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National Health Grants Dwindle, Affecting Kentucky Universities' Research Efforts

in Louisville, Ky., on Wednesday, June 4, 2014. Photo by Eleanor Hasken | Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting
Eleanor Hasken
in Louisville, Ky., on Wednesday, June 4, 2014. Photo by Eleanor Hasken | Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting

As federal health grants have dwindled over the past decade, universities and institutions—including those in Kentucky—have been forced to compete for ongoing or new research money.An analysis by NPR this week found that throughout the U.S. "about 16 percent of scientists with sustaining (known as 'R01') grants in 2012 lost them the following year." And as cuts have become a reality, some at Kentucky's two major research universities worry that both the momentum of and interest in research studies could be in jeopardy.  From NPR: The root cause is plain, and it's not just about a current shortage in funding: The NIH [National Institutes of Health] budget shot steadily upward from 1998 to 2003. That spawned great jubilation in biomedicine and a gold-rush mentality. But it didn't last. Since 2004, the NIH budget has decreased by  more than 20 percent. (That's not counting the hefty two-year bump the budget got from stimulus funds via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.)“[NIH grants are] a major source of the support for all of our research,” said William Pierce, executive vice president of research and innovation at the University of Louisville.The cuts to NIH grants impact Louisville in “a lot of ways,” he said.Pierce estimated that up to 70 percent of the funding goes to “pay people.” When there are cuts, that means the schools has to let people go or just freeze hiring. It also impacts training and retaining quality personnel, he said.

A couple of decades ago, U of L crafted a plan that would increase its research, Pierce said. The university began to hire more people and build more laboratories.“We’ve had to cut those plans back. There’s just no way to sustain the growth that we hoped for,” he said, noting U of L has still been on a strong trajectory regarding its ability to research.But that still doesn't put Pierce at ease.He said the two biggest worries are losing research momentum and losing young researchers who might turn to other fields. And Pierce said “without the grants we wouldn’t be able to do our research.And other universities are affected, too.About an hour away, Lou Hersh at the University of Kentucky has been researching Alzheimer’s disease. He said although there has been a dip in NIH grant funding, UK has “held its own,” when considering data that show larger dips in other schools.

“We’ve been fortunate at UK in that we haven’t really gone down too much at all,” Hersh said.But he acknowledged that it's been a tougher climate in recent years, with more grants being requested from limited funds."So, of course the more grant applications that go in, the more competitive grants become," he said.Hersh said UK has created a system where faculty can mentor each other to help with the grant applications, and he believes that those efforts can help maintain a comparable level of funding.