Federal budget cuts to the National Institute of Health have already started to take their toll on researchers at the Georgetown University Medical Center.

With a fiscal year 2013 budget of $32 billion, the NIH, the nation’s leading medical research agency, will face a $600 million budget reduction come January. These cuts are in addition to the 5 percent loss that amounted to $2.9 billion the NIH incurred in the fall.

According to Dean for Research Dr. Robert Clarke, the GUMC receives more than 80 percent of all external research funding given to Georgetown University.

“Georgetown faculty members continue to make difficult choices about decreasing the scope of their projects and possibly reducing staff,” Clarke said. “Students probably feel that impact the most because there may be fewer opportunities to participate directly in the work happening in a lab.”

In the wake of these cuts, the NIH has begun exploring the number of grant applications that Georgetown and other universities can submit for review.

According to Sally J. Rockey, the NIH’s deputy director for extramural research, writing and reviewing applications is a costly enterprise.

“We have to think about it as a community, how we control demand, because writing applications, submitting applications and reviewing applications is extraordinarily costly to the community,” Rockey said in a quote to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Georgetown professor of chemistry Paul Roepe, who recently published a study in the online journal PLOS ONE that explained why drugs designed to fight off malaria sometimes stop working in people, said the issue of decreased funding is being vigorously discussed among research-active professors.

“The feeling is increasingly dismal that our government and other funding sources will ever correct the current situation,” Roepe said.
According to Clarke, funds from approved grants can support the cost of research, including salaries of research staff, costs of research equipment and other expenses, such as travel fees and spending to meeting federal regulatory requirements for research.

“Without these funds, the amount of research we could conduct would be very small in comparison with the amount we actually do,” Clarke said.

While the number of grants approved by the NIH has remained relatively stable in recent years, the success rate of these grants has not. According to the NIH Data Book, which provides summary statistics on grants and organizations supported by the institute, grants had a 32 percent success rate in 2000; today, that rate is hovering above 15 percent, and the NIH projects 640 fewer research grants will be issued this year than in 2012.

Diminished research, according to Roepe, could significantly affect the independent thinking that a research-based learning environment can cultivate in students.

“Good researchers become independent, rigorous critical thinkers, and that’s what we want you to be when you leave Georgetown,” Roepe said.

The decrease in grant approvals could also affect the university’s global ranking, according to Roepe.

“The single greatest factor that yields [college rankings] is not a lower quality of our work but the relatively small volume of research that we produce compared to other top universities,” Roepe said. “Since basic science attracts much more external research funding than most other fields, Georgetown continues to lose ground relative to other universities in terms of overall research productivity,” he said.

According to Roepe, while research continues to lead to new developments paramount to society’s growth, he said he fears the issue of lost research funding continues to be overlooked.

“I worry that in the face of all the other issues that clog our airwaves and political arguments, this one will be lost in the shuffle,” Roepe said.

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