January 26, 2012

NIH Funding Cuts May Hurt Research at Cornell Medical School

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Starting this month, Congress will decrease the maximum amount National Institute of Health researchers can be paid from grants awarded to universities and medical colleges by the NIH. While not expected to significantly affect faculty at the University’s Ithaca campus, this decision may diminish funding for faculty at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, according to Robert Buhrman, senior vice provost for research at the University.

The NIH is the largest provider of research funding for universities and medical colleges, awarding roughly $30 billion annually to fund research that will improve human health.

The NIH is also the largest source of externally provided funds that the University receives from any organization at both its Ithaca and New York City campuses.

In the University’s 2010-2011 fiscal year, Cornell’s Ithaca campus received 38 percent of its total research funding from the NIH, Buhrman said.

WCMC, however, received about 70 percent of its total research funding, or $158 million, from the NIH last year, according to WCMC Prof. Harry Lander, pharmacology.

Since 1990, Congress has placed a limitation on the salary that individuals can earn from an NIH grant, which totaled $199,700 for the 2010-2011 fiscal year.

However, the recently passed bill will restrict the pay of those who receive NIH grants to $179,700 — a $20,000 decrease.

The professors at WCMC are paid in greater amounts by research grants because they spend less time teaching and more time researching than those on the Ithaca campus, Buhrman said.

But the decreased funds may now force WCMC professors to spend less time in the lab.

“The financial impact of the reduced salary cap creates new, unexpected financial pressures for the medical college and could conceivably result in some scientists spending more time teaching or doing clinical work,” Lander said in an email. “While I don’t think this will lead to scientists leaving the Medical College, it certainly may act as yet another deterrent to devoting one’s career to science.”

Buhrman said he does not think that the new salary limitation, which will take effect this month, will have a large impact on the Ithaca campus; in fact, it will only impact 46 faculty members. Still, he acknowledged that action will have to be taken to alleviate the consequences of the new salary reduction.

“We will be as responsive to try to mitigate the impact as all the other universities will,” he said.  “If there is a way of staying within in the rules and providing alternative funds that should be provided, we’ll have to do that.”

The University will now have to finance researchers’ salaries through means other than the grants provided by the NIH, Buhrman said, imposing extra costs on Cornell.

“Rather than being able to charge some of our faculty’s salaries directly to the grants, we will have to cover them from other sources,” he said. “So we are talking something in the order of a few hundred thousand dollars.”

Although Buhrman said this amount is not “trivial money,” especially when compared to the $84 million that the Ithaca campus won from the NIH in the fiscal year 2011, he noted that he is more concerned about what the salary reduction says about the money the government will be willing to give to universities and medical colleges in the future.

“[Decreasing the salary cap] was a way of kind of making a statement that we should lower these costs, [that] these people don’t deserve to be paid at this level,” he said. “They are no better than other exactly-leveled people that work for the federal government. It’s in the line of cutting government spending.”

The NIH, however, did not provide a definitive reason for the salary cap reduction.

“We do not have data available to estimate the overall saving from the application of the legislative salary cap at Executive Level II,” a representative from the NIH Office of Extramural Research said in an email. “Accordingly, we are not in a position to estimate the number of additional competing grant awards which may result.”

Original Author: Margaret Yoder