June 3, 2011

U.S. Funding Cutback Will Impact Age-Related Health Research

The Federal government funds most aging and mental health research and training, although private charities and foundations are becoming increasingly important money sources.

The federal budget crisis preoccupying Congress and the Administration has already affected funding for age-related health research.  And it promises to get tighter and tighter.

Scientists' chances of winning research dollars from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are already at a new low.  "We are clearly not able to support a lot of great science that we would like to support," NIH Director Francis Collins said recently in testimony before a Senate appropriations subcommittee.

This year, for every six grant applications that NIH receives, only one will get the green light for money. That's down from nearly 1 in 3 grants funded a decade ago, and 1 in 5 last year. As if that trend isn't scary enough, the debate still looms about how much more spending will be cut next year, and where.

NIH has been criticized by advocates for the elderly for not devoting enough of its budget to seniors' health issues.  Out of the total NIH budget of about $31 billion, 11% is devoted to studies involving age-related health. Less than one-third of the $3.46 billion booked for aging research this year will go directly to the National Institute for Aging, the main center for geriatric research. Funding for research on specific diseases, like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, comes from other NIH entities.

Aging is just one of a half dozen “compelling” opportunities for important scientific advances, Collins told the senators. “Aging is very much on our radar screen.” he said. “So, of course, is diabetes, so is cancer, so is mental illness, so is research on children, autism."

Funds are already “a little more constrained than last year,” said Dr. Marie A. Bernard, deputy director of the aging institute. The squeeze shows up in the number of projects financed after having been approved by scientific reviewers.

Last year, 17.5% of aging institute grants were approved, compared with 20% approved for NIH as a whole, she said. Aging research approvals are expected to drop even more, to about 13%, when the 2010 numbers are announced, said Nancy E. Lundebjerg, chief operating officer of the American Geriatrics Society, an advocacy group. 

Dr. Collins said “it would be unfortunate for advocates of aging research to make the case that aging should take away funds from those studying heart disease or diabetes,” which are relevant to aging. “What we need is a rising tide to lift all the boats,” he said.

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