Recovery Act funding boosts science, jobs—but what’s next?

Last week marked the beginning of the end of the biggest boost in federal research funding in U.S. history. September 30 was the deadline for the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies to commit the last stimulus dollars for science allotted by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The looming drop in funding now has researchers and organizations wondering how to keep people in their labs employed and their projects going.

Although the grants are continuing, some for up to three years, “the major question is what will happen when it’s over,” says Sally Rockey, PhD, the NIH deputy director for extramural research.

Nationwide, the Recovery Act infused $21.5 billion into research and development to stimulate the economy, create and preserve jobs, and advance biomedical research. The NIH received nearly half. Children’s researchers alone received just over $42 million, directly supporting more than 90 projects, plus nearly $6 million for subcontracts on 25 projects. That has translated to the full-time equivalent of 91 jobs created or retained, as of the most recent quarterly federal reporting.

In all, Recovery Act funding accounted for about 10 percent of Children’s sponsored research budget for 2009 and 2010 (See below, “Your tax dollars at work,” for some of what’s been done with this money.)

“The stimulus has provided a tremendous boost,” says Gary Fleisher, MD, chair of the Children’s research strategy committee. “It helped everyone, and for a few the support arrived at a critical juncture.”

The welcome swell came after years of flat funding and inflation erosion of research support. “The quality of the research funded by the grants demonstrates the incredible pent-up scientific demand that has accumulated in the last five years of stagnant federal funding,” says Kevin Casey, associate vice president for government, community and public affairs at Harvard University.

The Recovery Act cliffhanger

But what happens when the money runs out? The current economic challenges make it unlikely that the baseline NIH budget will be raised next year, says Casey. For all the projects funded in the last two years, the NIH also turned down more than 30,000 applications, many of which they expect to see resubmitted, competing for newly scarce dollars.

For Children’s researchers, about one-third of the Recovery Act applications were funded in the last two years, says Paula Roth, MEd, director of Sponsored Programs and Compliance at Children’s. If the baseline NIH budget continues without significant increases, researchers at Children’s and elsewhere can expect a drop to the 20 percent overall funding rate of the recent lean NIH budget years.

“The best-case scenario is that when the stimulus goes away, the NIH budget inches up on an inflationary slope,” Fleisher says.”We’re pretty much prepared for that. If the growth is less than inflation, or if there is a cut in the NIH budget—nobody is prepared for that.”

The projected breaks in funding for some stimulus grantees can derail projects and careers, especially affecting young scientists. Last year, Isaac Kohane, MD, PhD, director of Children’s Informatics Program, forecast a “brain drain” if young investigators brought in with stimulus funding aren’t able to be retained.

It takes time and consistent effort to crack complex scientific problems. Uncertain funding prospects can discourage smart people from going into science, destabilize the biomedical infrastructure, challenge U.S. leadership in science and threaten the associated innovation-driven economic growth.

Your tax dollars at work

At Children’s, Recovery-Act-funded studies range from next-generation genome sequencing in search of the elusive genetic causes of autism to developing a workable health care information infrastructure, using an iPhone-like platform. Here is a sample of other stimulus-funded projects:

Animal MRI scanner. Children’s first award in April 2009, a $1.97 million grant, purchased a new magnet resonance imaging scanner for small animals. Though highly rated in peer review, the proposal wouldn’t have received funding without the stimulus. The scanner allows researchers who are modeling cancer, cardiology, inflammatory disease, neurology and other diseases in animals to map fine body structures and, in combination with other scanners, observe the dynamics of key molecules in the body. Ted Treves, MD, chief of nuclear medicine and molecular imaging, says this is a big advance in being able to follow the natural course of disease and develop drugs and diagnostic tests.

Better recovery from heart surgery. Stimulus funding allowed the hiring of a full-time research coordinator, speeding up enrollment in a study testing whether tight control of blood sugar in children who have undergone open-heart surgery can prevent infection and death, as it does in adults. Critical Care physician Michael Agus, MD, and his colleagues have data on 600 children so far (out of 980 planned).

Hearts in a dish. Aside from infection, congenital heart disease is the leading cause of disease and death in infants. In a first-of-its-kind study, pediatric cardiologist William Pu, MD, and colleagues will use pluripotent cells derived from patients’ skin cells to directly investigate the effect of a common gene mutation on human heart developments. The stimulus grant funded 1.5 FTE postdoctoral positions in the labs of Pu and a bioinformatics collaborator.

Surviving oxidative stress. The same bacteria that cause strep throat can cause life-threatening, difficult to treat infections in skin and soft tissue. Thanks to stimulus funding, microbiologist Ioannis Gryllos, PhD, and a postdoctoral fellow are investigating how Group A Streptococcus bacteria are able to dodge the potent and deadly oxidative burst of immune cells known as phagocytes. The answer may reveal new targets for antimicrobial treatments or vaccine developments.

A simple blood test for TB. Both active tuberculosis (TB) and latent TB infection are hard to diagnose, especially in children. In the lab of infectious disease physician Robert Husson, MD, a stimulus award is funding a postdoc and others to screen thousands of TB proteins to identify those recognized by most patients’ immune systems, seeking a simple blood test to diagnose the disease.

Obesity genetics in an understudied population. With a boost to an existing grant, Joel Hirschhorn, MD, PhD, is expanding his obesity genetics studies to learn whether plumpness-prone genetic variants found in people of European ancestry also predispose people of recent African ancestry to obesity.

Better treatments for a devastating blood disease. In Children’s final stimulus grant two weeks ago, a team led by David Williams, MD, director of translational research, was pledged $3.88 million to develop a strategy to treat children with Fanconi anemia, a severe inherited bone marrow failure syndrome. Williams and co-principal investigators George Daley, MD, PhD, director of the Stem Cell Transplantation Program, and Fanconi anemia expert Alan D’Andrea, MD, of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute will explore the potential of reprogramming patients’ skin cells to enable their malfunctioning bone marrow to make normal blood cells.

We think this is money well spent. Want more? For the most current list of Children’s Recovery Act projects, as well as published results, go to NIH Reporter. Fill out the following three fields (leaving the others alone), then click “submit query.”

  • In “NIH Recovery Act Projects,” click SELECT and choose “All ARRA-Funded Projects.”
  • In “Fiscal Year,” click on both 2009 and 2010
  • In “Organization,” type in: Children’s Hospital Boston.