NIH shifts salary burden for research grants to colleges

Universities will have to shoulder higher salary costs for researchers working with grants from the National Institutes of Health, a new rule that this fiscal year’s federal budget mandates.

The NIH, an agency that provided nearly half of GW’s research money in 2010, lowered its salary cap for outside researchers by $20,000 in the federal budget passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama Dec. 23. The drop in coverage means that thousands of dollars for researcher salaries, previously paid for by federal money, will now come from university budgets because of federal funding constraints that have embroiled Congress over the last year.

“I realized it would have an impact the moment I heard about it,” Anthony-Samuel LaMantia, the director of the GW Institute for Neuroscience, who is performing three research projects supported by NIH grants, said. “The main thing though is that it’ll have less of an impact on [researchers] initially and more on universities as they figure out how to pay people at their current salary levels when they can’t cover it with grants.”

Sally Rockey, deputy director for extramural research at the NIH, said the agency will send out directions to universities about the salary cap soon, but did not elaborate on a specific time frame for the guidance. Universities are still waiting to hear whether the rule will apply to all outstanding NIH grants or only for grants awarded this year.

GW’s senior leadership “is poised to address this issue and make any necessary changes once official guidance is provided by the NIH,” Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa said. He declined to elaborate on his office’s reaction to the announced change.

The NIH’s application of the rule will likely dictate how much additional money the University will have to spend and how it will finance future medical research.

The University received $56 million from the agency in research grants and fellowships in 2010, most of which was awarded to biostatistics.

Medical researchers at GW expressed concern that the squeeze will put their compensation for research in jeopardy and make their work less attractive to the University.

“It is potentially very damaging to our research center,” Sarah Fowler, a research professor in the GW Biostatistics Center, said.

Fowler added that the center’s researchers depend on salary support from the NIH because, “of the 110 people at our center, almost all are 100 percent on research grants from NIH.”

LaMantia said universities could resist hiring researchers in the future if paying their salaries would incur higher costs.

“It will hit universities hard because they weren’t prepared for it,” LaMantia said. “GW’s research leadership is superb, so they will weather this well, but it may cause all institutions to detract somewhat because they won’t be able to afford a larger faculty.”

The University has tried to ease its reliance on federal grants by engaging in more corporate-backed research since the hiring of Tom Russo, GW’s first assistant vice president for industry research, in October.

Still, Katrina Billingsley, who oversees the financial management of NIH grants as director of administration in the biostatistics center, said corporations might not be as helpful with medical research.

“Industry research only funds the things that industry is interested in. It doesn’t necessarily fund all research that would be good for the public,” she said.

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