The sequester's effect on research

September 19, 2013

This week I want to follow up on my newsletter from late June, when I wrote about how, despite deep funding cuts to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), our nationally recognized scientists are continuing to attract funding for research projects that have the potential to save lives and improve the quality of health care for millions of people worldwide. The talented and hardworking scientists in our three schools are the reason we continually meet our mission of translating research into cures.

Unfortunately, the effects of federal budget cuts known as sequestration are starting to be felt at academic medical centers across the country. You might recall that on March 1 of this year, President Obama signed the sequestration order, triggering approximately $85.4 billion in automatic federal budget cuts. The NIH was required to cut 5 percent - or $1.55 billion - from its fiscal year 2013 budget. These cuts are across the board, affecting all programs and every area of medical research. The NIH initially said it would be forced to fund 700 fewer research grants in FY 2013. Then earlier this month, the NIH amended that projection, saying that if lawmakers failed to replace sequestration at the end of this month, that number could rise above 1,000 as the agency absorbs another 2 percent budget cut on top of the 5 percent one this fiscal year.

So is sequestration directly affecting research at KU Medical Center? As Paul Terranova, our vice chancellor for research, knows all too well, the answer is a painful "yes." Here are some specific ways in which we are feeling the effects:

NIH grants awarded to KU Medical Center researchers:

243 NIH grants in fiscal year 2012

218 NIH grants in fiscal year 2013

Amount of NIH grants awarded to KU Medical Center researchers:

$57.8 million in fiscal year 2012

$54 million in fiscal year 2013 - a loss of more than $3.5 million

Number of indirect awards, which includes all grant funding received by KU Medical Center researchers:

368 indirect grants in fiscal year 2012

318 indirect grants in fiscal year 2013

Most troubling is the drop in the number of new grants awarded:

53 new grants in fiscal year 2012

43 new grants in fiscal year 2013

And the percent of our grants that are new grants:

31.2 percent in fiscal year 2012

25.9 percent in fiscal year 2013

Besides the obvious and immediate negative effect on our budget, these cuts have broader implications. Most critically, they slow down medical progress. Scientific breakthroughs don't happen overnight. It takes years of study to understand how a disease or condition starts and progresses - and even longer to develop and test possible treatments.

The sequestration also means a reduction in this country's scientific workforce. In most cases, approximately 80 percent of an NIH grant's budget goes to the salaries of researchers conducting the work. When the grants dry up, jobs are eliminated. While we have yet to determine how many research jobs may be lost at KU Medical Center due to the reduced number of grants awarded, it may be significant. This could hurt the economy not just in our research hubs in Kansas City and Wichita but elsewhere in the state.

We remain fortunate that in the face of this adversity, our researchers are strongly committed to their work. Our scientists are still being awarded federal grants - some of them sizable. And although it is an uphill battle, many of our researchers are having success in attracting non-NIH funding to support their work.

Before the sequestration, we had a clear momentum in our research mission. The University of Kansas Cancer Center's NCI designation, our Clinical and Translational Science Award, our Alzheimer's Disease Center designation and dozens of other successes raised our national research profile - and with our outstanding scientists, we have the potential to do so much more. I'm hoping that as academic medical centers and their stakeholders throughout the country begin to feel the momentum-killing consequences of these cuts, policymakers will reverse them so we can continue making discoveries that change the world.

Last modified: Sep 19, 2013