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Money in the Meantime: In-house bridge funding softens NIH cuts, but with a surprising shift

May 2008--Amid the clamor to restore U.S. funding for science, Hopkins’ Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences has devised a stopgap solution. When an ongoing study gets passed over in its bid for a second round of grant money from the NIH, Hopkins itself can now step in: It can tap internal funds to keep worthy projects alive until the NIH’s next review cycle.

The move not only sustains promising science during lean times, says Dean/CEO Edward Miller, but it can restore the slumping mood that currently afflicts our researchers. For a research community wracked with doubt about the future of government funding, he says, “this can bring morale straight to the top.”

It’s all part of a multipronged campaign. Miller led a delegation to Washington to appeal NIH cutbacks, but he’d also hedged his bets that Congress couldn’t act before prized research here withered on the vine. He encouraged efforts by the basic science directors to devise a way to identify studies most in need of immediate funding relief.

The system they crafted roughly parallels that of the NIH—both in its thrice-yearly cycle and in its mechanisms of review. When investigators here learn that a project’s federal funding has been dropped, they can appeal internally. The process requires that principal investigators submit the NIH’s “pink sheets”—actually the electronic copies of review documents spelling out the government’s reasons for a denial of renewed funding—to the heads of their respective departments. The PIs must then answer the criticisms and describe why the denied funding is improper. They must, in essence, rally to sell their cause.

If the projects pass this initial hearing, the appeals are forwarded to two senior faculty members, who evaluate the cases anonymously. The whole process takes only three weeks, and the internal funding kicks in almost immediately.

The expectation, says Miller, was that this bridge funding program would bootstrap younger investigators whose reputations weren’t yet established. But he says the program’s first cycle, recently concluded, turned up some surprises. The two recipients are actually seasoned senior investigators. They’ve each received $50,000 sums designed to tide them over for their next shot at NIH funding renewal later this summer.

But the selection of senior researchers was necessary in this case, says Philip Cole, who as head of the Department of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences has a hand in the selection process. If a senior PI’s project loses funding in mid-study, he explained, the entire project can be derailed, along with the careers of its associated postdocs. In awarding the first round of bridge funds to seniors, Hopkins is voicing confidence in proposals where the NIH voiced doubts.

Four projects vied for funding in the first round, says Cole. The second cycle is now under way, with three candidate studies, one of which was passed over in the previous internal round.

One of Hopkins’ newest angels in the endeavor is the Dana and Albert R. Broccoli Charitable Foundation, among Hopkins Medicine’s most stalwart supporters. Senior fundraiser Elizabeth McMahon says an initial $3 million sum was put up by an anonymous donor in the form of an endowment, but that a source of readily available money was also needed to ensure no disruption in payments to lab staffers. The dean went to his friends at the Broccoli Foundation, which came up with $250,000. 

The bridge funding is so valuable to the vitality of basic science research here that a number of Hopkins research luminaries—including Paul Talalay, Sol Snyder, Dan Lane, Murray Sachs and Mario Amzel—signed a letter of appeal to all alums from the School of Medicine to help avert the threat of cutbacks. McMahon says the early returns on the effort look good, with an average alum contribution of $92—“a lot for academics,” she says, “many of whom are facing the same cutbacks in their own research.”

Miller is bullish about the bridge fund’s value to keeping the best science alive, but he still worries about projects here that could miss the boat. He wants to fund them, too, he says. “I just need a bigger pot of money to make it happen.”

--Ramsey Flynn

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