Looming cuts under the federal deficit-reduction law would endanger about 40% of the funding for new federal cancer research next year, according to a federal research official.
Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute and co-chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, told reporters Tuesday that his informal estimate of potential cancer research cuts is based on likely sequester effects previously mentioned by Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.
Like many other federal offices and agencies, the NIH is slated to undergo cuts due to requirements of the Budget Control Act, which aims to cut $1.2 trillion in federal spending over the next 10 years, beginning in January. Members of Congress and the Obama administration are expected to continue efforts to at least temporarily avoid the sequester cuts following the Nov. 6 elections.
The expected 40% cut in cancer research grants is proportionately much larger than the 8.2%, or $2.5 billion, NIH-wide cut required under sequester. Varmus said the larger impact on new research grants stemmed from his agency's plan to dedicate a greater share of the remaining funds to its ongoing costs, including its staff and outside advisers.
“So I have a lot of checks to write before I can write checks to new investigators,” Varmus said.
The sequester cuts also could add to another budget-related problem the NIH already is struggling to address. Varmus said his agency is trying to halt a slide in accuracy and translatability of federally funded research, which he attributes to increasing pressure on researchers to publish quickly in order to better qualify for an increasingly contested pool of research funds.
“The general stress of the need to get published and get your work out there has probably decreased the accuracy of the work that gets published,” Varmus said.
One initiative Varmus has promoted at NIH to decrease the pressure to rapidly publish and hopefully improve research quality is for investigators to write a “biosketch” that summarizes what their research has contributed to science.
“We have to recalibrate how we evaluate each other because that is driving a lot of the need to try to find your way into the journals that have an inappropriate amount of clout in today's climate,” he said.