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NIH salary cap falls by $20,000

Last October, institutions that are home to grantees funded by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) were confronting a dramatic, 17% cut in the top salaries that could be paid to scientists from NIH grants.

The cut was written into legislation proposed by a key subcommittee chairman in the House of Representatives.  But when the dust settled in December, and President Obama signed into law the bill that is funding the biomedical agency in 2012, the research institutions had emerged slightly better off: the former top salary of US$199,700 has been cut not by 17%, but by 10%, to $179,700.

The NIH notified grantees of the change in this announcement today. It explains that scientists who won new grants before 23 December — the day the law was enacted — escape the change for now, and can collect up to $199,700 in salary from their grants. New awards granted on or after December 23 will be limited to top salaries of $179,700. And as of 23 December, continuing awards — that is, awards that were first granted before 23 December but enter their out-years after that date — will need to reallocate money within their budgets to bring the top salary down to $179,700.

Although it could have been worse, cash-strapped academic medical centres are not happy with the new regime.

“From a policy-maker’s point of view, it may look like just a few thousand dollars [in savings], but it will still have a significant impact on individual investigators and their institutions,” says Ann Bonham, the chief scientific officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).  The AAMC was one of 111 groups and institutions that argued in this letter to Congress last October that medical schools and teaching hospitals have “increasingly been forced to bear more of the costs of physician-scientists’ and other investigators’ salaries.” They added: “This comes at a time when discretionary funds from clinical revenues and other sources are also increasingly constrained and less available to invest in research.”

Bonham says that the AAMC has begun collecting estimates of what the change will cost from some of its 136 member medical schools in the United States.  One research-intensive institution, in a back-of-the-envelope calculation, estimated that it will need to spend $6 million annually from its own coffers if it is to make up for the salary money that now will not be forthcoming from NIH grants.

The cost to the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago will be about $1.4 million annually, says Rex Chisolm, the school’s vice-dean for scientific affairs. “This requires us to divert funds from other activities such as supporting training of the next generation of biomedical researchers,” he says.

“The message this sends is not a good one,” says Bonham. “At some point we have to ask ourselves as a nation: are we really committed to funding the people who make discoveries that will continue to save lives and improve our quality of life?”

For a look at salary cap levels across the last two decades, see this link.

In another sign of the tight fiscal times, the NIH also announced today that grants in their out-years will not receive inflationary increases in 2012, and that commitments to future-year inflationary increases are being discontinued.  Recipients of the NIH’s main training awards, the Ruth Kirschstein training grants, will receive a 2% increase in their stipends in 2012.

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