Decline in federal grants threatens state research

  • Article by: DAN BROWNING , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 26, 2014 - 12:40 AM

We’re still competitive, but some worry that talent won’t stick it out.

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The Mayo Clinic medical center in Rochester, Minnesota.

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Minnesota’s half-billion-dollar pipeline of biomedical research grants shrank again in 2013, as grants from the National Institutes of Health got harder to come by.

The state held its own compared to other states, according to a Star Tribune analysis. But the decline has many Minnesota scientists gnashing their teeth.

“I see talented, well-trained and very promising young investigators who are turning away from academia, or who are turning away from research entirely because they’re having a very difficult time getting started and they see their careers as being unsustainable,” said Dr. Paul Pentel, president of the Minneapolis Medical Research Foundation. “We’re losing a generation of scientists and I think we’re going to feel the effects of this for decades.”

Nationally and in Minnesota, the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute remain the top funding entities within the NIH. But the National Institute on Aging is moving up the ladder because of heightened concerns about Alzheimer’s and other disorders facing the baby boom generation. Minnesota also gets considerable funding from the National Institute on Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

The NIH is the primary distributor of grants for U.S. biomedical research, a key industry in Minnesota. But the NIH budget has been eroding for a decade, a situation made worse by federal cuts last March.

The Star Tribune analyzed NIH spending data for fiscal years 2009 through 2013 and found that it distributed $26.4 billion in grants domestically in 2013. That represents a 5 percent drop from 2012, and a 14 percent drop, or $4.2 billion, from the annual average in the preceding four years. Minnesota researchers received $561.3 million from the NIH last year, a drop of just 2 percent from 2012 and 7 percent, or $39.2 million, from the annual average in the preceding four years.

The state managed to hang onto its 14th-place ranking over the past three years. In 2009, the NIH funded 348 new domestic grant applications, the Star Tribune analysis shows. Last year, it funded just 236, a 47 percent decline. The money for new projects was cut in half over the same period, from $134.2 million to $67.6 million.

U, Mayo reap most

Most of the NIH money bankrolls established scientists and projects through noncompeting continuation grants. There were 1,182 of those grants in 2009 and 1,080 in 2013, a 9 percent drop. Those left standing got a 12 percent bump over the period — $399.9 million last year compared to $358.5 million in 2009.

The University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester collectively landed 82 percent of the $2.96 billion in grants that the NIH has distributed to Minnesota entities over the past five years. The U — consistently the largest Minnesota recipient — was up 2 percent over 2012 but down 7 percent from the preceding four-year average. Mayo was down 5 percent year-over-year and from the prior four years.

Officials at both institutions say the cuts have them redoubling efforts to diversify funding sources, but only so much can be done. The federal government remains the primary source of money for biomedical and basic scientific research.

“From the investigators’ standpoint it’s very, very challenging to get NIH grant support at all,” said Dr. Stephen J. Riederer, the Mayo Clinic’s chairman of research finance and a professor of radiology. “We’re very concerned about this; I think most institutions are.”

State support

Dr. Brian Herman, vice president of research at the U and a professor of cellular and structural biology, said he’s optimistic that Minnesota will hold its own in the fight for biomedical research dollars because of collaboration between the Legislature, private industry, the U and other institutions.

Herman praised the Legislature’s support last year for MnDRIVE, short for Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy, an $18 million annual investment designed to promote breakthrough research. The money targets discoveries and treatments for brain disorders; robotics, sensors and advanced manufacturing; food security, and other initiatives.

“We’re always looking everywhere we can to find funding that supports the excellence of the research and science that goes on here at the university,” Herman said.

Herman said if one-time federal funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 were not counted, the U’s grants would have remained essentially flat until last year, when there was a slight decrease.

Herman said there is good news in that Congress has recently restored some money for the NIH and other federal research. The NIH stands to get a billion-dollar bump, but it’s still $714 million shy of where it stood.

The new NIH funding has money for a major initiative to map the connections of the brain, and a significant increase for Alzheimer’s research.

The Minnesota Department of Health has received nearly $321 million from the NIH and NIH-related grants in the five years analyzed by the Star Tribune, ranking it third behind the U and Mayo Clinic. Last year, it got $55.6 million, 16 percent less than the average of the preceding four years.

Federal funds make up 73 percent of the agency’s $485 million annual budget. Dr. Ed Ehlinger, commissioner of the health department, said cuts from the NIH budget sting, but cuts from the Centers for Disease Control — the agency’s primary federal funding source — have been even deeper. CDC money pays for public health programs such as disease surveillance, emergency preparedness, obesity prevention and immunization.

Ehlinger said he heard Friday that the agency will lose about $3 million in grant money that paid for disease-prevention work in northern Minnesota.

“That one came as a shock,” he said, adding that health efforts “need to focus on prevention, because that’s the only thing that’s going to save us money.”

 

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493

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