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Collins: NIH grant application success rate heading for historic low

Testifying on Capitol HIll today, Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), projected, “with some uncertainty,” that success rates for scientists trying to win grants from his agency will end up between 17% and 18% for the 2011 fiscal year, which ends on September 30.

“That will be the lowest in history,” Collins told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, which funds the NIH. “For every six grants, we will fund one of them, and five are going to go begging.”

The agency’s grant application success rate in 2010 was 20%.

The agency sustained a 1%, $323 million cut in the budget law passed by Congress last month, which funds it for the rest of the fiscal year. President Barack Obama in February asked Congress to provide the agency with $31.8 billion in 2012 — a 2.4% increase on its 2010 funding.

Collins also faced questions about the proposed National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), which he is planning to launch in October, when the new fiscal year begins.

Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the senior Republican on the subcommittee, complained that the administration’s 2012 budget request “does not provide adequate details on the [NCATS] reorganization.”

“How can the subcommittee be expected to support a program that does not yet exist” and for which NIH hasn’t provided adequate budgetary details, Shelby pressed Collins. “And when will we receive more details?”

Collins called Shelby’s questions “very fair,” and replied that NIH has completed budget planning for the new center, which is now being vetted at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Management and Budget. “We hope to get that to you within the next few weeks,” he said.

Collins also responded to concerns that Shelby expressed in his opening statement, that, by launching NCATS, the agency is tackling a problem — translating basic discoveries from bench to clinic — that, if it were easy, would have been solved by industry, where drug pipelines are in fact languishing.

“As we review this proposal, we need to consider the fact that NIH is not a drug developer or an expert in the therapeutics world,” Shelby said. “NCATS may be the answer to solve this complex issue. But it also may not.”

Collins replied, in part, that “NCATS will complement—not compete with—the private sector….It will reinforce, not reduce, NIH’s commitment to basic science.”

Collins’ prepared statement for the hearing is available here.

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    Grant said:

    I would be interested in knowing how the success rate is calculated in terms of successful 1st vs. 2nd submissions, and whether the lower overall success rate is hitting junior investigators harder than veterans. Is any of this data publicly available?

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