Although the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) was largely spared the budgetary ax in the agreement reached last month by Congress, researchers will nevertheless soon feel the sting. Speaking before a Senate appropriations subcommittee last month, NIH director Francis Collins said that agency will probably fund only one in six grants in 2011—the first time that the award rate has dipped below 20%.

“It's devastating,” says Howard Garrison, deputy executive director for policy at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), an organization headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland that represents 23 scientific societies.

With the stimulus funding drying up and the NIH budget shrinking slightly, former FASEB president Mark Lively warns that increased competition for a smaller slice of the NIH pie could force principle investigators to lay off lab staff or drive junior scientists out of biomedical research altogether. “Discoveries will go unmade, scientific progress will be interrupted and budding careers are going to be cut short,” says Lively, a biochemist at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “There are times when paylines have gotten difficult, but never anything like this.”

To get funding rates back up, Mary Woolley, president of the Alexandria, Virginia–based advocacy group Research!America, urges researchers to trade in their lab coats for dark blue suits and advocate for increased basic research funding. “Scientists need to step up,” she says. “The case for robust investment in research needs to be made strongly, often and now.”

Credit: Source: FASEB