Sequestration gouges U of M and Mayo Clinic research budgets

  • Article by: DAN BROWNING , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 15, 2013 - 8:54 AM

Officials worry that federal sequestration could take a toll on promising medical studies.

Minnesota stands to lose tens of millions of dollars in federal medical research funds this year as a result of the congressionally mandated budget cuts known as sequestration.

And while research directors at the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic say they’ll muddle through the rest of the year, they warn that funding shortfalls will stunt some ongoing medical experiments and may derail promising projects that could save lives and alleviate suffering in the years ahead.

“Sequestration is a problem,” Dr. Stephen Riederer, the Mayo Clinic’s chairman of research finance and a professor of radiology, said flatly.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced that it will cut spending by 5.1 percent in fiscal year 2013, which ends Sept. 30. That translates into a nearly $20 million annual cut for Mayo, which gets about 40 percent of its $600 million in annual research funding from NIH.

Mayo anticipated the cut by creating “bridge” funding to support projects for six to nine months while the project leaders seek more money, Riederer said. Most of the bridge funding would go to existing projects rather than start-ups.

“It’s harder to create new projects, psychologically, if the funding for them is declining,” Riederer said. “We are philosophically very reluctant to terminate what would otherwise be a very successful program or reduce funding for it. … You know, it could literally take up to a decade or more to build up a steady state of research productivity.”

The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology released a report in late February predicting that sequestration would take a devastating toll. It noted that at least 75 percent of grant budgets go to salaries, and said the effect on jobs and local economies “will be immediate and severe.”

About 400 full-time-equivalent employees direct Mayo research projects or laboratories. Roughly half are full time, and the rest are clinicians who spend between 20 and 40 percent of their time in research. Riederer said bridge funding would keep many of those projects going. The clinic has found jobs for about eight out of 10 of those whose funding will dry up. Most of the remainder opted to retire, he said.

Riederer said Mayo has made up some of the funding. “But it’s at a fraction of what the NIH grant would have provided — maybe 25 percent or so,” he said.

At the University of Minnesota, sequestration will reduce the money available to support students and postgraduate scholars who work on medical research projects, according to Dr. Brian Herman, vice president of research at the U and a professor of cellular and structural biology.

‘Gravely concerned’

“The number of new grants that will be available will be decreased. And only somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of those grants that are now submitted for review for funding will get funding,” Herman predicted.

Herman said he expects the budget cuts to affect the U’s Masonic Cancer Center when it applies this year for what’s called a “competitive renewal grant.” The government’s National Cancer Institute is funding ongoing research at roughly half of its initial awards in an effort to spread its money around, he said.

The U and Mayo were among more than 200 members of an Ad Hoc Group for Medical Research that sent letters to Congress in December saying they were “gravely concerned” about pending cuts to NIH and the “negative consequences it would have for the health of all Americans.”

Medical research makes up between 40 and 45 percent of the U’s research budget, or $320 million to $360 million. Herman said that while funding for the NIH has been relatively flat for a decade, with the exception of a small bump from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act a few years ago, inflation has gouged its purchasing power.

But medical research is just one of the concerns at the U, which ranks eighth in funding among public research universities.

The government pays for 60 to 65 percent of the basic scientific research in the United States, Herman said. Various federal agencies fared differently as a result of sequestration. While the NIH suffered a 5 percent cut, he said, the National Science Foundation must cut 3 percent, the Department of Energy will lose 5 percent plus $44 million, and agricultural and food research will actually increase $10 million.

“We’ve calculated initially that this could mean a $30 million to $50 million loss out of an $800 million research enterprise here at the U,” Herman said.

The U should be able to reallocate resources to get through this fiscal year, he said.

“What’s of course unpredictable is what happens next year,” Herman said. “I think most people are thinking that this is probably the new normal.”

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493

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