses the lack of interest from the pharmaceutical companies, but also satisfies NIDA’s need for confidence in the projects they fund. According to Montoya, to this end, the four winners of the award will be monitored for the duration of the grant, and required to provide progress updates about how they spend the money. NIDA hopes keeping tabs on the researchers will push the winning ideas toward the complete development of new therapies.

Potential abounds, but what about results?

According to William (Stephen) Brimijoin, a researcher in molecular pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at the Mayo Clinic, and a winner of the award, a government focus on human application is vital to making progress on addiction treatment.

According to Brimijoin, NIDA should be commended for selecting promising clinical research projects and cultivating them for human applications. “If some of these projects do result in a useful therapeutic agent we should all celebrate,” said Brimijoin. “Right now we just don’t know which projects will go all the way to real human applications.”

The Battle Over Stem Cells

Stem cells have always been a controversial issue, but for a while it seemed that the Obama administration had brought some kind of direction to the issue by allowing federal funding of research based on embryonic stem cells. But recently, stem cells have been back in the news because a US district court filed suit to block the Obama administration’s attempts to provide more funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Reporting on the issue by the BBC has been informative. I think giving the hard facts of the story in a way that doesn’t entertain the emotional components and personally held beliefs (on either side) is really necessary. I think their reporting on the issue does just that.

One component of the story that I do want to comment on is the argument that limiting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research won’t be detrimental to the research. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the largest funding organization in the United States. The amount of funding that private institutes can provide is completely dwarfed by the NIH.

Restricting funding on embryonic stem cell research in the United States will be detrimental to our progress, that is why under the Bush administration we lost researchers to other countries in Europe and Asia where that research is supported.  The research that took place during those years is indicative of what we’ll accomplish under a new ban. Personally, I am glad the White House is fighting this. When religious beliefs start to take a role in shaping policy it can become incredibly dicey.

I do think that adult stem cell research has value, and research into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells has made tremendous progress, but researchers do still need to study pluripotency and iPS cells aren’t an adequate model yet. I don’t think you can replace one avenue of research with another, they just aren’t the same no matter how much we might wish that they were because it would eliminate the ethical issues.

Here are a few highlights of articles that I wrote for BioTechniques recently on Stem Cell research:

Vatican to support international intestinal stem cell consortium
Induced pluripotent stem cells create first living animal
The shape of things to come: helping stem cells shape their future
iPS cells still fall short of embryonic capabilities
Are iPS cells a thing of the past?