The University is bracing itself for a scarcer year in science grants.

Jessica Boullion
Rackham student Connie Pagedas works with muscle cells in a lab at North Ingalls Building yesterday. (RODRIGO GAYA/Daily)

Last month, the government eliminated $286 million from the 2006 budget of the National Institutes of Health, the nation’s foremost provider for medical research funding.

The NIH is a major funding source for University doctors. Last year alone, it awarded a total of $368.1 million in grant and fellowship money to the University.

University of Michigan doctors forecast a grim fallout for medical research nationwide.

Scientists will likely spend countless hours competing for grant money in lieu of conducting research, and they say science funds may be at risk of disappearing.

“Nationally we are going to see a real drop in the advancement of science,” Medical School Prof. Steven Goldstein said.

On Dec. 30, President Bush approved a 1-percent reduction to nearly all government programs in order to support the War in Iraq, hurricane recovery efforts and flu pandemic preparation. NIH’s 2006 budget dropped to $28.3 billion as a result.

Because of the budget cut, previously awarded research grants will see a 2.4-percent decrease in yearly funding, said Norka Ruiz Brazo, NIH’s deputy director of extramural research. She added that NIH plans to offer fewer grants this year, but she could not speculate on the exact number.

The budget cut is the first for the agency since 1970.

In previous years, NIH budgets have fallen short of inflation rates, drawing concern from University Medical School faculty that the pace of medical research will slow in the coming years.

“To see funding increases reduced to levels below historical trends, and this year to see an actual cut in NIH funding for the first time in decades, is truly disheartening,” said Medical School Dean Allen Lichter.

“We are in the process of giving back all the funding gains that were made, which will slow the pace of research for years to come,” he said.

About $245.3 million, or two-thirds of the University’s NIH allocation, went to the Medical School last year. Other schools that receive NIH funding include the dental school, the pharmacy school and the biology and chemistry departments within LSA.

Despite the budget cut, some Medical School faculty said they do not expect NIH funding to decrease this year.

Dan Clauw, assistant dean of clinical and transitional research, said the high quality of research at the University should enable it to obtain the same number of NIH grants, if not acquire more than the previous year.

“The people that are hurt the least are doing the best science,” he said. “We are writing applications for a larger number of grants. We are continuing to operate under the assumption that we can grow our NIH funding even though there are cuts.”

But Goldstein, who has served on several NIH funding review boards, said the cuts would give way to an extremely competitive climate for NIH grant money. Before the budget cut, an outstanding researcher would generally have a 25 percent chance of obtaining an NIH grant, he said.

Now he estimates the chances at about 15 percent or less.

“It will affect the length and hours of work time. Rather than just working 70 hours a week, now they are working 90 hours a week to just get their heads above water,” Goldstein said.

With the mounting pressure on doctors to find research money mounting, Goldstein said he fears medical students will cave under the stress and abandon the field.

“If you are a trainee and you see faculty struggle so hard, you might think that might not be an interesting career for you anymore,” he said.

Goldstein added that scientists would be more likely to look at grant money from federal agencies like the Department of Defense, medical foundations and private industries to make up for the loss in NIH grants.

“It’s been getting worse and worse and worse,” Goldstein said. “What I don’t know is if it will bottom out or if will continue to get worse. My sense is that we have not quite bottomed out.”

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