Despite the uncertainty surrounding its future funding levels, the National Institutes of Health awarded $146.96 million to Rhode Island organizations in the 2012 fiscal year, with Brown receiving about 40 percent of the new award total with $58.7 million. Other top recipients include Rhode Island Hospital, Miriam Hospital, the University of Rhode Island and Women and Infants Hospital of Rhode Island. The NIH is the largest federal research agency and funds research projects and programs relating to human disease.
"A large percentage of our budget comes from grants," said Dean of Medicine and Biological Sciences Edward Wing, and an estimated 85 percent of this grant money comes from the NIH, he added. This year, approximately $50 million was distributed to biology and $42 million to public health, while clinical departments received $120 million in ongoing grants.
Wing attributed the difference in funding to numbers - the Alpert Medical School has approximately 600 clinical faculty at affiliated hospitals who do "lots and lots of research," he said. The largest expansions are occurring in brain science, psychiatry and orthopedic surgery.
Despite these seemingly high awards, Wing voiced two concerns about future grants. The first is that the NIH budget has remained flat "for the last three to four years," actually declining slightly when adjusted for inflation, Wing said. Consequently, acquiring funding has become increasingly competitive, with success rates for grant applications declining from a peak of 32 percent to below 20 percent. New grant awards to Rhode Island institutions have shrunk for the past three years because the stimulus bill that previously funded them expired.
The second, more severe problem is the impending "sequestration" - the NIH faces an 8 percent budget cut next year unless Congress passes legislation to avert it, Wing said. But "even if the cuts occur, it's a tremendous amount of research support," he said, adding that the University has substantial reserves to continue supporting research.
The largest grant to Brown, at $2.9 million, went to the "Reuse in Rhode Island" program. "Reuse" does basic and applied research related to heavily polluted "superfund sites." The project is in its eighth year of receiving funding and has several components, which involve 15 to 20 faculty members.
Kim Boekelheide, professor of medical science and director of the project, partially credits the project's interdisciplinary nature for its funding success. The program brings together researchers from biology, geology, engineering and sociology to solve different facets of the same problems. Despite its success, assuring continued funding requires a "huge amount of work" - the project's last grant application reached a whopping 789 pages, Boekelheide said.
The neuroscience department received $11.3 million in new NIH grant awards during the last fiscal year. Department Chair and Professor of Medical Science Barry Connors expressed worries similar to Wing's and elaborated on the pressures researchers face in an email to The Herald. As grants become more competitive, researchers in the department must spend more time applying for grants and less time "actually doing the science," Connors wrote.
The pressure also changes the nature of projects, making them more focused on disease mechanisms instead of the fundamental research that Connors wrote he believes allows "the most important biological insights." But Connors does not expect grant issues to affect the currently planned recruitment of new faculty members as they "tend to be among the most accomplished young scientists out there." Brown provides significant startup funds so faculty members have "a few years to establish their labs before external grant funding becomes essential," he wrote.
While Brown works to maintain its high level of funding, the state as a whole has performed below the national average in receiving NIH grants. To reduce this imbalance, the NIH funds the IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, whose Rhode Island branch is run out of the University of Rhode Island. The program mentors junior faculty, encourages more grant applications and supports undergraduate research opportunities, all while funding research projects that have yet to obtain independent grants, according to the website.
The program has been hit hard by the NIH budget freeze, and none of the 26 supported research projects were able to achieve independent funding last year and "graduate" from the program, wrote Program Director Zahir Shaikh in an email to The Herald. Despite these difficulties, he believes the program is on track to accomplish its goal of bringing more NIH money to Rhode Island, Shaikh wrote.
Correction: The original graph accompanying this article stated that the University of Rhode Island received $28.6 million from the National Institutes of Health in the 2012 fiscal year. The Herald regrets the error.