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The Stimulus Package and You

May 2009
What the ARRA means for medical research.

Gary Boas, News Editor,

On Tuesday, Feb. 17, President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the much-debated stimulus package designed to breathe life into the US economy. The act included a remarkable $10.4 billion for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The following day, NIH acting Director Raynard S. Kingston outlined how the NIH intends to spend this money – including funding previously submitted applications, providing supplemental financing to existing programs and introducing new grants.

MedFunding_000004751811Opening.jpgResearch institutions across the country whirred into action. At Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in downtown Boston, the Research Council got to work within days. E-mail blasts were sent to the MGH research community. A brief presentation on the stimulus package was announced, canceled because of a snowstorm and rescheduled for the following afternoon.

Across the river, at the MGH-Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging in Charlestown, investigators met in hallways and in each other’s offices, discussing how the stimulus money might affect their work – and what the long-term implications of the ARRA might be.

At the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging in Charlestown, Mass., researchers are among the tens of thousands expected to submit proposals for NIH Challenge Grantes, one of the mechanisms announced as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The main building of the center, a partner of Massachusetts General Hospital, is in the background.

NIH-funded studies have encountered a number of obstacles in recent years, as the institutes themselves have dealt with relatively flat financing by the federal government. Many researchers have faced 20 percent cuts in their budgets, regardless of how well the proposals were scored during the review process. Also, said Maria Angela Franceschini, assistant physicist at MGH and assistant professor in radiology at Harvard Medical School, funding for newly awarded grants has been delayed for months at a time as the NIH has struggled to continue financing all of its studies – leaving researchers scrambling to cover costs until the money comes in.

But now, it seems, the fortunes of funding for medical research might be turning.

As winter gradually gave way to spring in Boston, researchers at MGH prepared. They watched closely the emerging details as to how NIH would apportion the new money. And then, when the first grants were announced, they – and tens of thousands of others across the country – started writing.

A relative windfall

Besides myriad federal tax cuts and expansion of various social welfare programs, the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes domestic spending on infrastructure, education and health care. The financing for the National Institutes of Health represents one of the largest single chunks of that money.

The $10.4 billion allotted to the NIH effectively increases the institutes’ budget this year by 34 percent – to roughly $39 billion from $29 billion. Of this amount, $8.2 billion is earmarked for scientific priorities, including $7.4 billion that will go to funding additional grants. The most high profile of these thus far has been an initiative called NIH Challenge Grants in Health and Science Research, which the institutes announced on March 4. This program – the first, and for some time the only, grant announced – is intended to support specific areas of biomedical and behavioral research that will benefit from significant “jump-start” funding.

The NIH identified a number of such “Challenge Areas,” focusing on specific knowledge gaps, scientific opportunities and new technologies. These include a range of areas and topics where optics can step up to meet a particular need, said Eugene G. Arthurs, CEO of SPIE.

“There are certainly many areas of NIH research where optics and photonics play a key or enabling role,” Arthurs said. “Think how microscopes have been crucial to medical research for hundreds of years. Some things aren’t going fast enough, like nanotubes for pulmonary disease and real-time feedback for disease monitoring.

“I hope that funds for the successful NTROI (Network for Translational Research: Optical Imaging) are restored and boosted. Optics and photonics play a crucial role not only in research (‘bench’) but in the all-important use of the research in clinical applications (‘bedside’).

The NIH designated at least $200 million to finance 200 or more of the grants in fiscal 2009 and 2010. Thus, they will differ considerably from the typical NIH grant, which ranges from $250,000 to $300,000 per year over the course of four years. Each Challenge grant will include as much as $1 million in funding to be disbursed over only two years. The hope is that the influx of cash will advance research both quickly and in significant ways, while – not incidentally – helping to stimulate the economy.

Doing its part

At MGH, Franceschini submitted an application in one of the broad Challenge Areas defined by the NIH: enabling technologies. In the proposal, she outlined a plan to combine diffuse optical imaging with electroencephalography and invasive electrophysiology to explore the relationship between the neural and hemodynamic responses to stimulation, providing a deeper understanding of how the blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) functional MRI hemodynamic signal reflects underlying cellular processes in the brain.

Besides covering research costs, the funding would allow Franceschini to hire a full-time person to advance the project. This position would last only until completion of the grant, she said, but would yield benefits beyond a paycheck for those two years. “It would provide training at a time when there are no jobs out there. It would make that person more specialized, more competitive.”

It also could help to ensure a pool of strong candidates when the jobs return. There is always some degree of movement between academe and industry. Recent years have seen a net flow into industry, but the spiraling economy has resulted in hiring freezes in some sectors there. The creation of new jobs in academe – and the retention of existing jobs – therefore might provide a stopgap, allowing scientists to stay in academe for a couple of years longer than they might otherwise.

The Challenge grants – and the additional NIH funding, generally – likely will contribute to the economy in other ways: namely, by helping to pump money into those sectors that support medical research.

A recent analysis suggested, for example, that the life sciences tools industry could benefit as researchers purchase instruments they might not have been able to afford otherwise. Notably, the NIH announcements also included a significant increase in spending on Shared Instrument Grants. Life Technologies Corp. of Carlsbad, Calif., and Illumina Inc. of San Diego, both of which provide instruments for genetic analysis, are the best-positioned. Life Technologies derives roughly 60 percent of its profits from academic and government laboratories; Illumina, about 80 percent. And a range of other companies could benefit as well.

Although the primary objective of the ARRA is to provide a jolt to the economy, the NIH has devoted considerable energy to maximizing the effects for the research community – even beyond the two-year stimulus period. Importantly, officials have identified high-impact areas of investigation and have assured financing for at least the next grant cycle. Many of the roughly 50,000 applications that the NIH could not finance last year will now be funded, SPIE’s Arthurs noted, while some of the best ongoing programs will receive further money.

Moreover, “if Congress acts sensibly to increase funding at a reasonable clip of 7 to 8 percent a year, funds will be available to carry on the successes in research kicked off with the Challenge grants.”

Besides the very real, very tangible benefits of the stimulus money, the funding serves as a sort of symbolic “thumbs up” to the research community. The Obama administration has already made clear its intention to reassert government support of the sciences, which, for years, have suffered from cultural attacks, a diminished role in society and relatively flat funding by Congress. The allocation for the NIH in the ARRA conveys the message that this is more than mere political rhetoric.

In this sense, the additional NIH funding might offer a morale boost for “a generation of scientists and medical researchers who were losing faith,” Arthurs said. “It sends a signal to this community – and to those thinking about careers in it – that science and technology have an important role to play in the future of this country.”

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